How do they work? In order to find out from the inside, Harper's Magazine in America thought up an imaginary piece of 'high-concept garbage' - a big-budget, environmentally-correct rain-forest love story - and presented it to four of Hollywood's most distinguished marketing and publicity strategists. Could their skills turn a bad idea into a box office hit? Here, below, is how they would have set about that task. This is how they would have lured us - an increasingly sceptical public - into the cinemas, and turned loss into profit.
The four met Paul Tough, a senior editor at Harper's, at Maple Drive, a restaurant in Beverly Hills. They were:
Mark Gill, the senior vice-president of publicity and promotion for Columbia Pictures.
Jeffrey Godsick, the executive vice-president of entertainment at Rogers & Cowan, the largest publicity agency in Hollywood.
Bob Israel, the CEO and co-founder of Aspect Ratio, a Hollywood advertising agency.
Joe Nimziki, the executive vice-president of Cimarron Bacon O'Brien, a Hollywood advertising agency.
Paul Tough: Welcome to the first meeting of the team responsible for marketing Save the Earth. You've all read the coverage (see right), so you know the story we're working with. Our two lead roles have been cast: Julia Roberts will play Daphne, the devoted young anthropologist who stumbles on to evidence of an ecological catastrophe while studying the Yanomamo Indians in the Brazilian rain forest. Jake - the environmental biologist who falls in love with her - is played by Steven Seagal. This will be his first film outside the action/adventure genre, and he sees it as an opportunity to be taken seriously by a wide audience. Our director, who is down in Brazil right now scouting locations, has cast a Yanomamo chieftain in the role of Kumchika, the medicine man who saves the planet's ecosystem. His dialogue will be subtitled.
As you know, our studio head is passionately committed to this movie and has personally approved its dollars 47m budget. He's been quoted in the trades as saying: 'This is more than just a movie for me; this is what I got into this crazy business to do - something meaningful, for myself and for the planet.' Save the Earth will be released in the summer of 1994. Now, before we even start shooting, what sort of marketing decisions do we have to make?
Jeffrey Godsick: The first thing we need to decide is how we're going to position this movie to the journalists who are going to write about it early on. Forget direct contact with the consumer at this point - that's 12 months away. Right now it's the press that's going to transmit our message to the consumer. We've got to make sure that they send the message we want, or our movie will be positioned wrong.
Mark Gill: It's a matter of getting the interpretation we want. Disney could have sold Dead Poets Society as a suicide movie instead of an uplifting story about an inspiring teacher.
But, wisely, they positioned it as the latter.
Bob Israel: In this case, I don't think we want to push the ecological angle.
Gill: I agree. I think we want to push the adventure.
Israel: I was actually thinking we might want to push the romance. In any case, what we want to avoid is the actual story.
Tough: How would you position the movie, in a couple of sentences?
Israel: In a nutshell, it's an epic romantic adventure.
Israel: I don't want to do 'about'. I want to run from the story. I want to run from the whole environmental theme. I think it's box office poison. My main job here is going to be to cut together a trailer, the preview of our movie that will play in theatres. The trailer I'd like to make doesn't tell the story at all. It probably doesn't even have any dialogue. It's just music and quick cuts.
Gill: To find our position, I'd look at the great adventures like The Hunt for Red October. In that situation we had a handy nemesis - the Soviet Union. That's gone now. So what's the new evil? The threat to the ecosystem.
Israel: It's starting to sound political.
Gill: I'm not at all suggesting that we politicise it, but one man fighting the big evil works extraordinarily well.
Godsick: And it can be political even though it's not a political movie. I mean, Hunt for Red October had political overtones. Even when you go back to the World War II adventures, it was one man against a huge enemy.
Israel: I just don't think people want to see a movie about one guy defending the ecosystem.
Joe Nimziki: Usually I would be right on the bandwagon with Bob saying: 'Let's get away from the movie,' and we definitely want to
shy away from making it one man trying to save the world, which borders on the ridiculous, especially if we're trying to tell the story in a two-minute trailer. But we need some tension and drama, or else we're going to end up advertising this as a movie about nothing. And 'A Movie About Nothing' is not a very catchy tag line.
Israel: You know, this is the kind of movie that politically aware, well-educated people are talking about when they say, 'Why doesn't Hollywood make more meaningful movies?' Well, here's your answer. The intent is noble, but the execution is inevitably banal. The sad reality is, every time Hollywood tries to make a politically correct movie, it bombs.
