Shola Ama: Soul Satisfaction

The girl who was discovered singing on a tube station at the age of 15, picked up 2 MOBOs and 1 Brit award, and scored 3 top 10 hits and a top 10 album at the age of 18 and whose name means ‘dream come true’, tells Flipside why two years on, she’s lovin’ it. Words: Dan Gennoe

“IT’S INSULTING.” Shola Ama is not exactly thrilled with a review she’s just read of her new album, In Return, the follow up to her hugely successful debut, Much Love. The review in question has not so much touched a raw nerve, as completely baffled the soul sensation, with a remark that according to Shola ran along the lines of “Shola Ama’s second coming could be landmark r’n’b, but she obviously doesn’t believe so or she wouldn’t be filling it with teenage pop songs that make Louise seem revolutionary.” Shola’s been around the block enough times to know that you can’t please all the people all the time, but she’s finding this one a little hard to swallow. “I mean, I don’t mind criticism, you have to be prepared for it, but it’s not nice to hear I made Louise seem revolutionary, because Louise is crap. I have no qualms about saying that ‘cos she is not a singer, she’s a face, she’s just a pretty face to me, she has no real personality, no edge, no real talent, I’m sorry, no disrespect to her, she’s probably a lovely girl, but she’s crap.”

The album’s sixteen “short stories” as Ama describes them, have a maturity and sophistication, plus a truck load of stylish r’n’b beats which make the offending comments seem all the more harsh. But while this may appear to herald a move to conquer the US with “credible” r’n’b tunes that TLC’s fans would devour, pop is where Shola’s heart is and she’s not having a bad word said about it. “I’m r’n’b and r’n’b is pop so get over it. Music is music, whatever you’re into, if it’s a good song, it’s a good song. ‘Queen For A Day’ and ‘Run To Me’, are really poppy and they might be in Britney Spearsville, but I wrote those songs. It’s not like somebody told me to sing them, so I don’t think that anyone has the right to judge whether I should do a really hard r’n’b track or a really slushy pop track. It’s my album and I can do what I want.”

At this point it seems relevant to clarify Shola’s tone. She might read as defiant, stroppy and defensive, but she isn’t. In many of the interviews that surrounded the release of Much Love she was depicted as hard bitten, overtly ambitious and described in one encounter as ‘A card carrying little Madam.’ Today, as she sits hunched, picking at the Quarter Pounder with cheese that she reluctantly asked her PA to get for her, she’s the model of a humble star. It would seem the pressures of the two years since she topped the charts with her cover of Randy Crawford’s ‘You Might Need Somebody’ have had a positive effect. “Two years ago, when I was eighteen, I would probably have sat here and gone (mimics sad little girl looking for sympathy) ‘I’m doing all this hard work and I’m flying here and I’m going there and tomorrow I’ve got to do this and, and, and…’ (returns to her more familiar ‘don’t give me any of that crap’ tone) yeah and it is hard work, but that’s the price you pay.” She pauses, taking a bite on a twig of a French fry, “I’m still quite not all there, but when you travel the world you learn. Every interview I did, every photo shoot, every TV programme, I learnt something new, and it grows you up. So I have no reason to act like a spoilt, sad little brat, or to be immature at this stage. I’ve learnt too much.”

But is Shola happy with life? The bursts of gospel that grace her blindingly catchy choruses convey a happy perspective that In Return‘s reflective words don’t match – her lyrics are consumed with tales of love and the heart-aches that go with it. Is she trying to tell us something? “No. There are a few autobiographical songs, and, okay, there’s some pain on the album, you can’t have the happiness without the sadness, but I wasn’t going through anything like that. Like I said, they’re short stories and the best thing about being able to create is that you don’t have to be in love to write a love song. I don’t even have a boy friend. They’re things that I’ve been through or could wanna go through. That’s the beauty about being able to write songs, you don’t have to wake up and go through a situation just to write about it.”

As a child, listening to Aretha, Chakka Khan, Randy Crawford, Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Faith No More and Nirvana (!!!), Shola Ama dreamt of one thing… FAME. “I always wanted to be famous, I won’t deny that. And performing in front of crowds who are holding banners and screaming your name, that’s just a rush.” And although it’s not all peaches and cream, “I’ve been to the parties, worn that dress and had the hangover,” she has no time for prima donna popstars. “Don’t work in the bakery, if you don’t like the smell of bread. I hate famous people that moan about their work load. Love it and enjoy it before you don’t have it anymore and you die. Life and careers are too short to waste time complaining. Anyway, how can you not like other artists, fans and even people’s parents coming up to you and saying ‘I love your work’. It may not seem like a lot at the time, but I spent a year writing those songs, so for people to appreciate them means more than anything.”

Compliments on her music are one thing, but when it comes to her universally acclaimed voice, likened to Randy Crawford, Mariah Carey and Diana Ross, she isn’t quite so sure. “I’m labelled this r’n’b songstress, a wannabe Mariah, a Diva or whatever, but I’m just Shola making music. I don’t class myself as a great singer. I think I’m a good songwriter and I can carry a tune in my own right, but I don’t think I’ve got a great voice. I’m growing, in five years, may be.”

Sisters Doing It For Themselves – A brief history of soul’s Girl Power Icons.

Aretha Franklin
The undisputed Queen of Soul she maybe, but it’s been a more miss than hit career for the preachers daughter with a truly acrobatic voice. Although she’s performed some of soul’s greatest songs, ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T.’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘Chain Of Fools’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, they were all recorded in 1967 & ’68. Since then, with the exception of the title track of her last album, ‘A Rose Is Still A Rose’, written and produced by Lauryn Hill, she’s struggled to find her true form and a producer who can channel her talents effectively.

Randy Crawford
Often over looked as a major soul sensation, Randy has sung more absolute anthems than she’s ever given credit for. Get ready to say ‘I never knew she did that,’ as you check this list of great soul moments. Randy Crawford sang: ‘Street Life’, ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’, ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, ‘Tender Falls The Rain’, ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’, ‘Who’s Cryin’ Now’, ‘I Stand Accused’ and ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (covered by Shola Ama in’97).

Diana Ross
Having started her career as lead singer with all girl vocal group, The Primettes, who later became The Supremes, Diana Ross has had one of the most successful careers of all time. Not only did The Supremes score twelve US No.1s, they were critical in introducing white America to sweet soul music and establishing Berry Gordy’s Tamla Motown as the biggest name in soul. Ross’s tender tones have touched the likes of ‘Baby Love’, ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, ‘Reach Out And Touch’, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, ‘Upside Down’, ‘I’m Coming Out’ and ‘Endless Love’.

Tina Turner
After racking up a string of hits like ‘River Deep Mountain High’, ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Nutbush City Limits’ with husband Ike in the late ’60s, Tina went her own way, with nothing and started her life and career from scratch, proving that she is one of soul’s true survivors. Since going solo she scored rockin’ hits with ‘Let’s Stay Together’, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, ‘Private Dancer’, ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ and ‘Simply The Best’.

Lauryn Hill
The leading light in soul’s future, the r’n’b queen has not only been huge as a Fugee, penned songs for Aretha Franklin (see above) and Mary J. Blige (‘All That I Can Say’), but her solo debut album, The Mis-Education Of Lauyrn Hill, is without question the best soul album of the decade. In years to come, Lauryn Hill be written about with the same awe-filled respect as Aretha is today.

© Dan GennoeFlipside, 1999

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