Girls on Song

“IT’S JUST tinkly pianos and wailing slags,” was how 808 State once summed up the contribution of female vocalists to house music. If it wasn’t for wailing slags like Liz Torres, Ultra Nate, Paris Grey, or even Debbie Malone, whose ‘Rescue Me’ must be one of the most sampled tracks in hardcore history, most backroom production boys who have had hits wouldn’t be where they are now.

Until recently it was taken for granted on the dance scene that the sexy chick fronting a band near you was the equivalent of a singing clothes horse. “Have legs, will travel,” is how one disillusioned sessioneer summed it up. Now, with the maturing of the dance invasion of the British charts, female vocalists are pushing for the recognition they deserve.

“It ain’t easy. Let me be the first to say that,” says N’Dea Davenport, lead singer with the Brand New Heavies. “I wasn’t a new artist in the States, I was in the LA music community carousing with Madonna and writing with Dave Stewart. I don’t think people understood that although I was starting anew with the Heavies, I had a background of my own before.”

On stage N’Dea is a brash, spangly performer, not known for her sartorial elegance. The metallic cat suits and purple wigs may be a bit much for British tastes, but they are all part of N’Dea’s larger than life stage persona. When the Heavies recently played Brixton Academy, the event was more like a stadium spectacle, with N’Dea ‘working’ the roaring crowd. Before she joined the band, the Heavies were associated with a specific club scene of the acid jazz cognoscenti; ironically it’s her brashness, hard graft and professionalism that has helped lever them to meteoric success. Signed separately to Delicious Vinyl, N’Dea had already been featured on the cover of Billboard magazine as a star to watch, before she suspended her solo work to join the band. She has found being the band’s ‘face’ a challenging and bewildering experience.

“I’m an artist in my own right, working with them,” she says. “But in their eyes at first it was, ‘We were this band and now there’s this girl here’. The adjustments took some time. When I got into the studio with the guys I don’t think they were used to a girl being strong enough to say, ‘No, this is the way I’m singing, this is my personality coming across’. My attitude was a bit of a shock to them; pretty feisty!”

Carlene Andersen, lead singer of the Young Disciples, also finds it irritating if people stereotype her as an airhead vocalist. The daughter of James Brown artist Vicki Andersen and Bobby Byrd, Carlene has been in the business for years. She wrote the Disciples biggest hit ‘Apparently Nothin”, and is currently working in the studio on solo material. At least Carlene and N’Dea are seen as official band members, when your status is just that of the Session and the Voice, control over the final product is virtually nil.

“After recording in the studio, they remix it how they like. I’ve never once been invited to put my two cents in,” says Debbie Sharp, the powerful voice behind Dream Frequency’s ‘Feel So Real’. As a respected session singer, Debbie has the knack of giving producers and writers what they want, but after Dream Frequency’s Ian Bland speeded up the bpms on her vocal, even Debbie was stretched. “Doing PAs I’d kill myself singing it. After gigging I couldn’t talk, let alone sing. I had to do Top of the Pops. It was frustrating for me, because I felt that was a chance to get my own good deal, and my voice was shattered.”

Debbie appreciates the exposure that Dream Frequency has given her, but like many session singers, hopes to break through with her own material. For women, singing to pay the bills can become a trap, training to be adaptable and emote for others means that you can lose track of your own individuality. In a deliberate move to establish herself solo, Marcella Ffrench (aka Debbie French) does not promote the house and garage tracks she recorded as a sessioneer with the likes of Joey Negro and E-Lustrious. “I did them just for money, it’s nothing to do with what I want — I’m going to be a British soul singer/songwriter with a live band.”

M-People’s Heather Small has avoided the demoralisation of sessions by simply not doing them. “The band leave me to my own devices to work up melodies — they don’t just present me with something and say, sing this — they know that won’t work. I need at least a week to work on a song, to really give it my best. I like to take it away, live with it, feel it.” It’s that commitment and depth that has given M-People the edge, why songs like ‘How Can I Love You More?’ reach the charts and countless blander offerings don’t.

The vocalist/band relationship is a symbiotic one; not simply a whizzkid bedroom mixer getting a leggy chick or a hired voice to front up his project. Women like N’Dea and Heather work hard for their money, their contribution is a vital component to the band’s success. Having a good voice is fine, but talent lies in what you do with it, how you package it, and who choose to work with. One way to consolidate this is to have a thorough knowledge of mixing and production; just singing is never enough. “We go into the studio and all three work together,” says Jeanette of the Swedish sister duo DaYeene. They have a lot of control in their music with DJ StoneBridge, but as Diane admits, “He listens to women more than men, he’s a different kind of producer.”

