Let's hear it for the girls

Not long ago, 'sensitive' female singers were only to be heard in angsty students' bedsits. So how come they're suddenly cool?

Lucy O'Brien
Sunday 22 November 1998 01:02

My record was like the mutt pony that somehow won the Kentucky Derby," says Jewel Kilcher, the 24-year-old Alaskan singer/songwriter whose 1995 debut album Pieces Of You bombed horribly on its release, yet through word-of-mouth has since clocked up 10 million sales worldwide. For an album with no choruses and simple acoustic musings on love, injustice and the "incredible lightness of living", its success is phenomenal.

Jewel's long-awaited follow-up album, Spirit, came out this month. Better than her first, the melodies are more developed, the songs more defined. With her crystalline vibrato and cool observation, the uber-babe cover star of Time and Rolling Stone proves she's not a one-album hit wonder.

Jewel's success, though, has been hard won. Brought up on an Alaskan homestead with no running water, she sang in bars from the age of 13, and ended up living in a van in San Diego, performing her songs for peanuts. Even after being "discovered" by Atlantic Records, she still had to hire a rental car and drive across America, doing an average 500 shows a year for four years, playing everywhere from high schools to record stores. Like so many of her singer/songwriting peers, Jewel worked from the grassroots up.

Female songwriters like Jewel, Canadian pop/folk heroine Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole (who had a hit last year with "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?"), and the feisty Italian-American Ani DiFranco, who has sold shedfuls of albums on her home-grown Righteous Babe label, have emerged, blinking, from the underground to become a major commercial phenomenon. They now have their own radio format in the US (Modern Adult Contemporary) and a women-only tour, the Lilith Fair, which has become the highest grossing festival in America - more popular, even, than rock tours like Lollapalooza. In the early Nineties female singer/songwriters were so innocuous they couldn't get themselves arrested. Now they're the major voices in the US pop mainstream, outselling their male peers.

There have always been lone female songwriters, from Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro in the Seventies to Suzanne Vega in the late Eighties, but their presence, particularly in the early years, was tokenistic. The closing scene in Scorcese's The Last Waltz, for instance, a film of The Band's 1975 farewell concert in San Francisco, has all the guys packed onstage for the final number. In the midst of Dylan, Van Morrison, Keith Richards et al, stands a lone woman - Joni Mitchell.

"We were always out there, but like UFO sightings. It was like Close Encounters of the Third Kind," says Emmylou Harris, Mitchell's contemporary and one of the artists taking part in the Lilith tour. "Now women are there in much larger numbers, speaking to a large percentage of the people. Something is in the air."

Back in the early Nineties, received wisdom in the music industry was that women songwriters were dullsville. Ron Shapiro, General Manager of Atlantic Records in New York, found it an uphill struggle breaking Jewel as a new artist on a scene dominated by male alternative rock bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana. "In 1995 when we went with Jewel to radio, programmers looked at us like we were insane. There might be 40 acts on their playlist, and all 40 would be male."

Then Jewel's uplifting song "Who Will Save Your Soul" became a massive word-of-mouth "sleeper" hit, as did Joan Osborne's cool, twanging "One of Us". "When either of these songs were put on the radio amid male depressing grunge, they stood out dramatically. There was something that stopped you dead in your tracks," continues Shapiro. "Implicit in the sound was heart, hope and warmth, and people responded to it."

The irony now is that many radio playlists in the US are now half or three-quarters female artists. "At a time when the stock market is crashing, there's genocide, the American president is publicly scandalised, people want to know what the meaning of life is," offers Shapiro. "Women tend to address that more often and more viscerally."

For Jewel, it's a question of musical taste. "People were ready for music again, without pretence. Music in America had become so male ego-rock driven. It was all about belonging to a scene," she asserts. "That was alienating for the real music fan. Lilith Fair was 30,000 people dead quiet at a concert, listening to the songs. My first record is not very accomplished or slick, but its sincere, and I think kids respond to that sincerity. That's nice for me because it lets me be who I am."

