Styles & Forms | Noughties Pop Singer-Songwriters

While more and more of the mainstream is occupied by heavily manufactured and stylized rock, pop and R&B acts, the emergence of less-demonstrative artists – often from a self-financing small-scale independent background – represents a quiet form of rebellion from the pop norm.

The success of mavericks such as Björk and Sinéad O’Connor in the 1990s continues to foster an independent spirit in the pop singer-songwriters of the new century. While the likes of Alanis Morissette, Sir Elton John, Paul Weller and Tori Amos remain relevant to a post-2000 audience, it is the new, low-key and rootsy pop singer-songwriters who are beginning to define the future of the genre.

Local Sounds From Local People

Although very different in musical style, six key artists have all grown from humble beginnings in specific locales, striving long and hard under difficult circumstances before hitting paydirt. The most striking example is David Gray, a Manchester-born multi-instrumentalist who grew up in Wales but found initial success in Ireland. His first album, A Century Ends, was released in 1993, but it took another six years of Irish support slots – and his entirely self-financed 1998 album, White Ladder – for his Van Morrison-goes-pop songcraft to achieve a crossover impact, along with friends in high places and a US release on Dave Matthews’ ATO label in 2000. Its 2002 follow-up, A New Day At Midnight, established him as a major adult pop star.

Macy Gray, David’s Ohio-born namesake, toiled for years on the Los Angeles jazz bar scene. She played piano and organized her own music and poetry club before establishing a highly individual blend of smoky and croaky vocals, eccentric performance, autobiographical lyrics and soul, rap, R&B, FM rock and pop stylings on her massive 1999 debut album, On How Life Is. Alaska’s Jewel Kilcher worked as a waitress, strummed and sang in dives and lived in her car in San Diego before becoming an ‘overnight success’ with the winsome folk-pop of 1995’s Pieces Of You. Her blonde-sweetheart looks and intelligent songs have seen her build a transatlantic word-of-mouth following over subsequent years, even earning her an invite to a President Clinton inaugural ball in 1997.

On the British side, Norwich’s Beth Orton spent time as a Buddhist nun before she was discovered by the dance producer William Orbit in 1991. By the mid-1990s, she was collaborating with dance acts The Chemical Brothers and Red Snapper, and her quietly funky 1996 debut album Trailer Park made her the queen of post-clubbing chill-out for Brits. The increasing sophistication of her Nick Drake- and Joni Mitchell-influenced bedsit melancholy has since seen her work with the likes of Beck and The Flaming Lips in the US. A gangly, shy six-footer, her appeal seems as much due to her down-to-earth likability as it is to her American roots-influenced songs.

The same could be said for Manchester’s Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, who remained a hometown...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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