Southern Fried music

A decade-long search for a vocalist ended when Jonté Short was discovered singing in a New Orleans church
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The Independent Culture

David Steele's search for a singer has not taken place before millions of TV viewers, determined only by the quick turnover and stylistic requirements of the modern star-making machine.

In fact, unlike Pop Idol, it has taken Steele, the former guitarist and creative mainstay of the Two Tone era's most adventurous outfit The Beat and Fine Young Cannibals,almost a decade to unveil his new group, Fried. After auditioning countless singers he found what he was looking for - gospel-bred New Orleans vocalist Jonté Short, a 24-year-old mother-of-two.

The time looking for Short was well spent. Whether the songs she has co-written with Steele on the eponymous Fried debut album are fictional ("When You Get out of Jail") or autobiographical ("Things Change"), she invests them with all the personality, life experience and emotion she can muster. "She's one of the greatest singers in the world right now and she can only get better," Steele asserts.

Encountering Short is like hearing Macy Gray for the first time, an exciting individual voice redolent of so many past greats. Indeed, Steele tells me that Macy Gray wanted to record what was to become one of Fried's standout tracks, "Whatever I Chose I Lose". "If I hadn't met Jonte, that's what would have happened. People think you are mad when you spend so long looking for the right voice."

There were various reasons why Steele was able to take his time. The Cannibals' second and final album, The Raw and the Cooked (1989) sold 15 million copies, giving Steele, co-writer and co-producer, financial security.

His obsessive nature had a lot to do with it too. Seemingly reserved and laconic, Steele, like Fried's musical mix of dub, soul, blues and hip-hop, is inclined to soak up surrounding influences. "Music is all I do. I read about it, listen to it, play it."

A week later he is working with Short and a recently formed Fried live band in a West London rehearsal room. Short and Steele recorded the album alone over the past two years in in New Orleans. Now, ever the perfectionist,he is intent on remixing various segments of the record.

"The only way you can get anything to be good is by being fanatical," he insists. "I have driven people mad with it in the past. I'll be working on this album until someone comes and takes it from me. I wish they would hurry up."

Short has none of Steele's reserve. Warm, personable and candid, her musical hero is her mother, a singer and musical director. "When she was a young woman, she was 10 times the singer I am now. I'm just trying to be like mama," she smiles.

Short's decision to forsake the family church tradition and begin singing secular has caused conflict with her local gospel community. At 18, she left home and slept in a truck with her husband, Earl. Although they are no longer a couple, Earl is at the rehearsal room and has been with Short throughout her stay in London looking after her sons, four-year-old Earl Jnr and two-year-old Nicholas.

Short admits she and her ex-husband have an unusual relationship. "We both agree we got married really young, that we didn't really know each other.It wasn't a sad divorce. We've got the kids and we're really good friends, but we go our separate ways. Earl pretty much lives with me, but leaves every now and then.

"My mum and dad split when I was seven weeks old. I missed my dad so much I wanted my children to know what it's like to grow up with daddy living with mum."

Short was seven months' pregnant with Nicholas and singing in a nightclub when, through a series of New Orleans connections, Steele came to see her. "David made me nervous. As he says, he's an Englishman, not very up-front. When I sang for him, he said, 'Good', but I had no idea what he really felt."

Short makes it clear Steele has significantly altered her approach to singing. "He helped me widen my vocal range. In church, I'm a super-high soprano. The first song I sang for him wasn't in my range, but he said it's a beautiful tone, you should sing that all the time. My voice was weak in the lower range. I had to work on it over and over."

Encouraging her to write brought benefits too. "David said 'Trust me, you don't want anybody else to write'. I didn't know it was more money for me! It has been hard, but I'm starting to enjoy the process."

Her trust in Steele is absolute. "David's not bossy. He just says 'try this' and it works. He's between a big brother and my dad. He takes care of me musically and personally."

Signing a record contract was the most important event in her life, apart from the birth of her children. Raised in the segregated South, Short says a partnership like the one she has with Steele would be inconceivable with a white American. "Europe is more open-minded. I have had people say to me, 'How could you sell out and sing with a white guy?' My mum did some back-up singing with Boz Scaggs and got the same thing."

Short says she will always be "a New Orleans girl", but now feels like an outcast when she goes to her home church and is considering a move to London. "I pray that I separate from the New Orleans mindset - it's a bucket of crabs, everybody trying to pull everybody else down. Nobody can make it unless they leave. I don not want my kids to grow up there. It's a whole lot of jealousy and enviousness."

The next night, Short is on stage in London with Steele and the Fried band. Her folksy between-song introductions and obvious nerves can't detract from those extraordinary vocals. She goes places other singers cannot reach. Small wonder even Steele can't help smiling.

The single 'When You Get Out of Jail' is out now on London. 'Fried' is released on 30 August