Although a significant number of her fans are women, Jewel has many male followers. "You get the college student who saw you on TV and thought you were cute. You get the guy who's gay who feels he can be emotional because you're emotional. And you get the straight white male who says 'I wanna understand myself better, understand my life better'."

Male listeners may be tuning into female artists, but on a scene where rock bands dominate, potential Neil Youngs are not doing so well. The sensitive solo male perspective, it seems, is harder to sell. Ironically, male singer/songwriters have been feeling hard done-by, and an all-male tour featuring acts like Ron Sexsmith is in the offing.

For now, though, Lilith Fair is the pinnacle of the summer calendar. "We're celebrating," says Sarah McLachlan, of the tour that grew from 35 stadium-size dates across America in 1997 to 57 this year. Lilith also manages to put its money where its mouth is, with eco-friendly sponsors and a dollar a ticket going to local women's charities.

Singer Natalie Merchant liked doing the tour because it was organised by a woman artist and not a corporate entity. People feel good about buying into organic pop - it's as "real" and radical as organic food, a way of resisting the fake emotion of airbrushed pop. But although female songwriters are not marketed as mass confection in the same way as corporate acts like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey are, they are still marketed. "Grassroots", "honesty" and "authenticity" have become buzzwords, while the number of nude CD cover shots in "artistic" foetal position (Paula Cole and Alanis Morissette, for instance) is alarming.

"The media got a hold of the 'girl gang' and it's become its own thing. It's like high school all over again - everyone striving to be the prom queen," remarks Jewel, who co-headlined Lilith last year. "I don't wanna get caught up in that." There is still pressure to look sexy, albeit in a "wholesome" way. "If you're a girl there's the tendency to push your sexuality. I did a photo shoot for Rolling Stone the other day and they wanted me nude on a horse. I said, "Why? A dress is fine." I'm not judging people who do it, but for myself, when I see women baring themselves I think, 'How can you take their art seriously?'"

These new stars have a style that's casual and low-key, and artistic credibility is paramount. The genre, though, has yet to catch on in Britain. We've bought the deadpan rock of Alanis and Sheryl Crow, but are still allergic to more introspective songwriters like McLachlan. The Lilith tour came over to the UK in September for one date at the Royal Albert Hall, with McLachlan joining UK artists like Sinead O'Connor, Beth Orton and Alison Moyet. "The event was sold out, but I must admit we were surprised," says publicist Helena Verellen. "People are not used to this music here."

Lilith will come to Europe again next year, but cautiously - there is still just one date planned in Britain, "That stripped down, left-of-centre ballad intensity doesn't travel here. The UK market is more pop and dance driven," says Bobby Hain, director of music at Virgin Radio. With a "slight male bias" in its audience (57 per cent male, 43 per cent female), only 30 per cent of Virgin's playlist features female artists. Radio 1 is similarly uninterested, referring "that kind of music" to Radio 2. For a new young songwriter like New Zealander Bic Runga, signed to Epic at Sony, breaking the UK is a challenge.

"In America, Bic has had a really good response. We find radio programmers more open to female singer/songwriters now, rather than saying, 'Crikey, what's this?'" remarks her manager Campbell Smith. "But the UK is a lot harder. It's almost impossible to get her on the radio. The sound is not as fashionable here as it is in the States."

Ironically, Runga's home is more likely to be Radio 2. "We played her last single," says Geoff Mullin, Radio 2's head of music. "Well-constructed melodic songs are food and drink to us." With an audience that's roughly 50/50 male/female and a massive 13.6 of the market share, she could do worse. Runga is an artist, like Jewel, who has toured her butt off without the aid of glossy hype, but people respond to that intimate approach.

These female artists are tapping into a cultural undercurrent that has always been there, it's just taken a while to grab people's attention. "I have a real bonding to the underdog," claims Jewel. "And you know what? I think everyone feels like an underdog. Even if you're the most popular girl,

there's always some sense of not being good enough at a deeper place."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments