Adele, Duffy et al: This Year’s Vintage

Caroline Sullivan on 2008’s big female voices

ATTITUDE AND a couple of good ideas have been the key to success in British pop ever since the Sex Pistols proved that “talent” comes in many different wrappings. But this year might be different, since so many of the hotly tipped acts for 2008 aren’t art-school chancers with interesting haircuts and a mission to meld Tibetan instrumentation with minimal techno, but traditional female singers with big voices. Maybe it’s a byproduct of Amy Winehouse selling more albums in Britain last year than anybody else, but the next couple of months will see the launch of a clutch of new singers whose dark-toned, worldly vocals seem to have time-travelled from the pre-rock era.

Adele and Duffy are the leaders of the pack, with Gabriella Cilmi, Laura Marling and Beth Rowley close behind. Adele, Cilmi and Marling are still teenagers, albeit teenagers who grew up listening to Etta James and Nina Simone (“If I could be as good as Nina Simone, I’d love that,” says Cilmi, a 16-year-old Australian, and the only non-Brit of the bunch). Each, in her way, affirms the almost primal power of the unadulterated female voice: Adele is all amber-hued soulfulness; Rowley is a mellifluous blues singer; Duffy has been (rather overheatedly) compared with Dusty Springfield. Though they write most of their own material (Cilmi, the youngest, writes with Girls Aloud’s producers, Xenomania), they’re being pushed as singers rather than songwriters, on the understanding that the richness and complexity of their voices is a sufficient selling point.

“Some things are disposable and some things are timeless, and when it comes from a strong female, it really stays with you,” says Simon Gavin of A&M Records, who beat off “a lot” of competition to sign Duffy, a Welsh soul singer who worked in a fishmonger’s while waiting to be discovered.

He agrees that Winehouse’s success has made labels receptive to the likes of Duffy, but adds: “You could argue that Amy only broke because Ms Dynamite did first. What made us sign Duffy was her talent.” Her talent and, presumably, the fact that there’s an audience out there who consider themselves discerning and moderately hip, which puts artists like her right on their radar. Thirtysomethings who watch Later with Jools Holland and enjoy quality pop – but wouldn’t be caught dead buying a Dido album – can embrace these singers in the knowledge that, while their music may not push any sonic or lyrical boundaries, they won’t be embarrassed to own it. If it’s what some critics deem MOR, at least it’s five-star MOR.

And it’s endorsed by people they can trust: Adele is on XL Records, home of the White Stripes and Dizzee Rascal, while Duffy is managed by Jeannette Lee, co-MD of the venerated Rough Trade label. “It’s a collective consciousness thing; everyone’s doing it,” says Lee, who professes herself “taken aback” by Duffy’s “depth and power”. Lee spent her formative years listening to 60s and 70s soul, and sees in this new crop potential successors to the greats of her childhood.

That doesn’t mean success is a foregone conclusion, even for Adele, who’s won both the BBC Sound of 2008 poll and the new Critics’ Choice Brit award, and is A-listed this week at Radio 2 with the single ‘Chasing Pavements’, but it does give the “mortgage-rock” generation something to spend their money on.

“A couple of years ago, if you wanted a strong female voice, the choices were Norah Jones or Joss Stone, and they didn’t inspire anyone,” says Later‘s talent booker, Alison Howe, who had Marling, Adele, Cilmi and Duffy on the show last year. “Whereas these girls have personalities, and they all have outstanding voices. I think there’s a rich period to come.”

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 11 January 2008

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