(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)
I’ve spent my adult life seeking out great music and have been fortunate to discover some recordings so personally touching and impactful that I can’t shut up about them or stop pursuing their recordings, however obscure or hard-to-find. Julia Fordham (b. 1962) and Marti Jones (birthdate unknown) are two of these artists. They are among the most distinctive vocal artists to emerge from the 1980s (They are also both guitarists). But they remain cult artists who were heralded when they debuted, but primarily savored by aficionados. They are far enough outside of the mainstream that listeners tend to learn about their music through deliberate searching rather than relying on exposure in mainstream pop channels. I have championed their music for years to anyone who will listen, and continue to do so. Though some remnants of ‘80s production inflect their earliest recordings their music has aged beautifully, always ripe for discovery
Fordham, who debuted as a solo singer in 1988, is a remarkably resourceful writer who has filled her albums with a vast palette of melodic contours and harmonic colors. Joni Mitchell is an important influence on Fordham in this vein, though I view her as more of a general influence. Fordham is so distinctive I cannot actually imagine her singing Mitchell’s songs. Fordham’s rich voice, sumptuous melodies, fresh lyrical themes, and diverse arrangements also distinguish her from other singer-songwriters of her generation. Most of her peers, such as Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman, have prominent acoustic folk roots whereas jazz, world music, and R&B consistently define her sound.
Jones is also best understood as resourceful, though her most recognizable gift is her interpretive skill. Like Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Maria Muldaur, she is one of the great eclectic interpreters of rock, soul, and folk material. Her voice is a captivating instrument highly evocative of Jackie DeShannon and Dusty Springfield’s sultriness, though she is a stronger rock singer than either of these talented vocalists. In the mid-80s she and producer Don Dixon created a durable approach to recording by placing emotionally powerful, top shelf pop/rock material in guitar-driven arrangements framed by Jones’s soulful voice…
...From these roots Jones recorded 1989’s Used Guitars her strongest album and an excellent introduction to her buoyant, emotionally penetrating style. Like Linda Ronstadt’s triumphant Heart Like a Wheel, Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material, and arrangements. Jones is influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country, and even aspects of punk, and synthesizes them masterfully. Her interpretations are seamless expressions of the heart. I mentioned several tunes already but others that standout include the following: “Keep Me in the Dark” has a melancholy that creeps gently. “The Real One,” another Hiatt song, soars with choral richness. She differs from Ronstadt primarily in being a songwriter. Her original tunes “Tourist Town” and “Twisted Vines” are melodic, original songs with a fresh point of view. This combination of memorable melodies, Don Dixon’s vibrant arrangements, and expert playing is a musician at her peak...
...All of the books and sites I consulted suggested 1989’s Porcelain was Fordham's best so I returned to D.C. (notably Dupont Circle’s fabulous Melody Maker Records shop which has closed sadly) and purchased the one remaining copy only a few months later. Porcelain is a quintessential example of an album that grabs your attention initially, via the loping opener “Lock and Key,” and unfolds and reveals itself over time insinuating itself into your memory. Her potent contralto has shades of Cleo Laine, Alison Moyet, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Laura Nyro, but overall it is a unique voice. The sheer variety also grabbed me especially given the usual folk sound of singer-songwriters.
A few examples of its songs:
“Genius”—An eco-themed samba with Brazilian percussive features
“For You, Only For You”—A torchy jazz ballad
“Girlfriend”, “Porcelain”, “Did I Happen to Mention”— Brooding, emotionally complex love songs
“Manhattan Skyline”—An unusually open song, where in over four-and-a-half minutes it expands from a few lovely strums to a big hearted transcontinental love story.
I was hooked by these songs on Porcelain and anxious to listen to more Fordham...
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