Selling their soul: women leading the way in R&B; British invasion


Don't look now, but we are being bombarded by British soul starlets -- Duffy, Adele, Estelle and Leona Lewis are all well on their way to the top of the pops.

Selling their soul: women leading the way in R&B British invasion

Amy Winehouse was just the tip of the iceberg. As Britain's Grammy-winning soul-revival bad-girl has spiralled over the past 18 months into a Britney-esque ball of confusion, an array of more presentable contemporaries has surfaced in her wake.

Don't look now, but we are being bombarded by British soul starlets -- Duffy, Adele, Estelle and Leona Lewis are all well on their way to the top of the pops.

Some are already there. Lewis won the third season of British talent show X Factor, presided over by American Idol's Simon Cowell -- who co-produced her album Spirit with American music mogul Clive Davis. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 in April, making Lewis the first British artist to accomplish the feat with a debut.

As her prefab credentials suggest, Lewis is the least interesting of the bunch. Spirit is a mainstream pop record with slick R&B stylings. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston comparisons are not off the mark.

More intriguing is Estelle, whose sophomore album Shine was released on Chicago neo-soul singer John Legend's Homeschool records, and features appearances by, Wyclef Jean, Kanye West, Cee-Lo Green (of Gnarls Barkley), Toronto's Kardinall Offishall and Winehouse producer Mark Ronson.

A natural blend of soul, hip-hop, reggae, dance and pop, Shine exudes a carefree confidence. Estelle adopts an American aesthetic without giving up her identity (you can still hear her British accent in her singsongy raps). It's a more engaging and original mainstream R&B album than anything we've heard from this side of the pond of late.

Less concerned with sounding current, Duffy and Adele are a direct response to Winehouse's success. Both exhibit a more demure aesthetic while maintaining links to the old-soul vibe Winehouse so successfully revived on her 2006 sophomore album, Back in Black.

Welsh sensation Duffy evokes original British soul singer Dusty Springfield more than she does Winehouse's Motown-derived sound. Duffy wears her '60s influences on her sleeve on her debut Rockferry, released in March.

The production, instrumentation and the treatment of her vocals all strive to emulate soul balladeers of old. But Duffy doesn't make it through without one Winehouse ripoff -- the song "Mercy." (Its 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' backup vocals even echo the 'No, No, No,' on Winehouse's smash hit "Rehab.") The album debuted at No. 1 in Britain, where it stayed for a month; it has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide so far.

Adele opts for a more contemporary vibe on her debut 19, which also debuted at No. 1 in Britain upon release in January.

Like Duffy, Adele relies on the intimacy of her voice as the main attraction. Smoky, and distinctly soulful, her coo evokes Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray and yes, Winehouse. Jazz and pop touches, occasional hip-hop beats and modern orchestration put her squarely in the here and now. And yet she, too, invites Ronson to oversee one track, the swinging "Cold Shoulder."

But while they can borrow her producer and musical references, none of these woman have Winehouse's attitude. You will not catch any of them singing, "What sort of F--kery is this?," as the tattooed tempest does on "Me and Mr. Jones."

For that kind of sass, you'll have to look to other British upstarts, such as nimble-witted MySpace phenom Lily Allen and electro-hip-hop-art-pop rebel M.I.A.

To cover all our bases in this British songbird overview, we'll mention jazz-pop singer Katie Melua, Allen imitator Kate Nash and Scottish folk-pop singer KT Tunstall, and turn back the clock slightly to include Dido (Duffy and Adele's other most obvious immediate precursor) and Joss Stone.

Turning back the clock further, we can see a line traced through trip-hop, the '90s electronica offshoot that built an entire genre around the formula of a female singer and a chill-out beat (see Massive Attack, Portishead, Morcheeba). Before that, things get more sparse -- Buffalo Stance club queen Neneh Cherry and Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox stood out as '80s blueprints for British female pop stars of the future.

