(Because of course, the still from a trailer about black women who have been back-up singers on some of the greatest music of all time needs to be Mick Jagger)
Back-up singers are such a fixture of modern music that most of us don’t even notice they’re there, dressed in black and hidden in a corner of the stage. They’re cast as background players to the main act, but the stories of people like Merry Clayton and Darlene Love are fascinating in their own right. 20 Feet From Stardom puts these women front and centre, highlighting the gender and racial politics inherent in putting these (mostly black) women in second place to (mostly white) male performers.
You may not recognise their names, but you know their voices: Merry Clayton blew Mick Jagger out of the water on ‘Gimme Shelter’, and did it at 3am with curlers in her hair, no less; most of the songs credited to the Crystals were actually sung by the amazing Darlene Love, who was exploited over and over by producers like Phil Spector. Their interviews are critical viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in rock, pop and soul from the last 50-odd years. Lots of films can claim to be life-changing, but 20 Feet From Stardom will change the way you listen to music. It’s available now on DVD, and is currently streaming on Netflix if by some chance you have access to that.
Tom Waits described Jesca Hoop‘s music like “going swimming in a lake at night”, and who am I to argue with Tom? An American-born musician and songwriter, Jesca’s particular take on folk draws deeply on the lyrical, very English variety that Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span made famous, with a more modern, idiosyncratic bent. When reinterpreting her own songs for the album Undress, Jesca brought in an unconventional range of back-up singers: Guy Garvey from Elbow, Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) and Willy Mason were just some of the immensely talented artists asked to take part in this record. Granted, Undress feels more like a respectful collaboration amongst equals than the uneven power dynamics you’ll see in 20 Feet From Stardom, but it’s comforting nonetheless to see so many male musicians content to play second fiddle to Jesca’s curious muse. In a way, it’s a microcosm of everything I wanted from the Ladyist Experiment: an alternate vision of the world where I can only hear voices that sound like my own when they’re used as decoration by more prominent artists. Undress also happens to be a persistently charming album, and one that has become a firm favourite for me since Jen’s recommendation introduced us. It takes a few listens before it really opens us, but rewards that patience in spades.