Have you ever heard of a rap group consisting of ten-year-old girls called Sweet and Sour? Even the most knowledgeable taste-makers would answer “no” to that question, primarily because the project was ephemeral. Yet an Asif Kapadia-directed documentary is set to be released this July about the turbulent life of one of the formally pre-adolescent duo: Amy Winehouse. The other member, childhood friend and North London compatriot Juliette Ashby has a mission to embark on the same influential music status – Winehouse was pivotal in easing the flow of English female acts including fellow Londoners Adele and Estelle into American consciousness – with her own solo career, minus the media intrusion and paparazzi frenzy.
Studying Juliette Ashby’s debut album Over + Over, you can hear similarities with Winehouse both lyrically (life’s struggles, feeling mentally lost, the usage of London slang, the modern decision-making female and reversing gender roles in relationships) and in the style of music. Both artists share a love of soul (Ashby has a Erykah Badu style Neo-soul voice) and reggae influences. Winehouse’s voice and instrumental accompaniment was dominated by blue eyed soul and brought Frank Sinatra-influenced jazz into the mainstream. However, Ashby’s musical memoirs are closer to R&B and the rap of her pre-teen career.
It’s a wonder how it’s taken Amy Winehouse’s childhood companion Ashby so long to reach the stage of releasing an LP. The riddle could be solved on her album. The song-writing process, lack of an easy route into music and tainted steps to stardom are themes she covers on this record. Symptoms of writers block brought on by emotional suffocation and the annoyance of artistic meddling could be a possibility for the delay: “Not writing like I use to. Maybe you are smoothing my creativity?” (“Fire Breathe“). She even shows her desperation for industry attention by “praying for somebody to hear” her sing and has to pull herself away from the cliff of paranoia: “..i’m about to turn, don’t want to lose my sanity“.
On opener “Grow Like A Seed“, she describes the bills-paying difficulties to music: “working on it night and day making sure I get paid” and furthermore how it conflicts with her other responsibilities and that she ends up “juggling like a clown” with her career and social time. Admirably, this is a musician with tough black leather jacket bones and perseverance to match. The artwork alone displays battling emotions: hopelessness, uncertainty and rebelliousness. The album’s title Over + Over sighs of relief and hurdle jumping. Something you might yell when finally completing a sleep-deprived project. Her moralist message is about not giving up and not “settling for less“. On “Timber“, Ashby also expresses the addictive euphoria that music brings her: “Feeling so high when I bounce like this. Come on, can’t resist“.
It must be said the whole album isn’t overwhelmingly somber. Moments of gratitude relating to love, especially on “Messing Up The Sheets”, “Wayo” and “Over & Over“, balance the emotional scale. In spite of this, there is the suspicion that the album might have been stronger sticking to the struggle theme. “Messing Up The Sheets” has a sexually physical subject matter unusually from a female perspective that’s refreshingly intimate, cosy and unashamedly detailed. The title-track and “Wayo” are about the backbone that spiritual love brings during troubled times, referring to the “big arms” of security. The last track “Shorty” is an unplugged tale of seduction, empowerment through jealousy and bragging persuasion techniques usually reserved for males in a club-pulling situation.
The album’s highlight is sure-fire cult hit “Like A Bass Guitar“. Metaphorical and masterful verses paint an image of a woman infatuated with a performing male guitarist and begins to fantasize that he is caressing her body like a musical instrument. “I can feel your fingers curling around me like you’ve never put me down“. It deserves a humorous Beautiful Stranger kind of music promo. It’s fun and she even uses food euphemisms to add to it’s cheekiness. A rhythm guitar riff borrowed from The Beatles’s “Come Together” makes it easier to imagine the scenario for further clarity. Shouts, scatting and big band swing add the invigorating energy of the anthem, and make the most memorable track.
Whilst Amy Winehouse’s albums had a solid genre direction, Juliette Ashby’s Over + Over has a target audience that’s hard to pin-point and categorize. Although it’s safe to say it’s on the urban shelf. “Grow Like A Seed” and “Over & Over” have reggae rhythms and dub echoes – already popular in London through musicians like tropical pop act Hollie Cook – but early 21st century downtempo R&B (“Just Be U 2“), “Pass Out”-esque grime (“Timber”), rapping (“Wayo”, “Mad”) dominate.
Whilst Hip-hop-meets-classical-piano “Row Your Boat” is oddly based around a nursery rhyme, the fact that Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and Duran Duran have had success with this methodology proves it to be a wise move. Maybe Juliette Ashby has finally figured out how the cogs of the music industry function after all. Juliet Ashby’s Over + Over is out now via One Media iP / SoulShack Productions, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs