Monday, 13 August 2012

Artist profile - Jill Johnson (Sweden)

Jill Johnson is a country music singer from Sweden, who represented her homeland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998 in Birmingham with the song 'Kärleken är', placing a respectable 10th. Her career since then has gone from strength to strength, culminating in the release of a second greatest hits package in 2010 and a #1 album at the end of last year. Throughout this entry you can click the links to listen to songs on YouTube or Spotify.

In contrast to her Eurovision entry, much of Johnson's music slots neatly into the genre of contemporary country.

Her first release, in 1995, was a cover of 'Shake the Sugartree', a hit for American singer Pam Tillis three years previously. Somewhat bizarrely, the accompanying album included a cover of 'As Dreams Go By', which placed second in the 1992 UK Song for Europe. It was her win in Melodifestivalen 1998 however which moved her into the mainstream, along with the album 'När hela världen ser på', Johnson's only collection in Swedish.

After two more moderately successful albums, but no hits on the Swedish singles charts, it took a second participation in Melodifestivalen to lift Johnson to the next level. By 2003, as we all know, Melodifestivalen had become one of Sweden's most-watched TV shows, and although 'Crazy In Love' only placed 4th in the final, the song was a hit and was accompanied by the platinum-selling compilation 'Discography, 1996-2003'.

Johnson's subsequent albums have been generally well-received, both by critics and the Swedish public. Much of her work has been recorded in Nashville, where she worked with well-known country songwriters like Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and wouldn't sound out of place on today's US country radio. No attempt has been made to launch Johnson in the US though - probably a wise move when you consider that America certainly has enough country singers of its own without looking beyond its borders. And it certainly didn't work out for fellow Swedish country act Calaisa. As well as original material, Johnson has also paid homage to her own favourite classic country artists with two 'Music Row' collections.

As well as her successful recording career, Johnson tours frequently around Sweden, presenting both her regular material and 'Jill Johnsons jul', a celebration of Christmas music that has become a fixture of Swedish TV during the festive period. After a stint supporting Toby Keith on his European tour, Johnson's most recently been spotted on Swedish TV helping Lionel Richie promote his country album 'Tuskegee', with features a duet between Richie and Johnson on a re-interpretation of the Commodores hit 'Sail On'.

Her most recent album, 'Flirting with Disaster', was released in October 2011, and immediately topped the Swedish album charts. In One Piece is taken from that album.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Reba McEntire - one from each decade

When I started writing this entry, I was originally going to go for my Top 5 Reba songs, but then I realised that there's just so many that I had no idea where to begin. So, to make it a little more interesting, and to celebrate her long career, here's my favourite song from each of Reba's decades, from the '70s to the '10s.

Glad I Waited Just For You

The seventies isn't really the golden age of McEntire's career, with just two albums of material to select from. Her debut, self-titled album is surprisingly strong, if not particularly reflective of her later style, and I really like this simple, understated declaration of love, and the satisfaction that comes from finally having found The One. And yes, the instrumentation is eerily reminiscent of 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head'.

Whoever's In New England

The lead single from McEntire's successful breakout album, My Kind of Country, 'Whoever's In New England' takes the perspective of a devoted wife who knows that her husband is cheating on her in his frequent business trips, yet swears to stand by him, and to be there for him 'when whoever's in New England's through with you'. It's extremely touching, and McEntire's sympathetic yet dignified performance is largely responsible for that.

For My Broken Heart

A very difficult decade to choose just one song, but eventually I settled on this, the title track from her 1991 album, the best of her career. The narrator is emotionally recovering after helping her lover to load up the car and leave her, and slowly realises that the world around her is carrying on and so she must too. Like many of Reba's best songs, it's heartbreaking in its everyday, mundane detail and its reflection of real, human, adult emotion.

Every Other Weekend

Narrated from the perspective of both halves of a divorced couple, this is a touching account of their feelings as they share custody of their children. Once again, it's all about the details - the loneliness of the mother when her children are away ("nothing to do and all day not to do it in") and the father trying desperately to please his children ("'that's not the way mom does it, Dad.' It breaks my heart"). The characters are completely identifiable and oh-so-real, and Chesney and McEntire combine their best in a heartbreaking performance.

