Not since the mid ’60s — when U.K. groups like the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks took over America’s radio waves — has such a confluence of talent produced such a perfect storm of music and fashion. But instead of mop tops, skinny suits and pointy boots, these performers are sporting beehive hairdos, Nike sneakers and a sound well beyond their twentysomething years.
Solo singer-songwriters Lily Allen, Joss Stone, Corinne Bailey Rae and Amy Winehouse are the most prominent poster girls for the latest British invasion — musical purists with distinctive, offbeat personalities and neoclassic sounds that hark back to Motown, old-school R&B, torch jazz and ’60s girl doo-wop groups. “It’s sophisticated pop,” says Universal Republic Records prexy Monte Lipman, pinpointing the womens’ style. “These are album-oriented artists.”
What’s been impressive about these talents is how rapidly they’ve hit their stride stateside.
“Years ago you’d have to look in the imports section of the record store to find these artists,” says Lipman about the latest Brit fad. “Today, you just fire up your computer. It’s much easier to be turned on to these artists.”
Since the debut of her self-titled album in June 2006, Baiely Rae, known for her intimate performance style and folksy, soulful singles like “Put Your Records On,” grabbed three Grammy noms — best new artist, song of the year and record of the year — and is about to see double platinum sales.
Five months after landing in the U.S. with “Back to Black,” the tattooed, Etta James-like siren Winehouse recently crossed the million-album sales mark. More fascinating than her sales figures is her wide appeal, which Lipman (who signed her from U’s London label) pegs as “8 to 80” thanks to her retro vocals and smoldering look.
Stone, who embarked on her neo-soul career at 16, is already a household name in the U.K., having reached platinum with her 2004 album “Mind, Body, Soul” and a recent gold certification with this year’s “Introducing Joss Stone,” an album she says “goes back to love.”
Meanwhile, Lily Allen is evidence that ska didn’t die with the demise of the English Beat and the Specials. More than a year after her first live performance in the U.K., Allen’s bouncy, street-smart ditties and signature sartorial style (she has her own fashion line for British chain New Look) have resonated with young alternative fans, driving 2 million units in global sales for her coming-of-age LP, “Alright, Still.”
More striking than her Cockney intonation is Allen’s outspoken demeanor. Onstage, her act comes complete with Nike Air Max 95s, a cigarette and a hard drink. Offstage, Allen personally uses her MySpace blog as a means to not only connect with fans, but to trash tabloids and wag fingers at her peers. In May, Allen, in a depressed mood, titled one of her missives “Fat, Ugly and Shittier Than Winehouse.” She later apologized for the reference, writing that it was a response to some surfers’ online postings favoring Winehouse’s looks over hers.
Despite any underlying animosity between the two, both share a mutual friendship with music producer-DJ Mark Ronson, who has left his infectious imprints on their albums.
While Yank ingenues like Britney Spears pay homage to Madonna, these Blighty gals revere other legends in their work: Bob Marley (Stone), Blondie (Allen) and the Shangri-Las (Winehouse).
“Hearing Billie Holiday for the first time was a total revelation,” says Bailey Rae about her childhood inspiration. “She had a voice that was fragile and incredibly powerful. I couldn’t get anywhere near the range of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Billie made me feel I could maybe use my own voice to deliver my own songs.”
Adds Stone: “When you listen to old records, you feel so much more connected. Everything is coming back around.”
Recent breakthrough: Playing at Glastonbury
Role model: “My mother.”
Career mantra: “Be nice to people on the way up because then people will be nice to you on the way down.”
What’s next: “Charity work, using my career to help others. Oh, and writing a new album.”
Recent breakthrough: “Making an album that people liked and was successful around the world.”
Role model: “So many to choose from but ultimately I would say my mum.”
Career mantra: “Trust your instincts.”
What’s next: “Writing and recording songs for my second album.”
Vocation: “Just an artist all around. I try to do everything in art. I don’t aim at one thing.”
Recent breakthrough: “I realized where the love of my life is. Not in men, just with art. I feel like it’s made me a happier person.”
Role model: “To have one is unhealthy. People shouldn’t model themselves on another person because then you’ll always be upset.”
Career mantra: “Be nice. Don’t be a bitch and good things will come to you.”
What’s next: “The last leg of my American tour. I’m going to Istanbul and England.”
Recent breakthrough: “I’ve done a record I’m really proud of,” Winehouse told Rolling Stone.
Role model: “I guess you learn to sing from what you hear,” Winehouse told Aussie morning show “Sunrise on 7,” citing vocal inspirations as Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Minnie Riperton.
Career mantra: “Life is short, you gotta live in the moment,” Winehouse told mtvu.com.
What’s next: Kicking off another leg of her U.S. tour this fall.