How a new class of singers embodies the old spirit of soul music
How would you personify soul music? A few decades ago, the answer might have been an African American Motown artist with a full instrumental ensemble and jazzy background singers. Today, however, the response is completely different: British, female vocal powerhouses have risen to the forefront of modern soul music.
The first starlet to initiate the revival of soul music was Joss Stone. In 2003, her freshman album The Soul Sessions went multi-platinum as Americans were drawn to the brassy tone of her voice, one that had been neglected in mainstream music since the vocal styling of Aretha Franklin or Smokey Robinson. As if a calculated response to the overwhelming success of Stone, Amy Winehouse’s 2006 album Back to Black won five Grammy’s, tying the then-record for most awards won by a woman in a single night.
Although Winehouse’s fame is rooted in soulful musical talent, she has become infamous in the United States for countless tabloid stories involving her substance abuse problems. Recently, her untimely death was popularized throughout various news outlets. Winehouse’s presence in American media, though often tragic, further created a thirst for these British soul imports on American soil. In 2008, Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy delivered her delightfully pop-infused soul album Rockferry.
Possibly one of the most respected British soul artists today is Adele. She won two Grammy awards for her 2008 album 19, her 2011 album 21 has truly reached insurmountable success. Now more than ever, these talented British songstresses are becoming an integral part of American music.
Pop recording artist Ali Brustofski knows firsthand how the influence of these soul artists has changed the face of modern American music, as she herself has experimented with her soulful side.
“I would definitely say that I’ve adopted a more soulful tone in recent years,” Brustofski said. “But mostly because I’ve been experimenting with new parts of my voice. Growing up I’ve always loved the sounds of artists like Amy Winehouse, and by mimicking their styles and adding my own flair to them, I’ve found my own voice.”
According to Ithaca College graduate student Andrew Mattfeld, who is currently working towards a master’s degree in Voice Performance, having a soulful vocal tone can be achieved through a vocal exhibition of emotion and experiences.
“Soul is something that is ingrained in an expression influenced by their surroundings,” Mattfeld said. “I feel that it is an artists’ deeper connection and complete understanding of their music which makes a ‘soulful’ performance.”
Additionally, there is an evident British presence in this soul rebirth. Mattfeld infers that these artists have taken it upon themselves to expand on an already beloved genre of music.
“The differentiation between British and American soul is a development of a musical genre that was already in place, with British artists willing to explore it, and who have the ability to communicate it to the masses. That is the reason for its widespread popularity,” he said.
The question is, why now? Psychologist Matt Ridley explained that most trends, musical and otherwise, are revived with a fresh twist.
“It is natural for past trends to resurface,” Ridley said. “It is human nature for artists, designers, or any form of opinion leader to return to these fads that have already garnered success and respect. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! However, it is up to those individuals to create a modern twist, otherwise the trends will never last. These artists have done a great job of keeping an old musical genre exciting.”
Soul music’s decline in popularity has occurred once before, and therefore one cannot help but wonder if these talented artists will have lasting power in the industry. Brustofski believes that this musical trend will transcend the test of time.
“Soul singers have been around for decades, and there’s always going to be a market for them,” she said. “It seems that the ‘pop’ masses are identifying with these voices and messages now, especially in these tough economic times. I think that once these artists gain fan bases, they’ll be here to stay.”
Four Modern Soul Songs You Should Listen To:
1. “Take It All” — Adele: Possibly one of the most emotionally driven songs on her acclaimed album 21, “Take It All” is a beautiful proclamation of unrequited love within an inspirational and heart-wrenching melody. Adele’s entire sophomore album narrates the painful breakup with her ex, and this song exemplifies her pain through relatable lyrics.
2. “Cold War” — Janelle Monae: Janelle Monae has burst onto the scene with her album, The ArchAndroid, and her single “Cold War” was performed at the 2011 Grammy Awards, which has allowed her soulful tone to reach international recognition. Staying true to her R&B and soul roots, Monae’s rich vocals undoubtedly bring the funk to modern pop music.
3. “I Learned the Hard Way” — Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are the perfect example of artists maintaining classic soul roots while injecting modern adaptations to keep it fresh. By using traditional recording equipment and the Dap-King’s brassy instrumentals, their old-school methodology takes listeners back to yesteryear.
4. “Shake it Out” — Florence and the Machine: The “Shake it Out,” the first single off of the album, tackles a refreshingly upbeat soul tune with stride, reminiscent of their first hit “Dog Days are Over.” Although the band as a whole has an alternative-pop tone, the brassy vocals of lead singer Florence Welch are undeniably evocative of the soul era.
Francesca Toscano is a sophomore IMC major who is not just another pretty face, not just anyone to hold. Email her at ftoscan1[at]ithaca.edu.