(Except the Kenny Chesney version isn't on YouTube, so here's the radio version with Skip Ewing)

If I Were A Boy

Probably not a popular choice, many critics disliked this pop cover from McEntire's most recent album, citing it as an example of her dumbing-down, not acting her age and not being country enough. I disagree. The first time I heard this song, I was struck by just how well it worked with McEntire's signature twang, and how well it transferred to the country genre.

One thing that struck me while I was researching and writing this post was just how detailed McEntire's songs are, and how real the characters are. As well as being a canny selector of songs, McEntire lives the characters, their thoughts and their emotions, and brings it all out with her authoritative, sympathetic interpretation that reflects her years, her experiences and her maturity. Those things are her strength, and I hope she never leaves them behind.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Artist profile - C.H. (Switzerland)

C.H.'s music has all the ingredients needed to succeed on contemporary country radio. They have strong, poppy melodies, their guitar-led arrangements are reminiscent of Keith Urban and the male-female vocal combination has echoes of acts like Steel Magnolia.

There's one slight obstacle however. And that's the fact that C.H. perform all their music in the dialect of Swiss German.

In international standard codes, C.H. represents Switzerland. But for this group, those initials stand for Country Helvetia. They're a country music band from Switzerland, who released their debut album in 2011, after taking part in the Swiss preselection for the Eurovision Song Contest with their song 'Gib nid uf' (Don't Give Up).

The origins of the group lie in Swiss singer-songwriter Reto Burrell's visit to Nashville in 2008, where he discovered country music, and notably the growing mainstream popularity of acts like Lady Antebellum, being particularly impressed by the male/female lead vocals. He decided to transfer this template to Switzerland and brought in Nori Rickenbacher to perform lead male vocals, along with Kisha, a pop singer who had a few solo hits in Switzerland in the '90s.

Burrell has stated that his biggest challenge was to bring the storytelling nature of country music over into the Swiss German dialect, but was determined to do so. "These are our stories, our stories of Swiss life, and everyone should understand it," he says. Refreshingly, they don't dress up and put on cowboy hats for their gigs either: "To make country music you need more than just a banjo or a cowboy hat". They're clearly determined to be authentic in their own terms, and I think they succeed in this.

As well as their own compositions, the album Country Helvetia also contains covers of established country songs adapted into Swiss German. These include Tim McGraw's 'Telluride', which is admirably transported almost line-for-line to the Swiss ski resort of Saas Fee, as well as the frankly odd choice of Jewel's 'Everybody Needs Someone Sometime'.

In researching this group, I've discovered that country music in Swiss German is surprisingly enjoyable. Go on, give it a try. Watch the video to their first single 'Gib nid uf' below, along with a live performance of 'Saas Fee' (Telluride), and check out their album on Spotify

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Five great country songs you probably didn't hear in 2011 (and should have)

Part of my objective in writing this blog was to promote music that doesn't necessarily make the mainstream country scene. Here are five songs that I've enjoyed this year but which, for whatever reason, you probably haven't heard. And you really should have done. Let me know what you think below.

Pernilla Andersson - Desperados
I've featured this song before, but had to include it in here again. It's (from what I can make out with my limited Swedish) the tale of 'two desperados who always wanted more' and features wonderful ambiguity reflected in the music and Andersson's vocal.

Tara Oram - Kiss Me When I Fall
Tara was the obligatory country contestant on the fifth season of Canadian Idol, and has found some minor success in her home country. This song, the second single from her second album released this year, is a powerful, mid-tempo ballad with a driving beat and a heartfelt vocal.

Jill Johnson - In One Piece
Written by Swedish country star Johnson along with Lisa Carver and Taylor Swift's sometime co-writer Liz Rose, 'In One Piece' is a Faith Hill-style big ballad, with Johnson performing the role of the woman whose lover is leaving her, with just the right balance of grace and desperation.

The Lucky Bullets - Fire Below
Eurovision goes country, and properly country while it's at it. This traditional-sounding song from Norway wouldn't sound out of place on a Justin Townes Earle album, and would be far too traditional for contemporary country radio.

Gretchen Peters - The Matador

Peters released this video in December to promote her upcoming album Hello Cruel World. With this as a taster (as well as the wonderful 'Five Minutes, which moved me to tears when Peters premiered on her tour), I can't wait for the album's release at the end of January.

There's my five songs you didn't hear in 2011. What's yours? Comment below and let me know your favourite country song that didn't make the mainstream.