Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A-Z, The QH Blend's 22 Female Singer-Songwriters

Girl Power
The female singer-songwriter ideal isn't one that is removed from clouded perception. Is she, the female artist in question, to be sitting on a stool, cardigan fitting her just so, a guitar resting on her knee? Or is she supposed to be stripped of all make-up, all feminine sexuality, a raw visage with no airs?

Unlike the male singer-songwriter, a rarely discussed boxed convention in and of itself, women are expected to occupy a certain space as artists. They can only be so sexy, so smart, so accessible, and in some instances, they can only be one color and age. Being a male feminist and a longtime admirer of female artistry in popular music, I sat down and thought about which female singer-songwriters move me? Which ones are likely not to be mentioned, which ones usually are (rightfully so), and which ones normally wouldn't intersect in discussion?

The list presents at least 22 of my favorite female singer-songwriters across a spectrum of music. These women all work with words and music to translate their experiences, and those of others, into real aural pieces that people can step into. It goes without saying that all of these ladies are beyond exceptional, they're extraordinary.

Born Myra Ellen Amos, Amos came out of the womb to portents that predicted greatness for her art later in life. Her father a minister and mother a teacher, Amos bounced between the two extremes while showing proficient skills in piano playing. Taking the name Tori Amos, she found out the hard way what happens when you aren't true to your artistic spirit (see Y Kant Tori Read, 1988). Later, she forged ahead to her own truth and with her debut Little Earthquakes (1992), Amos helped reintroduce the piano back into popular music for women. Amos' works are noted for their fascinating, if difficult inclusions of folklore, modern day politics, religion, and sexuality, all allusions to the general human experience. Keeping her piano as the center of her music, her sound has transformed through the years.

Performing "Black Dove (January)," Circa 1998
Pulled off of from the choirgirl hotel (1998)
The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Scarlet's Walk (2002)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Tori Amos' Works

Along with Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton became one of the bright faces to characterize the decidedly girlish approach to the Venus songwriting archetype in the early '00's. "A Thousand Miles," from her first album Be Not Nobody (2002), will be forever remembered. Label politicking cost her dearly when her second album, the fine and fair Harmonium, released in 2004 to little fanfare. Undaunted, Carlton continued to put out records as recently as last year with the mind blowing Rabbits on the Run. With her tender, youthful vocalizing matched with her virtuosic piano playing, Carlton's sound is instantly recognizable.

Performing "White Houses," Circa 2007
Pulled off of Harmonium (2004)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Rabbits On the Run (2011)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Vanessa Carlton's Work

From music teacher, to commercial jingle and background singer for Michael Jackson, Crow later made her mark with Tuesday Night Music Club (1993). Initially, Crow balanced weekend escape from weekday wear with cursory introspection turns. As she sauntered further into the '90's, Crow's music absorbed a wealth of influences and made her lyrical observations open wider. Crow's introspection became as prominent as her recreation retreats, tempered no doubt by bouts with love and cancer: Wildflower (2005) and Detours (2008). Now a single mother of two, Crow's music may not take as many chances as it did earlier in her career, but it remains compelling and comforting.

Performing "Good is Good," Circa 2005
Pulled off of Wildflower (2005)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Wildflower (2005)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Sheryl Crow's Works

Melissa Etheridge released a trio of intense rock recordings from 1988 through
1992, all hailed for their power. Etheridge then broke into the mainstream with her fourth long player Yes I Am (1993), a title that played on the question of her sexuality. Etheridge did come out the same year as Yes I Am, becoming one of the great GLBTQ figures in popular music. Surviving cancer in late 2004, Etheridge is a fierce artist whose music deals in the complexities of human attraction and the consequences of said attraction.

Performing "Your Little Secret," Circa 2001
Pulled off of Your Little Secret (1995)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Lucky (2004)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Melissa Etheridge's Works

The daughter of jazz great Mary Stallings, goddaughter of saxophonist Pharaoh Saunders, Evans seemed destined for greatness when she started working the music scene in Los Angeles. There, she met her musical/romantic counterpart Dred Scott, the co-producer of all her output. Her eponymous first album, that dropped in 1997, held a lush mixture of bright hip-hop and vintage, melodic R&B. It got lost in the neo-soul shuffle. Her experimental second affair Nomadic appeared in 2004. Television and film director Patrik Ian-Polk ushered in the next phase of Evans career. "Remember the Love," from Nomadic, became the theme to Polk's Noah's Arc, the first black-gay drama in 2006. Exposure from Noah's Arc helped bring this stimulating soul chanteuse to more ears.