Tough: Let's talk about promotional tie-ins. Do we need to begin approaching companies now about licensing Save the Earth products?
Gill: First we want to talk to the director and make sure this film is going to be rated PG-13 (restricted to over-13s unless accompanied by an adult).
Tough: Well, there's some serious sex in it.
Gill: If you really want to make an R-rated movie (restricted to over-18s unless accompanied by an adult), say good-bye to Burger King. Say good-bye to Coca-Cola. They don't want to be involved with an R-rated movie. The end. No discussion.
Tough: What about the 18-year-old guy who wants to see Julia Roberts, you know . . .
Gill: Let's look at it this way. Only a third of the movies that have made dollars 100m were R-rated. Do you want to make an economic decision, or do you want to make a decision based on an 18- year-old's hormones?
Nimziki: Actually, I think we can do both. We can do a PG-13 version of this rain-forest sex scene and have it more than steamy and titillating enough for your advertising.
Gill: Once you've got a PG-13, the floodgates are open. Now you go after everything in the world. You can go after corporations in a hundred different categories. They'll be delighted to be on board with this movie, because it shows that they're not the evil, mean old polluter industrialist nightmare from hell.
Nimziki: I can see it now: Exxon Save the Earth hats . . .
Gill: Well, okay, maybe not everybody.
Godsick: But even though we're going to avoid the environment in our advertising, that angle is a definite plus when we're seeking corporate promotional tie-ins. Companies are doing everything they can to get out there and try to show they're environmental.
Gill: The premise is that this project grants companies instant prestige.
Godsick: What we're offering is the chance to license something that is extremely credible. Nobody's going to criticise a company for tying in with a movie. It's a no-risk way of buying into the environment.
Tough: If we assume that every corporation in American wants to get on board, where do we start? Who's going to help us the most?
Gill: Well, we want to go after the big, brand- name advertisers. The reason is simple: we can piggy-back on their advertising. On a dollars 47m film the studio will probably spend dollars 15m on advertising. A fast-food company might buy another dollars 10 to dollars 15m of their own advertising, featuring clips from our movie, to promote the tie-in. That's a big help.
Nimziki: We start off with a fast-food restaurant that will give out action figures or cups with scenes from the film. Not only is that wonderful publicity; it's a place where you might hint at the message a little bit.
Gill: They would be recyclable cups, of course.
Godsick: We cross-promote this between a fast-food restaurant and a beverage: Coca- Cola or Pepsi. You get your recyclable Save the Earth cup from Burger King, but only when you order Pepsi. And Pepsi chips in another few million in advertising.
Gill: Let's go to the third step, which is that we want to cross-tie this to MTV. We want a contest in which the winners get to spend a day with Julia or with Steven, and we want that cross-promoted with Burger King. You enter the contest in the restaurant.
Godsick: Once you go to MTV, it's a perfect opportunity to do a 'We Are the World'-style environmental song. We get some stars to write a song called 'Save the Earth,' and we do a video around that, again elevating this thing as important but not being too preachy.
Israel: Hold on, hold on. It will automatically be too preachy. We've got to avoid the content of the film. It's got to seem like big-star entertainment and nothing more. We have to go back to our original positioning, which is that this is an epic romantic adventure. No 'about'.
Godsick: I don't think it's preachy for your favourite music people to sing a song about being good to the environment. That's almost hip these days.
Tough: Are there any other companies we should go to now?
Godsick: We might want to go to a clothing company, like the Gap or Patagonia, that could take us into malls. That way, we can hit our audience really hard through retail.
Gill: And the premise there is very clear. We're going to be competing on the television screen with the five other movies that are opening when we are. In a store where we've got a display, we're the only movie. You walk into that store and you won't forget us.
Godsick: The key is to get them to run our trailer on video monitors in the store. That lets us expose people to the trailer in a non-traditional location, outside the movie theatre. It's much more effective.
Gill: The only way for us to reach our audience is to cut through the advertising clutter that surrounds them. And this is a clutter-free opportunity.
Tough: What about finding a public-interest group of some sort to hook in with?
