I get the sense that you’ve certainly had your ups and downs in the music industry to get to this point, releasing your second album ten years after your first, so I wanted to start by talking about some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way.
I don’t know where to start really! After that first album I was gigging on and off for a few more years really, and then released a couple of tiny things myself – nothing major, just putting my own demos out. Then we got signed to Island, and then got dropped, meaning we had to look for a new label and various other things.
It’s been such a long process! So there have been very many ups and downs, but, at the same time, I started very young and had a lot of big things happen straight away. I recorded A Smaller Version… when I was seventeen, so as much as I might have started to think ‘Oh well, it has been a rough ride’, I have to remember that lots of people don’t start making music and gigging until they’re in their twenties and then get to where I am now at the same time. So it’s a really subjective thing.
You wrote an interesting question on your blog about whether people really realise how many years and how much work has gone into this album. That so many people are calling you an overnight success must be very strange for you!
It’s very strange, but of course you hear the same thing about lots of acts who have been in the industry for years. I can remember hearing about Coldplay being this big overnight success but they had been gigging for six, seven, even eight years before they released their first album and then got really massive. So even though people still use this term, I don’t think there really is such a thing as overnight success – it’s absolutely impossible.
Even when someone goes on a reality TV show or wins a competition and goes from being one thing one day to being totally different the next, the term ‘success’ is really flimsy because you’re then at the beginning of a very long process where within a year you could be on the scrapheap again. The overnight success thing – it doesn’t actually exist.
So what was the story with Island? They released the In The Labyrinth EP in 2008 and it looked like everything was going well – what happened? Were you just another victim of label restructuring?
I really don’t know what happened there to be honest. I was involved at the development end of the company, and they dropped lots of acts and projects across the board. Whether or not that was for financial reasons I don’t think I’ll ever know, but for me one reason is as good as the next. The fact was that I was with a deal one day and without the next, so then I had to start looking for something else.
Is music a full-time thing for you, or have you needed to support yourself through other jobs?
I do work. I mean, it’s been part-time really for the last few years. It’s hard to make a living in music at the best of times, let alone now when piracy is so rife and labels don’t really have as much money as they used to, so with work it’s really just been a case of doing it as and when needed.
It must feel very different releasing Portrait compared with your first album. Are you feeling more confident?
I don’t know! It was so long ago I can’t actually remember what the build-up was like to the last album to be honest. I mean, it was a much smaller thing – just a run of about five hundred copies on a tiny label run by one guy. It wasn’t anything like this time around. More of a tiny little Manchester set up. For this album I am much more involved with the rest of the industry and the press, and I’m doing better gigs as well so it’s very different.
After leaving Island you started to work with the people at Ark Recordings and that’s when you ‘dropped’ your surname. Did you have lots of discussions about that, about trying to present yourself in a way that you felt was most appropriate?
Surname-wise, it wasn’t really a big deal. I’m kind of using both anyway, because obviously with the internet you need some way to distinguish yourself from every other Josephine out there. My website is Josephine Oniyama, my Twitter is Josephine Oniyama, so it’s not been entirely dropped. As for image, we didn’t have that many discussions about it. I kind of do my own thing most of the time. Of course, if I’m doing a video or a photo shoot then it’s nice to work from the photographer’s ideas or the director’s ideas and go from there. I think it’s really important to be open to these things. I spend most of my time thinking about my songs, and gigs more than anything, so when it comes to image and things like that it can be good to have people there to say, well, this works or that doesn’t work.
Is making videos and doing photo shoots something that you enjoy or do you find it exhausting?
It’s exhausting but it’s very enjoyable as well. I think once you’ve done lots of gigs and things you don’t really get nervous about things videos and photo shoots. It’s actually a nice part of the job because you get to dress up and spend the day with lots of nice, new people. When you spend so much time being nervous and gigging, that’s what takes it out of you.
Portrait is a very vibrant album with lots of different musical styles, but it’s also a record that feels wonderfully cohesive. Did you set out to make a record like that? I remember the first one being pretty sparse and acoustic.
