There is something strange about Josephine’s voice, strangely beautiful, but strange nonetheless. Like nothing you’ve ever heard before, it’s as if Grace Jones and Edith Piaf had an African child together and she spent her days reading Joyce and Proust. Contemplative and clear with a distinctive trill serving as vibrato, there is something knowing and insightful about Josephine’s instrument and reflective in her lyrics. With music that often forgoes a time signature, there is something timeless about Josephine, like a priceless antique found at a flea market on a Sunday afternoon.
Even before the 29 year-old’s UK debut LP, Josephine Oniyama has been compared to Morrissey and on string heavy simplicities like the vaguely ‘60s “Portrait,” it sticks. There is also definitely a thread tying her music to the soulful alternative singer/songwriters Bernhoft, Ren Harvieu, and Kristina Train, who all share singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt with Josephine as a collaborator. For my druthers, there is something in the writing of Josephine that also conjures memories of Jim Croce, especially on the ponderously melancholic “House of Mirrors.” There are shades of grey that paint the lyricism of this Portrait, but not of the kinky sex variety, but of moody introspection personified by the macabre “We Were Trespassers” (is that an accordion mixed in with those pipe organs?). The insecure, allegory rich desperation of “I Pray That I Move” could have had a home in the Sting that gave us the uneasiness of The Soul Cages. These aren’t popcorn songs without depth of meaning, and they require listeners to consider them as much as Josephine seems to as she sings. A touring guitarist for artists like Jimmy Cliff, it makes sense that her last gig was playing side (wo)man for the equally reflective Michael Kiwanuka.
That is not to say there is no joy to be found on Portrait. It’s just not of the typical soul variety. These aren’t songs you’ll ever hear on your Urban Adult Contemporary or even Smooth Jazz stations. The most rhythmic material onPortrait, blends a mash of roots music, zydeco, country, pop and the kitchen sink, as on the rompy “Pepper Shaker,” which has the metaphoric feel of a shaker being shook in rhythm and drive. Xylophones, guitar, percussion and voice burst into an epic canvas with a splash on the sweeping lead single “Original Love,” a song whose compelling hook of “I want original love/I know it’s hard to find it/it doesn’t come easy/original love” sung against a wall of choral “ahhs” is a cut that will not be denied. The rolling rock of “What a Day” takes the guitar chords of The Doors and match them with the tone and structures of Nancy Sinatra’s Quincy Jones material. Collectively, these up-tempos tracks standout in their organic propulsion and commercial appeal; if only because the retro production techniques and use of rare instruments in contemporary urban music are approached in such a refreshingly modern, and, dare we say, intelligent way.
That her producers and musicians--including Leo Abrahams, Jimmy Hogarth, and Seb Rochford--are those who’ve worked with the likes of Grace Jones, Estelle, Amy Winehouse, Corrine Bailey Rae and Polar Bear, says something about the eclecticism that one can expect to discover on this artist’s project. And what a discovery she is. Josephine’s artistry digs deep unexpectedly; just as you’re trying to figure out if you even like all of these strange trills, obscure instrumental sounds, and autumn moods, you find yourself pressing repeat…again and again.
By L. Michael Gipson