Gill: Well, here's a sort of absurd idea. I think we need to find a town that has not yet discovered environmental responsibility and take it over. We help them convert everything in their lives to be ecologically sensitive. The corporations that sponsor this get to feel like good- hearted citizens. The town will become the epitome of American spirit and patriotism. It'll be all over the front page of USA Today.
Israel: How do you tie in the film?
Godsick: We form something called the Save the Earth Coalition with five major sponsors - Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Gillette, whatever. The Save the Earth Coalition is the foundation that funds the whole thing. The movie title keeps getting wrapped up into it. And, of course, for the big event in the town we bring in the stars from the film.
Gill: And the question will always be: 'Why are they doing this?' And the answer will be: 'Oh, because this wonderful movie is coming out.'
Godsick: It also mirrors the theme of the film, which is that people are the solution to this problem. The town gets cleaned up, but only because people commit to it.
Gill: And the best part of it, of course, is that they will adopt a sister village in the rain forest.
Nimziki: And you can never predict what will happen. We could have a serious ecological crisis on our hands when we release. Three Mile Island blew two weeks after The China Syndrome was released: that's a perfect example of how a crisis can elevate a movie. All of a sudden this becomes timely and important. And who knows? People might embrace the environmental message more than we expect. I would want to be in a position to get the environmental stuff out after the movie opens; it'd make a great second week. First we tap our audience for the entertainment value; after a couple of weeks, we get our stars together for the cause.
Israel: I like the idea, in theory. But ultimately what it's going to come down to is this: two months before the movie opens, we're going to start testing our trailers and posters with randomly selected shoppers in malls - and what I think they're going to tell us is that they don't care about the environmental aspects of this film. And then it's a question of how much we play up the adventure aspect.
Gill: A lot.
Israel: I mean, it'd be wonderful if we had a Raiders of the Lost Ark. That'd be terrific positioning because Roberts and Seagal make sense in that movie. But if it's true that there isn't enough to support it as a Raiders - and God knows we'll do everything we can to make it seem like it is - then we have to say: 'Well, what's left?' How are we going to salvage what could be a disaster? What we'll do is test spots that are romantic and hope that romantic with a secondary aspect of action is enough. Maybe it becomes more of a women's picture - but one with enough action that women can convince their dates to go too.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OPENING BIG
Last year, Batman Returns scored the then biggest American opening weekend in film history: nearly dollars 46m in its first three days. A month later, it had almost disappeared. As these tables show, that pattern - enormous first weekend, followed by a steep descent - has become the norm in Hollywood. Jurassic Park is a huge hit, and has not plummeted, but after taking dollars 50m in its first American weekend in June, took half that in weekend three, and last weekend brought in less than the newly-released The Firm.
A decade ago, though, the opposite happened. A film might open modestly, but with glowing reviews and positive word-of-mouth
1its audience would gradually develop. ET: The Extraterrestrial is a case in point: it grossed less than dollars 5m in its first week. By its close, 12 months later, it had grossed dollars 359m, a figure that has never been surpassed. Today, few films, even blockbusters, last 12 weeks. The studios have learnt to assume that their big-budget films will be slaughtered by reviews and word-of-mouth. The result has been the ascendancy of the marketer: studios need to bring in huge crowds on the first weekend, when the only 'word' on a film is that created by Hollywood's publicists. As the numbers show, the marketing teams are doing their jobs, anyway.
Tough: What about the soundtrack? Is that going to be a big deal for this movie?
Godsick: I think the soundtrack should be a big deal. It helps widen our audience. Whether you do a 'Save the Earth' song or not, I think the soundtrack should be released well before the film. It might be nice to think about doing something special. What about having various artists write something about the Earth?
Gill: A theme album sounds like a theme park: absolute death. I think you just want it to be an event album to go with an event movie.
Godsick: But I would have major stars. I'm talking about Springsteen doing a song. I'm talking about Whitney Houston doing a song.
Nimziki: This is where we take advantage of our environmental angle. It's a very fine line for us to walk, but I think the fact that the message of the movie is so politically correct is our means to get big stars to do the album.
Israel: It is a fine line: we get them in by talking about the environment, but we make sure the songs they do are not overly environmental.
Tough: How about a David Byrne/Paul Simon-
type song incorporating the traditional music of the Yanomamos?
Gill: That'll work for about 10 per cent of our audience. We need a much bigger hit than that.
