When Josephine Oniyama’s new album came out towards the end of last year, some of the initial responses took her by surprise.
“As soon as I released it, people were saying, ‘Josephine hasn’t released an album in ten years’. I was like, really? It might sound weird but I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea how much time had passed.”
To be fair, it had been an eventful ten years. Since the release of her much-acclaimed album Portrait in 2012, Oniyama has relocated to Liverpool and become a parent – and that’s on top of the pandemic business we’ve all been embroiled in. “When Portrait came out, I did a shedload of gigging – three, four years of hard gigging of that album,” she says. “Then I took a little bit of a break. I was writing that whole time, but I took a little bit of a break, a couple of years. Then COVID happened, so that’s another couple of years. But I never stopped writing. Then, the other side of that, I released this album.” Actually, it has been worth the wait. Her new album, Kindred, is a fine, mature follow-up to Portrait, bolstering the argument that Oniyama should be held up as one of our most intriguing singer-songwriters.
Not only that, but she’s from Manchester – initially from Hulme, but grew up in Cheetham Hill – and considers herself part of the city’s rich musical lineage.
“I reside in Liverpool these days, but I mean, Manchester’s still always home, the musical roots. When I started gigging it was very easy to feel connected to the Manchester music scene, I suppose, because I was kind of just down the road. I did my first show at Night & Day in 1999, I think. I was still in high school, I was 15. It felt like just being on my own doorstep.”
She’s described her magpie fusion style as “folk-soul-indie-pop” and some of Oniyama’s deeper-dive musical influences include American folk singer Odetta and Arkansas-born gospel superstar Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Brilliantly, Tharpe has a direct Manchester connection, having taken part in a 1964 Granada TV special recorded live in a disused train station just a stone’s throw from Alexandra Park in Whalley Range.
“That’s not something that I knew up until maybe 10 or 12 years ago,” Oniyama says. “It’s not something that I would have ever picked up on as a kid, or before the internet, to be fair. But I was a fan when I heard about that and I thought, ‘no way! What are the chances of this?’ It just makes you feel connected to the things that do inspire you. It’s very rare that you would have that connection. Things like that seem to maybe happen more in London or New York or somewhere like that. So you think, well, this is a little slice of history in my backyard.”
From Portrait to Kindred
Like Portrait before it, the new album Kindred is an engaging exploration of life and love in the world today, delivered in her properly remarkable voice. The songs come from right across the ten-year period in between and reflect the development of Oniyama’s songwriting technique.
“I’m trying to vary that, I’ll be honest,” she says. “For Portrait I did a lot of writing on guitar. For Kindred it’s been lots of different ways. A couple of things just started off as a lyric. With Act Like You’re in Love, I remember I just sang the chorus into my phone, no guitar or anything like that. I was walking down the road in Manchester near the Arena and sang it into my phone. I was like, ‘oh, that’s a good chorus’. A year or two later, I sat down with a producer called John Green and we wrote the rest of the song. He did all this piano and I wrote the verses. I’m trying to vary the way I write, because if you always start the same way, you kind of end up with the same kind of thing. It’s nice to just branch out.”
The new album, she suggests, is “a slight shift away from the more contemporary folk elements of Portrait. There is contemporary folk as well, but there’s slightly more electronics going on there and a few more programmed beats, so it’s having it tied together with a slightly more modern sound. A couple of the songs for Kindred I wrote with a few different people. I got some chords from producers I’ve worked with in Hamburg and then just wrote around them, chords I wouldn’t maybe have come up with. It’s just really good to start from a different place each time.”
Often, though, the roots of a song can reach back years. For instance, Portrait‘s title song was an elegant meditation on identity, with the chorus “Am I a portrait of the person that I’m supposed to be? / And how would I know?” – the spark of which had been lurking in Oniyama’s memory for a long while.
“I think I store things. With that particular lyric, I remember I was thinking about when I was younger. I was living at home with my mum, and I was in my mum’s bedroom watching TV. I was watching the old film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. And that’s where that came from. I was like, ‘oh, wow, he’s not the person he’s supposed to be, but nobody else knows’. He’s got this portrait hidden away that’s holding all of his hatred and his malice and if he ever actually looked at that picture, he would then become the person he was supposed to be. And I thought ‘that’s a great lyric, Jo, write it down!’ That then stayed in my mind from being a teenager and eventually it came out in Portrait. It really is about storing the things that drive you through your life and the questions that you’re asking yourself, because I’m sure other people are asking them as well.”
There’s a certain reflective, thoughtful quality that shines out from Oniyama‘s work, and a sense that she’s inspired to write songs because of a desire to say something, rather than just out of habit.
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” she says. “Certainly I never just write for the sake of just making more and more music. I always go back to things and think ‘am I saying what I want to say? And what does it sound like?’ I want it to sound good in 50 years. I want it to sound like something that’s universal to generations, not just what’s happening now. So I think maybe that is why it comes across as me wanting to say something – because I do.”
Back in 2013, in an interview with Jenn Selby for Glamour magazine, Oniyama claimed that her proudest achievement thus far was “continuing to make music, when too many musicians I know have given up. And I don’t blame them for doing so.”. Fast forward to today, and has she ever felt like giving up?
“Yeah, pretty much every other day. Because it’s hard, it’s a tough road to go down. But at the same time, that kind of ‘never give up’ attitude is still there – and I haven’t, because I continue to make music. I’ve taken a few breaks here and there, but I’ve never ever stopped writing. Now I’m getting back to releasing music again, after a while not actually releasing anything.
“It isn’t actually something that you ever give up on. It’s not like, if you’re a musician or a writer, you just wake up one day and it isn’t there. It’s there all the time, and you keep coming back to it. So you know what? I don’t think I need to tell any musician or any creative person ‘don’t give up’, because it just doesn’t go anywhere. It stays with you for life.” She laughs long and hard at the suggestion that perfectionism might have been a factor in the gap between albums, explaining that ”I do like things to be as good as I imagine them to be. At the same time, I do understand that most of time I’ve gone ‘this isn’t what I intended’, then a year later, I’ll listen back to it and go, ‘oh, actually this is fine’. So I understand that about hindsight. A bit of space and distance and things is more important than finding perfection on any given day.”
With the wind in her sails, Oniyama promises that it won’t take until 2032 for her next album to emerge. “No more accidental decade-long hiatuses. It will be sooner than that, definitely.”
Main image header used with permission from Red Sand PR
Kindred by Josephine Oniyama is available from Sound of Solar Records, or digitally via Bandcamp