Acoustic sonority, intricate melodic and lyrical phrasing, deliberate rhythmic style and a vocal-centric aesthetic. Folk influences, sweet ‘n’ smoky husky voice, lovely deep contralto and a sweet, homegrown personality. We plug to you, Manchester born and raised, with Liberian roots, beautiful Folk-Soul-Indie-Pop (with more emphasis on the Folk and Soul) singer and songwriter Josephine Oniyama a.k.a Josephine. Josephine says of herself on her social media profile, “I am a singer/songwriter from Manchester (UK). I play a collection of my own work, the styles I choose to mix are folk-soul-indie-pop. The world is the best influence and lyrical content can come from anywhere. Technology, weather and love can all be songs“.
Josephine highlights her life in Manchester and her West African heritage as inspiration for her songs and also names as influences, a diverse array of musicians including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley. She started playing the guitar at twelve years old – a gift from her mother which would become a legacy for her musical future – and her music career further in life has seen her supporting major acts such as Jimmy Cliff, Paolo Nutini and BBC Sound Of 2012 winner, Michael Kiwanuka and sharing the stage with the likes of The Noisettes and Paloma Faith among others.
I hear in Josephine’s voice, beneath her distinctive contralto, a theatrical/broadway sound, the type you would hear in a musical revue. It is however obvious, that her vocal essence sure transcends the deliberate operatic edge and reaches to your soul. Josephine’s musical aura carries the depth of soul just like Tracy Chapman’s while flavored with expressive qualities like that of Jazz legend, Nina Simone. Likened to Mahalia Jackson, she has also been referred to as a female version of rising fellow British soul star counterpart, Michael Kiwanuka, who like her, is also an old soul in a young body. Josephine came to light after releasing an EP in 2010 titled I Think It Was Love. We share with you, some of our favourite songs from her debut album Portrait which was released in October 2012 via Rubyworks/Ark Recordings and produced with Leo Abrahams and Jimmy Hogarth. Josephine has a fascinating voice, the type that makes you pay attention because of the uniqueness and flavor of it. Reminiscent of the oldies a la Odetta, yet relevant to this generation, fresh and different.
Let’s give you some of Josephine’s good ‘ole music, starting off with “A Freak A”. Originally released as an EP in 2011, “A Freak A” is an acoustically driven mid-tempo song laced with Josephine’s soulful vocal delivery. Rather interesting title but it speaks to the message of the song which is about being different, standing out and being out of the box. She does mention that “A Freak A” “can also mean AfricA” which is a pretty interesting correlation and underlying message about her life growing up. Her vocal styling on this one is deliberately choppy yet still layered beautifully on the music, riding on highs and mild falsettos with subtle back up harmonies.
“If you have a mask…Get it out, Put it on… A Freak A, I’m someone, I’m someone”
“What a Day” – released as a single earlier in the year, August to be precise – is a more upbeat, foot tapping, head bopping playful song from Josephine and is very reflective of her folk influences. Great lyrics, a subtle use of vocal harmonies in the back-up vocals, composed melodic phrasing full of attitude, directed to someone or maybe no one in particular about not playing cool, not being a fool and being real. I find a particular adlib which initially comes in at around the 0.28 minute mark very appealing and tickling, she rides her voice like a wave over an undulating octave – beautiful delivery.
“What a day, what a day, what a day, what a day. Every single word in a simple way. What a life, what a life, what a life, what a life. All the games we play, all the games we play”
“Original Love” – is a hit on this Portrait album if I may say so. Josephine’s smooth tones and gutsy vocals tells a story of her search for original love over a slow-building mid-tempo musical milieu of lush guitar and keyboard arrangements and resounding drum patterns. The backdrop of ‘aaaaaa’ harmonies gives the song a rather surreal feel while the purposeful rhythm and urgency of this song makes it quite melodramatic. She adds more drama to her vocals by echoing herself in choice places, repetitive lines and not everyone might enjoy that but it’s all about perspective. The repetition? I personally believe it’s an art in itself, that makes the song quite sensational. What do you think?
“I want original love… I want original love.. I know its hard to find it, it doesn’t come easy.. Original love..”
Now on to “Portait”, the album’s title song and the simplest record on the album. “Portrait” is a descriptive song that brings goosebumps from the inside out. The stirring strings intro offer up Josephine’s vocals rather beautifully and she takes the invitation to ride the instrumentals wonderfully, it reminds me a little bit of Adele’s style. This one has a very retro feel reminiscent of a Grandma singing sweetly to a group of children. The song, “Portrait” proves her music brand – a colorful fusion of Folk and Soul. This is music for ‘old souls’. A song of identity and discovery, of who we really are versus what we present. Pay attention to the lyrics.
“Am I a portrait of a person I’m supposed to be… And how will I know?
One thing I like about this Portrait album is the perfect blend of all the songs. You could listen to all the ten songs non-stop, and still be in the same ‘world’, as they merge into each other rather beautifully. It is a wholistic one, not at all incongruous. That, I love about it. Lyrically, the songs are the type written on a notepad, on a breezy evening, pen in hand, written from a real place and expressed to a real audience. If you love folk and storytelling delivered from a deep and soulful place, then Josephine’s debut album ‘Portrait’ is for you. Worthy of mention is the opening track “When We Were Trespassers”, a song of nostalgia, recalling a childhood experience while walking in a deserted house. “I Think It Was Love” too is another highly recommended album cut.
Is the world ready for Josephine? An audience that loves old Soul, Jazz, Folk and Gospel roots will surely fall in love with Josephine’s music. With the distinct voice that she possesses, not overdoing herself in her expressions, staying withing the range at which she is most comfortable and expressive, songwriting talent that is on point,coupled with an earthy, organic image to match – Josephine is alright and on her way.
Purchase: Josephine – Portraits (iTunes)