Godsick: I'd rather see Springsteen. And I think we also have to have acts that cross over. I'm not saying there's a big ethnic market for this movie, but let's not pigeon-hole it as white right away.
Nimziki: Even an urban dance or rap song with a real soft-coated message would be up our alley. And, actually, I would say throw in Paul Simon too.
Gill: But him alone?
Nimziki: No, but it wouldn't hurt to have one song by Paul Simon and a Brazilian band. We want the soundtrack to be as diverse as we
Godsick: If it's done right, the soundtrack could make the film important, simply because of the quality of people involved.
Israel: That sparks something for me. The positioning for this movie may ultimately be that it is an important movie. That's something we haven't considered.
Gill: Oh, God help us. Just shoot me now. Are you kidding me? A dollars 50m important movie? How many of those work each year? And how many of them work in summer? Zero. None. Less than zero. For our highbrow audience, yes, it's got to be an important movie, but for everyone else, we've got to come back to what you said before, which was much smarter: it's an epic romantic adventure. Period.
Nimziki: I think it's always better to let an audience discover a film that's important. You don't want to tell them: 'This is an important film.' That's the kiss of death.
THE TEASER TRAILER
Tough: So far, we've been talking about decisions that aren't going to take effect for another year. How do we start to get our message out to the audience directly?
Nimziki: With a movie this big, I think we're going to want what's known as a teaser trailer, which comes out as much as six months before the movie's release. In our case, since we're doing a summer movie, we'll attach the teaser to our big Christmas release to make sure everybody sees it.
Israel: What a teaser trailer says is this movie's going to be an event.
Gill: It also means that come next spring, when the Los Angeles Times calendar section and Entertainment Weekly are predicting what the five big summer movies are going to be, we're automatically on the list.
Israel: We don't want to reveal too much in our teaser; it's just a great piece of music and big images. It's got sex. And it's got enough adventure to suggest something more.
Nimziki: We promise something amazing: 'Here's Steven Seagal as you've never seen him before. Julia Roberts is back.' And we need a slight hint of what the story is - 'in his greatest adventure yet', or 'in a movie that affects us all' - a simple tag line that doesn't get preachy, doesn't get political, doesn't even tell you the exact dilemma they're in. And then there might very well be room for a montage set to music - 20 seconds of the romance, the action, the stars.
Israel: I like Joe's trailer, but I wouldn't make it the teaser trailer. I'd make it the final trailer. Because our story trailer - the one that we put out a month or two before the movie - has to develop from the teaser. Unless we go to story, which I don't want to do, I don't think there's any place to go from Joe's trailer.
Tough: So you're saying no teaser at all?
Israel: I think not. I'm just terrified of getting into the story, which is what we're going to be forced to do if this is our teaser.
Nimziki: But in the real world this is a dollars 47m movie and the president of the studio is saying this is the most important film he's ever made. There's going to be a teaser.
Gill: How about a concept teaser - no footage at all? Just set up the reported threat, flash the names of the stars. Promise the thrill, promise the adventure, get out.
Nimziki: I think you've got to have some urgency to it. Perhaps you have the sound of ticking to give the message: Time's running out. Or maybe you start on an image you can't quite make out and you slowly pull back to reveal that it's the Earth.
Israel: But that's going away from the position that we agreed on. That goes back to the environment.
Nimziki: You don't have to lean on it. You don't want to tell the whole story. You still want to do your big montage wrap-up. But time as a metaphor is critical, especially if we're concealing the plot. There has to be some sense of urgency or conflict, and we can get that by quick-cutting images, by saying: 'Time is running out', and maybe by laying driving music underneath. The film might not deliver any conflict and action, but our trailer is going to suggest lots of both.
Israel: But to me, the ticking clock is off the position. People will stay away in droves if they think this movie has a social message. Everything has to convince them that it doesn't.
THE FEATURE STORIES
Tough: At this early stage, while we're still filming, what are we doing in terms of publicity?
Gill: We invite selected press to the set: major outlets like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Premiere magazine, Entertainment Weekly. We're going to let about half of them write about the movie right away, to create an early buzz. The other half will bank their stories, to run when we release the film. And in both cases, these reporters are pretty much going to take our spoon-feeding. But if we don't create a nice loving spoonful for them that accurately reflects our movie, we're in trouble.
