Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1097

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It`s autumn 1992 and David Steele - one-time bass-layer and principal songwriter with world-conquering Eighties UK trio Fine Young Cannibals - has just finished working with Al Green on said Memphis soul/gospel legend`s `Don`t Look Back` album and is finally beginning to realise there`s a lot more to making R&B than the Cannibals` trademark stylised pop take on the soul greatsâ¦

⦠âI knew there was another level I could go to, and I also knew it had to be with somebody who wasn`t famous - because working with legends you`re too respectfulâ, recalls Steele today: âSo - though it seemed a bit insane - I basically set out to find the new Aretha Franklin, no less! I was looking for the sort of old soul voice that today`s hip hop people would sample.â

And indeed, as the 21st Century rolled around, an unhurried-yet-determined Steele was still looking⦠Until finally, in the summer of 2001, a lengthy stay in New Orleans - centred around the city`s annual Jazz Festival - brought him into contact with a young local gospel vocalist, Jonte Short. One of the stars of the local Ebenezer Baptist Church choir, Jonte was also singing for pop audiences in night clubs to pay the rent. And, like many great gospel voices in America, hers was part of a family inheritance - having started singing aged just two with her brothers and sisters in a group run by her mother, Pamela Landrum. Immediately singling Short out as âthe right one", Steele straightaway invited her to the home-studio of his house in The French Quarter where the musical chemistry between the two would prove instant and enduring.

Calling themselves Fried after Southern US cooking, the duo at once began both writing and recording together in New Orleans and set out to secure a record deal. Nevertheless, from the off, the project would endure more than its share of setbacks - starting with Fried`s first potential A&R exec arriving in New Orleans in early 2002 to startlingly discover a heavily-pregnant Jonte singing so hard she ended up getting contractions and being rushed to hospital. Meanwhile, even after Jonte`s baby-son himself being safely delivered, the project`s own birthing problems would continue and soon be re-focusing on the financial woes of an ailing, rudderless record company: âWith the first record company we signed to - London Records - it just didn`t work out well at allâ, insists a slightly-shy and down-to-earth Jonte: âA lotta people were losing their jobs, everyone was pressed for money - and there was basically no-one to promote our record. But, while we were very unlucky on that score, in August 2005 London did agree to graciously let us go. Whereupon we were quickly picked up by Sony/BMG, who've already started promoting us like crazy! You know, we`ve been able to revise the music; we`ve added two new tracks to the album. And, while the whole London Records situation got me very depressed and upset at the time, in hindsight it`s certainly proved worth the wait! Because, not only does the music itself now sound a lot better, but the fact I`ve since gone through a lot more in my life - divorce, single parenthood - means I can now put much more feeling into my vocals too.â

With a big-haired Jonte now being pushed into the limelight as the sole face and spokesperson for the band, Fried`s long-overdue debut album `Things Change` was finally completed in London earlier this year with the additional help of Sade`s Andrew Hale plus key contributions from former Portishead songstress Beth Gibbons and Wu Tang Clan`s head-honcho-cum-rapper, RZA. All resulting in a song-driven and highly-marketable, quality contemporary soul album with occasional murky hip hop undertones: âYeah, with soul going with hip hop so easily, David and I definitely tried to make an album that we`d rather have sampled than have a bunch of samples onâ, continues 27-year-old Jonte: âHe`s the one who does all the music and studio production; we both share responsibility for the lyrics; while I`m the one who does all the singing and melodies. And vocally I don`t think I sound like anyone else. I`m not a whispery kinda singer; I`m not the manufactured norm. I am just who I am, which includes a bit of the church along with influences from the old soul I listened to as a little kid. So overall, while the music is serious and quite mature, it`s also commercial. While lyrically, along with fictional stuff that we felt a lot of people could relate to like `When You Get Out of Jail ` - we also have a buncha concepts that ironically became quite prophetic. Like `Back From The War` which, although we were focusing on the Viet Nam War at the time, can now definitely be applied to The Iraq War too.â

Indeed, with lyrics personally recollecting Jonte`s childhood, the shuffling `Sugar Water Days` is another track whose message has taken on a new meaning following recent events - namely she and her family being rendered homeless (along with most of New Orleans` inhabitants) by summer 2005`s Hurricane Katrina: âYes, that song means so much more to me and really hits home now that home for me is simply a memoryâ, she observes soberly: âOriginally I`d just written it about enjoying my childhood while not realising how poor we were. But, now that I go home and none of those neighbourhoods are there and there are no pictures, so many things come back to me that I previously took for granted - and I`m able to add so much more emotion to the track. You know, all of my family either lost everything or ended up having to move away. My mom, my kids and my brother are all still in Houston - and it`s just so hard to start over when you`ve been left with nothing. Plus, at this point, a lotta the financial aid that we received they`re now expecting back. So, not only do you have to start over, but you have to pay that back too! But we`re all trying to cope with it the best we can. And, with me being one of the lucky ones who still has a job, I have to do my best to carry the torch and let people know there`s still hope.â

Musically, meanwhile, many of Jonte`s earliest memories revolve around her mother having sung back-ups in internationally-successful blue-eyed soul-man Boz Scaggs` touring band: âYeah, I remember clearly her being away, doing shows overseas with Boz. She`d call all the time to check on us, then she`d come home and talk about her experiences and what she`d seen. And from that time on - maybe seven or eight years old - I knew singing professionally was what I wanted to do and that I wasn`t gonna waste my time on anything elseâ, recalls Jonte: âBut then that in turn made me very much the odd-one-out from my siblings, who are all in the church and in the ministry. And, with me being the youngest of the family, my choosing to sing secular music - and not gospel - professionally basically just led to everybody thinking `oh, she dosen`t know what she`s doing so we`ll have to think for her!`⦠But, while them not liking me singing in local clubs and not coming to any of my shows didn`t surprise me, when I did eventually sign a professional contract I did expect them to be excited. But at first it just didn`t work out that way. So I basically just realised I was just gonna have to prove myself through my work. And now, six years later, they have finally come to accept it! You know, I have explained to them that I am doing serious music and that I`m a singer not a stripper. So they don`t need to worry about seeing me naked! And through all that I have now finally gained their trust.â

The single `I`ll Be There` is released June 25.
The album `Things Change` follows on July 2, both through the RCA Label Group.

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