Things ‘bout coming her way – the rise of N’Didi Onukwulu
By Ndidi O
Nigerian-Canadian singer channels Big Mama Thornton, Phoebe Snow, Billie Holliday and Joni Mitchell to create an amazing collection of new soul and R and B classics.
By Douglas Heselgrave
Move over Adele, Joss Stone and Madeleine Peyroux. It’s time for some real soul music. Sure, Adele and Joss can sing and Madeleine naturally slinks around a lyric, drawing annunciated despair out of every phrase in a way that’s hard to equal, but N’didi and her music are something really special. Something rare.
In my work, I listen to music constantly, and one of the unfortunate side-effects of this is that after a while it takes an awful lot for a song or a singer to make a lasting impression on me. After a week of playing, ‘The Escape’ – N’didi’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed, ‘The Contradictor’ released in 2008 – and listening to it at least forty or fifty times through, I still can’t get enough of it and discover new things with each repeated play. For, ‘The Escape’ is one of those rare albums – like Tracy Chapman’s or Phoebe Snow’s first records – that stands completely on its own merits and was built to last and endure beyond the transience of cultural whims and musical fashion. Real music is like that.
So, what is it about ‘The Escape’ that is so special? On the surface, it’s hard to tell. There have always been lots of talented young women blessed with confidence and good pipes who sing convincing approximations of soul and R and B music, but N’didi has something slightly different to offer. Perhaps it’s the songs themselves. Unlike many songwriters in the genre, Onukwulu avoids the pitfalls of using clichéd phrases and situations to give her ‘blues credibility.’ Instead, she trusts her literary instincts and follows them to create songs that are truly unique, engaging and emotionally believable. In this way, she is more aligned with writers like Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman who have spent their careers exploring personal and complicated subject matter that doesn’t neatly fit into the pop or roots music paradigm. Again, Adele and Joss can sing beautifully, but often what they’re singing about is so trivial and trifling that it becomes all about the performance and not about the song. N’didi has no such problems. Every song’s lyrics are balanced, concise and evocative and interpreted with phrasings and vocal nuances that are often absolutely thrilling and never less than completely successful.
For those who have followed N’didi’s career so far, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but even her most ardent fans will acknowledge that ‘The Escape’ represents a significant personal triumph as well as a huge artistic leap from her previous work. Born in Burns Lake, British Columbia, in the centre of the province’s resource belt – a rough and tumble frontier that is hardly known for its support of arts and culture – N’didi Onukwulu’s is an unlikely success story. While her father was a renowned Nigerian jazz musician, N’didi never considered singing professionally until she was a teenager. With that dream in her head, she left her rural home and moved to New York where she began singing at open mics and performing in small clubs. Though her early music was influenced by hip hop, by the time she moved back to Canada in 2006, her music began to reflect the more complex blend of jazz, blues, folk and R and B that has become her signature style. Her debut album ‘No, I never’ was a critical success in Canada which drew the attention of renowned producer and musician, Steve Dawson who invited her to record ‘The Contradictor’ for his Black Hen label the following year. That album reflected some significant artistic growth when compared to its predecessor, but with its mixture of heavy guitar, blues, reggae, folk and electronica, the sounds on the album didn’t quite gel and communicated a sense of restlessness, indicating that the search for Onukwulu’s truest voice and musical setting had not ended. After touring ‘The Contradictor’ through the US and Canada for months, N’didi travelled to France where she found the receptive audiences and musical inspiration that had remained elusive at home.
Though ‘The Escape’ was recorded in France and many of the songs involve her new life there, N’didi recruited the services of two of Canada’s most respected roots players, Jesse Zubot (strings) and Kevin Breit (guitars) to flesh out her sound. In every instance, the collaborations work – with Zubot sharing composition credit on four songs – as even a quick listen through the songs on ‘The Escape’ reveal that Onukwulu has finally found the ideal musical soundscapes to support her evocative lyrics and powerful singing voice. The sound she’s opted for is less dense than it was in the past as on songs like ‘The Escape’ and ‘Waiting for a sign’, there is an undercurrent of stripped down rockabilly that is very appealing and perfect for N’didi’s vocals to interact with. And, ‘The Escape’ is a record where the vocals are the star. Whether she’s yearning her way through the gentle waft of the Phoebe Snow inspired ‘Around the Corner’ or vamping in her Eartha Kitt meets Dionne Warwick slur as she does on ‘Waiting for a sign’, N’didi proves she’s got chops aplenty and a very easy and natural sense of swing that holds all of the songs together. And, if anyone writes and sings a more erotically charged song in 2012 than ‘On the Metro’, I don’t want to hear it. My heart won’t be able to take it.
There aren’t many albums like ‘The Escape’ being released today. It has everything a great album should – wonderful songs, fabulous singing and great instrumental performances. So, stop reading this and start listening to ‘The Escape.’ You’ll be glad you did. It may just add years to your life and put the spring back in your step that you might have thought was gone for good. Thanks N’didi!
watch N’didi perform ‘On the Metro’ live on French TV –
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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