Portrait Of A Playlist: Josephine’s Mixtape

Manchester singer on her influences...

Critically acclaimed soul singer Josephine Oniyama might sound like her upbringing was all about the Motown and Chess classics. But, actually, the Manchester artist’s musical youth was rather more varied – and rather more indie-rock.

Her background credits support this, too: she’s worked with Ed Harcourt and Brian Eno-collaborator Leo Abrahams. Guy Garvey’s become a little smitten with her – as were the playlisters at Radio 2, who made sure her debut album of 2012, ‘Portrait’, was ably supported. She also appeared on the BBC’s flagship music-on-the-telly show, Later… With Jools Holland.

Josephine’s new single, ‘Last Minute’, is out now – and to mark its release, the singer has put together a playlist of influences for Clash. We’re also pleased to present her cover of The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please, Let me Get What I Want’.

Of the cover, she says: “It was my response to the Queen driving past my house recently. It just reminded me of that Smiths video when they're on bikes riding through Cheetham Hill.”

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James – ‘Sit Down’ (1989/1991)

“I used to disappear sometimes when I should have been in school. One Saturday I was listening to the radio and the DJ said there was going to be a concert on Monday morning behind the Key 103 building. The band would be announced at 8am on Monday morning. So, I decided that if the band were good I’d go to the concert instead of lessons.

“On Monday I went to school really early asked one of my teachers for a radio and sat down to hear who the band would be. When I heard that James would be playing I had to go. So, I signed in at registration, got some friends together and after science we left to go to the concert.

“James were on one side of the canal and the audience was on the other. We were right at the front against the barrier. I remember jumping up and down in the drizzle, in my uniform, to ‘Sit Down’.

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Green Day – ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’ (1995/1997)

“It doesn’t really take much explaining as to why this would be a childhood anthem. Everything was so much more about the song and the video together in the ‘90s, and the combination of Billie Joe Armstrong sitting on his single bed with his posters and pictures around him playing his acoustic guitar is, I guess, something that I thought was really cool, and a bit angsty and lonely. And there he is, singing about having “the time of your life” when, er, nobody’s having the time of their life at 15.

“It ended up being one of those songs that I carried around with me a lot, call it emotional baggage. I’d sing it as I walked down the street, when I was on my way home even though all my friends were staying out. It was one of those songs.” 

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Chamberlain – ‘The Simple Life’ (1996)

“When I was really young, my sister used to take me into Vinyl Exchange, Manchester’s most jam-packed music shop. With no tapes or vinyl out on its shelves, the buyer had to flick through card after card of inlays and album titles to find the artist they were looking for. I hated it. She’d stick me in a corner and then spend hours riffling through the R&B section. It was too warm, too stuffy and too boring.

“Then, when I got a bit older, and started to play music I got into indie and guitars. My sister and brother bought me a mixtape from Vinyl Exchange. Maybe it was a birthday present, I think I might have been 13. The tape was a mix of ‘90s indie and dance. Other than Chamberlain, the only other artist I remember was DJ Shadow.

“The song ‘The Simple Life’ is the only track from the tape that I remember because I played it so much. At the time it reminded me so much of the things I was writing about myself and, of course, the simple guitar and finger picking connected with my folk sensibility, which I didn’t really know about yet.

“‘Dark streets carry me home now / I’ve stayed too long’… These lyrics are really simple and obvious, so I see now why my 13-year-old self found them so easy to digest. They made me think of the streets around my house; streets that were poorly lit and littered with kids with nothing to do. It wasn’t until I grew up, until now really, that I appreciate some of the other lyrics and how strong they are: ‘We’re brave men to sip the stars dry, leave sleep alone.’

“But, more than any others, it was the lyrics ‘I built this house out of a fate-driven dream, and these walls of wood they see’, which I connected with the most. They felt like my house and my world, running along on hope and fate and not much else. Unfortunately, there was no lyric sheet with the tape and there was no Internet back then either to check what he was saying. And it’s only now that I know my interpretation of the lyrics was wrong and he actually sang: ‘And these walls are what they seem. But it made sense to me at the time.”

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Skunk Anansie – ‘Charlie Big Potato’ (1999)

“When I initially saw the video for ‘Charlie Big Potato’, I was really drawn in by the beginning. The atmosphere is really dark and the introduction leads you to think it’s something other than what it turns out to be. It starts with a kind of ‘90s dance scene vibe and then, suddenly, it’s back to heavy guitars and a Skunk Anansie dark ballad, which they were so good at.

