FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: REMEMBERING SINEAD O’CONNOR
The sudden death of Sinéad O’Connor on Wednesday has already generated untold column inches and garnered tributes from all quarters, including areas of the industry rather more critical than supportive of her when she was alive. Her sad passing has launched thousands of ‘nothing compares’ references which are a mite ironic given her recollections of meeting Prince charted in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings and the refusal of the Prince estate to allow her recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” to be used Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary. While Sinéad’s peerless interpretation of the song with its iconic video will always be associated with her, there is also much original music of her own to live on as a testimony to her uniqueness.
I have chosen a song from much later in Sinéad’s musical career to play out today’s selection. It is a reminder that alongside the tragic, combative and complex challenges of her life she could have fun too. On that note then, let us begin this week’s choices with a celebration of the uplifting effect you can get from a splendid pop song.
Photo of Sinéad O’Connor by Maja Smiejkowska at London’s Roundhouse, August 2014
I first became acquainted with the music of south coast troubadour Olly Hite through his plaintive piano ballads such as “Ticket to a River”. Ever the maverick though, the Portsmouth-based artiste likes to keep us on our toes by mixing up the styles from time to time with songs like the irrepressibly retro pop rock of “Know What I Mean.” So, it is probably no great surprise that he has popped up again in a different guise; this time under the playful aegis of Olly Love. I had the pleasure of watching Olly play a one man show at London’s Piano Smithfield in February. I remember him playing this next song that evening and it getting a great response from the audience.
Written, performed, producing and self-released by Olly, “Pitstop Baby” is unreservedly a whole lot of fun, echoed by the sheer exuberance of its accompanying video. You may struggle to get the infectious tune out of your head, not that you want to. There’s a touch of Scissor Sisters about those falsetto choruses and no need to break into discussion groups over the song’s sentiments which simply embrace the positives of love, happiness and togetherness. We will wait to see whether there is more to come from Olly Love. Rumour has it that the mythical classic car and scooter mechanic has downed tools to take a year off to spread his music, peace and love. He has picked a good one to get off the starting grid.
Photo of Nadia Sheikh by Liam Maxwell
As an independent artiste it is always a risk when it comes to what to put out when. Release too much music quickly and you can get accused of knocking on the door too often. Spread it too thinly and you risk being forgotten between tracks. British-Spanish songbird Nadia Sheikh has resolved this dilemma by releasing five singles this year leading up to a final track and full EP launch on 22 September. She has been previewing this material live to appreciative audiences since playing her first Glastonbury Festival last year along with her collaborative bandmates Rowan Davies on bass and drummer George Gardiner.
As a title, “Don't Give It Up” could be adopted as a mantra for indie and grassroots acts the world over. The fifth and latest single is a mental note to herself to keep going even in tough times – something which can also act as a beacon for anyone who might be feeling stuck. In Nadia’s words, “We all have ups and downs, moments of doubt and hardship, and it’s important to remind ourselves that they’re temporary, that everything passes and we can’t give up.” Here Nadia’s bluesy tones really elevate the slow build verses and reflective bridges while the passion is cranked up in the song’s anthemic choruses. She will keep pushing for sure.
We met London-based independent artiste Emily Barnett aka Say Anise back in February via her enchanting single “Hurry Honeypie”. At the time I remarked that her sound and sensibility was most akin to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters of mid-late 60’s and early 70’s. Her brilliant YouTube cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” added to that feeling. Say Anise has an EP in the works and, like Nadia Sheikh, has been steadily building up steam by releasing singles from it. The latest one recorded last year with producer Joey Walker features tasteful backing vocals from her longtime collaborator Adrien Latgé.
Opening with chiming acoustic guitar and hovering keyboard tones, “For Tomorrow” builds beautifully as Say Anise’s soft, warm vocal invites us into her world. She describes the song as being about “not wanting to have to wait anymore for the life that you want.” The exasperation that comes from seemingly waiting for ever for things to happen personally or professionally is perfectly voiced and culminates in a brilliant crescendo towards the end of the song when her voice really soars with impressive power: “Just the blue sky / Far as the eye can see / All I really want.” What started out as frustration is neatly worked through and elevated to positivity.
In a self-deprecatory statement, Amateur Theatre Group is described as ‘not an amateur theatre group’ on its Twitter page. This Amateur Theatre Group indeed is the moniker of Londoner Andrew James Murphy who works ‘more an open collective than a solo performance or traditional band’ with the support of his enduring friends and musical collaborators, Davy and Iain Berryman. Actually if you read this column on 25 March last year [what do you mean, you didn’t? – Ed] as my old Russian teacher used to say, you should know this by now. Back then, I was somewhat enchanted by ATG’s
“Itch”, the graceful opener to the austerely named ep1.
The good news is that Amateur Theatre Group is back with a double A-side release featuring two thoughtful songs delivered with trademark delicacy, “Agitator” and earlier single “Bloom” available digitally and on cassette from Bandcamp. The former song title does not exactly prepare you for the calming efficacy of the sparsely realised, repetitive guitar figure that binds the song together. The lyrics appear to evoke difficult times yet there is a strong sense of redemption over things in the past. Whoever or whatever the ‘agitator’ is, its power to do harm seems exorcised through Andrew’s serene and knowing vocal. The sombre can almost be comforting in the hands of Amateur Theatre Group.
Shropshire native Jessie Reid came to my attention via the familiar route of Fresh on the Net, whose readers voted her a Fresh Fave last week. Looking back this seems to be a regular thing as she has featured several times on the site since 2019. Now London-based like many of her fellow solo artistes in the contemporary folk/acoustic arena, her musical attributes include an easy on the ear, captivating voice and smooth, percussive fingerstyle guitar. As a songwriter she has the skill of taking personal inspiration yet turning her reflections into something accessible and universal.
Jessie’s new single, "“Every Stranger”, is inspired by grief after losing someone close and coloured by how those feelings are handled. The ‘doom scrolling’ on Instagram, drinking bouts and seeing semblances of that person in passing strangers give way to learning to cope and taking strength from it all. Wrapping up these reflections, Jessie commented “The genesis of the song came after a friend of mine died a few years ago. But I think generally it is an accumulation of ideas and feelings after any sort of loss." It all works beautifully set to music with an effortless topline vocal wreathed in layered harmonies. We can look forward to more from Jessie soon as she continues to work on her coming EP.
Photo of Sinéad O’Connor by Maja Smiejkowska at London’s Roundhouse, August 2014
We close today with the promised song from Sinéad O’Connor. She was a complex character who courted controversy but was blessed with an amazing voice, developing over her career into a formidable songwriter. I had the good fortune to see her live at London’s Roundhouse in August 2014 and review her final two studio albums, How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? (2012) and I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss (2014). Those album titles tell stories in themselves and both were fascinating listens, full of contrasts as much as polemics. My memories of the concert are crowned by the singer’s extraordinary vocal control and how she would engineer a die-away, whispered delivery at the end of some lines by simply turning her face to one side at the given moment. Those reviews are still online if you want to click on the embedded links.
“Take Me to Church” is on the one hand a bit of a rant and on the other a passionate put down of all the things she been and done, many under duress. Her vocal has such visceral energy that it feels like a redemptive smack to the jaw yet there is a sense of fun to it that says just as volubly don’t take this all literally, folks. In the accompanying video to the song, Sinéad role plays the lead for all she is worth, shedding the wig with a swift dramatic sweep of her hand while affirming “I’m the only one I should adore.” Maybe she was but she will be just as missed.