The New School Singer-Songwriters
by Justin Farrar | January 31, 2015
For the longest time, our popular image of the singer-songwriter was that of the ruminative loner who, with acoustic guitar in hand, wandered the inner chambers of his or her soul in search of a good tune. It's an image rooted in the early '70s, when shaggy sensitivos like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and Nick Drake were busy releasing one awesome album after another. Of course, the classic singer-songwriter hasn't left pop music. English troubadour Passenger (born Michael David Rosenberg) embodies it to a T. His newly released full-length, Whispers, strongly echoes the vintage work of fellow countrymen Stevens and Drake.
At the same time, however, artists such as Ed Sheeran and Birdy are subtly reinventing the singer-songwriter's role in pop music. Sheeran, who just unleashed his sophomore effort, X, might strap on a six-string, yet he also employs hip-hop beats and club grooves. Cowritten with Pharrell Williams, lead single "Sing" finds Sheeran marrying funky acoustic guitar (think Joni Mitchell's uniquely choppy strumming in "Big Yellow Taxi") and falsetto cries nicked from modern R&B. Meanwhile, Birdy (born Jasmine van den Bogaerde) is a precocious talent who possesses the ability to blend introspective songwriting with the kind of grandiose pop gestures that Coldplay, U2 and Florence + the Machine all have innovated in recent years. Birdy, it should be noted, has sought input from outside songwriters as well. Her hit single "Wings" was co-written with pop powerhouse and OneRepublic honcho Ryan Tedder.
A knack for reinvention can also be detected in indie music. With her latest set, Are We There, garnering praise from just about every critic on the planet, Sharon Van Etten in the last couple of years has created an intensely minimal and oftentimes harrowing sound shaded with touches of classic blues, soul and even goth. Inspired by Cat Power, she certainly possesses her own unique voice. The same can be said of Angel Olsen (who recently made her debut appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman). The chances are good she spent her teen years listening to Cat Power albums, but as her latest record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, demonstrates, she's a powerful singer-songwriter with a love for fuzzy guitars, honky-tonk twang and garage-bred grit. To learn more about the new school of singer-songwriters, crank our playlist ASAP.