Performing "Seein' Is Believing," Circa 2011
Pulled off of Adriana Evans (1997)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Walking With the Night (2010)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Adriana Evans' Works

India Arie Simpson, to become India.Arie, used her reflective brand of R&B to fight ahead of the pack 11 years ago with Acoustic Soul (2001). The Grammy winning LP set expectations high for Arie, who consistently met the bar she created with the three follow-ups to Acoustic Soul: Voyage to India (2002), Testimony Volume 1: Life & Relationship (2006), and Testimony Volume 2: Love & Politics (2009). The acoustic guitar is a principal player in Arie's sound, but she dabbles in other musical templates along the three mentioned records.

Performing "Ghetto," Circa 2009
Pulled off of Testimony Volume 2: Love & Politics (2009)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Testimony Volume 1: Life & Relationship (2006)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of India.Arie's Works

Now known for straight ahead country-pop and children's recordings, when Jewel Kilcher arrived in 1994 she was a fresh faced neophyte. The female singer-songwriter movement was doing quite well by the mid-'90's, but her first album Pieces of You (1994), became one of those hit records many only dream of.  The singles "Who Will Save Your Soul?," "You Were Meant For Me," and "Foolish Games" became instant staples.

Eager and natural, Jewel's voice held a power that demonstrated she'd be more than just a one-genre ingenue in waiting. She quickly followed up Pieces of You with Spirit (1998), an ambitious recording with a cache of influences.  Although the road from Spirit fell fraught with criticism of her authenticity, (2003's excellent 0304 remains divisive among fans), Jewel showed no fear to take her voice and heart-on-her-sleeve lyrics to new horizons.

Performing "Intuition,"Circa 2006
Pulled off of 0304 (2003)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: This Way (2001)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Jewel's Works

Carole Klein, known as Carole King, created the blueprint for women in songwriting in the modern music world. Originating as one of the "Brill Building" writers with her first husband Gerry Goffin, King helped create the American songbook by writing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," "The Locomotion," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Later, relocating to Californian shores from New York, King began the tentative steps to her solo work with the (still) under appreciated starting point LP Writer (1970). Its follow-up, one of, if not the leading record of the female movement, Tapestry (1971) became one of those larger than life albums. Think Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (1977) or Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982).

Though the bulk of the albums that came after Tapestry were accomplished (most superior to Tapestry), the unending success of King's sophomore recording led to an impromptu halt to her work in 1983. After spending the '80's in relative obscurity as an eco-political actvisit, King returned with City Streets in 1989, and embarked on a still continuing trail of recognition and celebration of her earthy-pop talents.

Performing "Jazzman," Circa 1981
Pulled off of Wrap Around Joy (1974)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Fantasy (1973)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Carole King's Works

Former Blue Angel member and enduring MTV generation icon Cyndi Lauper has worn many hats and made a career of doing it. Musically speaking. In her own unique niche, a portion of her hits ("Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "All Through the Night," "True Colors") were not written by her. A prolonged glance into her discography reveals not only hits, but a wide selection of albums and songs that signal Lauper's ability to write varied tales of her own. The ode to self pleasure in "She Bop," the dark, celebratory tale of drag queen transformation in "Ballad of Cleo and Joe," and the dance floor fury of "Into the Nightlife" are all wholly Cyndi Lauper, boasting longevity and relevance in abundance.

Performing "Sisters of Avalon," Circa 2008
Pulled off of Sisters of Avalon (1997)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Hat Full of Stars (1993)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Cyndi Lauper's Works

A patient voice, Lisa Loeb's duality was enigmatic in that she was removed, but engaged in her singing practices. That unaffected slant brought across her writing flavors where blends of confrontation, confession, and story telling swirled easily. Loeb later fleshed out her sound, a good thing, giving it dimension outside of its guitarish beginnings. The Way It Is, her fourth and last long player of original art, hit in 2004. It prompts one to insist on  Loeb's return, where she can share her exciting cerebral pop challenges.

