The earthy, sensual appeal and the emotional potency of Julia Fordham’s contralto voice are what initially strike most people listening to the British pop singer. Having released four albums to British acclaim and moderate U.S. attention, Fordham has carved a niche for herself in the adult contemporary market. She writes almost all of the songs she sings, alternating between melancholy, love-centered lyrics and socially conscious ones. Influenced by Julie London and Joni Mitchell, Fordham combines ethereal background instrumentation with folk/pop sounds for the thinking listener.
Born in 1963 in Portsmouth, England, Fordham, along with her two siblings, was brought up on Hayling Island, a rural island next to the Isle of Wight. “I wanted to be a singer from the time I was a small child,” she expressed to Kristine McKenna of Musician in 1990, “but my hopes were temporarily dashed when I couldn’t get into the school choir. My voice was so low they wouldn’t have me! It wasn’t until I was 12 and got a guitar and spent endless hours singing in my room that I discovered I had two voices—one high and one low—that I could switch between quite easily.”
Although many musicians can point to childhood performances as heralds of their later careers, Fordham actually entered the world of professional music at a very early age. At 15, she began performing in pubs, having left school to devote herself to music. She took buses off the island to sing in pubs in Portsmouth and Hampshire. “In retrospect, it’s amazing my parents let me do it,” Fordham exclaimed to McKenna. Not only did the singer have the courage to launch her career so young, she had the confidence to rely for the most part on her own songs. Along with her own music, Fordham mixed songs from the 1940s, such as tunes by the Mills Brothers, and pieces by Joan Armatrading.
Fordham’s musical career took a shift in 1982 when she responded to an advertisement in Melody Maker for backup singers for Mari Wilson. As one of the Wilsa-tions, the 19-year-old Fordham was exposed to the workings of the pop music business. “I learned alotfrom Mari,” Fordham explained to Musician’s McKenna. “An intelligent woman with a great voice, but she let herself be manipulated into selling herself as a pop novelty. She took off in this big, pink bubble that eventually burst, and observing that process I came to understand that if I was gonna be successful in this business, that wasn’t how I was gonna do it.”
Five years later, Fordham felt she had enough experience to launch her solo career. Virgin Records agreed with her, offering the singer a contract in 1987. By 1988 Fordham’s debut album was released to positive reviews in Great Britain. Julia Fordham generated two
Born in 1963 in Portsmouth, England.
Sang in pubs in England, beginning in late 1970s; background singer for Mari Wilson, beginning in 1982; signed contract with Virgin Records, 1987; released self-titled debut album, 1988.
Addresses: Home —London, England. Record company —Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Road, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
European hit singles and sold 150,000 copies. After hearing the singer’s album, Jim Farber of Rolling Stone complimented Fordham’s voice, calling it “a deep, warm instrument, rich with deliberation. Her alto is as thick and androgynous as Alison Moyet’s, but she doles it out smoothly in a cool jazz style reminiscent of Sade and informs it with a self-conscious ambition suggesting Joni Mitchell.” However, Farber felt that a “murky production” detracted from the impact her voice could have made.
Rolling Stone reviewer Rob Tannenbaum had few good things to say about Fordham’s second album, Porcelain, released by Virgin in 1990. He judged her experimentation with foreign genres too casual to have more than a surface appeal and her melancholy unrelenting. “With its curious match of adolescent lyricism and contemporary musical structure, Fordham’s second album is full of foolish and beautiful extremes,” was the best he could find to say in his 1990 review.
Record buyers apparently disagreed, acquiring Porcelain to the tune of 225,000 copies and raising the album to Number 74 on the album charts. In addition, the single “Manhattan Skyline” from the album achieved substantial popularity on the VH-1 music video network. Fordham’s 1991 release, Swept, would not fare as well, selling only 85,000 copies. Jon Cummings in Billboard, though, called both Porcelain and Swept “exquisitely crafted, meticulously sung pop.” Fordham herself commented that her intent with the two albums was to achieve a certain kind of delivery, one that was emotive but controlled.
For her fourth album, Falling Forward, Fordham changed tactics, abandoning her controlled delivery for a more spontaneous sound. She remarked to Cummings, “This time I wanted to sing my pants off.” To help create an original feel for the album, Fordham looked to new producers. She left Grant Mitchell and Hugh Padgham, who had produced all three of her previous albums, and enlisted Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell’s husband and collaborator. Despite the radical change in sound, Fordham claimed to be happy with how she sang on her previous albums, explaining to Cummings, “I just came to feel you can’t keep doing the same things forever.”
The change seemed to renew enthusiasm for Fordham’s music. When the album was released in 1994 in Great Britain, it leapt to Number 21 on the British charts. Virgin Records felt the emergence of the LP on alternative and contemporary jazz radio stations would give it the boost that Swept did not have. Also, the label did not want to repeat what it saw as a grave mistake in the promotion of Swept: the lack of a U.S. tour, which it cited as the main reason for Swept’s poor performance in the United States.
Virgin brought Fordham to the United States in the summer of 1994 to prepare for an extensive fall tour. “We’re all big fans of Julia’s at Virgin,” product manager Jean Rousseau told Billboard’s Cummings, “and we’re expecting that all it’s going to take will be to get her out in front of people and let them rediscover her.”
Julia Fordham, Virgin, 1988.
Porcelain, Virgin, 1990.
Swept, Virgin, 1991.
Falling Forward, Virgin, 1994.
Billboard, June 4, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, July 29, 1994.
Musician, July 1, 1990.
Rolling Stone, November 17,1988; May 17,1990; September 22, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Virgin Records publicity materials, 1994.
—Susan Windisch Brown