Portrait may be soul-folk troubadour Josephine Oniyama’s debut album but you wouldn’t know it given its maturity and familiarity. The 29-year-old Mancunian, who now performs sans surname like all the greats, was brought up on a rich musical diet of everything from Joni Mitchell to Fela Kuti and this is evident throughout the album. With the help of collaborators like Ed Harcourt, Josephine weaves her varied influences into well crafted, nostalgic songs.
But it is when she sings that you realise her voice is at the heart of Portrait. At once familiar and surprising, Josephine’s expressive vocal call to a mind a wistful lounge singer of times gone by and conjures up images of dingy bars, crackling gramophones and doomed romances. But there is more to this record than formulaic imagery; her crisp voice is often accompanied by unexpected but welcome layers, like the subtle plink of a xylophone on I Think It Was Love. Elsewhere, as on When We Were Trespassers Josephine creates grand symphonic pop and jazz-infused ballads, her voice cutting through the memory-laden veil that hangs over Portrait.
The slow soul of the title track demonstrates Josephine’s maturity and intelligent lyrics as she asks “am I a portrait of the person I’m supposed to be?”, questioning the societal preoccupation with how we perceive ourselves and choose to be perceived. However the single release, What A Day, slightly disappoints by feeling clichéd and detached from the general mood of the album. The choice of What A Day as the single release was presumably an obvious one for the record label, as it is closer to other young female singer/songwriters and therefore a more straightforward sell. Hopefully it won’t mean Josephine misses out on drawing in a wider fan base than could be intrigued by the more rewarding and intimate experience offered on the rest of the album.
There’s a tendency to try and classify Josephine’s sound, or apply tedious comparisons to Amy MacDonald, KT Tunstall, et al. But it would be wrong to do so given the breadth of influence employed on Portrait. When she is at her best, Josephine can tenderly pull on your heartstrings whilst leaving you strangely uplifted. A contradiction no doubt but, more significantly, it is a testament to her unique talent.