It‘s been a long time coming, but Gilles Peterson-approved Tawiah is finally getting the exposure she deserves
If you’re not yet familiar with the young soul rebel known as Tawiah, here are a few pointers to help introduce you: she looks like a nu-rave Rasta libertine, talks like she received instruction at the Fagin School of Enunciation for Girls, sings like Gabriel’s trumpet carrying the Good News the morning after the night before and walks like a woman who knows her time, finally, is now.
So what if she spent five years at the Brit School (where she used to catch the train to Clapham Junction with Kate Nash and looked out for Adele, who she describes as ‘cool and shit. She was like my little one’) – she’s earned her stripes. As a backing vocalist, her mellifluous tones have enhanced everyone from Corrine Bailey Rae to Mark de Clive-Lowe, the Guillemots and the self-styled patron saint of black music, Mark Ronson.
The 21-year-old star in waiting has been a leading light in London’s nu-soul scene for the past few years. Made up of enterprising, largely unsigned session musicians and solo artists such as Eska Mtungwazi (Ty), Vula (Basement Jaxx), Sharlene Hector (Natasha Bedingfield),
Heidi Vogel (Brand New Heavies), Sewuese (Bugz in the Attic), Breakbeat (Estelle) and Jamie Woon, their divergent sounds are unified by a singular vision. Rather than sit at home complaining that most A&Rs are too ignorant, lazy and scared to change their prescription for who can be marketed as a ‘British soul singer’, they’ve taken the technology available to them, combined it with talent and tenacity and created their own movement, giving ailing record companies the option to either fix up or fuck off.
Now armed with a Gilles Peterson Worldwide Award for Best Newcomer, an underground smash in the shape of ‘Watch Out’ and a drawer-full of unreleased collaborations with artists such as broken-beat pioneer IG Culture and neo-soul lynchpin Pino Palladino, Tawiah is in the glorious position of being able to tell record companies to do both, releasing her brand-new five-track EP debut ‘In Jodi’s Bedroom’ on her very own Bush Girl Recordings. Co-written and produced by her ‘right-hand man’ bassist Jodi Milliner, she feels it’s the perfect vehicle to introduce herself properly to the world: ‘I’ve been on the road and doing other people’s backing vocals for a while,’ she says. ‘But now I am ready to just lock off and do me.’
Her voice blends force-of-nature vocals with shimmering vulnerability, underscored by a sound which she describes as ‘twisted soul’ – a kind of genre-straddling electronica underpinned by nu-jazz, indie and broken beat. It’s a sound best demonstrated by the EP’s stand-out track ‘Every Step’ in which her ambiguous spiritualism meets hard-edged rock b-lines to devastating effect. ‘It was really important for me to do [the EP],’ she explains, ‘because I had been doing loads of underground gigs and everyone was like “where can we get your stuff?” But now people know I am here, I have to hit them with the album’. Featuring collaborations with Eric Lau, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Michelle Escoffery and mentor Ronson, the yet-to-be titled album is tentatively scheduled for this summer.
As one of those artists who needs to be seen live to be understood, Tawiah’s rowdy, enchanting and assured showmanship belies her youth. And she’s thrilled that she’s been chosen as a Time Out On The Up artist: ‘Me and the boys [drummer Paul Pearson, guitarist Blue, keyboardist Sam Best and Milliner on bass] feel honoured that we were asked to do the gig,’ she says, promising attendees a night of ‘good vibes and a lot of fun’.
Comparisons to Lily, Amy, Adele, Kate et al, are inevitable, but wholly misplaced. Yes, she’s a Brit School graduate. Yes, she too is a regular backing singer for and collaborator with Mark Ronson, and sure, she’s also partial to the yoof pop-poetics (check out the infectious ‘Boy From The Endz’). But therein the similarities end. ‘Musically we all do totally different things. I mean, we all went to the Brit School but I don’t want to be in the same box as the Amys and Adeles. I’m trying to come with something completely different’.
Which she does, but is there any correlation between her slow ascendancy to stardom (considering the buzz and superstar endorsements) and her skin colour? ‘It’s a conversation I have with a lot of people ’cos a lot of people say that if a white person does soul music then its like “yeah, oh my God, it’s so soulful”. But if a black person does soul music, it’s just like “ummm, okay”. But for me, I try not to think about the politics, or have hang ups about being black and having a soulful voice. I just try to write honest music and let it do as much as it can do. I am just doing my thing, man.’ For now – before too long, it’ll be everybody’s thing.
Tawiah plays the Islington Bar Academy on February 28 as part of the Time Out On The Up series. For free tickets visit www.timeout.com/ontheup. ‘In Jodi’s Bedroom’ is out on February 25 on Brownswood Recordings.
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