Josephine Foster doesn’t get played on the radio. Her albums are not advertised on telly and her singles do not appear on Now compilations. It’s surely a wonder how anyone gets to hear about her at all.
It’s obviously not an issue though, as the small Cafe OTO in a hidden Dalston back street is packed to bursting in expectation of the Colorado-born folk singer’s arrival. There are tweed jackets, floral dresses and chunky rimmed glasses all round – a clientele that appreciates a delicate warbling voice and pretty meandering melody. It’s an open bet that at least some in this room are in lifelong thrall to Vashti Bunyan.
Following a beautiful set from guitarist and occasional singer Victor Herrero, Foster takes her seat in front of the captivated crowd. There is no stage, just a chair with what looks like a couple of desk lamps pointed in her direction.
“The show is about to start. Can I remind you not to talk during the performance,” said a pre-show announcement. As soon as she began, it was clear why this diktat made sense. Foster’s voice is as fragile as a new-born kitten, especially when she sings without so much as reverb as accompaniment. It’s intriguing, lovely… strange.
Over the last decade Foster has prolifically plugged away, slotting hersongwriting into particular genres. She made an album of ukulele-fronted songs, then made a record of children’s music. Via psychedelic rock to American folk she’s been on a one woman exploration of music’s recesses and folds. Her first album for UK-based Fire Records, Graphic As A Star, weighed in at 26 tracks. This is not a lady who does things by halves.
Appropriately then, tonight she was playing two sets, the first of which comprises new songs. ‘Songs’ in this instance means a collection of shanties, sonnets and poems, some sung with guitar and some without. The atmosphere is tense and the audience doesn’t know what to do after each section. Is that the end of a song? Do we clap? Is clapping rude? Should we just gawp like she’s a work of art?
A slight, awkward smile from Foster makes me think she’s expecting applause and is a little embarrassed they don’t arrive. However, appreciation comes fast as soon as she ends her first full song, one with chords and choruses.
The no talking rule is full in force now. Evil eyes stare whenever a door is opened or a glass is put down too violently. Foster, tall and thin like a young Dot Cotton with flowing hair and a mid-state American accent, comes across as shy in the serious atmosphere, but she’s enjoying her performance, which includes songs about Christopher Columbus and Tel Aviv, with hints of traditional folk given away with the occasional “t’was”. Harmonica accompaniment adds colour amid the starkness.
The second set retains delicate vocals, but Foster seems a little more in her comfort zone, especially when she trades the guitar for the beautiful wooden grand piano, sounding earthy and rich. Her playing is superb; it seems odd she’s saved this till now, when the late start means some of her audience must leave to make last tubes.
Before we leave we catch a glimpse of her in what may be the finest moment of the night. Herrero returns with guitar to join her as she clatters castanets for a delightful Spanish-language song. It seems there’s little she can’t do.