Godsick: The only other outlet I would add is a morning TV show, like Good Morning America. The press follow the morning shows, so that will help us set their agenda early.
Tough: Do you have to do a selling job at this point on the editors and producers?
Godsick: It's not hard to get someone to see Julia Roberts and Steven Seagal on the set. The risk is in mis-selling the movie. If we call up the editor of Premiere and say: 'Yeah, we've got this thing about saving the Earth,' we're in trouble.
Tough: But isn't this exactly when we want to use the environment angle? Are these editors really going to want to do big feature stories without a hook like that?
Gill: Come on. The reality is that these are two stars everybody wants to see. Ask the immortal question posed by Dawn Steel, who used to run Columbia: 'Are they fuckable?' These two absolutely are. These are two hot, hot stars.
Tough: What about the personality-driven magazines like Vanity Fair or Esquire? Gill: If you've got a star who wants to be profiled, you're fine. But he or she is going to have to reveal a lot. Our stars might have had problems that they don't want to share with the readers of Esquire.
Nimziki: And I'd be wary of letting Steven Seagal loose with the press. This is a stretch for him, and he's trying to prove to America that he's a serious actor. I've seen stars in this position before. They go on the big talk shows and say: 'This isn't an action movie; it's got an important message. It's intelligent and serious, like me.' And bingo, we're off position.
Gill: Don't worry. We'll make sure that he's well trained about what to say and what not to say. It's like coaching a political candidate: we convince him to stick to the message.
THE ROUGH CUT
Tough: It's now January 1994. We're in a screening room at the studio, and we're about to see a rough cut of the movie. It's an early version: it hasn't even been test-marketed yet. The director's here; Julia and Steven are here. What are we thinking as the lights go down?
Nimziki: What am I going to say to them if it's bad?
Godsick: That's easy. You just say, 'Steven, Steven, Steven]'
Gill: 'You did it again]'
Godsick: No, really, what we're looking for in the film is elements we can use to do our jobs. Maybe Steven Seagal turned out to be fantastic; maybe there's something we didn't anticipate that turned out great.
Nimziki: And it's a two-part process, too. I mean we're all going to walk in and have our opinion of the film, but the next step's going to be recruited screenings, when we're going to test in front of a regular movie-going audience, not a jaded, tainted, cynical crowd like us. And who knows? We might find that teenage girls eat it up. We might find that the boys are in love with Julia Roberts. Sometimes you think you have a movie that's going to be in trouble and the scores are great.
Gill: So, do we have a movie that scores well?
Tough: Well, I don't know. We haven't tested it yet. I can tell you my personal opinion. It looks to me like Steven and Julian didn't really get along. There's not a lot of spark between them.
Godsick: So the romance doesn't work?
Israel: So the movie doesn't work.
Gill: What were you thinking when you green- lighted this?
Tough: Do we - as marketers - now try to get involved in re-cutting the movie?
Gill: Absolutely. This is the moment to put in our two cents.
Israel: What I'm going to advocate at this point is that they shoot more action/adventure footage so that we have an opportunity to position it more like a Raiders. The studio is going to say: 'Holy shit, this movie is a bomb. We've got to go and spend another couple of million.'
Tough: What if the studio won't shell out? Does the fact that it looks to us like there's no heat between the stars mean that we have to abandon the romance angle?
Israel: Not necessarily. The fact that it doesn't work in the movie doesn't mean that it won't in the trailer.
Gill: He's right. It doesn't matter if the movie doesn't deliver. If you can create the impression that the movie delivers, you're fine. That's the difference between playability and marketability. When you've got playability, you show it to the critics. If you've got marketability, there's enough there to stretch it and make people believe that it really does deliver.
Tough: What have we got here?
Gill: In the romance category, we have marketability but not playability. The romance really doesn't play, but we can probably find enough wistful looks to make our trailer work.
Nimziki: Actually, I'm not so pessimistic. I think we've got the makings of a great trailer here. We're going to have enough one-liners and witty bits of dialogue. We've got enough good sex. And we're going to have enough good action. Out of 90 minutes, we've got to be able to come up with a good 90 seconds.
Tough: But at this point, if the movie's looking like a dog, shouldn't we start to put more of our resources toward the other films on our summer list?
Gill: No way. There's too much riding on this. Our chairman has said that this is the most important movie he's ever made - which, by the way, means it's a guaranteed failure. But as much as we might like to abandon ship, we're reminded on the hour of how important this is.
