We're coming into the lazy, humid part of summer, with this weekend melting into July 4th celebrations in a few days. If you've already got the new albums by Wyclef Jean and Elvis Costello, you're hip, man. Do you know why rapper Nelly spells his No. 1 hit "Hot in Herre," incorrectly? A young woman who answered the phone at his management office in St. Louis explained it to me. "Everyone in St. Louis says 'here' as 'her,'" she said. "So we spelled it that way." A little illiteracy is OK — especially in a summer radio hit, I suppose.
But do you have Julia Fordham's new CD, Concrete Love? You can get it in a record store if you're so moved and terribly brave, or you can get it online from amazon.com or cdnow.com. This year's Grammy sensation India.Arie heard the completed album, which was ready a year ago, and liked it so much she made Julia go into the studio and they re-recorded the title track as a duet. Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell's producer and ex-husband, produced Concrete Love as well.
Fordham recorded a bunch of albums for Virgin Records and had one big hit about 10 years ago called "Happy Ever After." However, she never hired a publicist or appeared nude anywhere or got arrested, she wasn't part of the Lilith Tour and she didn't sleep with Tommy Lee. All she had was the amazing voice, an instrument of such depth, width and resonance that it can't be measured. As Mike Myers' Linda Richman character would say, "It's like buttah."
Julia (I can call her that now since we met last summer) is a pretty British blonde in her mid-30s. I wrote once before that she sounds like the love child of Nina Simone and Joan Armatrading. She doesn't sound ‘white,' that's for sure, but more like our generation's answer to Dusty Springfield. Entertainment Weekly called her album East West one of the best of the last decade. Truth is, once you've heard her you'll want all her CDs.
I had forgotten all about Julia Fordham until a record company publicist called last summer. The singer was coming to town to promote the July 2001 release of Concrete Love, which did not have India.Arie on it. One listen and I was hooked. Unfortunately, Fordham's label, Division One/Atlantic, went out of business before the record was released. Since then, India.Arie came along. Then Fordham's intrepid manager, Lori Leve, made a deal for her at Vanguard Records. And then David Lynch turned up and asked her to write songs for a new movie.
It's not easy being an artist. It's a rollercoaster existence, and yet Julia is an extremely placid, seemingly well-adjusted person. She's no brooding folkie, either. She's a lot of fun in person: spontaneous, outgoing and witty. The big surprise is that she lives not in her native Britian but in a cozy bungalow in Santa Monica, with her sister, niece and dog. That's where she cooked up Concrete Love with other guest appearances — beside Indie.Arie — including Billy Preston, a song from Minnie Ripperton's repertoire, Joe Henry and singer Sweat Pea from "Was Not Was."
(P.S. — Some of Julia's songs are written with Scottish songwriter Gary Clarke. He fronted the obscure but wonderful group Danny Wilson, which had a hit with "Mary's Prayer." I'm sure their CD is still available somewhere. If so, pick it up.)
R.F.: Where do you come from?
J.F.: I am from the south coast of England. My parents live on a tiny little island, a blob, you wouldn't even see it on your map. My dad was a naval man, an underwater photographer.
R.F.: How did you get off the island?
J.F.: I had to build my own boat out of matchsticks! It was very hard, I didn't know how to get off the island. It took me a while to work out that I had to go to London if I wanted to be a singer. Just a the top of the little island they had an open mike night. I was 14 and doing my own songs twice a week. And singing. And smoking cigarettes like crazy.
R.F.: Tell me about your early career.
J.F.: I met a guitar player in another band, and he shaped my musical life. I formed a band with my brother when I was 16. I dropped out of school and had a day job at a radio station. But there was no music in our house. I had no records. We didn't even have a record player. I don't know how this happened!
R.F.: You had nothing.
J.F.: When I was very young I used to be in a recorder band in school. And I had an uncanny ability to play any tunes on it. My family used to say, "This is so weird." My parents saved up and bought me a guitar, but it was quite a leap for them to grasp me going to clubs. In England at the time there were like four TV channels. Eventually, they started to get it. But my mother used to say, "If you want to make a go of this you'll have to make your own way there and your own way back." Now we wouldn't let a 14-year old person go anywhere! It made me very independent!
R.F.: Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell's producer, works with you. How did you meet?
J.F.: Many years ago Joni had an art gallery display in London. I wanted to meet her, but I didn't know how. She was standing with a group of people. She turned around, and walked right into me. She said, "Oh my husband loves you." So she introduced me to Larry Klein — [he] is a very talented man. Joni's a remarkable talent. I've met her a few times. She's the complete artistic person. She paints, writes lyrics. She has an incredible span of music. I think it's interesting how her voice has changed. Now she has the gravel, smoky tone. I love her last album. She's amazing.
R.F.: Having not seen you before, but knowing you from Happy Ever After, I thought you'd be cold and stately.
J.F.: People always say you're so light-hearted! They're very surprised.
R.F.: And very big like Mahalia Jackson to get that sound out.
J.F.: I'm Mahalia Jackson on the inside!
R.F.: Do you think this album will be your breakthrough success?
J.F.: I hope so. It's my time.
Yesterday, there were two untimely and shocking deaths in the rock world. John Entwistle was the bass player for The Who from the beginning. His passing at 57 is just terrible, but his incredible library of music lives on. It was only last fall that everyone was praising The Who for their performance at the Concert for New York. Much of that credit can be given to Entwhistle, whose supple bass lines powered the band's anthems like "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley." I suppose Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey will go one without him, but The Who minus Entwhistle and Keith Moon are another group entirely.
Meanwhile, the death of Billboard editor Timothy White has really rocked the music industry. White died of a surprise heart attack yesterday. He was 50, and he was said to be in good shape. I didn't know Tim White, but he was part of the generation of superstar rock journalists that preceded mine — along with Chet Flippo, Dave Marsh, Robert Palmer and Lester Bangs. He turned Billboard into a modern magazine and something more than a trade publication. Because artists trusted him he was able to get interviews no one else could. His pieces this last year on George Harrison, for example, were phenomenal. I looked forward to reading his stuff every week. He will be sorely missed.