Performing "I Do," Circa 1997
Pulled off of Firecracker (1997)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Cake & Pie (2002)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Lisa Loeb's Works

Mary Christine Brockert didn't begin as the tornado of creativity which embodied her stage name Teena Marie right away. Under the guidance of Rick James, Brockert flourished. Lady T (1980), her sharp second project would be the last to not bear her name on the producing, arranging, composing, and writing tags. Teena Marie's albums overflowed with literal poetry, her own usually appeared on the inner album jackets, and of course there were the actual lyrics of the songs themselves. Referencing everything from Maya Angelou to John Lennon, or films like Sparkle, Marie worked within the arenas of analogy and allegory almost unmatched.

Performing "Casanova Brown," Circa 1990
Pulled off of Robbery (1983)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Robbery (1983)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Teena Marie's Work

Roberta Joan Anderson, the Canadian charmer that became Joni Mitchell, remains a stalwart for women in popular music culture. Mitchell's uncompromising nature infuriated and enraptured die-hards, critics, and peers. Shine (2007), Mitchell's last affair to date due to health concerns and her ire at the music industry's (continued) sexism, achieved what Mitchell's best records often did: dividing and conquering minds in analysis like good art should.

Performing "Coyote," Circa 1980
Pulled off of Hejira (1976)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Hejira (1976)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Joni Mitchell's Works

An unlikely candidate for inclusion to this list when considering that Moore had materialized as one of the four blonde bombshells to assault pop at the tail end of the '90's. Careful reinvention birthed Coverage (2003), a stellar set of covers from the '70's and early '80's with emphasis on the songwriter medium. Moore's sweet and sturdy voice fit the covers better than the dance-pop she'd peddled prior, with an exception issued to the blasting Canto-pop of "In My Pocket." In the wake of Coverage, Moore revealed her talent at writing her own music with Wild Hope (2007) and the awing Amanda Leigh (2009). Barring where she started, Moore has come into her own.

Performing "Merrimack River," Circa 2009
Pulled off of Amanda Leigh (2009)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Amanda Leigh (2009)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Mandy Moore's Works

 One time dance-popper, Morissette issued her third long player Jagged Little Pill
(1995) to acclaim critically, commercially, and creatively. Morissette had been quickly acquired to record Jagged for Madonna's now inert label Maverick, a branch-off from Warner Brothers. Morissette had the misfortune to be immediately pigeonholed after Jagged's win. Fearless, Morissette tracked her own travels based on her emotional integrity. It did not always win her favoritism, but it allowed Morissette to escape the traps that a few of her colleagues fell into in the last decade.

Performing "In Praise of the Vulnerable Man," Circa 2008
Pulled off of Flavors of Entanglement (2008)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Under Rug Swept (2002)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Alanis Morissette's Works

Her roguish blend of hip-hop, jazz, funk, R&B, and pop is Prince-like in its reach. Michelle Johnson, to become Meshell Ndegeocello, is the other individual also signed to Maverick Records by the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna. Dealing in the politics of sexual orientation (Ndegeocello herself identifies as bisexual) and race, Ndegeocello never shied away from controversy with songs like "Deuteronomy: Niggerman" and "Leviticus: Faggot." Her handling of romance is detailed too. A visit with her junior effort Bitter (1999) will prove its worth as a permanent soundtrack to the brokenhearted. Ndegeocello functions as an highly sought after musician, working with the previously mentioned Madonna, Zap Mama, and Vanessa Williams among others.

Performing "Fool of Me," Circa 2009
Pulled off of Bitter (1999)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Comfort Woman (2003)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Meshell Ndegeocello's Works

Almost nothing short of mystical, Stevie Nicks' weathered and warm voice has been behind a bountiful selection of striking songs in pop and rock. Sustaining a career in both Fleetwood Mac (she joined in 1974) and her own solo path (which began in 1981), Nicks flitted between both with an acute knowledge of her abilities in sound progressions. Despite having her personal ills nearly derail her life in the mid-'80's, Nicks never stopped channeling her experiences into her music. Such sincerity made works like "Edge of 17," "I Can't Wait," and "Rooms on Fire" as fantastic as her non-single material.

