Josephine Oniyama’s debut album, Portrait, is described by The Daily Mirror as ‘musically abundant’ and by The Times as ‘stunning’ whilst she herself has been described by none other than Elbow’s Guy Garvey as ‘an old soul singer in a beautiful young girl.’
She’s been featured in The Guardian, she’s performed on Later With Jools Holland, and alongside being a musician, a songwriter and a recording artist, she’s also a regular contributor for The Huffington Post… in fact, come to think of it, when it comes to creativity there’s not much she hasn’t done. I had the chance to chew the fat with her about her music, creativity, and one or two things in between. Take a look below.
You sing, you play, you write. Which of these came first for you? How and when did you discover that this is what you wanted to do?
I began to write first. It was the most natural thing really. Just short poems and lyrics with just melodies and no chords. I was 12 when I began to play guitar and set the words to music. Since then it has been a really natural progression in to performing those songs live and then recording them.
Has your writing process remained the same?
I find the writing process is always evolving. You are constantly finding new ways to find new ideas, new subject matter, new ways to get ideas finished. Also, you can learn so much through collaborating with other writers, which I’ve done so much of over the last few years. There is no one way you generate ideas. Some of the more interesting ways are through conversations overheard… other peoples’ lives generate the most interesting subjects, and clearly, the reality factor means the songs then connect with listeners more.
Your debut album, Portrait, is a (beautifully) eclectic, instrument-led mix. Diverse, contemporary and yet very, very classic. Was this deliberate? And who/what are your musical influences?
My influences are fairly broad, I listened to huge amounts of folk and blues in my teens, more rootsy stuff. But I also loved what was going on in the charts from Nirvana to Oasis. I loved guitar music and I loved Motown… everything. I think eventually all of those things went into making the music that I began to write. I never start out with a particular style in mind, I tend to go where the subject matter takes me.
Can you tell us a bit about the journey behind the album? What were the main inspirations? How did it come together?
The album was really built up from songs I’d been writing since the beginning of my life as a songwriter and musician. When it came to choosing the songs it was about reflecting just how lengthy that process had been and reflecting all the different styles and incantations my songs had been through in that time. Since the songs are all from different eras in my life they are really all inspired by different things. Portrait, for example, the title track, began after I’d been watching the really old version of Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945. Having stored his malice in a portrait of himself, Gray was not the person he was supposed to be. The song developed from there. Trespassers, the opening track, is about an incident when I was in primary school, when some friends and I wondered into an abandoned house before registration. The album on a whole is inspired by life, the very big and very varied experience of it.
Speaking of variety, this year you and the band have played everywhere from Germany, to the Netherlands, Paris, London, Glastonbury and even Zimbabwe. What has the experience of being in so many different places been like? And how does the travelling – if it has – influence your music and writing?
Travelling is a very wonderful part of being a musician, performing at festivals and events around the world can mean you have experiences that you just can’t buy. It is really strange though, that so far I haven’t fed many of these experiences into songs in a very literal way. It’s definitely something I’d like to do more of, because there are a lot of travelling/place songs which I love, like New York (Ryan Adams), or Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight). You know, those songs about being somewhere or going somewhere in particular.
I think that love of diversity you mentioned earlier, in terms of the various influences that have inspired how you create is well reflected in your music. Is it a quality you tend to appreciate in other artists? What’s on your mp3 player right now?
I can go either way on this. Some of my favourite artists are people who do one thing, but they do that one thing super well. I’m a massive fan of folk songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. These aren’t people who flip genres very regularly, they are just brilliantly talented story writers. More recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Jack White, who tends to stick to heavy blues inspired rock. Then there are other artists like Warpaint, Wild Beasts or Kwabs, newer artists who tend to make their own genre as they go. I don’t mind how many genres an act chooses to use, as long as they are good.
Lastly, what’s next in the pipeline for Josephine Oniyama? What can we look forward to seeing from you in 2015?
Well, I’m just getting all the writing and demoing finished for the next album. So in 2015 there’s only one major task (which is of course hundreds of little tasks): getting this album out there into the world. I foresee lots of gigs and touring, interviews, TV and general music overload… all being well that is.