Aims an Arrow at the Heart With Concrete Love
It may seem unprofessional of me, but I must confess that I once had a bit of a crush on Julia Fordham. It wasn’t a singular obsession, for, in the late-’80s, there was a veritable explosion of airwave-dominating female vocalists to absorb. Nor was it a physical attraction, really — Fordham is a beautiful woman, but no more or less beautiful than her photogenic peers. No, what lured me into this British singer’s camp, from the first time I heard her eponymously-titled 1988 debut, was The Voice — a Voice that could dip to Anita Baker-like depths, and then soar to songbird heights. A Voice that sang these fantastic, subtly jazz-influenced, mostly self-penned lyrics and melodies. Fordham’s songs could be melancholy, without being morose; they could also cheerily breeze about your ears- the auditory equivalent of the smell of summer rain. Fordham sang with the passion of a torch singer, without the usual histrionics and overbearing sap. She wasn’t a pretentious diva; rather, she came across as a wistful “girl next door” who just happened to have an angel’s pipes.
I purchased and nearly wore out her follow-up discs – ’89’s Porcelain and ’91’s Swept — and then Fordham dropped off of my radar. I figured that she might have done an Edie Brickell — gotten married and decided to retire. Imagine my surprise when, upon receiving her latest disc in the mail, I discovered that she had kept plugging away through the last decade, with enough material for a “Best of…” CD!
Julia Fordham’s songs have encompassed many topics, but she’s at her best when writing and singing about love — longing for love, finding love, losing love — and her new jewel, Concrete Love, concerns itself solely with matters of the heart — heck, the opening number is called “Love.”
Originally intended for the now-defunct Division One, Concrete Love spent some time in limbo before being picked up by Vanguard Records — but this wonderful record certainly was worth the wait for Fordham fans. Featuring contributions by India. Arie (the sultry title track) and Joe Henry (“Alleluia”), the Larry Klein-produced disc also contains a middle section co-written by former Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark. Pushed along by Klein’s ultra-low hearbeat-basslines, Concrete Love has a certain “blue-eyed soul” groove intertwined with Fordham’s jazzy phrasing — and B-3 masters Billy Preston and Jim Cox put a stamp of authenticity on the whole enchanting affair.
When I recently got the opportunity to interview Julia Fordham, I was determined to be as aloof and professional as possible — like those sound-bite-trolling jackasses that you see on TV — “What a marvelous voice you have, Ms. Fordham… I understand that you’ve been singing for awhile now?” But my determination crumbled like a sandcastle in a hurricane within moments of her call from the Portland (Ore.) airport. Fordham was as delightful as I’d once surmised she’d be — full of wit and enthusiasm, this amazing singer had me fumbling for words like a schoolboy on prom night.
To tell you the truth, I lost track of you in the ’90s. I thought you might have quit singing, but it turns out that you’ve been chugging right along.
Yes… the record after Porcelain, (Love Moves in) Mysterious Ways (1992 EP), that did quite well, actually… it had a big hit on it, a song from a film (the title track was in The Butcher’s Wife – SS). Falling Forward (1994) was the fourth (full-length), and then East-West (1997) was with Michael Brook, who’s a wonderful sort of World Music guy who plays amazing alternative guitar. With this one, I was back with Larry Klein… I think on those early records I had a lot of support from VH-1 — I had a big visual presence that wasn’t quite so prominent on the recent [albums].
Why did you move to Los Angeles?
Well, actually, I came there to record a CD with Larry Klein, who was living in L.A.; he wanted to use California-based musicians. Then, Michael Brook lived in Northern California, and then he moved down to L.A. — he wanted to record there. And then, when I did my “Best Of” record on Virgin — that came out on Virgin-America first; I somehow managed to be in L.A. for three records in a row… and then I looked up and realized that I lived here. When I actually came to getting a new [record] deal, it just made more sense to face the fact that I had put down roots and go with the flow — I am officially a “California babe” now [laughs].
You must have been relieved to find a label like Vanguard to issue this new disc.
Oh, very relieved. The demise of Division One was just before Christmas, and I got on the release schedule for Vanguard by June. It takes six months or more to extract yourself from the quagmire of business affairs at AOL/Time/Warner, and to set up a new situation at this lovely independent label that I’m on — Vanguard. It was sort of a relentless six months of getting the ship back on course… I’m ultimately glad that it turned out that way, because now I have the addition of India.Arie.
I’m going to guess that, apart from his abilities as a producer, another reason for your working with Larry Klein is that he’s a great bassist.
He is a fantastic bass player, isn’t he? What a sound… he’s a wonderful musician. I wanted to make the record with a musician, even though I play the songs myself. I’m very happy to delegate the arrangements and the charts and the calling of the musicians to somebody else, and I really feel that Klein is quite masterful, in that he’s so accomplished as a musical human being. He really brought a lot of assets to the table.
Do you take your guitar-playing seriously, do you practice a lot?