Born in 1988, Adele cites surprising sources of inspiration that precede her acquired reverence for soul greats Etta James and Roberta Flack.

"I always wanted to be a singer," she said. "But it seemed impossible. Growing up with the Top 10, I listened to the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. But to contemplate doing the same thing seemed impossible."

She did have a game plan, however. Adele attended the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology -- an institution, interestingly, attended by several of her contemporaries, including Winehouse, Lewis, Melua and Nash.

"It was great to wake up every morning and go to school with 400 other kids who wanted to do something with themselves," she said.

"It was encouraging. It was a performing arts school, not a stage school. And it was not (full of) snobby rich kids whose parents had sent them there. These were hard western kids."

But though it's a great school, Adele says, it is not a free pass to pop stardom. "Over the past 15 years, 20,000 people have gone there. It doesn't mean you'll make it."

What is it, then? What's at the root of this explosion of female talent? A few things spring to mind. The first is the importance of trailblazers. Artists such as Winehouse, M.I.A. and Allen make people take notice by doing their own thing and being successful at it.

No one was talking about a soul revival when Winehouse traded in the jazzy stylings of her Mercury Prize-nominated 2003 debut Frank for a sound inspired by Ronson and American retro-funk band the Dap-Kings, who play on much of Back to Black. But when it became the top-selling British album of 2007, people took notice.

Enter the British hit/hype-making machine. The rabid British press is ever on the hunt for the next big thing -- and creates it every few months, according to the latest craze. Someone somewhere declared that female solo artists were all the rage, and it was so.

And then there's that intangible something -- call it British cool. Walk the streets of London, and it screams out from every corner. Hit the clubs, and you'll find your finger on the pulse of global music trends of the next five years.

You can dial it back to the Beatles and the Stones, the birth of punk rock, the eruption of movements such as ska and northern soul, or the advent of acid jazz, trip-hop and a genre actually called Brit-pop. Even when they're taking American music and giving it a makeover, the Brits are ever on the cutting edge.

Where in North America we stick to the tried and true, they're more open to new things over there. They may follow the latest fad, but there's always another one around the corner.

In that kind of climate, only the strong survive. The big test for this current batch of it-girls is where they'll be a few years from now.

Know Your Pop Stars:

Amy Winehouse
Born Amy Jade Winehouse, Sept. 14, 1983, in Enfield, North London. She trained in theatre and music before releasing her edgy, jazz-tinged 2003 debut Frank. She shot to fame with her 2006 follow-up Back to Black, which won five Grammys and blazed a path for the current wave of British female soul singers. Winehouse's success has been tarnished by alcohol and drug problems.

Born Aimee Anne Duffy, June 23, 1984, in Gwynedd, Wales. Debut album Rockferry is all about a classic '60s soul ballad sound.

Born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, May 5, 1988, in Enfield, North London. Debut album 19 is dreamy pop with hints of soul.

Leona Lewis
Born April 3, 1985, in Highbury, in the London Borough of Islington. Winner of British talent show the X Factor, she was taken under the wing of American Idol judge Simon Cowell for her chart-topping debut Spirit.

Born Fanta Estelle Swaray, Jan. 18, 1980, in West London. She released her debut The 18th Day in 2004, before being recruited and groomed by American neo-soul singer John Legend on her guest-filled 2008 album Shine, an engaging mix of soul, hip-hop, reggae and pop.

Born Mathangi (Maya) Arulpragasam, July 17, 1977, in Hounslow, London. Burst onto the scene in 2005 with her rebel electro-hip-hop-art-pop hybrid album Arular. She was later signed to influential American label Interscope, and has flirted with mainstream success with her 2007 album Kala.

Lily Allen
Born Lily Rose Beatrice Allen, May 2, 1985, in Hammersmith, West London. Cited as one of the first MySpace stars. Early songs posted on the site elicited huge reaction with their sass and infectious musicality. Record companies came calling, releasing her Grammy-nominated debut Alright, Still, and the rest is history.


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