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Guitar soul divas

Bearing six-strings and evocative visions, these artists transcend categories with music of a different color.

July 30, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

IT was the kind of image that flicks across the television late at night, when the music channels loosen up their playlists and offer glimpses of the future. The video showed a young woman in a comfy living room, meditatively playing an acoustic guitar. No gyrating midriffs; no flashy bling. Just quiet scenes of someone looking inward, wrapping her voice around a love song and strumming some simple chords.

What startled about Corinne Bailey Rae's performance of "Like a Star," from her recently released self-titled debut on Capitol Records, was the singer's coffee-colored skin and brown-sugar voice.

Women of color aren't usually seen playing guitar on screen, or at the top of the charts. A few have gained fame -- Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill -- and artists like funky bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello, mystical chanteuse Erykah Badu and poetess Jill Scott qualify as close relations. But mostly, "brown girls" don't take on the guitar-strumming, introspective pose that since the 1960s has been associated with rock genius. When they do, they throw a wrench in the thinking that, despite many examples to the contrary, divides "rockist" values from pop ones, mostly along racial and gender lines.

Since the days of Lennon and Dylan, at least, rock authenticity has been linked to the image of the white male genius stating his truths with rawness and depth, while pop authenticity (yes, there is such a concept) has stressed supposedly feminine ideals like beauty, adaptability to current fashions and a talent for working well with others. Racial differences create related divides: Soul authenticity, and now hip-hop "realness," stress rock-style heavy emotion, but collaboration matters here as much or more than individuality. Musicians from Elvis Presley to Prince to Kelly Clarkson have long defied these categories, and yet they still dominate the way music is marketed, judged and discussed, even as one form of realness -- say, hip-hop's mix of sonic innovation and from-the-streets testifying -- triumphs over another, like rock's tradition-minded soul-searching.

As any diva will tell you, though, "realness" is a slippery concept. Even as Nelly Furtado's commercially triumphant transformation from folk-pop hippie to beats-hungry vixen seemed to drive the final nail in the coffin of guitar-based balladry, soulful women of color with guitars have emerged to claim rock-ish authenticity for themselves. India.Arie, the heir apparent to that lonely seat most recently occupied by Hill, earned her first-ever Billboard No. 1 with her third release, "Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship," becoming the first female Motown Records artist to gain that spot since Diana Ross in 1973. And she's not alone. For perhaps the first time, a woman of color strumming a guitar is not an anomaly but a genuine pop trend.

It's part of an influx of independent-minded women somewhat obscured by the proliferation of alpha divas strutting summer singles down the runway like new frocks. Jessica, Paris and Christina define the status quo with their future-sounding pop explosions. Something more quietly affecting is coming from rising talents such as keyboard-based songwriters Regina Spektor and Vienna Teng, guitarists Kaki King and Gabriela Quintero, and electronic experimenters Leslie Feist and Juana Molina. Guitar soul divas hold a special place within this promising group: They're challenging the cliches about folk-rock authority by making music that no one expects them to make.

The 27-year-old Rae, a platinum artist in her native England, released her debut album in March; it's made Billboard's Top 20 and is receiving major airplay on adult-contemporary and smooth-jazz stations nationwide. The video for her second single, the buoyant "Put Your Records On," is in heavy rotation at VH1, and the former indie rocker who cites Courtney Love as a major influence is now leading a large, horn-kissed band in her first American headlining tour, stopping at the House of Blues in Hollywood on Monday. Often compared to Norah Jones (and, to her own chagrin, the unmatchable Billie Holiday), Rae blends reggae, indie-pop and down-tempo electronica -- she recalls Bjork as often as she does Lady Day -- within ballads and groovers grounded in the sophisticated feel of 1970s soul. When she played the Troubadour this summer, Prince himself showed up to cheer her on.

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