Singer-songwriters: One vision

Singer-songwriters are growing in popularity as music fans search for an authentic sound, says David Sinclair
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The Independent Culture

One trend that looks set to continue in 2007 is the onward march of the singer-songwriter. All those rock groups with their preening frontmen, clashing egos and enormous touring overheads have been eclipsed lately by a myriad of lone troubadours, each with an "authentic" story to tell and a sound almost as minimalist as their start-up budget.

From feisty, go-it-alone heroines like KT Tunstall, Lily Allen and Imogen Heap to more conventional archetypes of romantic introspection such as Richard Hawley, James Morrison and James Blunt, it is every artist for him or herself. Even confirmed team players, such as Thom Yorke, Jarvis Cocker and Brett Anderson, have suddenly started putting out solo albums, while singer-songwriters as diverse as Amy Winehouse and Sandi Thom, Sufjan Stevens and Ben Kweller, or Scott Matthews and Ben Taylor are just the tip of the iceberg.

Why the sudden appeal? In a pop world increasingly saturated with marketing spin and showbiz sham, the singer-songwriter offers the promise of something a little more up close and personal. Instead of music and performances with big, glossy production values you get a more intimate sense of communication by artists who seem comparatively genuine and unvarnished.

They certainly don't come any more unvarnished than Ray LaMontagne, the key exemplar of this surging new wave of singer-songwriters. Surly, shy and - gasp! - bearded, he could not stand in greater contrast to the self-promoting characters more usually embraced by the modern media/celebrity circus.

"I didn't think his first album, Trouble, would get the airplay or the attention that it needed," says Allan Jones, editor of Uncut magazine, who was an early champion of LaMontagne's. "It seemed deeply unfashionable, with all those 1970s, singer-songwriter influences, even allowing for the success of people like David Gray or Damien Rice. It was difficult to imagine it finding its way to an audience. I imagined it would be an obscure cult album, that a few of us would be writing about in 20 years time as a lost classic."

Instead, a little more than two years after it was first released, Trouble has sold half a million copies, becoming a word-of-mouth hit that has redefined the popular tastes of its time. Lamontagne's new album, Till The Sun Turns Black, slated for UK release in the spring, is a much more sophisticated collection, incorporating haunting string arrangements and rich keyboard textures ("It's definitely not Trouble, Part 2," Lamontagne insists). But its core appeal remains the heartfelt performance of melodies and lyrics which reflect the emotionally-charged life story of the singer, making it an album which once again satisfies what one biographer has called "the demand for meaningfulness".

LaMontagne may be hopeless at trading bon mots with talk show hosts, but he is not a man to shy away from solemnly pondering the big issues.

"I guess the new album is just me trying to look at things beyond myself, wondering what it is to be alive and what it's all about," he says. "I wonder what we will leave behind. It's just the blink of an eye and we're gone. What will people dig up? Works of art? Or Styrofoam cups?"

Willy Mason is another spiritually driven singer-songwriter who looks set to make the leap into the big time this year with his second album, If The Ocean Gets Rough. The collection reveals a new maturity in the 22-year-old Mason's voice, and boasts a much more ambitious production, with full backing band arrangements incorporating viola, cello and mandolin. But for Mason the biggest change has been in his personal approach to writing.

"I had a different perspective on these songs," Mason says. "It was less wide-eyed bewilderment with the world, and more teaching myself how to walk through it."

Mason, who was brought up by musician parents in the bohemian enclave of Martha's Vineyard, regards song writing to be not so much a craft, let alone a job, as a continuing expression of his inner feelings.

"When I was writing the material for this record, I was unconscious of putting together a body of work. I didn't even know if I had it in me to put together another record. Writing is just a natural habit for me. My parents used to be staff songwriters and that's a completely different process. They are used to a stricter craft of song writing, which I respect immensely. When I write, at this point, it's more like accidental droppings. It's a way of processing thoughts and putting them in a safer storage space than in my head."