Nimziki: This is our worst-case scenario. When you take a little film and make it look good, it's wonderful. When you have a movie like this, which is costing the studio a fortune and which will create mass panic if it doesn't make its money back, jobs are on the line. You have to believe in your head that this movie can and will succeed. You have to find a way to bring it to its audience. And the terrible, horrible, scary thing is that every now and then we actually make it work.
THE STORY TRAILER
Tough: Tell me about the second trailer, the story trailer. What are we going to do for that?
Nimziki: I would probably start with a shot of Steven Seagal and a line like: 'He's always been a fighter, but he's never had so much to fight for.' I'd want to get his audience in, promising them what they want: Steven Seagal fighting bad guys. But a line like 'he's never had so much to fight for' puts in a hint of something more.
Gill: Which brings in, guess who?
Nimziki: Our next shot is Julia Roberts. We definitely want to say: 'She's back, and we've got her.' And if this romance is something we're going to sell, we're going to push a Julia Roberts love-line hard.
Israel: 'In love with a people, in love with the country, and in love with a man.'
Gill: Now bring in the threat.
Israel: And then the conflict could be: 'In the least likely place on Earth, they fell in love - at the worst possible time.'
Nimziki: Next we want the quintessential villain line. We want our bad guy to say: 'They're screwing up our plan. We've got to cut down these trees . . .' Once we've hinted at the story elements, we do a kick-ass montage set to music. They're running and kissing and . . .
Israel: 'Two people have never kissed at this speed before.'
Godsick: At last we have a tag line]
Nimziki: And if this footage is as spectacular as I hope it will be, we can use the shots of people joining hands and chanting without actually saying: 'They're saving the world.'
Israel: Maybe the chant actually starts to drive the montage.
Godsick: You know, if that chant's really great, you could take it out of the movie and put it into the first single off the soundtrack. It becomes a kind of symbol.
Israel: Here's the poster: you've got the two of them in the rain forest, hugging or holding hands in the midst of all these Indians, as a volcano explodes behind them. The whole background's on fire.
Tough: Do you have copy for the poster?
Israel: I think you say the names. 'Steven Seagal and Julia Roberts . . .'
Gill: ' . . .in an epic romantic adventure . . .'
Godsick: ' . . .of global proportions.'
Nimziki: It's got to be something about 'the fight of their life' or 'time is running out'. Some real generic line that suggests that there's something important about this movie.
Gill: It's not just that the town is going to be destroyed - a way of life is going to come to an end, which is metaphoric for the end of the universe.
Israel: Yeah. I like that.
Gill: So: 'A town is about to be destroyed. Their friends are about to be killed. A way of life is about to end for ever. Only these two can stop it . . .and they're running out of time.'
Tough: How are we going to use these images and these ideas when we go to the press?
Gill: We're going to work from the same positioning that we've already developed. That goes for everything we give them. We're going to hand them an electronic press kit - a pre- cut piece of videotape that's like a mini-documentary of the film. We're going to hand out clips that emphasise our chosen themes and that hide the elements of the story we're uncomfortable with. And the remarkable thing is that the press people are going to pick up our exact phrases and words and incorporate them in their stories.
Tough: So we're going to be able to convince critics that this is a romance?
Gill: There are 10 different ways to describe any movie. If we give them one way to go, and it's at least marginally credible, chances are they're going to take it and go with it. Reviewers may ultimately say bad things about it, but most of the feature stories will use our positioning to describe the movie.
Godsick: And every TV reviewer is going to run a clip from the film. If the clip works with our advertising position, then they're supporting our campaign, even if they give us a bad review.
Gill: And we only give them clips that support our message.
Nimziki: The main reason we need reviews is to create a review spot, a 30-second TV ad with quotes from reviews read over scenes from the movie. It's only .HL.-pounds 11:07:93 ROCK / Breaking up is good to do: Shara Nelson used to be the voice of Massive Attack. Now she's on her own, and shaping up to be a great soul singer. Ben Thompson meets her
A QUARTER of a century after Ben E King asked 'What is Soul?', a satisfactory answer has still to be agreed upon. Whatever the precise nature of that elusive quality, there's little doubt that Shara Nelson has got it. One of the most distinctive singers to emerge in this country for the last few years, London-born Nelson made her name with cerebral Bristol dub-hop collective Massive Attack. Their mighty trio of singles from 1990-91 - 'Daydreaming', 'Unfinished Sympathy' and 'Safe from Harm' - all showcased a voice that could stop a Royal Mail van in its tracks. Rich and deep, it also had this quaver, this catch in it.