I try to… I’m not completely in love with it, practice all the time and all that. I’ve got one thing that I do extremely well, that I do on all the records — I’m a very good acoustic guitar player, playing rhythms. Give me a chord, and I can strum away for days and keep in time [chuckles]. I don’t do anything other than that, like playing leads. I really should, but I put so much into the singing…I just don’t have the time to pursue it. I take my [guitar playing] moderately seriously; I’m always happy not to play, and just be perceived as a singer. But I’m certainly good enough to play half the songs with my guitarist, Mark, during the live show.
Someone can have a great voice, but that doesn’t mean that they’re a great singer. How did you learn to be a great singer?
Well… actually, I was set in good stead by a singing teacher who happened to live at the end of our road. I realized that I have this sort of natural ability and quite an uncanny range, and I went to this singing-teacher lady… she actually just gave me a few techniques that pretty much set me in good stead for the rest of my life. Some people have a sort of… great sound and unique quality to their voices — I like Suzanne Vega, she’s got a lovely “sound;” it’s not that strong, but it’s very sort of… not passionate, but emotive. She makes her statement, she delivers her song in a perfect way. Then you have a singer, a singer like India.Arie — that girl’s got incredible tone and skill, she’s an astonishing vocalist. But some things just work so well… Bob Dylan, to me, has a very unusual tone, in a way — but [he’s] the perfect person to deliver his songs. Compare him to someone like Sting, whom in my opinion has a remarkable, beautiful tone. People just have different gifts.
Are you the kind of singer that sings all the time — in the shower, while doing dishes and so on?
Yes! All the time, especially when I’m on the road — I have to keep in shape, vocally. I practice and do my scales.
You sang “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” for Kyle Eastwood…
Yes! I did that for Larry [Klein]… that was my “one take” experience with a jazz band. I was like, “You’re kidding me, that’s it?” I had no idea that that was how they made jazz records — in and out, “One, two, three, take.” I said, “I think I’ve got it now, next time I…” and there was no “next time.”
Maybe you should think of recording an album of jazz standards…
Definitely. People have been saying that to me a lot lately. But my idea is… I have been writing a bunch of jazz songs. I think so many people have done jazz-standard records — Diana Krall has sort of cornered that market — I think my twist will be that I will record my original songs, and that will be my “jazz” record.
I read that you once sang in Mari Wilson’s Wilsations (a popular British soul big band of the ’80s).
It seems like that was quite a “finishing school” for musicians — some well-known Britons were in that band at one point or another.
That’s very true; it was such a great band — it was fantastic for me. I was 19, it was my first professional engagement, I was desperate to be a full-time singer. I wanted to live in London, and pursue a musical life, and, suddenly I wind up in this fantastic band as a backing singer, traveling ’round England… I’d never been anywhere in Britain, let alone America — or the world! I get to get in this bus with twelve people and go on this incredible tour… I loved it.
Do you keep in touch with Mari?
Yes, I do. Mari rang me recently, actually. She’d met a wonderful guy, and was going to get married, and she said that they might be coming to my town. They wound up not coming, but every time I go to London, I’d look up Mari. She now has a very successful career as a jazz singer. She taught me so much… she got married, had a kid, and is having a good life.
Was it during your stint with the Wilsations that you picked up this English fascination for American “blue-eyed soul”? Were you into The Style Council?
I love The Style Council, and everything that Paul Weller’s done, actually. Really, the first time I’ve been described in this “blue-eyed soul” way is with this record. It’s a welcome accolade, I’m delighted to receive it. It came from Larry Klein, who upon hearing the new songs that I’d presented to him said, “There’s a real soulful thread here.” He felt that it was the theme that linked all of the songs, and he wanted to put a cohesive record together that had an authentic, natural slant in that direction. What’s wonderful is that people have stumbled upon it, and have picked it up and run with it. It came more from the writing than the delivery; I mean, I just sort of delivered the songs in a conscious, “soul singer” way, it was much more like, “How do I bring the best rendition of this song into the studio?”
Your liner notes mention a name I’d not heard in a while — Gary Clark. Were you a fan of the Meet Danny Wilson and Bebop Moptop albums?
Yes, I’m a major fan of his. I think he’s such an underrated talent… I mean, the guy’s just a phenomenon, and so few people know of his gifts. He’s got a great-sounding voice, he’s a great guitarist, a great pianist, a wonderful songsmith… I really enjoyed that collaboration with him. I mean, I was bored with myself, harmonically, so a lot of things I would take and sing to him… he would pick up the guitar and charge off with them, bringing elements to them that were… not “pop,” but sort of “fresh,” to me.
Did you actually work with him, or was it a deal where you just brought him some songs and asked him what he could do with them?
No, I stayed in London for a couple of weeks. We wrote the songs and demoed at them at his house. We wrote another one — a fifth one — which was also great, but I didn’t have the time — or space for it — on the record. I might have to save that for the next one. I felt that all of the songs that I wrote him were very strong.
Like “Missing Man” — that’s a fantastic song.