As a teenager, Mason idolised Kurt Cobain and used to play in heavy rock bands, but found that after a while it became increasingly difficult to write songs that would sit comfortably within a group identity.

"I felt like I was speaking for other people all the time," he says.

Having cut loose as a solo act, he spent large chunks of time promoting his first album, Where the Humans Eat, by travelling alone across America with just a backpack and an acoustic guitar. The small-scale simplicity of such an approach is another factor which seems to appeal to artists and fans alike, recalling a tradition that extends all the way back to medieval days in Europe.

"I really enjoy that part of it," Mason says. "It was great when I was working that way. It's very empowering to know that I can always take care of myself when I need to. I also think that being able to tour alone you have much more freedom in your choice of lifestyle than if you have to answer to or support a band. And the freedom that I've had, exploring alternative ways of living, has definitely helped generate new ideas."

Above all, Mason believes that the time is right for the particular perspective that a singer-songwriter can bring to bear. "The problems and spiritual confusion that people are feeling right now is getting worse and I think the music of the singer-songwriter is a good form in which to discuss those problems," he says. "You can talk about things from personal relationships to the state of the environment in a way that you can't do so easily in other genres."

Also poised to make waves this year is the 22-year-old, Anglo-Italian singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti, whose debut album, Between The Minds, combines the sincerity and soulfulness of LaMontagne with something of the smooth, commercial appeal of James Blunt.

Savoretti grew up in a Swiss mountain village where he went to an American school. This lack of a firm cultural identity left him feeling like an outsider wherever he went. He began by writing poetry, until his mother thrust a guitar into his hand and suggested he try putting some of his words to music.

"I was in a band, but I never really got turned on by the glitz and glamour of it," he says. "I always preferred to focus on the song in the first place rather than the characters in the band."

What is the key to being a good singer-songwriter?

"Honesty and humility," Savoretti says. "Singer-songwriters should be playing songs that aren't background music. It's music that is made to be listened to, not just heard. And it's got to be natural. Someone like Nick Drake is a classic example. You almost fall in love with his sound because you feel he's not doing it for you. He's not even doing it for himself. It's something that just happens and even he doesn't know how to control it. And they are not necessarily songs that you fall immediately in love with."

This month marked the start of the annual Singer-Songwriter Festival at the Borderline in London's West End, a month of gigs designed to showcase the talents of a variety of singer-songwriters. Some are long-established performers, including Bruce Cockburn and Chris Smither, while others are up-and-coming names such as the award-winning Australian star Lior and the Nashville session cat turned solo act, Darrell Scott. Emily Maguire, who is playing two nights at the festival in support of her new album, Keep Walking, is an English singer-songwriter whose recording career took off after she moved to a farm in Australia. She began writing songs while still living in England, after she was diagnosed with Fybromyalgia Pain Syndrome, a disease of the nervous system.

"Most people in their early twenties are rushing around getting on with their lives," Maguire says. "I was on walking sticks and very confined in a lot of ways. And I found songwriting was a means of liberation. It was a means of transcending the physical situation that I was in. I've always loved words and poetry and I was classically trained in music from very young, so it seemed the perfect combination of the two."

Now cured, she says her illness was the best thing that ever happened to her, because it gave her the time and the space to become a songwriter.

"Songwriting for me is a very spiritual thing," she says "What I want to do with my songs is to give people the same feeling you get when you go and look at the horizon above the sea and you get a sense of silence and space and possibility. So much of modern day, metropolitan life is so in your face. It's very difficult to see past the next party, the next pay check, the next obligation. And what all good art can do is take the person hearing the song or looking at the painting or reading the book and remove them from that chaos for a moment and give them a bit of perspective."

Ray LaMontagne is currently on a UK tour.

Willy Mason's album, 'If The Ocean Gets Rough' is released on 5 March.

Jack Savoretti's album, 'Between The Minds' is out on De Angelis Records.

Emily Maguire's album, Keep Walking is out on Shaktu Records (from www.emilymaguire.com)

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