Aretha Franklin was Nelson's first and most obvious influence, but she also vouchsafes admiration for Patsy Cline and Aaron Neville. There's a touch of Nina Simone in there too. The character of her singing reached beyond dance-music confines from the first, and co-writing credits with Massive Attack underlined the fact that she was not your everyday 'featured vocalist', ready to be traded in for a new model at a moment's notice. Unfortunately, the loose structure and laid-back attitude which had made Massive Attack such a powerful creative force were also conducive to laziness. Two years on from their classic debut album, Blue Lines, there's still no sign of a follow- up, and Shara got tired of waiting.
'Down That Road', her first solo single, is a breezy declaration of independence: 'You stood still and I moved on.' It's hard not to see this as an uncoded message to her former colleagues - the parting of ways was not entirely amicable - but the song is no sullen kiss-off. Along with co- writers PM Dawn, (who've mercifully left their hokey mystic hats in the cupboard) she's fashioned a big, rolling pop tune, strong enough to carry even the stentorian tones of Martin Luther King, which bubble up out of intro and fade-out.
The remarkable thing is that Nelson's forthcoming album, What Silence Knows, features nine more songs as good as this, all partially or wholly written by the woman herself. Since making her recording debut with a sparse and elegant reading of Bacharach and David's 'Look of Love' in 1989, Nelson has steered clear of cover versions, and now the reason is plain - she doesn't need them. She has an enviable talent for writing dramatic lines, as well as the voice to make them count.
'I prefer to sing my own songs because I'm closer to them,' she says. 'It always feels weird for the first few moments, singing someone else's song, but then you latch it on to something, so it becomes part of you. But if you write your own stuff it's already a part of you.'
'Nobody Can', the first number on What Silence Knows, is the closest to the Massive Attack sound, with swelling strings and shuffling backbeat that recall 'Unfinished Sympathy'. The song itself taps in to the great soul vein of resolute self- determination - 'I Will Survive', without the camp. And there's one line in it - 'What's frightening me is the thought of being alone' - which cuts about as near to the bone as it's possible to get. Shara's voice sounds like it's breaking up, but the ability to show frailty is a sign of strength.
Elsewhere, the instrumentation is softer. 'One Goodbye in Ten', another likely single, was co- written with Saint Etienne and flirts in catchy fashion with Motown pastiche. 'Inside Out', on the other hand, starts with a simple guitar accompaniment a la 'Tracks of My Tears', but builds into a ballad of 'Careless Whisper' proportions.
Does writing this sort of thing come easily? 'I never sit down and say, 'I must write a song', they just pop into my head when I'm walking in the street.' The tune and the words at the same time? 'Sometimes yes,' she laughs.
Given the intensity of many of her songs - 'Pain Revisited' is a typical title - Nelson is unexpectedly prone to cheeriness. Is it ever hard to get into a sufficiently severe state of mind to do justice to her material? 'In the beginning it used to be, but now I get pleasure from switching - especially if I'm having a bad day.'
As Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul has found, going solo can get lonely. There is pressure from all sides on British singers to sacrifice originality on the altar of US Soul formula, but Nelson is determined not to give in. 'I'll always try to sing in a soulful way,' she says, 'but I don't think lyrically or in the way I present things it will ever be straightforward R'n'B' The shooting of her first solo video is an important test of will in this regard. With Massive Attack she strode womanfully against the tide of a New York street and lugged a heavy-looking shoulder bag up the stairs of an East End towerblock; now it is to be hoped that she'll have the strength of character to resist the dreaded Mica Paris makeover.
When the singing starts, however, what Nelson calls the 'let-rip thing' will be fully operational. She first observed this in American churches (no little Englander, she has lived in Germany and the US). 'I used to watch gospel singers there,' she says, 'but I think I was more interested in the effect they had on the crowd. I thought, 'How can somebody doing that affect people in the way that it does?' I really wanted that.'
'Down That Road' is released tomorrow; the album 'What Silence Knows' on 13 September.
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