When it first emerged in the late 1990s, neo-soul was the new hybrid genre used to categorise a melodic marriage between the old-school R&B common on the secular nightclub scene and the original fusion of gospel and jazz. With an arguably paradoxical meaning in its etymology, some artists revel in it and others shun away from the label of neo-soul. While the words may have some hang-ups, the music resonating has remained true.
The genre was coined by Kedar Massenburg for mostly marketing purposes and used to describe a new genre-defining band of artists with the undeniably sexy D’Angelo and sassy Erykah Badur at its helm. Other notable artists such as Questlove, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kwali, Q-tip and more formed the musical collective named the Soulquarians in the late 1990s to early 2000s all sharing a deep passion for unconventional beats, funky chords and old school grooves.
Now in its third decade, the genre shows no sign of slowing. With a steady stream of musical talent emerging from Northern England, the contemporary soul landscape in 2021 is being reshaped.
With her jazz-influenced brand of neo-soul, Nottingham-based Yazmin Lacey has been making waves across the UK jazz scene. With a helpful leg up by the year-long talent scheme Future Bubblers run by Gilles Peterson and Brownswood Recordings in 2017, Lacey’s honeyed vocals often wash over mellow beats that leave you feeling warm and fuzzy from the inside out. Gracing the COLORS stage last year to perform a special understated and cool acoustic rendition of ‘Own Your Own’ off her 2020 EP Morning Matters, Lacey’s calm and soulful demeanour transcends, producing a distinctly contemporary brand of neo-soul.
Describing her music as a Jazzy-Nu-R&B type of Neo-Soul, Manchester-based Mali Hayes is one to watch. Featuring in Gilles Peterson’s Future Bubblers programme, Peterson himself has said we must "Remember the name, Mali Hayes". Her mesmerising voice often glides over soft guitar and piano trills, producing a smooth and soulful sound that could melt butter. Her most recent single ‘Save Ourselves’ is a flawless example of environmental activism, touching on significant issues with poise and elegance and encouraging the listener to "Think about our life decisions as we try to work towards a more sustainable future for the human race and the planet". Hayes' recent single is a refreshing and delicate entry to an industry that often expresses love for people instead of love for the planet.
Formed at Leeds College of Music, this 7-piece band is made up of producers, songwriters, DJ’s, and musicians, producing what can only be described as feel-good nu-soul packed with jazz, Latin and R&B influences. Based in Leeds, and thriving within the strong jazz presence in the city, Mamilah’s sound captures the carefree beat of the North. You can’t help but feel the rhythm coursing through your body when listening to their understated soul hooks and jazzy instrumentals. Funky horns and melodious vocals are harmoniously paired with piano, guitar and steady beats, providing an authentic texture to their sound. Their second EP Talk Less - a collection of songs that follow on in style from their debut EP Moonlight Walking from 2018- is exactly what’s needed to fill any room with a little bit of soul. For an extra treat check out their recent Isolation Sessions.
After quietly releasing her first single ‘Make Me Cry’ back in 2018, Manchester-born Pip Millet’s warm voice paired with her honest lyrics about anxiety resonated with many listeners, garnering more and more streams and listens. Since then, the rising star has continued to combine her mellow and tender vocals with R&B influenced soulful sounds. Consistently releasing stellar music, Pip Millet effuses self-expressive lyrics delivered in a way that feels simultaneously off-the-cuff and intimate. Her most recent eight-track EP Lost in June continues to display the enchanting sound we are becoming accustomed to.
Coming from a hugely musical family, Leeds-based rising star B-ahwe builds on soul, jazz, hip-hop and rock foundations that bear the distinctive marks of neo-soul. The result is something completely contemporary and very much her own. B-ahwe released her debut album ‘Nuance’ in 2020, which encompasses a rich and intoxicating soundscape that grooves with her dreamy vocals, textured chords and jazzy strings. Arguably her most powerful single to date, B-ahwe’s silky-smooth voice is incredibly ethereal on her recent release ‘Sweet’, which gradually builds in tempo and rewards the listener with layered interludes and punchy beats. Having cemented her place in Leeds' jazz scene, we’re excited to see what this vocalist does next.
Hailing from Manchester, vocalist Femi Tahiru blends elements of R&B, jazz and soul with guitar and percussion-based accompaniments. The vocalist's lo-fi beats are indicative of a current wave of street soul sounds emanating from his city. Tahiru delivered four new singles in 2020, including the very welcome addition of ‘The Weekend' which touches on social anxiety, bringing a vulnerability to his neo-soul contribution that is real and authentic. The track offers up subtle ambient sounds with warm chords that Tahiru flows over with incredible ease.
Bryony Jarman-Pinot’s music takes heavy influence from jazz, with hints of soul and elements of folk sprinkled on top. Often commenting on social, racial and environmental issues in her lyrics, Bryony Jarman-Pinto is undoubtedly the right vehicle to discuss such significant issues; especially when she produces songs as mesmerising as ‘Sweet Sweet’, which explores issues surrounding the climate crisis and losing touch with our environment. The Cumbria-raised but now London-based artist blends harmonious vocals with jazz-fused melodies in her newly released EP Fish Factory Sessions, which follows on from her 2019 debut album Cage and Aviary. The EP boasts live versions of some of her favourite songs from her debut album, including the tender and intimate ‘Sun Kissed’, which highlights the talent of this newcomer who seamlessly transitions from soulful vocalist to accomplished flautist. With stripped back instrumentals at times, Jarman-Pinto’s soft entrancing vocals shine through.
Words by Bella Davis