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Monday, March 5, 2012

UnSung Heroine: The Julia Fordham Story

Julia Fordham is one of the very finest female singer/songwriters Britain has produced. She is blessed with a sonorous, beautifully fragile voice and her stock in trade is to deliver disarming, heartfelt love stories set against delicate and complex chord structures. I was lucky enough to discover Julia at the start of her career and I have now been following and enjoying her music for close to a quarter of a century. Her tale is a familiar one in the music industry; early buzz when signed to a major label, but somehow unable to crossover to a mass audience. I am at a loss to explain why this should be the case; in my opinion Julia should be cherished as a national musical treasure. Julia has enjoyed success in many international markets, but she remains largely unsung in her homeland.

Like me, Julia is enjoying the Ex-Pat lifestyle in California and last week, for the first time in over a decade, I got to see her play live again at her new monthly residency at Molly Malone's Irish Pub in LA. Julia is a consummate live performer and with musical guests including Vonda Shepard, Tim Booth and Judith Owen it was truly one of the most magical evenings of music I have ever enjoyed. So if you've never heard Julia's music, or you vaguely remember her early hit singles, here is my guide to her career to date and the best of her many, many exquisite songs.

Julia Fordham (1988)

The teenage Jules Fordham, as she was then known, cut her musical teeth by playing local folk clubs in and around her hometown of Portsmouth. She got her first big musical break when she was chosen to be a Wilsation, backing singers to the Neasden Queen of Soul, Mari Wilson. Now part of the London music scene, Julia was able to secure her own record deal, signing with Virgin imprint, Circa Records in 1987. Her first album, Julia Fordham, was released a year later and I instantly fell in love with it. I was ridiculously excited to be invited by her record company to meet Julia briefly at one of her first live shows at Norwich Theatre Royal. Seeing Julia perform live underscored what a special talent she is. I can still recall with great clarity the show, the sweet, funny woman who was on stage and the searing impact her music and voice had on me emotionally and spiritually.

Julia's second single, Happy Ever After, attracted strong radio play and was a top 30 hit in the UK. The song cleverly takes a relationship break-up and frames it against the, then still current, apartheid regime in South Africa. In lesser hands this could easily seem to trivialise a tragedy, but the beauty with which Julia interweaves the heartbreak with her sadness at the suffering taking place in South Africa, combined with the stunning African chant that builds at the climax of the song, lifts a simple love song into an anthem. Julia was able to re-record the song in 1998 with a revised lyric to reflect the fall of apartheid, but for me the original version remains beautiful and evocative, if now happily anachronistic.

Julia Fordham is a strong mix of uptempo numbers and beautiful ballads. My favourite track on the album is Invisible War, another break-up song, but this time Julia's voice is set against the starkness of a gentle piano accompaniment. It allows her voice to fully connect with the listener. The album did solid business, peaking at number 20.

Porcelain (1989)

Julia's second album came just a year later and is her masterpiece. Porcelain is one of the most complete albums I have ever heard. Each song fits perfectly, each lyric is intriguing, each melody is beguiling. The production has a warmer feel than on her first album and overall it displays a more sophisticated, confident air. Julia's sound began to evolve on this album, with touches of jazz and bossa nova working their way in to her arrangements. Sadly none of the singles released managed to chart, but by now Julia was clearly being seen as more of an album artist. She had begun to build a strong, loyal following and the album charted high at number 13.

It's hard for me to select favourite tracks from this album, as they are all so much part of a whole listening experience, as a great album should be. My recommendations for newcomers are the title track (which explores how it is to be "very, very much in like" with someone, but unable to commit fully), and Girlfriend, where Julia just wants you to hold her, just don't bother mentioning it to your other half, she wouldn't understand. As you can see, the songs are not just "girl meets boy", they're more "girl kind of likes boy, but is also a potential homewrecker".

One of Julia's best songs came just after Porcelain was released. Manhattan Skyline tells of a NYLON love affair a decade before that term became part of the pop culture lexicon. Julia's heart is "as broken as the Manhattan Skyline" and "so British". This is much a short story as a song; in fact you mentally create the movie that this could be the soundtrack to as you listen. It is a fan favourite and got Julia deserved attention in the US market.

Swept (1991)

By this point Julia had solidified her "sound" and Julia's third album Swept is another high quality set of adult pop songs. The lead-off single was another break-up song (I told you it was her stock in trade), I Thought It Was You. This tale of "what ifs" and "coulda beens" is hypnotically subtle in the way it recounts the details of the failure. It arrived at an emotionally turbulent time in my own love-life and I became almost dangerously obsessed with this song, we all have those tracks that seem to be written about us and this is one of mine. There is a moment in the song when Julia sings "I'm not looking for the answer baby, I'm just looking for a little love" - I defy anyone who's had their heart broken to listen to this track and not be moved. Luckily I am now able to enjoy it on a more detached level as yet another gorgeous gem in Julia's repertoire.

Frustratingly the single stalled just outside the top 40, but Julia was to have her biggest hit to date with the theme from the Demi Moore movie, The Butcher's Wife, recorded just after Swept was released, but later added to the album. (Love Moves In) Mysterious Ways is a perfect movie love theme and Julia sings it beautifully. You would never know it wasn't composed by Julia, so well does it fit her, and it shows she is a wonderful interpreter of other people's songs. Hopefully we can look forward to a covers album at some point.

