What's with all the white-boy blues singers?

Jack Garratt, James Bay and Hozier all share an affected warble that has come to dominate British pop. Where did it come from, and why won’t it just go away?

Listen to BBC Sound Of 2016 winner Jack Garratt and what do you hear? Earnest lyrics about hopelessly profound love? Aye. Plaintive stabs of electro and reverbed guitars? Yip. The voice of a 24-year-old raised in charming Buckinghamshire village Little Chalfont? Erm, not exactly. Garratt sounds as if he’s been busking in New Orleans for 40 years, existing on a diet of bourbon and filterless fags. And so do James Bay, Hozier, Tom Odell and George Ezra. In fact, besides a smattering of catarrh-loosening growls, they’re all almost indistinguishable. Setting himself apart must be the reason James Bay wears that desperately appalling hat. Why else would he?

Vocal trends in pop ebb and flow. Remember when, in the wake of Arctic Monkeys, any lad in leather who’d ever stood in a chip-shop queue – Reverends, Pigeon Detectives, Enemies – thought he could distil the state of the nation into three, flat-vowelled minutes? Or when, nine years ago, British singers adopted the fey, estuary-accented semi-rapping of Lily Allen, Kate Nash and Jamie T? This tennis-ball-lodged-in-the-throat blues is just the latest fad.

But at least Allen and co tried to insert some colloquial character into their voices, albeit often with a crowbar. Bay, however, is from Hitchin; Ezra, 18 miles away in Hertford; Ben Howard hails from Totnes, not Tennessee.

Much of this enthusiasm for blues-soul affectation can be traced back to Paolo Nutini, whose Paisley-by-Kentucky warble made his 2006 debut album go double-platinum. Then came James Morrison, Passenger, Howard and Jamie N Commons, who presumably quickly figured out that a bit of snarl can give even the clammiest ballad a bit of pizazz and disguise the sexless mundanity of another lonely, middle-class white boy with a guitar. Ask Ed Sheeran: everyone else has upped their husk levels, hoping to mirror his stadium-filling achievements.

“As soon as one person gets popular, people follow,” says singer-songwriter Fiona Bevan, who worked with Sheeran early on in his career. “Everybody is basically being a magpie.” Could producers be coaxing the faux-’Merican croon from some of these young acts? “It’s the music industry,” she says. “Of course there’s cynicism, and people chasing money. Some kids who get signed don’t know who they are yet. And, yes, when you put those people in a studio, they can get swayed. Though if an artist has been swayed by a producer or a studio, they’re not a strong artist.”

Garratt’s blues warble and bland everyman backstory – failed a Junior Eurovision heat, decided to make music with “integrity” instead – may not indicate the strongest artist either, but here’s hoping he represents the tail end of this tiresome trend. But we can change things. Sleaford Mods have had a good year: nip out and buy a few more of their albums and 2017 could be full of fellas with Nottingham accents singing about the smell of piss instead.

Fiona Bevan’s album, Talk To Strangers, is out now


Luke Holland

The GuardianTramp

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