Neo-soul is what we’re calling it, a label lifted from some music journo and adapted to fit the parameters of our listening habits. My flatmate K and I are obsessed – we wake each other up listening to Nao in the shower, blasting out Abra or Little Dragon on our bassiest speakers, dragging each other into our respective bedrooms to sample Sevdaliza or The Internet. The tunes are sparsely textured and draw attention to their own simplicity. Emotional complexity is expressed through twists and turns of soulful vocals, slow moans of guitar, dubby synths and clean, subtle beats. Sometimes I put one of these artists on and we – usually so loquacious – shut up to just listen, losing ourselves in the melodies for a while before inevitably breaking into harmonies or stylised dance moves.
I first heard neo-soul last year. As is so often the case, I stumbled across it (un)fashionably late, borrowing a friend’s 4-year-old 2011 Rough Trade collection and adding my favourite tunes to my iPod. Little Dragon’s ‘Wildfire’ won me almost instantly: her breathy, broken vocals had a self-assured vitality to them, and the sound effects were unusually tasteful. Where the sound is momentarily dropped on the word “wildfire”, my heart jolts with the music even now; I feel Little D’s joy with her – I’m reminded of the nauseous excitement of fresh love. When I found it, I’d just moved to London, and I needed this new sound to break me in.
Nao supported Little Dragon on one of her tours, so Spotify was quick to recommend her as soon as I’d thoroughly integrated Little Dragon into my listening habits. ‘Girlfriend’ was my first find – a sweet, self-effacing love song that blossoms with each chorus into a buoyant and unexpected expanse of synthesised sound. Even though Nao’s lyrics are often quite clichéd and trivial, For All We Know soundtracked my summer, and ‘Blue Wine’ found a permanent place in my listening habits. Now its sugary richness has blurred together into a short-lived but incredibly intense romance in my memory, listening to it moves me to breathlessness and tears pretty much every time.
I saw Nao live twice over summer, once at Field Day festival and once at Glastonbury. She was disappointing at Field Day – the PA system was way too quiet, so she was barely audible. I spent her set glaring at the dickheads who were chatting in front of me, standing between me and the sound of my summer. At Glastonbury she played the Park Stage, a much better place for her, although poor sound engineering plagued that set too: at the sides of the stage, the bassiness made the music unlistenable.
Despite this disappointment, I’ve barely been able to listen to anything but neo-soul since June. A friend recommended The Internet, whose lead singer is a girl who writes songs about girls – perfect for me during this particularly bisexual period of my life. The Internet’s instrumentation is more traditional than other neo-soul bands’, but the vocal simplicity, soulful harmonies and synthy treble on ‘Girl’ work in similar ways to ‘Blue Wine’. Other Internet tracks are tenser, jazzier and bassier, varying the mood and holding attention in ways Nao maybe doesn’t.
I love all these artists, but it’s not summer anymore. The weather has turned, and with it, my mood’s darkened too: with this change, I found Sevdaliza. She’s at the more stripped-back end of neo-soul, but she has a moodier palette than Little Dragon and more emotional variety than Nao. Sure, there’s sex in ‘Backseat Love’- there’s always sex in neo-soul; it’s a genre which gives pride of place to sensuality and desire. But in Sevdaliza there’s also despair, and an epic quality in the piano parts that is nevertheless subtle. It’s art. No element is gratuitous, no digital effect added without consideration. ‘The Inside’ has the eerie beauty of an unsettling dream that lingers well into the morning.
The ranks of neo-soul are full of talented women of colour, a testament to the resilience and creativity of one of society’s most marginalised groups. I connect with the music most readily at the level of its unapologetic femininity: its vulnerability and quietude are refreshing, exploring feminine emotions and identities often derided as weak in ways that affirm them and reveal their nuance and worth. Sevdaliza is particularly good at this (see ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘That Other Girl’) and Little Dragon has a raw, abstract honesty to her lyrics (such as in the beautiful ‘Twice’).
Neo-soul is a far cry from my teenage listening habits – the whiteness and maleness of my music collection as a teenager never fails to embarrass me now. Maybe gathering these artists under one label of ‘neo-soul’ relies too heavily on their shared gender and minority ethnic backgrounds. Whatever we’re calling it, these artists are bound together by talent and emotion as pure as ethanol and far more intoxicating.