There was a time, several rock 'n' roll eras ago, when singer-songwriters were more or less defined as folkies who pen their own tunes. Coming up through the folk revival, they played acoustic guitars and, when composing, leaned heavily on ideas gleaned from traditional American roots music: old time, folk-blues, jug band, etc. In the '70s, this situation began to change when Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and several other maverick singer-songwriters instead looked to soul, funk and jazz rock for inspiration. In particular, they were attracted to the smooth yet sophisticated syncopation heard on classic albums such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic.
Nowadays, singer-songwriters getting funky is to be expected, especially within the realm of pop music. The most obvious examples -- Dave Matthews, Michael Franti, the John Butler Trio, Xavier Rudd -- all are found in the jam band scene (which has always championed the funk). Right there with them are the singing surfers and beach rats, namely Jack Johnson, Donavon Frankenreiter (very '70s inspired) and Colbie Caillat. But maybe the most interesting development in regards to the intersection of singer-songwriter fare and funkiness is Ed Sheeran's debut album, +, which became a commercial smash here in the States over the last year. The young Englishman might play acoustic guitar just like the British folkies of yore, but he cleverly employs rhythmic schemes influenced by hip-hop, soul and grime (a permutation of electronic dance music rooted in drum 'n' bass, dancehall and UK garage). There certainly have been other singer-songwriters to experiment with hip-hop and dance beats, but Sheeran feels like a fresh, new voice. Now get listening!