Why Josephine just keeps singing her songs

Manchester’s Josephine Oniyama has seen many ups and downs in her time as a singer-songwriter. Her advice? Keep singing

Fri, Apr 12, 2013, 01:00

Sometimes, there is no need to complicate matters. Josephine Oniyama, she keeps it simple. Great nuggets of songs bursting with folky, soulful, bluesy flavours and tingles. Some of them are soft, sweet and tender; some of them are spirited and come with a groove in their heart. If you want strong, distinctive songs, you’ve come to the right place.

On the phone from Manchester, Oniyama sounds like someone who doesn’t waste too much time faffing around. You ask a question, you get a direct answer. No airs and graces, no attempt to answer a different question. She’s as direct as one of those songs that have wowed many.

Perhaps it’s down to the fact that Oniyama has been in this business for a few years and has seen that drama doesn’t really get you anywhere. Remember that Portrait , the album that had everyone singing her praises on its release last year, is her second. She’s seen a lot of ups and downs between her debut album, A Smaller Version of the Real Thing , released when she was a teenager, and Portrait . But after all this time, Oniyama is still around, still writing heartfelt songs, still filling rooms with people who want to hear those tunes.

“I wrote the first album when I was really young, it’s really a completely different thing,” she explains. “It was a very quickly written and recorded collection of early songs and was put out a long time ago on a small label in Manchester. That was a teenage version of myself and Portrait is me as a grown-up. It really feels like a different lifetime when I look at that album now.”

That was back when Oniyama was 18, a veteran, even at that tender age, of open mic nights and small venues in Manchester. In the intervening decade, she signed to Island Records, released a few EPs, departed from the Island ship, played all sorts of gigs and supported all sorts of people, from Jimmy Cliff to The Noisettes to Gary Barlow.

The important lesson Oniyama takes from all of this? Just keep going. “I never really look back on experiences like Island Records without seeing them as a learning curve. Not everyone ends up being signed to Island to be dropped in the first place after all. You can look at it as a glass half-empty or glass half-full and that’s how I take it. It couldn’t be going any better at the moment. The album has been received really well and that’s all you’re really looking for from the business, because once it’s received well, it gets on the radio and you get better live shows and sell more tickets.”

Her attitude reflects the fact that Oniyama had paid her dues and did not simply arrive fully formed and overnight with Portrait to grab all that purple prose. “It’s really impossible to be an overnight success, yet I still hear that term from people. Most bands who are thought of as overnight successses have been gigging for years, but no-one was interested in them. Then, they go on TV or win a competition or have a hit and they’re stars, but they’ve been working for years for that.”

Given that she’s been writing and performing music for so long, does she think she was naïve, innocent or lucky when she was starting out?

“A mixture of all three, I suppose. Naive in the sense that I was very much in my own bubble. I kept writing and doing gigs and someone came along and asked me if I wanted to do this gig and I said yeah, OK. I was very much unaware of what was going on behind the scenes and who was doing what for me. In a sense, I was lucky because I’ve always had good people working for me finding me gigs and tours. Nobody can help but be naive when you’re 15 or 16. Sometimes, that doesn’t work out for the best but I seem to have done OK.”

Oniyama’s plan at the start was to try to emulate the singers and songwriters she dug, such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Odetta. “It was the great songbook, the songs by the real storytellers, that attracted me.”

It was only later that she figured out the stories behind the singers and how they got to where they were. “I went into it completely blind, I’ve never been much for reading music biographies, it was the songs that led me in the first place and trying to play them and write like them. It was only much later that I learned about the people behind the songs, how they got to that stage and how they got into the industry.”

Right now, Oniyama’s head is turning to thoughts of the next record. “I’m always writing and I’m always working on ideas for new stuff. It’s all ongoing. It’s mainly myself, but I worked with someone new the other day so we’ll see what happens. I’ll keep their name to myself for now.”

Oniyama doesn’t have a motto, but it’s clear from this conversation what it would be if she decided to have one. It’s the same as the advice she’d give the young Josephine starting out years back in Manchester.

“Just keep writing and making music. They’re the only things I can do really well and they’re the things that sustain you whether things go right or wrong.”