Music News

Elusive and Loving It

A scene from a recent Miami Vice nailed it perfectly. Exterior: A chic poolside party for the art world's local elite. Startling expressionistic creations by this year's Warhols slicing up the stark-blue skyline--unframed abstracts in vivid, high-gloss colors beside sharp, looming sculptures. Deathly solemn, culturally overbred men and women--looking like refugees from a Calvin Klein cologne commercial--strolling the terraces in weekend-elegant fashions, sipping cognac from crested Baccarat snifters.

And on the stereo, clicking away with clean, digital precision, Tanita Tikaram's haunting New Age anthem, "Twist in My Sobriety."

Of course. A champagne power brunch with the artsy-craftsy crowd is just where you'd expect to hear the music of this new, nineteen-year-old, West German-born chanteuse, one of a growing number of post-light rock mellow-meisters filling the playlists of New Age/light jazz stations like Phoenix's KGRX-FM (The Wave). If you've heard "Twist in My Sobriety" or any of the other equally ethereal tracks off Tikaram's debut Reprise album, Ancient Heart, chances are pretty good you didn't catch them on a busted dashboard speaker in your brother-in-law's Ford pickup. Ancient Heart is the type of sonically stress-relieving yuppie wallpaper that sounds best on Bose bookshelf speakers in a top-floor executive suite, or on a state-of-the-art CD player in your hippest friend's living room.

But that stereotypical setting may soon be changing. "Twist in My Sobriety," actually the second single off Tikaram's critically praised debut, is beginning to make serious inroads toward multiple-crossover success. Already a staple on VH-1, the song's video was recently put into rotation on MTV. And the track is starting to get significant airplay on both adult-contemporary and alternative rock radio stations.

The station in your brother-in-law's Ford may not be so far off after all.
For Tikaram, who views American radio's preoccupation with categorizing musical styles and segmenting audiences with some disdain, this is all very baffling.

"I don't really understand how all this categorization works anyway," she says over the phone from Reprise Records' New York offices after only a few days in the states and before the kickoff date on her first U.S. club tour. "To be honest with you, the whole concept is a very alien thing to me, because in England [where she's lived with her Fijian/Malaysian parents since 1981], we have only one radio station, inasmuch as it's the only national station. In America, there's so many different categories for music. That seems very strange."

Nevertheless, this stranger in a strange land is pleased that her songs are beginning to make homes for themselves in more than one of those niches. "I'm very happy that it seems to have broad appeal," she says. "I don't think the album has one particular sound or format to it anyway, so I'm glad each different station can find something that they like."

She's hoping the make-up of her American concert audiences will reflect more than one category, too. "At my shows so far [she's already toured extensively in Europe, to rave reviews], there's been everybody in my audience, really a mix. You have older people, people going as families, and even very, very young people. I like seeing the very young children at my shows, because I always think children respond instinctively to good songs. They like good tunes and melodies, which I try to write."

As for becoming the darling of the arty New Age set, Tikaram is ambivalent.

"I never really thought of myself as a `New Age' artist anyway," she says. "Frankly, that's another category I'm not sure I understand."

IT'S HARD TO GET Tikaram to accept a compliment gracefully. Tell her it's quite remarkable how quickly she landed a major record deal (she was discovered and offered a contract upon her very first gig, at London's Mean Fiddler nightclub), and she'll shrug, "It's very small, the London music scene, so I guess when you're new, word just gets around fast."

Comment that her poetic, evocative songs indicate a teen-age singer-songwriter light years more mature than, say, our own Debbie Gibson, and Tikaram will quickly diffuse the praise by noting, "Yeah, but then people like Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison and the Beatles and Bob Dylan were writing great songs when they were very young."

Actually, Tikaram's humbled view of her own musical accomplishments is a sign she's doing something right. During the times in her life when she felt compelled to brag about what she was doing, what she was doing wasn't very good.

"Originally, I wanted to get into acting," she recalls. "Unfortunately, I couldn't act!" She laughs quietly, a rare occurrence for this shy, introspective young woman. "I was very bad. But I think I was more interested in talking about acting than actually doing it. You know, acting's one of those pursuits where you can say, `Oh, I act,' and it sounds very grand. Whether you're actually any good or not!"

Artistically motivated with no place to go, the Manchester University student drifted through brief flirtations with playwriting, painting, poetry and journalism.

"I thought I'd be a journalist because I really didn't know what you could do with an English degree, and it sounded very respectable to say I was going to be a journalist."

Finally, she took back the guitar she'd loaned to her brother at fourteen (they used to write "awful Motown-y songs" for their own amusement) and began working more seriously toward a musical career. It turned out to be her calling. Within six months, she'd booked herself into the Mean Fiddler for that fateful first gig.

"When I went back to music, it seemed natural," she says. "And I didn't have to talk about it to anybody. I just did it."

Her reluctance to talk about the music she feels speaks well enough for itself may ultimately make Tikaram seem inaccessible to the inquiring minds of American audiences. Even David Letterman, attempting some small talk with Tikaram after her brooding, unanimated performance of "Cathedral Song" on a recent edition of Late Night, had trouble fishing any amusing anecdotes out of the musical newcomer. When he finally resorted to a decidedly un-Lettermanly stock interview question about how Tikaram got into "show business," even Paul Shaffer had to laugh at his apparent awkwardness.

"To tell you the truth, I don't actually understand what makes an artist interesting to people if it's not the music," says Tikaram, who obviously has yet to meet Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. "Everything I have to say is in my music. I can't think of anything I could tell about myself that would interest people if they weren't into that first."

CERTAINLY, HER WORDS and music alone paint an intriguing, if ambiguous, portrait of this young, dusky-voiced brunette. Graced with a playful agility for putting words together, which she attributes to her English studies and a natural love of books, Tikaram pens songs that race from one thought-provoking metaphor to another, occasionally revealing something about herself, then quickly taking cover amidst more clever wordplay. She's a bit of a temptress in this regard. "I have a wealth of material," Tikaram sings on the track "For All These Years." "I have a well of people to share with you." But she's clearly planning to take her time with that sharing.

"I never mean [for] my songs to be deliberately obscure," she insists. "It's just that I think songs work on so many levels that people respond to them in such different ways. They don't necessarily hear the logic of the song. Which I like. I mean, if you hear something like a Rickie Lee Jones or Van Morrison song, your response isn't wanting to get the lyrics so much as getting the feeling or the soul they have in the music. And I always try to work at the same level."

Indeed, Tikaram's songs, for all their emotions surprising for a teenager. About this observation, Tikaram is, once again, typically nonplussed.

"People are always saying, `Hey, you're only nineteen? Really?' They expect me to be older. But I think if you're nineteen, you've felt as much pain and joy as anybody else. I mean, it doesn't strike me that your experience is any less valid than that of somebody who's older.