The modern music landscape is a nomadic, ephemeral being; it never stands still and the only enduring quality is change. This dynamism of the craft can be heavily attributed to the impact of the glorious internet age in which we exist (literally), with an oversaturation of avenues to access and discover new sounds. However, the cycle of change is not strictly lineal, and the beauty of it all is that, for music, there’s an opulent pool of historical references and influences in which to vacillate, and vacillate it does.
When artists dip into the past for inspiration, finding a point of differentiation and exposure, it opens up this vast pool to be explored both by other emerging artists as well as the observant listener inspired to discover other exponents, whether it be falling into a YouTube spiral of new tunes, or flicking through old vinyl’s at the local record store.
Whether it be Bon Iver, Chet Faker or Meg Mac, the style of soulful vocals has become the benchmark for alternative-pop arena. The soul voice is here to stay.
As much as musical genres change, vocal trends can too, albeit much more subtly across genres. Think back to 2008 and Bon Iver’s Skinny Love; as well as a wave of broken hearts, Justin Vernon released upon the alternative music world the fierce vocal falsetto. He had, and still has, macho men around the world singing higher than eunuchs, and endless artists have followed suit. From quirky Brits Everything Everything to rookie Sydney boys Mansionair, a quality falsetto proves to be nothing short of an aural delight, with plenty of eager ears ready to tune in. And while the higher range flair is well entrenched across many scenes, it’s now the more soulful vocals that are on the rise.
Elvis famously took soul sounds from the gospel to the globe in the 50s, but it has rarely been a prominent aspect in scenes outside of soul itself – or perhaps jazz – particularly in Australia. Recently, on the international scale, Frank Ocean brought a heavy dose to the vocal styling of his soulful R&B. Alex Turner has adopted more than Elvis’ hair and clothing graces; developing his voice from a talkative Yorkshire burr to full blown sultry seduction on the Arctic Monkeys‘ latest work.
John Newman’s undeniable Northern soul was added to a couple of Rudimental tracks in 2012 before achieving solo success with Love Me Again. Similarly, Sam Smith shot to prominence with his heart wrenching diva-soul spin on Disclosure’s Latch in 2012, and went on to dominate the pop charts all throughout 2014 with his spectacularly voiced solo work. Prior to these occurrences though, soul had shot up roots here in the local market, with such unique, emotive voices vying to emerge within all manner of music preferences.
The Bamboos are one act that have been flying the flag locally for soul music, and can be attributed as a key element in the sound as a whole establishing in Australia. Taking a more purist approach of out and out soul/funk, they’ve been laying the foundations for reemergence since the early 2000’s, when they started out playing James Brown covers across suave Melbourne venues. The live soul scene was edging on nonexistent, but the burgeoning deep funk sounds coming out of London and New York was all the convincing the Bamboos needed to start sowing the seeds in their own backyard.
Fast-forward a decade, and soul-drenched vocals are branching out around the country, propagating across genres, from more traditional R&B vibes to contemporary electronica, indie pop, and hip hop. Ben Woolner of SAFIA combines the charms of both subtle falsetto and charismatic soul to his acrobatic vocal work, particularly on Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues. The electronic three-piece has since gone on to dominate the local scene, with huge tracks like You Are the One and collaborations with Peking Duk landing them on many a festival bill, with a debut album now in sight.
Undoubtedly the most prominent exponent, able to bare his soul as well as anyone in recent times, is everybody’s favourite whiskery wizard, Chet Faker. He cast the nation under the spell of his debut LP Built on Glass, with the melding of electronica and his unique take on modern soul. The album dominated the top 10 of triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2014, including taking out top spot with Talk is Cheap. And while the huge success of this track can be somewhat attributed to the sensual sax, the standout aspect, as across all his work, is Chet’s charming, honeyed vocals.
Earlier and breakout tracks like his beloved cover of Blackstreet’s No Diggity and the gorgeous I’m Into You were early warning shots of the power Chet’s voice could yield. It earned him a strong fan base instantly, and it’s since been proven that the whole nation likes the way he works it. The original version of No Diggity even sampled a soul classic for its hook; Bill Withers’ 1971 hit Grandma’s Hands, and this delicate tune recently made its way into the hands and vocal chords of another local crooner, Meg Mac.
The Melbourne via Sydney soulstress first showed up on the radar in 2012 with her track Known Better, before addictive soul-pop tracks like Every Lie and Roll Up Your Sleeves earner her more widespread airplay and appeal. Her cover of Grandma’s Hands in 2014 took her soul connection to the next level, before embarking on a national tour and earning a spot on the 2015 Groovin the Moo and Splendour in the Grass lineups.
As with Chet, it is her vocal talents that have enabled her to stand out, citing her love of “Old singer favourites like Sam Cooke [and] Ray Charles” as influences, as well as the likes of Frank Ocean in opening the door to soul-pop avenues. Her latest offering, Never Be, surfaced in July and parades these classic influences more than any other, with dark soul and brooding gospel elements the prime focus.
Despite any perceived misgivings about the local presence of female-led acts, along with Meg, the Australian scene has developed a whole crop of female vocalists with equal power and sentiment to their sound. With guitarist and singer Nai Palm fronting the stage, Hiatus Kaiyote have exploded since dropping their debut album of neo-soul, Tawk Tomahawk, with endorsements from the likes of Prince, as in THE Prince, as well as The Roots’ Questlove.
Nkechi Anele is mesmerising as the front-woman for Saskwatch, the soul/R&B/pop 9-piece out of Melbourne. With a brazen brass section that has brought a taste of the old school sound across several releases, Nkechi’s stunning voice ranges from buoyant wailing on Hands to the painfully delicate on Born to Break Your Heart.
Last year The Harpoons also caught our attention with their track Unforgettable, with Bec Rigby’s faultless vocals aimed with precision, the undeniable soul influences piercing us right in the heart. It was no exaggeration to say that soulful voices are popping up all across Australian music.
From electro to pop to R&B; hell, even Aussie rock/folk institution Paul Kelly sold his soul and released The Merri Soul Sessions at the end of last year, featuring noted soul and roots voices Clairy Brown, the Bull sisters and Dan Sultan. Sydney producer Joyride, a bearer himself of a James Brown-esque croon, has brought his deep, erogenous vocal chords from his solo, mostly electronic work to the hip hop scene. The multi-talented man-about-town in the Australian hip hop community expressed his best vocal work thus far within the Sydney crew One Day, who dropped their debut album Mainline in 2014. In particular, the track Leave Your Windows Open is commanded by Joyride’s luscious low pitched serenade.
Everywhere you look – or listen – there’s someone pouring their soulful talents all over a track and serving up their own inspirations and influences as the side dish, to be devoured by anyone who wants to take the opportunity to discover more.
The route to success in the music world is often a delicate mix of differentiation and replication. When a diversified sound can wrestle its way to the fore it is a significant occurrence, with a rich vein of artists with similar sensibilities waiting in the wings to take flight, and those willing to take note and learn. It also allows these newly exposed artists to permanently inscribe themselves on the music landscape, which is never the same again; even if it is based on longstanding ideas. Equally significant is the propensity of an emerging genre to open up a whole world of sounds for the listener to discover, both new and old.
What will be the next big thing in vocal styling? Who knows, but next time you’re vibing to Meg Mac’s latest soul-pop gem, try and discover someone else new. Or go back and have a listen to some Sam Cooke, or even some Elvis, and peer through the window to the soul.