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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 December 2005, 08:53 GMT
The rise of the singer-songwriter
by Julie Glassman
Music writer

James Blunt
James Blunt's album has sold 2.1 million copies
Intense radio airplay and strong sales for stars including James Blunt, Daniel Powter, Jack Johnson and KT Tunstall suggests 2005 has been the year of the singer-songwriter.

This new crop of musicians are blessed with good looks and the ability to write songs that are memorable, credible and widely accessible.

Yet each possesses his or her own individual style and their music reveals a broad diversity in influences.

Blunt performs folky tones with tender lyrics, while Johnson opts for uplifting acoustic melodies and gentle rhythms.

Daniel Powter
Daniel Powter describes his work as "keyboard music on steroids"

Powter's songs are often piano-based and pop-driven, at times reminiscent of Elton John or the Bee Gees. By contrast, Damien Rice's work is melancholy yet intimate.

And Mercury Prize nominee Tunstall infuses a whole heap of musical styles (jazz, blues and folk), while maintaining an infectious edginess.

But regardless of their differences, all have been topping charts and reaping sales.

Blunt has had the biggest-selling UK album this year, with sales of 2.1 million so far.

KT Tunstall
KT Tunstall was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize

Virgin Radio DJ, Ben Jones, has observed this trend throughout the year. "They are all writing quite simple songs. Hence they get into your head quite quickly," he says.

Lyrically too, they seem to have mass appeal. Jones has had numerous requests for Blunt's soul-baring Goodbye My Lover, from listeners grieving over a recent relationship break-up.

The origins of this new breed of successful singer-songwriter might be traced back to last year, when Rice's O was leaping up the album charts.

Despite its calibre, the album was deemed to be primarily of interest to a niche market and his record label initially struggled to get radio and television airplay.

Damien Rice
Damien Rice's O proved to be one of 2004's stand-out albums

But they persisted. The result was an album that kept selling into 2005, with sales of more than one million.

It seems every record label since has wanted their own Damien Rice.

"Because one of them broke," says Mr Jones, "all the other record companies were looking for a similar sound. It is a case of anything you can do, we can do better."

However Steve Sasse, Head of A&R at Atlantic Records, who signed James Blunt, believes record companies have been influenced by the success of David Gray's White Ladder album, released in 1998.

David Gray
David Gray's seventh album was released in September 2005

Interestingly, one person - Christian Tattersfield - was responsible for signing both Gray to EastWest, and later, Rice to 14th Floor Records.

Paul Rees, Editor of Q magazine, argues that the crossing over of singer-songwriters to mainstream audiences is nothing new, citing Gray, Alanis Morissette, James Taylor and Carole King as significant predecessors.

"The general public have always been responsive to that simplest of things: a decent song, with a broad message, that is stripped down to basics [voice, guitar, piano]," he says.

Mr Sasse agrees: "Over the last 30 years, there have always been singer-songwriters who have had tremendous success, whether it is Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, right though to Sting, Elton John or more recently, Beck or Elliot Smith.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has been called the greatest singer-songwriter

"It is part of the heritage of our popular culture. So they are probably having a good run at the moment because they are great artists, rather than it being particularly faddy."

Whether it is a 2005 fad or simultaneous emergence of talent, Mr Rees feels this wave of commercially-popular, singer-songwriters is likely to continue.

"Major labels will obviously endeavour to sign their own version of a Blunt or Tunstall for the next 12 months.

"But, the singer-songwriter, like the four-piece rock 'n' roll band, is a perennial."


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