Performing "Every Day," Circa 2001
Pulled off of Trouble In Shangri-La (2001)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Trouble In Shangri-La (2001)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Stevie Nicks' Music

Laura Nigro (reconstructed to Nyro), a reserved New Yorker, penned tunes for other artists, notably the pop-soul quintet The 5th Dimension. Nyro shone when she decided to step out on her own path. Nyro's demure position was endearing, often bringing across her innate shyness. The crop of records Nyro recorded from the late '60's through the late' 70's are cherished by critics and fans alike. Cancer claimed Nyro in 1996, but her music stays immortal.

Performing "Save the Country," Circa 1968
Pulled off of New York Tendaberry (1969)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Lauro Nyro's Music

Like a brush of spring air, Rae's laid back phrasing and folk-soul propelled her to heady heights internationally. Rae, while riding high on the success of her self-titled debut, was struck down by an unimaginable blow: the sudden, tragic death of her husband. Rae took a few years off to realign herself before returning with the soul solid The Sea (2010), her follow-up to Corinne Bailey-Rae (2005/2006). Stronger in its artistic arc, despite its mild selling point, Rae's lyrical and vocal poignancy enthralled. Rae also bears an impressive interpretive stroke, having covered works by the likes of Prince ("I Wanna Be Your Lover"), Bob Marley ("Is This Love?"), and  Björk ("Venus As a Boy").

Performing "Feels Just Like the First Time," Circa 2011
Pulled off of The Sea (2010)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: The Sea (2010)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Corinne Bailey Rae's Works

One of the women building bridges between mainstream R&B and jazz, Brenda Russell is a well kept secret in music. Brenda Russell (1979), a stunning stroke of a first album, laid bare Russell's quirky and impassioned voice. Musically, Russell's concoction of the aforementioned jazz/ R&B notions but with elements of European pop showed Russell's music, like the woman, is well traveled. Russell's pen has done well by other artists like Diana Ross ("Let Somebody Know"), Luther Vandross ("If Only For One Night"), Donna Summer ("Dinner With Gershwin"),  and Oleta Adams ("Get Here"). Russell's compositions sometimes stand stronger, musically, than the cover as heard on her stark take of "If Only For One Night."

Performing "She's In Love," Circa 2000
Pulled off of Paris Rain (2000)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Between the Sun and the Moon (2004)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Brenda Russell's Works

Daughter of Richard Simon, co-founder of Simon & Schuster Publishing, Simon had to break out on her own to become the woman she is known as today. 1971 was the year Simon announced her presence with the single "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be," an intimate look at the whispers of a ruined relationship and an emergent feminine call-to-arms. Starting in 1975 through 1983, Simon shed her folk-pop beginnings and embraced stylistic shifts that highlighted her songwriting in hues of reggae, jazz, disco, standards, and rock rhythms. That kind of pop palette play allowed the ladies listed here (Sheryl Crow and Jewel) to take risks similar to the ones Simon did first. Her intellectual, sexual, and tender way with music carried Simon into her fifth decade of recording.

Performing "We Have No Secrets," Circa 1995
Pulled off of No Secrets (1972)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Spy (1979)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Carly Simon's Works

Vega's appearance in 1985 was odd as the type of music she was waxing wasn't making ripples then. The sometimes solemn, but riveting story songs that lined Suzanne Vega drew acclaim and cult status. In 1987, seemingly out of nowhere, Vega's second album Solitude Standing hit big on the back of its singles "Luka" and "Tom's Diner." The latter song in its 1990 chill edit, courtesy of the dance production unit DNA, placed Vega before even larger audiences. Vega preceded the female singer-songwriters boom of the
'90's by several years, recording as recently as 2012.


Performing (I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May," Circa 2001
Pulled off of Songs in Red and Grey (2001)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Nine Objects of Desire (1996)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Suzanne Vega's Works

Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are the women that rounded out Prince's recording/touring group The Revolution for the better part of the '80's. Known for their distinct harmonies, this duo contributed to a series of Prince's best albums (Purple Rain, 1984, Around the World in a Day, 1985, Parade, 1986). After Prince disbanded The Revolution in late 1986, they followed with their breathtaking debut, Wendy & Lisa (1987). Four records, a lucrative career in session work, film and television scoring later, Wendy & Lisa are still the best at what they do.

