Women in British popular music have enjoyed an uneven history. If we set aside a few fêted ‘60s figures Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black; that strident new waver Siouxsie Sioux and literate fantasist Kate Bush during the ‘70s, the androgynous vigour of Annie Lennox in the ‘80s and the headline-seizing endeavours of the Spice Girls at the end of the ‘90s the impact of female players on the rock ‘n’ roll stage, this side of the Atlantic, has been fleetingly evident but still all too modest.
The States, meanwhile, has not only provided numerous female stars with a global reach Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Madonna all come to mind but also a sizeable coterie of women singer-songwriters who have determinedly fought their corner in the patriarchal world of popular music. Furthermore, Joni Mitchell (Canadian, of course), then Patti Smith, were role models for a generation of female musicians even if neither was ever explicitly committed to the cause of women per se. Without their active examples, it’s hard to see how the guerrilla underground of the Riot Grrrls, with creative descendants as diverse as Courtney Love and Ani DiFranco, or the less confrontational strategies of the Lilith Fair co-operative, would ever have had the self-belief to take their stand and make their mark.
Significantly though, by the end of the last millennium, women had established a power base in the business that was quite impossible to ignore. Sales figures, that most useful of barometers for industry accountants, proved as much with seven out of the top 10 sellers during the final decade of the century identified as female. From Alanis Morissette to Whitney Houston, Shania Twain to Mariah Carey, not to mention Madonna and the Spice Girls, music with a sisterly twist was proving extremely good for the labels.
But, to return to where we came in, women performers from the UK have, in broad terms, struggled to make such a significant imprint. Leaving aside the freakish pop operatics of Charlotte Church, the most impressive performer has been Dido, in part through her link-up with Eminem when he was at the height of his commercial curve. Church has managed to sell heavily both in her homeland and the US over the last couple of years, yet her achievement is plainly the exception rather than the rule.
However, recent months have suggested that if we are not about to parade a battalion of unbeatable talents to challenge the present incumbents whether it be Norah Jones and her soulful stylings, the jazz inflections of Diana Krall, or the country musings of Lucinda Williams Britain is nonetheless witnessing the steady rise of a collection of youthful challengers who might just catch the attention of American ears before the year is out.
Katie Melua, a 19-year-old whose professional parents left Georgia, formerly of the USSR, to come to Britain when she was still a child, has already enjoyed several weeks at the top of the UK album chart with her debut release Call Off the Search. Melua gathers a balanced mixture of covers and originals some her own but most by a veteran composer of the British pop scene, Mike Batt and delivers a breathy blend of blues, jazz, and soul in a style that marries assured vocal technique with an endearing freshness.
In contrast Amy Winehouse, at 20, is a feisty and plain-speaking Londoner whose upfront views on men, love, and sexuality have quickly garnered press coverage. It comes as scant surprise that her premiere set goes under the appropriate title of Frank. If Melua’s collection has a strong under-note of innocence, Winehouse’s worldly vision is rampantly and quite raunchily conveyed. When a first CD set in that familiar singer-songwriter tradition sports a parental warning sticker, you know not to expect the usual fey, fragile fare that tends to dominate the genre.
Completing the line-up is the babe of the trio, delivering perhaps the most surprising story of all. Joss Stone, at a tender 16 and from Devon in the West of England a beautiful rural corner but an “Arkansas” or a “Wisconsin” in terms of its isolation from the main highway has emerged, virtually overnight, as a potentially world class R&B singer with her record The Soul Sessions. Having won a middle-of-the-road television talent show as a 12-year-old, she was speedily whisked to Memphis to record in the cradle of American soul and her first recording relies heavily on some of the lesser-known known tunes from the Stax back catalogue. Yet she has made some tasty and less predictable choices, too, switching the gender emphasis on her version of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Boy” to creditable effect.
Stone’s American adventure recalls a similar odyssey when Dusty Springfield was taken to the same Tennessean city in 1968 in a bid to prove a white singer could take on black songs. Several decades on, in an age where ethnic ambiguity is almost the norm rather than the curiosity on the entertainment frontline, there has been less furore about the cultural crossover and much more attention paid to this new vocalist’s wafer-thin experience: can, some critics have wondered, an adolescent truly sing the blues? I think she passes the test.
Three fledgling songbirds hardly represent a resurgent summer for British women, but this trio may just buck recent trends which have seen record companies track a promising girl singer, spend some promotional cash, and see their efforts succeed artistically but fail at the harsh commercial end. Beth Orton, Kathryn Williams, Gemma Hayes, Carina Round . . . just some of the rolling roster of potential talents who haven’t quite clicked here or elsewhere.
Of this fresh trio, Melua and Stone might be regarded as capable stylists, able to breathe life into old songs or other writers’ work, yet Winehouse strikes me as the one most likely to leave a enduring impression. She pens most of her material, delivers it confidently in a range of voices, slipping comfortably from sultry jazz to contemporary soul, and will most likely graduate to the lower reaches of the American circuit before too long. With a Midler-like sassiness here and a flavour of Erykah Badu’s sophistication there, she oozes poise and personality and actually makes you smile with some of her comic touches. In short, she could quite possibly be the one sitting opposite David Letterman in the months that follow.