Josephine — Portrait
Review by Simon Cooper
As we know with British music, there’s soul, and then there’s northern soul. Manchester has, over the decades, come to be renowned for up-beat rhythms, the snarling twang of deliberate guitar tunes, and melancholic lyrics.
It might be hard to imagine that Mancunian mantra now being applied to actual soul music. But 29-year-old songstress Josephine probably owes more to the likes of Morrissey than to her genre’s forefathers and the currently proliferating brand of modern, well-marketed soul vocalists.
The delicious, trembling voice is there. The song styles, structures and lyrics, however, betray influences that sit both outside and within the M60 motorway.
Born to a Liberian mother and Jamaican father in the Manchester suburb of Hulme before moving to nearby Cheetham Hill, Josephine (full name Josephine Oniyama) has been making music since she first got her hands on a guitar at age 12. Releasing her debut album, Portrait, as she approaches her 30th birthday, having already toured alongside Jimmi Cliff and Paolo Nutini, Portrait has been a slow-brew project. But well worth the wait.
From the aching poignancy of opening track When We Were Trespassers, a reflection on her childhood home, to the rhythmic upbeat chorus of the single What a Day, Portrait, like the very word itself, breaks down the complexity of the individual into a fascinating equation of her creative parts.
The influence of London singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, who Josephine has worked with, shines through, and tracks such as Pepper Shaker twinkle with Smiths-esque trebly guitar. Josephine has also collaborated with both Leo Abrahams (composer/producer who’s worked with Grace Jones and Nick Cave) and Jimmy Hogarth (who has produced both Amy Winehouse and Estelle), which no doubt adds to the soul and indie feel that streaks through the album.
Mix in flavours of her West African inheritance, and echoes of songwriting legends such as Joni Mitchell, and the result is an exemplary collection of original but radio-friendly tunes, and the tracks vary enough for there to be something for everyone. With a voice so rousing it could reignite campfire embers, Josephine might appeal most of all to soul fans. But she is a crossover artist and a testament to music born out of a place rather than the requisites of a long-established style.
She has peer approval too, with fellow Mancunian and Elbow frontman Guy Garvey having sung her praises. And it’s the record’s Manchester roots that will help chalk Portrait down as something different.
Whether her extended education in playing, absorbing and discovering music will work to her advantage, time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: with a finished product like this, we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more from Josephine.
Portrait is out now on Ark Recordings/Rubyworks