Age and confidence also count for a lot in a vocalist’s sense of self worth. At 28, Sarah Warwick has negotiated her way though the industry long enough to be able to enjoy her experience with the band Souled Out. Crucially she also has the band’s support, working with them has been stimulating, rather than a battle for recognition: “I put ideas across from the start. You risk them saying no, but you have to be willing to take the risk.”

Beating the ‘wailing slags’ tag can be hard work, but, as N’Dea believes, it can only improve the music. “I have this dream of a team of women players,” she says wistfully. “We’ll tear some doors down and just rip it. All in synch, this is gonna be our thing.”

N’DEA DAVENPORT

N’DEA IS no wide eyed ingenue. She’s worked with bigwigs George Clinton, Dave Stewart, Al Jarreau, Fishbone, Tone Loc and countless rap artists. Also known as The Woman Who Turned Down Madonna (“I don’t think her manager likes me very much”), N’Dea opted out of a place on the Blonde Ambition tour to concentrate on her solo project. The two are still mates; she fondly calls Madonna “a female gangster” and regularly gives a hand with backing vocals, but N’Dea doesn’t intend to remain in someone else’s limelight.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of two school professors, N’Dea began singing in soul’s traditional training ground, The Church. A naturally poised performer, she went the way of kindergarten dance contests and school productions, eventually graduating from Atlanta University with a major in Mass Communications. She spent a few tough years in Los Angeles, dancing in videos and dutifully doing the session singing treadmill before Delicious Vinyl signed her up for a solo deal. N’Dea was working on her debut album when the call from the Brand New Heavies came through last year.

What was originally an experimental project has flowered into fully fledged success for N’Dea and the band. With the Heavies now flavour of the month in Britain and the States, N’Dea has put her solo work on the back burner, temporarily throwing in her lot with the communal Acid Jazz vibe. She’s even decided to move to Britain, looking for a flat in London’s pop star paradise, Maida Vale.

“I love the spirit of the British music scene,” she says, with the bloom of idealism. “In America the dollar gets in the way of an artist’s integrity. Here I feel I can express myself a lot, and be more accepted by a wide range of people. It’s not been easy though, let me be the first to say that. If you’re not going to be a wind-up toy girl singer, you’re gonna be fighting!”

MARCELLA FFRENCH

“MY SONGS have a message, it’s not just ‘I love you’. They’ll cater for a CD market — not the market that takes ‘E’ very week,” says Marcella Ffrench, aka Debbie French, the stirringly sexy voice behind E-Lustrious’s recent didgeridoo techno-garage hit ‘Dance No More’. Having also done sessions with Joey Negro, embellished many an Italian house act, including Jinny, and sung on Maxwell House adverts, she is now putting the past behind her to concentrate on a solo career, with an album due out later this year.

Marcella’s tastes veer more towards the Omar/Mica Paris/Young Disciples school of sleek but raw soul funk songwriting, and this is very much in evidence on ‘Pushin’ Against The Flow’, the bubbling white label track she’s just completed with producer/mixer Jules Brookes, under the name Raw Stylus.

A Law graduate from Hull University, 23 year old Marcella intended to become a lawyer, but musical passions took over, especially after she teamed up with Jules in her final year at Hull. Originally from Bagshott, a small village in Surrey near Camberley — where Bros were born — Marcella is now based in London, and determined to carve a place for herself on the British soul scene. “The Americans have swingbeat down to a fine art,” she says.

“But in Britain soul is more exciting; less slick and less formulaic.”

HEATHER SMALL

A SLIP OF a girl with Big Hair and an even Bigger Voice, Heather Small is the sound of M-People, Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering’s Northern Soul conglomerate. It was her rich, raw vocal tremor that made ‘How Can I Love You More?’ last year’s club and chart hit, and the recent Northern Soul album a credible alternative to rave culture.

Unlike her Mancunian musical partner, Heather is a resolutely Southern girl. Born and bred in Ladbroke Grove, for years she secretly nursed an ambition to sing, but didn’t perform in public til she’d left school. “No, I didn’t sing in church, or get up on the table at three years old and dance for the family,” she says drily. “I was too shy. I could never hold notes. I know I had the quality of voice but not the technique, so I went to voice training.” Soon after that Heather was lucky enough to spot a Melody Maker advert for a girl singer. The group’s influences matched her own, she got the job, and Hot House was born. Five years ago, Heather was on the cover of NME as the spearhead singer of a new British soul movement. Hot House were one of the great Going To Be Big of the 80s, but their carefully considered soul music never ignited the public.

“I was disappointed Hot House never really made it, as my heart was in it. A lot of people thought it was retro. That upset me because I thought it was just good music that didn’t stand a chance.”