Falling Forward (1994)

For her fourth album, Falling Forward, Julia teamed up for the first time with acclaimed producer Larry Klein. The album has more edge to it than her previous work, the songs are again perfectly pitched, but it feels there is less polish applied, leaving a raw, more open feeling to the songs. My particular favourites on this album are the title track and I Can't Help Myself, one of Julia's less rare "madly in love" songs, it is joyously childish in its celebration of love; the girl can't help it. Falling Forward finds Julia in more problematic relationship territory, while not yet breaking up, it's clear there's some serious passive aggressive behaviour going on. The chord sequence on this track is simply gorgeous and Julia's vocal perfectly evokes the feeling of falling forward.

Although the album charted at number 21, that loyal audience was still there, sales were not strong enough to keep her record company happy. Again the singles failed to get radio support and without wider exposure Julia was finding it hard to reach a wider audience. It might have been that her label was giving up or had moved on to other artists, but Julia was clearly not getting the support she had previously enjoyed. It was the beginning of the end for her relationship with Circa, to the extent that her next album failed to even get released in the UK, which is tragic, as it is one of her best and my personal favourite.

East West (1997)

Luckily East West was released in other territories and I was able to get hold of an import copy. Another Julia Fordham album and another dangerous obsession for me. This was easily my most-played album of 1997, again Julia had found my sweet spot in terms of writing my life story in song (with some forgivable poetic license on my part, of course). This album is simply full of gems, again like Porcelain it is a complete listening experience. It has a more laid-back sound than her previous album, Julia sounds relaxed and is on top form throughout. For starter listeners, play the title track, which has a great, jangly repeating theme underpinning Julia's search for new love. I'd also recommend Stay, which has become Julia's counter-intuitive sign-off number in her live shows, which builds to a rousing chorus of "come on, come on, come on"s that are impossible not to join in with.

To mark the end of her relationship with Circa/Virgin, a compilation album, The Julia Fordham Collection was released in the UK in 1999. It contrarily included two cuts from the unreleased East West, as well as new remixes of earlier songs and two new tracks. One of these, It Was Nothing That You Said is one of my favourite Julia tracks and was recorded during the sessions for East West. Julia said she wrote it as a country song and it definitely could be a great bluegrass ballad. Perhaps we can look forward to Julia In Nashville someday?

Concrete Love (2002)

A fresh start beckoned when Julia was signed to Division One, an Atlantic subsidiary and work began on her next album, Concrete Love. You have to be tough to survive the music business and Julia's mettle was again tested when the label was scrapped by Warners and she was let go while in the process of completing the album. Julia regrouped and was able to complete the album and release it through the independent label Sanctuary.

Julia comes out fighting on Concrete Love, it is funky and confident, with Julia stretching her voice at both ends of her impressive range, her control and tone on her lower range is among the best you will hear and she is just as able to soar to the high notes. She is clearly ready to take risks and try new approaches and the album, while not her most complete work, is endearing because of that. A good example of this new style is the title track, which features a sultry guest vocal from india.arie. Free from major label pressures, Julia clearly was in a good place with her creativity.

That's Life (2004)

By now Julia was an extremely popular live performer, with that ever loyal audience supporting her at every opportunity they had. Her next album That's Life was recorded in just a few sessions with her group of musicians and subsequently feels almost like a live performance. The album has a much more intimate feel to it as a result, although the songs are perhaps not the strongest she has written. However, there is much to enjoy here, as on the groovy Sugar, where Julia is clearly relishing the opportunity to jam with her band.

A live album, That's Live, followed the next year before Julia took a short hiatus while she became a mother. There was a Baby Love EP in 2006, with five songs dedicated to her daughter Marley Rose, which proved beyond doubt that for Julia, as for all new mums, this was a deeply joyful experience.

China Blue (2008)

When Julia returned after her four-year break, it was with a little surprise. China Blue is Julia's first jazz album and includes new songs and jazzy retakes of some earlier works. Julia shows she has a great jazz voice, particularly as it is now more mature and naturally deeper. It sees her reunited with her Porcelain co-producer, Grant Mitchell, and it consequently has a delightful déjà vu quality.

Unusual Suspects (2010)

Julia's latest album emerged in 2010, a joint project with actor/musician Paul Reiser. The pair clearly hit a solid songwriting groove and there are some sublime songs on the album. The album finds Julia in good voice and Paul's accomplished piano playing makes for a high class listening experience. Particularly moving is a song about the pain of separation for the families of those serving in the armed forces, UnSung Hero. My favourite track though is Trusted, a cautionary tale about the danger of strangers, which catches you off guard, so sweet is the melody, so dark is the subject.

As you can see, Julia has created a distinguished body of work and it certainly deserves to reach and be enjoyed by a larger audience. I would love to see her get the acclaim she deserves in her home country. I'm not sure that is important to Julia anymore, but it certainly is a frustration for her many fans when other, lesser talents garner so much praise and attention. So please, pop over to Spotify and listen to the playlist of the tracks I've highlighted in this blog and if you like that, head over to iTunes where you'll find many of Julia's albums to purchase and enjoy, and once you've done that, tell your friends. Every diva fan's record collection should, at the very least, contain Porcelain and mine certainly wouldn't be complete without possessing the entire catalogue of the divine and matchless Julia Fordham.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: UnSung Heroine.

1 comment:

  1. I would so love to read an updated version of this blog shortly after the release of her upcoming album "The Language of Love", which will be an import for the hardcore fans. From one big fan to another, this is one great piece of review! x