Josephine and The Artizans: "We call it hip-hopera."Interview
At first thought, the combination of hip-hop and opera seems less than obvious, but London-based hip-hopera band Josephine and The Artizans are quickly turning audiences onto the idea.
The band is headed by Josephine Permaul, a classically-trained singer with a love for songwriting and genre fusion; her Artizans are rappers Jermaine Davidson and Michael Wordley, violinist Tanya Cracknell, cellist Marianne Hardisty, electric cellist Laura Dodds, keyboardist Thom Rowlands, and bassist/producer Debs Spanton.
“If you listen to some techno and house music, DJs take classical music all the time, and sample it,” Josephine explains over coffee in Soho. She notes that the use of classical music isn’t what’s novel about her sound with The Artizans, but “what they never use is the classical voice.”
Josephine’s innovative take on the tradition of hip-hop mixed with classical music puts her front and centre among her Artizans. It’s something that began quite early for her, and during her time at the University of Westminster, she began to look for the unique options available to a classically trained singer. “I decided before I went to university that I didn’t want to go to a normal classical conservatory,” she explains. “I wanted to learn about the music industry and the commercial side of things.” The singers in her class were based in soul, funk, blues, and pop music, and Josephine recognized how she stood out.
“I decided, ‘I’m no Beyoncé,’” she laughs, “so I’m going to stick to my classical training and use my strengths.” One of her first experiments in combining her classical sound with hip-hop was a fusion of Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana with rap. “I came out of university loving it,” she recalls, and she soon formed a group with several friends from her class. Initially, the band combined classical singing with various genres like pop and rock, but it didn’t take long to focus on hip-hop. “Now, we call that hip-hopera.”
“We are a family. They’re very, very loyal. They’re very commited members to this sound,” says Josephine. “They love it just as much as me.” The Artizans have now found a focus to their unique sound, while maintaining a collaborative nature to how they achieve it. Josephine is often the initial source of an idea, yet the final result is one of delegation.
“If I already have a string sample that we want to use, I will then go to my pianist, and he will write a chord progression that comes out of that, and then I’ll write a classical melody over that.” The classical elements in their songs are often existing melodies, but Josephine herself is a big fan of writing her own melodies.
“I sing a melody, just to a vowel. Then, I write pages and pages about what the theme is about, to get my mind flowing,” says Josephine. She allows herself the freedom to translate “key words” of her song’s theme into a language in which she wants to sing, and fits those words into her melody. “It’ll be based on syllables, where the emphasis lands within the melody,” she explains. “It ends up being quite mathematical.”
Josephine pays close attention to the commercial side of songwriting, and she seeks both a sound that’s unique, and songs that stick in her audience’s ears. “In the music industry, you do have to almost pull the reins back a bit, and not give it all away,” she says. “You have to bring it back to quite basic, to catch people’s attention.” She balances the novel sound of The Artizans with her drive to appeal to the masses. “We may be very different in our sound and what we put into the song, however the structure of our song is very commercial. We want people to be able to listen with ease.”
Their sound certainly sets them apart, and Josephine has taken great care with the visual, almost theatrical element of their shows. “I made a conscious decision that the girls, the violinists and my cellists, would be dressed in black hip-hop clothing.” Rather than blending in with the traditional, evening-wear-oriented look of classical artists onstage, The Artizans are more about, “urban sexy, and kind of glam at the same time.”
Josephine and The Artizans are gearing up for their final UK performance of 2016, on November 26 at Hootananny Brixton. They’ve had airplay on The Tom Robinson Show on BBC Radio 6, BBC 3 Counties Radio, Premier Radio and Amazing Radio; they’ve also just released their new EP, Hip-Hopera: Act One, and Act Two is due out in summer 2017. Their following is full of hip-hop fans, classical music fans, and converts on both sides. “I actually thought it would be non-musicians who would probably like us,” says Josephine. “They like both genres, they’l take it as it comes, and they’ll like us because we’re quite different.” They’ve encountered no elitists in either camp; instead, “people are opening up their eyes and ears.”
“We’ve been given amazing opportunities on a lot of main stages,” says Josephine of the Artizans’ performance calendar, which includes festivals like BoomTown, BBC CarFest, Belladrum Tartan Festival, as headliners for Rhythms of the World. The various points of entry with their music - drawing in fans of various genres - make for a loyal fan base with whom the band loves to build a relationship. After a show, “I literally run to the front and talk to as many audience members as possible.” Josephine smiles, “I get three year-olds coming up to me, wanting their picture with me.”
“When I do go and watch other bands or other musicians - it could be a solo artist onstage - if they’re having fun, you’re just drawn to them,” says Josephine. “That’s what I think we’ve discovered, because we are such a close, tight group of true friends.” The Artizans have fun onstage, and their true common ground is the love they have for the music they create.
“We’re in this stage, where we just want ‘hip-hopera’ to be a term that’s out there as much as possible.” Josephine has seen her audiences look beyond any expectation of either hip-hop or classical music, and allow them to simply have fun at their shows.
“I genuinely love this type of music, I genuinely can’t get enough of it. My Artizans can’t get enough of it,” she says with real enthusiasm and excitement. “We have so much fun doing it. Come and follow us!”