Streaming has worked a peculiar effect on pop music, eliding distinctions of time and genre so that, while its accessibility has never been broader, arguably something has been lost from its forward momentum. After all, if everything is somehow contemporary, there are no clear boundaries to push against, to warp and bend to breaking point.  

To varying degrees, the Popular Music students playing showcases at the Original Artists event at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) exemplify this trend. Talented as both songwriters and performers, their craft is most evident in the familiarity of their reference points, the forging of their unique voices a little less further advanced.  

Framed as a competition between the four performers chosen for the evening, Manchester’s RNCM itself makes for a wonderful setting, bathed in deep blue, lending itself to the gentle swell of the audience’s polite hubbub. Head of Popular Music, Andy Stott, both leads the RNCM Session Orchestra and acts as compere for the evening, a genial latter-day counterpart to Opportunity KnocksHughie Green, bringing the best out of his youthful charges.  

Image by Luca Rudlin. Copyright RNCM.

Opener Freddy Gilmore is certainly not lacking in confidence, quickly discarding his flying jacket to cut a figure not unlike 1970s heart-throb David Essex with a personal trainer. For the most part, Gilmore’s songs occupy the generic niche most successfully colonised by Maroon 5 – a sort of showbiz soul that would sit comfortably on the Radio 2 playlist, largely like punk – or any other genre post-1976 – never happened. Perhaps his most notable three minutes, Green-Eyed Lullaby, departs from this template, edging into the kind of soft rock that Gary Barlow now mines for Take That.  

By contrast, eventual Gold Medal-winner May Payne makes use of a similar 90s mood board to that of beabadoobee, although with more of a leaning towards the American artists of that decade, such as The Breeders or Juliana Hatfield. Where her individuality comes most clearly to the fore is in her lyrics, which elevate the bad relationship choices of those with low self-esteem above the merely diaristic into something approaching poetry. In this respect, I Hate It When You Touch Me, like the centrepiece song of a bleak musical, is particularly affecting.  

She’s Mine describes herself as “goth and b”, and, if on tonight’s showing, the first half of that pairing is less audible, there’s something laudable in her ambition to splice generic elements that’s less evident in the more clearly defined musical territories of her peers for the evening. If Freak is a Eurovision take on Billie Eilish, then Ex, complete with a rap by her collaborator, planet w.e.s.m.o., playing the Left Eye role in her darker edged TLC, is her most substantial moment, and arguably the evening’s least expected, hinting at the more she’s capable of. 

The showcase’s final performer, Grete Eitmantyte, carries the torch for the sweeping emotions of big band jazz. Dramatic in the best sense, the Lituanian-born Eitmantyte nonetheless flattens her vowels, so that her powerful voice evokes a little of the young Lisa Stansfield. Of all tonight’s neophytes, she most fully inhabits her chosen sound. Even so, ‘Cos You Don’t, veering as it does towards Trip Hop, suggests that, for all her undeniable polish, she does not yet regard herself as the finished article. Her curiosity suggests a promising artistic restlessness. 

Image by Luca Rudlin. Copyright RNCM.

Beautifully realised though the underpinning orchestration is, one wonders if it works, to some extent, against the artists’ individuality, ironing out the rough edges that might add the distinctiveness of rougher drafts to their works in progress, sucking them into the gravitational pull of musical theatre. Such carping might, of course, be missing the point; critiquing the artists for what they are not – iconic iconoclasts in the vein of Charli XCX – rather than what they are; young people with obvious potential, setting out on their career. Not yet fully formed, there’s scope yet to bend themselves further out of shape, to sharpen the edges of their poetry, to explore different rhythms, to nail the dark colours of Goth more firmly to the R&B mast. 

By Desmond Bullen

Images, including the main image, by Luca Rudlin