Thank you… actually, that was a very unusual way for me to write, because he had this [hums the melody] guitar riff, this [continues humming] sort of melody; he left it with me, and I wrote the words. I tagged on the [sings] “People tell me I am strong…” — I sang that to him over the phone. He loved my words, he liked my new “People tell me I am strong” bit, and we thought that was the song… and he said to me, “I think we need something else, we need a bit that sort of goes, [sings] ‘Miss-ing man’.” I started singing, and we stumbled on that “Miss-ing man” thing — that was largely steered by him, it’s a sort of nod to his innate “pop” gift. I think it’s really an emotional song, and people certainly seem to be relating to it.
It’s odd how this album’s lyrics manage to be pretty simple, and somehow complex, as well.
Well, thank you. I’m glad that that’s been noted on this record. It’s easy to be trite and glib and “stock” — and I’m hopefully never any of those things. All of the lyrics come naturally — I try not to force anything. Whenever it sounds too contrived, I just get rid of it. I think the strongest stuff is what comes naturally — a lot of those word came out in a rambling stream-of-consciousness… much of the time, at the same time with the melody.
You started singing radio-commercial jingles when you were 16. If you had somehow lost your voice at that time, what do you think you would have wound up doing?
Hmmm… I think I would have been some sort of “Greenpeace worker.” I think I would have been something like that, being down at the local Greenpeace office. I used to volunteer there; I kind of like the sort of environment and spirit in those kind of places. My latest dream was to be… I went to Sea World when I was playing the San Diego Jazz Festival, and I thought, “I want to be Shamu’s trainer!” I wanted it so badly that I actually looked up what was required — “Nope, don’t qualify.” You have to be able to swim underwater for quite a ways, and have a degree and this and that. But I would have liked to be around that sort of thing. [We proceed to talk about the rescue of a lost Orca baby in the Puget Sound]. So you’re in Seattle…did you come and see the show?
No… I missed it.
[Disbelief in her voice] How could you have missed it?
My wife and I just moved into a new house, and I got my schedule screwed up… believe me, I’m kicking myself. I can’t believe I missed seeing you… if it makes you feel better, I will admit that I hum “Where Does the Time Go” probably once a week or so when I’m in traffic.
Well, how cute is that? You should have come and yelled it out, I would sang a bit of it for you.
Oh, you don’t normally play that one during your set?
No, not any more… it was so long ago, and it was more of a hit in the U.K., and…
Aw, come on!
There’s so many songs that people want to hear, I can’t do ’em all. I play a lot of stuff from Porcelain, “Happy Ever After,” and, of course, the new ones.
But “Where Does the Time Go” is like a jazz standard — it’s a classic.
Thank you so much! My dad has always said that, I have to tell you — “You mark my words, someday people are going to realize…” and I’d say, “Dad. you’ve been saying that for fifteen years.”
The other one that really got me, “way back when,” was…”In a man’s world”…what was the name of that song?
Oh, “Behind Closed Doors” — [sings] “In a man’s world, you’re always screaming to be heard…”
Yes! When I first heard that, I thought, “Whoa! Who’s this gal?”
I was a young whippersnapper back then…
If one really listens to your records, they might get this idea that you’re alternately melancholy… and overjoyed, an incurable romantic.
I think that that’s a most excellent description of me — that sounds just like me. “One foot in the shadows, my head in the clouds”…
You opened for Michael Bolton on a tour…
[Voice apprehensive] Yeah…
What was that like, and how did you…
[Laughing] You want to say, “What possessed you?”
Well, yes. It seems that it would have been like opening for Tom Jones.
It was. It was absolutely the biggest mismatch ever. It was the classic example of a record-company blunder. The idea was…Virgin Records thought that I played to the converted, which I thought was fair — I played to little packed clubs for people that knew every song, and it was so hard to expand on who’s listening to you. The Michael Bolton thing came up, and it was sort of churlish to resist it. It was an opportunity to play arenas — 10,000-seaters. But I knew that I was too alternative… the minute I opened my mouth, I could see people looking at me quizzically — [murmurs] “She sounds awfully good… isn’t that interesting?” That audience only responds to “stock” songs — they’re not looking for intricacies… they want Celine Dion, and I’m not Celine Dion — my writing is different.
You could have countered with Streisand covers.
It felt like that was what I should have been doing — it seemed like they were gagging on my stuff. It wasn’t the best match in the world, and I don’t think [Bolton] was happy with it, either, I’m not sure. But what do you do? It wasn’t perfect, but then you think, “What would be perfect?” Paul Simon, Sting, something like that… well guess what, those things aren’t fuckin’ available, and you have to go with what is! [Laughs].
You’ve sung jingles, you’ve worked for Mari Wilson, you’ve had all these albums and some label trouble… what advice would you give to a young singer today — particularly a young female vocalist?
I would say… number one — learn your craft; number two — always be able to be musically independent, don’t be too dependent on other musicians to convey what you do; number three — understand that the shape of the music industry has changed a lot, and is continuing to change, so you might want to just do your own thing. It’s one thing having a life and career as a musician, it’s a different thing trying to be a pop star and “break through” and sell tons of records — so be clear as to who you’d rather be. And the other thing is… aw, just do your best — I was going to say, “follow your instincts,” but a lot of times, my instincts have been totally wrong [laughs].