The five artists featured in this article have at least three things in common. There are probably a few more commonalities that I don’t know about, but those I am aware of are as follows. They have all been Fresh Faves at least once since I joined Team Freshnet at the start of 2018. They are all artists I have gone out of my way to write about for this platform and others. And they are all doing rather well in their (very different) areas of contemporary music.
I am talking about the Isle of Wight’s Princess of Pop Lauran Hibberd; Hull’s undisputed champion of Northern Grime and Hip Hop Chiedu Oraka; Glasgow’s unique and amazing post-Dream Pop and Indie trio Cloth; London-based virtuosos of Congolese Jazz Kongo Dia Ntotila and purveyor of heartwarming synth electronic music Hinako Omori (also London-based). There is, of course, another aspect they all have in common. Namely they have all managed to pull off the very difficult act of making music that is not especially leftfield or unconventional and yet still manages to be distinct and original within its particular sphere.
Lauran Hibberd is an artist who I instantly believed had the combination of qualities to be a massive success. Loathe as I am to quote Simon Cowell it is what he was referring to as X Factor several years before a TV programme of the same name appeared. Catchy songs with humour and energy delivered by a guitar-toting artist with a girl-next-door persona and a penchant for tongue-in-cheek feistiness. Lauran lives up to clichés like ‘she has that vibe’ and ‘star quality’. I first heard her when the simple but inspired Call Shotgun arrived in my in-box. She followed that with the awesome What Do Girls Want with its iconic chorus of ‘What do girls want? / Even if I knew I still wouldn’t tell you’. And with titles like Hunny is This What Adults Do?, previous singles Sugar Daddy and Hoochie (for which Lauran tweeted a characteristically cheeky pic) and the new one Frankie’s Girlfriend you can see that she understands the value of song titles which make you want to know more.
Lauran’s career so far seems to have unstoppable momentum. She can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe she has now undertaken three UK tours, the last as a headline act, in barely a year and a half and is getting booked for the big festivals including Glastonbury. She has had support from Huw Stephens and others on BBC Radio One as well as airplay from Tom Robinson on BBC 6 Music and a load of support from BBC Introducing in the South. She is social media savvy, smart at knowing how to utilise her impressive persona and possesses a seemingly effortless talent for coming up with songs that are energetic and guitar-driven enough to appeal to fans of Indie Pop but cool and catchy enough to be knocking at the door of mainstream radio. All the ducks seem to be in a row for Lauran Hibberd. 2020 is going to be a very interesting year for her.
Chiedu Oraka is, on surface level, a million miles from Lauran Hibberd in style. Yet actually they have some striking commonalities. They are both big personalities who succeed in making a virtue of their instinctive naughtiness. They also both seem to be able to turn out memorable hooks with great consistency. Chiedu is primarily a rapper where Lauran is primarily a singer but his tracks are unquestionably catchy. Living proof is how often, even a year after its release, I find myself reciting Won’t Get Along as I’m washing up or cooking for the family!
Chiedu’s sound is as distinct as distinct gets. He raps in an undiluted Hull accent and writes lyrics that reflect his local dialect. You will not find him imitating the language of New York, LA or Baltimore. This is Urban music that is as British as you will find. Working alongside his best mate and producer Deez Kid, he has built a sound that mixes tough beats, sparse arrangements and a lyrical style that is at once disarming and amusing, refreshingly filled with the language of the North Hull Estate (which provides the title to another of his fine tracks) but also regular threats of what he might do to certain individuals who get on his wrong side or bother his friends! Not that I am condoning violence here folks! But with Chiedu it’s all very tongue-in-cheek! His videos are well worth checking out too and there are lots of them on his YouTube Channel.
There are so many excellent tracks I could name but among my favourites are the aforementioned Won’t Get Along plus the new single (with Jacob Aaron) Men Behaving Badly and recent singles Darcy, 21st Kid and N.H.E (North Hull Estate). Fresh from headlining the 2019 Hullstreetsesh and with 4K followers and counting on Instagram, his fanbase continues to expand. As I write Chiedu and Deez have, in the past few days, been interviewed on an independent TV channel and by a prestigious online journal. Chiedu is on the move! Better keep eyes on him!
Cloth are something of a contrast to the exuberant Lauran and Chiedu. The quiet Glasgow-based trio are not the extrovert types, but then that is part of their unique appeal. Like their extraordinarily beautiful music, they are complex and enigmatic figures.
Cloth managed to make our Fresh Faves three times in 2018 (a 100% record) which is a measure of how their music stands out from the crowd even when that crowd is one also packed with quality tracks. I was fortunate to be the reviewer on the first of those three occasions when they hit us with the delicate understated vocals and intricate instrumental interplay of Demo Love. On that occasion I mentioned Lush as one possible reference point, Cocteau Twins, Pavement and even early U2 (not style-wise as they are poles apart but in terms of the inventive use of guitar harmonics) being a few more.
By the time they made the Faves for what was actually the third time in December 2018, Tom Robinson was reviewing and declared ‘I want ’em live in session on my radio show as soon as bloomin’ possible, if that Marc Riley hasn’t already beaten me to it. Because – let’s face it – once their debut abum comes out next year, radio DJs are going to be all over it like wasps around a picnic. True to his word, he did indeed get them in for a live session on his Saturday night BBC 6 Music show less than two months later.