Performing "Lolly Lolly," Circa 1989
Pulled off of Fruit at the Bottom (1989)

The QH Blend Album Recommendation: Eroica (1990)
Visit All Music Guide for a Tour of Wendy & Lisa's Works

[Editor's Note: Artwork concept created by Quentin Harrison, artwork created by Travis Müller & Andrew Bird. It has to be said that the All Music Guide, which I often use for information on this space, does not wholly represent The QH Blend's views of the women featured here. I do find them to be an excellent resource for people who need a good overview of an artist and their music's history, because of that they are used as the hyperlinks for overall discographies of the artists. Note, they (All Music Guide) are not always complete. An apt example is Wendy & Lisa's 2008 effort White Flags of Winter Chimneys, amongst others, is not featured on All Music Guide. Additional research may be required. Please contact me if you'd like more information on this work. Not all of the records by these women mentioned are in print, visit Amazon or iTunes for further information on availability.-QH]


Eliza said...

This is a wonderfully done overview of some of the most amazing female singer-songwriters the world has ever known! Good on ya Q!

Rob Spiegel said...

I was totally impressed as usual. Loved seeing the inclusion of Carole King who is the mama of songwriters. The only thing I noticed is that some of your essays sort of trailed off shorter beginning with Cyndi Lauper. Nonetheless I know this is a LOT of work and I really enjoyed the eclectic mix of ladies you included. Wonderful job!

Moanerplicity said...

Wow. Coolness! Your list is multi-generational & you truly didn't miss many. I'm very impressed that you were so inclusive, by giving mad props even to those talented artists who aren't regulars on the POP charts. And so with that in mind, and in the same spirit: why no Lizz Wright? Huh? Where she at, yo? She's definitely deserving of a mention.

And also & this is a HUGE-AZZ OMISSION: WHERE oh where IS RICKIE LEE JONES??? For shame, Q!

Many here would prolly list her as a major influence, IF they were being honest... & that would include Sheryl & Lisa.

In fact, Sheryl's first hit "All I Wanna Do" was a blatant rip off of RLJ's beat-chick boho style. Yeah, I said it!

Rickie Lee Jones RULES, dammit!


Diva Incarnate said...

The suggestion that in order to be identified as a singer-songwriter a female artist can only be sexy in certain kind of way is interesting even if I don't fully agree. The very label, SS, is about any artist making music on their terms as it immediately draws attention to the fact that a) it's them writing it, and b) singing it (we all know this of course). My point really is that a lot of these women ARE sexy, but in a way that isn't seeking approval - the artistic vision is commercial almost accidentally, or is seen as "a crossover hit" etc. The sexiness, if it warrants any discussion at all, is the command. Kate Bush, my goodness, her movement, her theatre and vocal range are expressed in a hugely sensual way. The word sexy I think has connotations of judgement, whereas the SS is a self-contained artist expressing themselves FOR themselves. Maybe. I think there is such an annoying glut of male singer-songwriters that I'd kind of argue the SS isn't a soley female-identified genre.

Anyway. Tori, Sheryl, Cyndi, Stevie, Alanis, Suzie, King. These are the ones I am most familiar with, or think are quite pivotal in this genre. The others I either don't know, don't like or have only heard bits and bobs from.

My own addition to this list would be the magnificent Joan Osborne. She IS an interpreter, but her own material was often far more interesting that her one-hit wonder status would suggest. Her back catalogue is so rich and varied. What got me hooked back into her was the 2009 album Little Wild One, which reunited her with her Relish collaborators (One of Us, St. Teresa). I genuinely rate her voice as being the best of her generation. The song To The One I Love is my current favourite, so gentle but powerfully contemplative. She's not as interesting as, say, Alanis, but her songs tend to linger. Rodeo is more boisterous and puts me in mind of Sheryl Crow's self-titled sophomore set (which really is an amazing record). I've just looked on wikipedia and spied a new album ealrier this year, so thanks for this article and the mindset it has put me in.

Osbaldo Moore said...

When I grow up I wanted to be a female singer songwriter.

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