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Princess of the Hill

Submitted by on September 20, 2013 – 10:35 amNo Comment

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Looking out from the tiny stage of the tiny backroom of The Castle Hotel, Josephine Oniyama modestly revealed that this was her first ever headline slot.

The gig had been rearranged as the earlier date coincided with her call up to appear on Later with Jools Holland, the show which catapulted the angelic voice of this princess of Cheetham Hill into the living rooms of the nation.

She proceeded to play an excellent set for the capacity crowd of less than 100 people crammed into the Oldham Street boozer.

Despite national recognition befalling her of late, she has been regularly gigging in Manchester for over a decade. She even played at FC United’s pre-match event Course You Can Malcolm in 2012.

It therefore came as quite a shock to this more-than casual observer to hear her admission about the headlining nature of that low-key Sunday night folk gig – surely she had been the lead name on a show before? But, alas, no, as she explained to AFL, while she continued her support slot on Paloma Faith’s nationwide tour.

We spoke as she enjoyed a day off, back home, reading a book and relaxing ahead of the 21st show of a packed fixture list. It was month before she started her own solo tour, playing her home town in April 2013, at Band on the Wall.

“This tour has just been fantastic,” she beams. “It has been a long one and it has been gruelling but I have had the best time. I have found Paloma Faith and her team to be wonderful and very welcoming. We have all got along really well and have had a couple of good parties on the tour bus. She is so talented and it has been an experience watching how they set up and prepare.

“The attention and coverage I have had in the past few months, particularly after being on Later with Jools Holland has meant that people have got to the gigs to see me as well as the main act, which doesn’t always happen. I have therefore had the pleasure to play in front of big crowds with most venues being full or nearly full when we have gone on stage.”

The Paloma link-up came about after Josephine’s record company, Ark, contacted Faith’s when she was looking for support. Paloma was impressed with what she heard and Josephine was thrilled to be on board.

“It is obviously a huge compliment for me. It was also great timing with the album coming out and to do it justice we needed to push it and get the music out to as big an audience as possible, which the Paloma tour has enabled us to do.”

The Jools Holland performance was a big break and it came about in strange circumstances. “It happened after a weird little gig I did at St Pancras Station”, Josephine revealed. “They had us performing on the platform, which was very strange and unique, shall we say? Luckily for me one of Jools’s producers was in the audience on that platform and although I didn’t know she was there or even spoke to her, she went back to Jools and recommended me for the show.

“I got a call about two weeks before it was due to be filmed, saying you need to come here at this time. It was all very quick. Obviously I had to drop a few dates that I was due to play, including the original gig at The Castle, but I weighed it up and although I felt a bit bad about that at first, it was an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down.

“Playing on what is probably the biggest music show in the country was just an amazing chance to get my music out there. It was a real experience filming it all and meeting some great people, who were all very complimentary about the music.”
The Jools performance was followed by a surreal appearance on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning BBC show.

“You have politicians having big debates about really important issues and then a bit of light musical relief at the end… But, again, the exposure to a new audience we got was fantastic and we got a hell of lot of followers on social media sites as a result of doing those high-profile shows.”

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But, I venture, she must have a wry smile when she reads all the London-based media outlets calling her an ‘overnight success’?

“It was weird at first getting all the positive attention from the rest of the country, having played in Manchester regularly for so long,” she said. “It has been a slog to get to where I am and I have been dropped from labels, which is difficult. But that has allowed the songs to mature and a lot of them have been with me a long time.

“I have to forgive the likes of The Guardian and the rest, as they only know what they know…”

Despite all the new-found adulation pouring its way north from the capital city, Josephine is intent on staying in Manchester.
“I am extremely proud to come from Manchester and I am extremely fond of Cheetham Hill, where I grew up. The place you come from is always a part of you and how you live your life and that is very true for me.

“This city will always be my home and I have no plans to move down to London or anywhere else. When I get a few days off from touring I come back here and it is wonderful to be surrounded by family and friends. I don’t think it will affect my career either – years ago when the likes of Oasis moved down there, I think it was different.

“But with the internet and technology the way it is, I am lucky that I can stay up here and still do interviews and media work. If I need to get to London, it takes two hours on the train now, which is nothing. Plus MediaCity being in Salford means I can go over there for much of my work as a lot happens at the BBC.”

Josephine’s excellent debut album Portrait, unanimously trumpeted by critics, is a veritable mixed bag of influences and sounds, calling equally on her African heritage and her upbringing amid the musical extremes of Manchester.

“My music is very much a result of where I grew up and what was going on in my area and the sounds I was picking up. Cheetham Hill is a very mixed, multi-cultural melting pot of all kinds of people and that is definitely reflected in what I do.

“My African background is certainly a part of the sound and I also love folk music, like Joni Mitchell and Dylan, but when I was at high school I was listening to Brit Pop, which was big at the time and I loved the jangly guitars.

“I loved The Smiths. I think you definitely hear that in my music – that mix of influences and I do think it reflects Manchester. We are proud of how diverse our city is because of the huge mix of cultures. My sound is therefore very natural.”

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It may surprise readers to discover that enjoying a big break, such as appearing on television and playing on the same bill as one of the biggest names in contemporary music, does not change your life overnight. “I still have a job in Manchester. I was working full time until the Paloma tour started and now I work part time, as and when I can” she says.

“I am very lucky to do that. People are surprised to hear that once you have been on TV your whole world doesn’t automatically change. That may have been the case many years ago but now you make so little from record sales that you need to carry on working.”
A lot has happened since her original date at The Castle was put back for her Jools appearance and next on the horizon is her own solo tour.

“The Castle gig being rearranged ended up being great timing in a way, because I had gone away and done these TV shows and it felt like a home-coming getting back to Manchester and playing a nice, compact venue with family and friends there.
“It was also my first ever headline gig, so that was a brilliant experience and I was so happy that it happened in Manchester – it was like it was meant to be.”

Josephine was keen to thank FC United fans for putting her on at CYCM.

She gushed: “Playing at FC United was just a great gig. I keep telling people about this amazing set up where you have a football match and all these football fans, so passionate about their club, and an amazing atmosphere, yet when a musician or poet is on, they go completely silent and give you their absolute attention.

“It was like they were willing me on. It was an amazing experience. What you do there is such a brilliant idea – it is very Mancunian to mix up cultures, with art and sport side-by-side. I can’t believe more organisations haven’t cottoned on to what you do. It is a fantastic club and stands for a lot of good things.”

With that she is back to her book and her day off in the city she so clearly still loves. All too often Mancunian musicians can’t wait to board the next train to Euston, but not our Josephine…

- This is adapted from an article that appeared in issue 10 of A Fine Lung. Back issues can be bought for £1.50 here: STALL. A new issue is expected at the end of October/start of November.

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