“At the time, it seemed to be more of an American thing to be doing that really grimy indie (think Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ vibe), so I really loved what Skunk Anansie were doing. And the fact that Skin was a really rock-hard, black, front-woman with no hair was just amazing after feeling a bit saturated by the more-polished, American pop stars of the ‘90s MTV era.

“For me Skunk symbolised something really different in British music at the time, something a bit more daring and dark than some of the other indie, Britpop bands.”

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Eels – ‘Flower’ (1996)

“I used to listen to the radio almost 24 hours a day. One day I heard that two Key 103 DJs would be at Shellys in Manchester, doing giveaways and competitions. They said there’d be a chance to win a replica of Noel Gallagher’s Supernova Epiphone too. So, naturally, I went. There were various giveaways and before the guitar was even given away I’d won tickets to Reading Festival.

“Three people were chosen from the audience to play an Oasis song. The best player would win the guitar. I lost and won a goodie bag instead. There were loads of CDs in the bag, one of which was Eels’ ‘Beautiful Freak’. Even now, I think it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever owned. I’m quite glad I lost the contest; I’ve got lots of guitars now. Some things you just have to be introduced to at a particular time and in a particular place, and Eels’ ‘Beautiful Freak’ was one of those things.

“It always felt like there were two different moods going on in the song. There’s a really regal, almost classical undertone with the choir, and then on top you’ve got this programmed beat with this lazy, American-indie vocal, singing about modern problems using modern slang. It was so original for me, I was used to listening to something more shouty (four guys playing music in their parents garage type band), but this song was so different and lovely.

“Incidentally, the lad who won the guitar went to the same school as me. And I never went to Reading Festival.”

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Oasis – ‘Whatever’ (1994)

“As locals, Oasis were always at the top of my indie list. Everyone in school that played a guitar knew the chords to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ or ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Rock’n’Roll Star’. And I wasn’t an exception, although I wasn’t really welcomed into the indie kid crowd though.

“We had to write a talk for one of my English classes, it could be about anything at all. I got up and said I was doing a song about my favourite band, Oasis. Before I could say the name of the band, two lads starting singing Bob Marley and others were asking me why I was talking about Oasis. Even so, I carried on and did my talk. I talked about the hits, the albums and the rivalries. And most of all about my favourite song, ‘Whatever’.

“I felt like it was a standout track from everything else Oasis had done, and the string arrangements were grand and easy to listen to and, of course, the lyrics were about being yourself too… which was a subject close to my heart.”

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Lene Marlin – ‘Sitting Down Here’ (1999)

“This is probably the least indie song on the list, but there’s a guitar in it so that will have to do. It was really great for me at that age, of around 15 and 16, to see someone so young, and a girl, getting out there, writing her songs and playing her guitar.

“To me the song felt really free and as though she’d found her own world, and that’s what I was trying to find, too. Not only that, but she wasn’t parading around with her belly button out or with loads of make-up and fake nails. I just left like I could identify with this kind of performer.

“Maybe it just bridged a little gap for me, between who I was and the more indie rock ‘n’ roll guy music that I was listening too.”

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The Smiths – ‘This Charming Man’ (1983)

The Smiths were obviously another local band with which I had a connection. However, since they were biggest in the ‘80s, they passed me by a little until I discovered them in my late teens. And when I did discover them, it was the bassline in ‘This Charming Man’ that got me hooked first.

“It’s hard to know what the lyrics mean, but it didn’t really matter. It was a British indie anthem that you could dance along to. The Smiths were a real cornerstone of Manchester music, and the more I got into them the more I realised how many people loved this song. Whether you were down at South on a Saturday night, with Clint Boon DJing, or listening to XFM, ‘This Charming Man’ would always get a look in – it was always requestable.

“It was maybe just as I’d started listening to The Smiths that I started working as an usher in a Manchester theatre. Morrissey was attending one of the concerts, so everyone was really excited. Everybody was looking for him. Before the end of the show, he came out to escape the crowds at the end. He just so happened to be sitting in the section I was looking after. He came out into the foyer, gave me a wink and went off on his way. I went home and listened to ‘This Charming Man’.

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Find Josephine online here

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