Yes. I went through a few different stages with the album, from making something quite sparse – something laidback and folky – to the more upbeat record I have now. I recorded the brunt of the songs on the album with a guy called Leo Abrahams, and I wrote a couple of songs with him as well. I also did some writing with Ed Harcourt, but the majority of it was myself and Leo. To me it does sound cohesive, but then again it’s always going to be strange for me because I only hear the process – I don’t hear what everybody else hears, so I can only hear how it was done. So at the same time it sounds like a lot of years, a lot of changes, a lot of mixes and a lot of lyrics. It’s kind of like I recorded almost two different albums, and there are lots of other songs that didn’t make it onto the final tracklist.
I was going to ask about that actually. Did you always know you wanted to include some of the songs from your previous EPs, or were you tempted to start from a completely clean slate?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s difficult because there could never have been a clean slate because nothing for the last however many years had been released. I’ve pretty much been in a constant state of writing and recording for the last ten years I guess. There wouldn’t have been a point to start from scratch because it was such a continuous process! When I eventually got to Ark they were like, ‘Well, we like these songs – what do you think of this as the album?” Because I had so much stuff, we went back and forth and then we ended up with ten songs that we felt worked well as a package.
So which of the songs is the oldest song would you say?
Probably ‘I Think It Was Love’, which I wrote shortly after that first album was released, when I was maybe 18 or 19.
And which one is the most up-to-date Josephine?
Oh gosh! I think it’s ‘Last Minute’. I think that was the last one that we wrote. Estelle and I wrote that together from some ideas that I had. I’m pretty sure that’s the youngest song.
Did you go through lots of different ideas for the album title or was Portrait something that you decided on pretty early?
It was quite instant. It’s a very simple title. I didn’t really want to detract from any of the songs and the purpose of the album, which is like an introduction. Because I knew that this record was going to be on a much larger scale than the first album it seemed important to say ‘hello’ again, and I think the title Portrait says introduction very well.
With picking the singles, has that been an easy thing or have you had to make some tough decisions?
To be honest, I didn’t really pick the singles. Again, it’s a case of having to leave certain jobs to people who know their job better. I’ve given them the songs and the things that I’ve written about my life, and it’s for somebody else to say “Well I think this one is going to be the one that introduces you best.” I mean, I definitely came back with my opinion on things, and we went back and forth a couple of times between myself, my label and my manager, and things like that. In the end they all agreed that ‘What A Day’ was best as the first single and ‘Original Love’ as the second, and I’m happy with that.
I feel like if I were to pick I’d probably choose ‘House Of Mirrors’, which is maybe one of the least accessible. To come out with a really moody four-and-a-half minute piano ballad probably wouldn’t be the best thing to do! So I think it’s really important to let the team that you put around you decide how things should go, as well.
Now that you’re doing more press you seem to be getting compared with a lot of other artists. Are there any you’ve seen and thought, “Oh gosh, no, that’s not me at all”?
Not really. I tend to get compared with people who are much older artists, like Mahalia Jackson – even people like Nina Simone and others who aren’t around anymore. And obviously those comparisons are great. I haven’t really come across any that have grated on me.
A bunch of people have called you “an old soul in a young person’s body” – do you see yourself in that way at all?
I don’t know. I think that was something Guy Garvey [of Elbow] might have said. It was very nice, but obviously I just feel my own age! I think he meant it more in terms of my musical style, which could be from any era. Which is great because I don’t want to be only for now – everybody wants to make music that lasts. So in that sense I think it’s a very cool perspective to have. I think that’s what I’m aiming for.
If you think as big as you can, what would your hopes be for this album?
That it gets me out of work! No, seriously, just that it all goes well and people enjoy it. There isn’t really much else I can ask for. World domination isn’t my agenda or anything; I’m not really that kind of person. I just want to be able to put out good music, and if people like it they can buy it and I’m happy with that. And work towards the next album really. Let’s just see how far it gets me!
So hopefully it won’t be ten years until the next one?
If it’s ten years until the next one it’s not going to happen, let’s put it that way [laughs]. I’m not waiting that long again!
Portrait is out now on ARK Recordings/Rubyworks.