I was lucky enough to be with Tom at a meeting a few days later and he told me he was staggered by what they were able to create with just two guitars and drums. A week or two later I got to experience exactly what he was referring to when I saw them play their fine label Last Night From Glasgow’s first London showcase at the Sebright Arms in East London. I reviewed the gig for Fresh on the Net. Twins Paul and Rachael’s inventive guitar tunings (which Paul patiently explained to the audience) and intimate playing style were so impressive. Rachael’s crystal clear ethereal voice was captivating. So too was Clare’s drumming – punchy, versatile and the epitome of multi-tasking in mid-performance.
In the meantime it has been a remarkable year for Cloth with a triumphant (if such a word can be applied to such a beautifully introspective band) performance on the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude, their fantastic session for Tom, attention from Huw Stephens and BBC Radio 1, a video of them playing live in the BBC Scotland studios and one rave review after another. They also have the support of the aforementioned Last Night From Glasgow, a label I have separately written about and have such admiration for. Add to all that a sound which, even in today’s post-everything over-crowded market, still marks them out as something really special. Also check out Old Bear and Tripp. There is a new album available for preorder. Tom’s prediction could be about to come true!
Meantime Kongo Dia Ntotila are a band who would stand alone in any situation and in any era. Such is the determined individualism of their London-infused but primarily Congolese Jazz style (and, to be clear, they do not see themselves as Afrobeat). Put that together with seriously mouth watering musicianship and the inspired leadership of Bass Guitarist and composer Mulele Matondo and you have a pretty amazing cocktail of quality ingredients.
Kongo Dia Ntotila first came to my attention when I listened to the edition of Late Junction (BBC Radio 3) based on highlights of the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude 2018 on which they were the dominant highlight (including a fascinating conversation about them between Tom Robinson and Max Reinhardt) and rightly so. I was knocked for six by the fluidity of their continually shifting moods, tempi and styles. Equally so the ease with which they moved from one state to the next, all the while achieving a lilting funkiness and rolling West African Jazz vibe punctuated by amazing rhythmic configurations, virtuosic playing and sweet harmony. All these qualities and more are in plentiful evidence on their stunning debut album 360⁰.
Again I have been fortunate to see them live and I reviewed that gig for Fresh On The Net too. In the article I marvelled at the intricate partnership of Mulele’s fellow founder John Kelly and fellow guitarist Diala Sakuba. Likewise drummer Mbouta Kissangwa’s effortlessly mind-boggling rhythmic figures, his ‘less is more’ judgement and his beautiful singing voice. Add the breathtaking playing of Will Scott (Sax) and Mike Soper (Trumpet) who make such a big sound for two people and of course Mulele’s stunning bass playing, warm personality and inspiring super-pumped performances.
Things are moving steadily in a very positive direction for Kongo Dia Ntotila. They have a wonderful and dedicated manager in Birikiti Pegram and she works tirelessly to create opportunities for the band who she rightly has unshakable belief in. They are also signed to the excellent Pussyfoot Records. And with great support from Tom Robinson, who has had them in for a live session, Cerys Matthews, Late Junction’s Max Reinhardt and others, it is no surprise that their star continues to rise. If anyone can popularise this exciting area of music, Kongo Dia Ntotila can.
Hinako Omori is another unique artist. Such is her modest, unassuming character and determination to have her own solo works judged on their merits, I only discovered that she is in fact one of the UK’s top session musicians when I was looking at her website. In fact she is clearly highly in demand and has worked with the likes of Ellie Goulding, Kate Tempest, Rita Ora, Alt J, James Bey, KT Tunstall and Ward Thomas to name a few.
However her own music brings us warm, futuristic synth-based electronic soundscapes. Looped synth figures play off against rich chords, translucent textures and soft otherworldly vocals. There is a video of Hinako playing an extended version of the single track Teleport (which was a Fresh Fave in June) in a very attractive looking (home) studio overlooking Battersea Power Station and the surrounding landscape on her website. We get to see her using foot pedals and effects units to create the loops and overlaps she so skilfully works into her intoxicating music.
It seems amazing to me that it is not even three months since I first came across Hinako’s music. Such is the impression it has made on me that I feel like I have been a fan for at least a year! But of course I had, until recently, only heard the two single tracks Teleport and Voyage. They were enough to convince me that she is pretty special and stands out from the crowd. The mind-spinning kaleidoscopic patterns and gradual changes that make up the year old track nOcoast?… show she was beginning to develop her sound then and has moved on to more substantial material in the time since. It is still lovely though while radioOp1 demonstrates a more leftfield side to her inventiveness.
July saw Hinako Omori play the Timber Festival alongside the likes of Gwenno, Jessica Hoop and Hannah Peel (with whom she has also collaborated on a recording) so, even as a solo artist, she is mixing in some pretty impressive company. The more exposure her stunning music receives the quicker I expect to see her name in higher places. Talent and material this strong, especially when showcased on stages like these, will not take long to establish her as an artist in her own right as well as being an in-demand musician for others.
So five artists and bands, each very distinct from the others in terms of sound, style and approach. All of them have already won the approval of our highly discerning Listening Post audience and have had support from BBC Introducing. The year ahead will be interesting. Hopefully a positive one for all five of them.