FIRST REVIEW ANYWHERE…
(4 / 5)
Times may well be hard out there for pro’ musicians trying to earn a living from touring, with this current Coronavirus Pandemic crisis making that impossible for many – so some are turning to other skills to put food on the table.
Brighton-based singer-songwriter Steph Brown is already an experienced singing teacher and she also helps run a pop choir, apart from her shows as a solo artist and with her partner and fellow singer-songwriter and musician Kev Minney.
But when you read the words, ‘Step Brown: Surfacing’, don’t go calling her up to come lay you a new drive or fill in the the potholes on your garden path! “Surfacing” in this case is the title of her impressive debut album.
It is carefully crafted, with measured and controlled performance from Steph’s vocals and the classy crew assembled for this project.
Produced by Jag Jago, we have Kev Minney on acoustic guitar, Pete MacCourt on bass and backing vocals, Alfie Weedon on double bass, Thom Mills on drums, Jools Owen on trumpet, Max Davidson on clarinet and the lush cello of Emily Mitchell.
Andrew Stuart Buttle was co-producer and responsible for the under-stated string arrangements, plus electric guitar, mandolin, keyboards and backing vocals. Who says men can’t multi-task?
The 10 songs penned by Steph – two of them co-written with Kev Minney – sit on a biographic theme of coming out the other side of turbulent times, in childhood and as an adult.
Dealing with neglect, grief and addiction and becoming a stronger person as a survivor. Eventually finding love and happiness, and learning how to deal with those emotions, when scarse or non-existent in your earlier years.
They say write and sing about what you know and what you have experienced. And serve the song. Connect emotionally and only sing lyrics you can identify with and where you can convey the true meaning.
Steph undoubtedly inhabits the stories and memories in these songs, and sings with passion and from the heart.
There are some lovely moments across this set, but the stand-out for many will be track five, the mesmeric electro-pop, Madonna-esque third single, “Jealous Talk”. Check out the video to this one in our “Video Zone”.
For me, “Jealous Talk” is her best vocal on the record and the most commercial track of the 10 cuts. BBC6 Music have picked up on Steph’s music, and for me, “Jealous Talk” should be pitched to the playlist suits at BBC Radio 2 by an experienced radio plugger without delay.
Steph says the song is a commentary on online culture, where every artist can edit how they are perceived. A song about remembering why you made your art in the first place.
“Genova” another track that has been modernised with programmed stuff, is another commercial cut.
Steph is seemingly in her comfort zone in the upper end of her register, and in a Kate Bush vibe on the opener “Learn In The Water”. She has a good range too and swoops in and out of the falsetto thing. I’d urge caution not to over-egg that falsetto on future work.
Hers is a gentle, soft, chilled delivery and the songs all a good vehicle for what she does and how she does it.
Us music journalists do like to veer off down the road of comparisons in reviews, to name similar artists or bands. I already mentioned Kate Bush, but Steph is only similar in as much as her ease and regular use of the high end register.
But other than that, I was struggling to come up with anyone else who Steph sounds like. That’s got to be a positive for her. That said…Steph does perhaps possess some of that Marcella Detroit moody angst about her.
“Come With Me” nods to Joni and is lovely. The acoustic guitar, the little sprinkles of mandolin and the shimmering strings all add value. This track grew on me the more I heard it.
Steph, who used to perform under the name Della Lupa, seems to like her female names for song titles. “Julie” (Kirsty MacColl-ish), “Genova”, Phoebe’s Song”.
The closer “Feel You Near”, is a former single and has an unusual structure. She changes her vocal delivery style to sultry chest voice and a smattering of falsetto. Lovely finger style guitar bubbling away in the background from Kev Minney.
Us hacks also feel the need to stick labels onto music genres. Alt. folk would not be totally accurate, but is in the ballpark. But then songs like “Jealous Talk” are in electro-pop territory. Singer-songwriter is a genre that many use, but that’s daft, because if you sing and you write songs, then you are a singer-songwriter, no matter what style of music you make. Right?
The audio quality and mix is faultless – Mercury-nominated producer Jag Jago (The Maccabees and Florence Welch) clearly knows his onions (and based on his previous work I have heard) – and I appreciate the arrangements leaving acres of space for these songs to breath. The strings add much value and marinate the songs with a chilled and serene ambience, creating a mysterious and sometimes haunting atmosphere.
Emphasis on ballads across the 10 songs. That’s her main bag, obviously, but a couple of more up-tempo cuts would have given the set more light and shade. But if this is a cathartic journal-type deal about Steph’s life journey to-date, maybe it honestly reflects where she has been in that journey and up-beat stuff would not be appropriate as part of that journal approach.
So if this brings us to today with her story, perhaps that “difficult second album” may well be the right place for more upbeat material to celebrate the life she has now. A life that just got even happier when Steph accepted Kev’s proposal to become Mrs Minney. Congrats to both…
I must say, I am bored sh****ss with many female singers all sounding the same, like they are so desperate for fame that they just do weak impressions of their heroines to become the next big thing. Nothing new at all.
Well, Steph Brown is not “new” as such, but she is different and she is in her own lane and being true to her own identity as an artist, whether that is seen as “on-trend” or not.
Surfacing she is – with the strength of this super debut long player – so expect a lot more to come from this talented Cambridge lass from Brighton.
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’