Introducing Beth Rowley's gospel truth

Beth Rowley's parents were missionaries in Peru, so it's hardly surprising that the young singer-songwriter has an exotic approach to her music. By Nick Duerden
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The Independent Culture

Before relocating to their native Bristol in 1982, Beth Rowley's family had spent much of the 1970s in Peru's shanty towns carrying out the Lord's work.

"They were missionaries working in churches in Lima, Machu Picchu and Cuzco," the 26-year-old says, "living in shacks they shared with chickens and precious little electricity. It was very basic. My father was a preacher in Baptist churches, while my mother promoted health care at a succession of Women's Institutes. They say they had an amazing time; I've seen the photographs, and it really does look incredible. It's funny to think of my my parents having this terrifically exotic life that happened pretty much before I was born."

They returned to the UK when Rowley was just two years old, "and so all I remember is Bristol, unfortunately." Ask whether her parents' do-gooding zeal, prompted by their deep faith in God, subsequently inspired her to become a gospel singer, and she will screw up her nose and shake her head, as if fearful of being tagged a female Cliff Richard.

"Not really. By the time they came back to this country, my father wanted a change of career," she says. "He still preached from time to time, but he started working as an electrician, then a financial adviser. We'd go to church on Sundays because it was what we always did, but they are very laidback, my parents, and when I stopped going during my teenage years, they were perfectly cool with it. My faith is always there, somewhere in the background, but I'd say the biggest influence religion has had in my life is getting me seriously into gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson. I've read a lot about Mahalia. It sounds like she was on a mission with her music. I like to think I am too."

Edinburgh's Corn Exchange on a freezing March night is about as far as you can get from the heady exotica of Peru. Here to play support to David Gray, Rowley cuts a diminutive figure on stage, tiny and waif-like, her eyes hiding beneath a fantastically frizzy blond mop. Though a graduate of Brighton's Institute of Modern Music – which, like Croydon's Brit School, teaches students everything an aspiring pop star needs to know, from how to read music to how to dominate the stage – she remains a naturally shy and retiring type, only coming to life when she opens her mouth to sing. Her voice is astonishing, and she projects it to the rafters without apparent effort. But when it comes either to introducing her band, or to plugging her new single "Oh My Life" and informing the crowd that her album, Little Dreamer, will be released in May, she mumbles and blushes, clearly desperate for the music to kick back in again.

Though still only three months in, 2008 is already proving an uncommonly fertile year for the home-grown female singer-songwriter. The media being what it is, writers have brought each of these mostly versatile performers under one umbrella and refer to them all as ultimately pale comparisons to the presiding grand dame of the torch song, Amy Winehouse.

"But that is grossly unfair," Rowley argues, her arched eyebrows forming a little "V" of pique, "because it suggests that we all somehow appeared out of nowhere simply because a bunch of record companies magicked us up, suddenly desperate for copycats. Some of us have been pursuing music all our lives, long before female singer-songwriters became so very fashionable."

The Rowley household was always filled with music – her father, an avid Harley-Davidson rider in his spare time, was obsessed with The Beatles, Roxy Music, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. "I got quite a musical education," Rowley says. "All the old greats at home, and things like Mary J Blige and R Kelly at school."

By the time she was 16, Bristol was a dominant force in the UK music scene, producing a smattering of era-defining acts like Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead. Bestowed with a voice more redolent of a 1960s Motown siren than a cute, blond West Country girl, Rowley joined a succession of local wannabe trip-hop acts, none of which ever got it sufficiently together to seek a recording contract.

In 2003, she enrolled at the newly opened, £4,000-a-year Institute of Modern Music in Brighton, and fell under the tutelage of former Young Disciples vocalist Carleen Anderson, who helped Rowley further develop her vocals. She was far from precious about her talents, and so when an invitation arrived at the school requesting backing singers for forthcoming Ronan Keating and Enrique Iglesias tours, she jumped at the chance.

"A lot of my friends turned it down because they thought it would ruin their credibility," she says, "but I never had any credibility in the first place. Plus, the opportunity to make £250 a night playing at music festivals in front of 17,000 people was simply too good an offer to turn down. So I didn't."

Each night on the Keating tour, she was required to fill Lulu's shoes for the limpid duet "We've Got Tonight". "I remember thinking to myself every time I stepped into the spotlight that I could do this forever," she says, beaming at the memory. "Not singing with Ronan, necessarily, though he was lovely, but just for the singing itself. It was all I ever wanted to do."

For the next four years, Rowley played the pub and club circuit tirelessly, boosting her pitiful income (£50 a gig) by selling CDs at venues and working, by day, in a local juice bar. She eventually came to the attention of Universal's jazz imprint last year, who sent her straight into the studio to record Little Dreamer, an album of original tracks alongside gospel standards like "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and an exquisite country-tinged rendition of Willie Nelson's "Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground", a duet with Duke Special's Peter Wilson.

At times she sounds like Karen Carpenter, at others like Billie Holiday. She also sounds like a woman happily out of time, but this being 2008, and Rowley being so markedly young and attractive, she is nevertheless now being aimed squarely at the pop market, the unspoken hope of her label being that where Kate Nash, Adele and Duffy led, Rowley is sure to follow.

"If I'm honest, I've never been particularly comfortable operating at the pop end of things, if only because I'm so obsessed with blues and soul. Whenever I sing, I close my eyes and think of Al Green," she says, hot tears suddenly spilling down her cheeks. "And every time I do, like now, I cry."

Tonight in Edinburgh, she takes to the stage at a packed Corn Exchange full of curious onlookers, who dignify her evident trepidation by watching in respectful silence. What Rowley lacks in stage presence she makes up for with that remarkably old-smoked voice of hers. The half-hour set concludes with "Almost Persuaded", an old Muscle Shoals number about a woman spying the man of her dreams across a crowded room and growing so lustful that she is tempted to cheat on her boyfriend in order to claim him. Rowley invests it with a trembling urgency. Only the smoking ban prevents the crowd from striking up post-coital cigarettes.

Backstage, 20 minutes later, she is seated on a tiny sofa alongside her boyfriend, the keyboard and saxophonist Ben Castle (son of the late Roy Castle). A Johnny Cash record murmurs from the 1950s record player they've set up in the corner of the room.

"We have a rule," Castle says, "of only playing old vinyl that we find in charity shops while on tour." He points to the small pile they've amassed so far: Cash records sit alongside Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell. "No iPods, no shuffle."

Rowley, meanwhile, is critically appraising her performance. "I think it went OK, apart from the fight at the end," she says, "but I'm aware that I can come across a bit of a chameleon at times, which may be confusing for some people. You know, I'm Karen Carpenter one minute, Aretha Franklin the next, Emmylou Harris after that. The thing is, I'm drawn to so many different kinds of music, and I'm constantly fighting to discover what field feels most natural for me. Which will win, I wonder?"

The single 'Oh My Life' is out now on Universal; the album, 'Little Dreamer', is released in May