A lover of longevity, Heather is sanguine about that early, maybe premature success. “It irritated me that we were lumped together with Terence Trent D’Arby and The Pasadenas as if it was some freakish thing. I’m not a one night wonder that’ll slowly disappear.”

That commitment and staying power was something that attracted soul afficiando Mike Pickering, so when Hot House folded and his previous outfit T-Coy faded out, the DJ harnessed Heather’s vocal dynamism to create some new Northern Soul.

SARAH WARWICK

“I’VE BEEN compared to Lisa Stansfield quite a few times — mainly because we’re both white and both sing soulfully. I personally can’t hear similarity in our voices. If we sell as many records as she has, though, I’ll be over the moon!” says Sarah Warwick, lead singer with Columbia Records next great hope, Souled Out.

Stansfield, Basia, Carmel and Corinne Drewerey are all white female vocalists who have injected a strongly soulful element into the British pop scene. Following this accomplished line, Sarah is a London girl with a ‘classy’ voice that welds a funky feel to pop clarity. She’s the face of Souled Out, a band centred on three Italian producers Canu-Della Monica-Somella, and three instrumentalist/vocalists — Baltimore born Jerome Stokes, native Neopolitan Rio and Sarah, that mixes cool dance with swish Gamble Huff type tunes.

“I’ve always been absolutely dedicated,” states Sarah, who began singing duets at nine with her father Ray Warwick, a West End stage performer from the late 50s. “Early on he was wary about me getting involved in pop, because he knows how tough the business is. But there’s no stopping the passion once it’s started.” Studying classical guitar for ten years gave a strong technical counterpoint to her singing career, which for part of her teens consisted of singing with a Tamla Motown cover band.

After doing an English degree, Sarah got on with writing solo material, recording a few strategic sessions with Maureen Walsh and Lonnie Gordon, before Souled Out caught up with her two years ago. Their debut album, due out in late May, is the fruit of an ambitious cultural mix. “I like to think of the band as truly European,” she says.

DEBBIE SHARP

“I CANNOT rap worth crap, but I can sing the hell outta anything says Debbie Sharp, the frank, fearless face of techno act Dream Frequency. She was the vocalist who belted out ‘Feel So Real’, the Citybeat track that hit the charts earlier this year. A current favourite on the techno scene, Debbie has lent her garage gospel delivery to many hit acts including The Prodigy.

A former medical staff sergeant in the US Air Force (“I was the female equivalent of Radar from M.A.S.H.“), Debbie’s experience singing rough and ready showcases and touring European US military bases was perfect preparation for the stringencies of rave PA culture. Stationed in Ipswich ten years ago, she decided to quit the airforce to sing professionally, and she remained in Britain, building up a career as a Hi-NRG vocalist. At the time it was quite rare for black American singers to base themselves in Britain, but for Debbie the move paid off in terms of regular session work and a series of small deals.

A native of South Carolina, Debbie comes from a small town near Myrtle Beach, home of the Shag dance craze, a sort of hermetically sealed South Carolina Northern Soul scene. That and singing in Daddy’s gospel choir gave her a good grounding in the granite r ‘n b edge that marks out her vocal style. Much in demand for other people’s tracks, Debbie is determinedly writing her own. In 1992, she should start getting the exposure she truly deserves.

DAYEENE

JEANETTE AND Diane Soderholm, aged 24 and 29 respectively, make up the warm, breathy harmonies of the current, jaunty house track ‘Good Thing’. Part of an EP released on Pulse 8’s new Faze 2 label, Dayeene (aka Jeanette and Diane) are bringing Stockholm dance to Britain.

Their throaty soul vocals are a far cry from their beginning as Sweden’s answer to Five Star. Over ten years ago the sisters were part of Freestyle, a two boy/four girl outfit that enjoyed pop after pop hit, before they got itchy feet. “We got tired of pop,” says Diane. “And wanted to do a harder kind of music with a raw edge. Me and Jeanette decided to quit and go on as a duo.”

Their pedigree for branching out was excellent. Half sisters to Rita Marley and Radio Wonderful’s Rankin’ Miss P, their father was a Jamaican musician who settled in Sweden in the 60s and married a Swedish woman. Much like Neneh Cherry, the Soderholm sisters form part of a mixed race Swedish vanguard in dance music. They’ve always had one eye on the British music scene, having had repeated offers to move to England permanently and sign to a major here, but their loyalties are still with their cult DJ/producer StoneBridge and Stockholm’s main dance set-up Swemix. “Sweden is not the country for dance music,” says Diane. “But within a year, we’ll be there.”

© Lucy O’BrienMixmag, June 1992

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