Born in 1970 in West Germany; father (with the British military) is from Fiji and mother from Borneo. Addresses: Record company-- Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA, 91505-4694.
"It's easy to get preoccupied with the idea that there is this ideal place, especially if you don't feel culturally that you belong somewhere," Tanita Tikaram, the folk-rock musician who achieved instant international success at the age of 19, was quoted as saying in Musician. The singer and songwriter actually seems to come from many places and no place. Her father is a native of the Fiji Islands, a country made up of a group of about 250 islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Her mother is from Borneo, an island in the western Pacific Ocean and a part of Malaysia. Born in 1970, Tikaram spent the first 12 years of her life in Munster, West Germany (now Germany), where her father was stationed with the British military. In a Seventeen interview, Tikaram recalled her childhood, which she shared with one brother, as almost ideal: "It was a deeply healthy childhood. There was very little television, and I used to spend most of my time playing outside." In place of television, they had the British Forces radio that she described for Peter Cronin of Musician as one of the early influences on her musical taste: "Their '50s and '60s oldies shows were an illicit pleasure for my brother and me, ... and because it was Forces radio they'd play a lot of heart-tugging, house-wifey music: Anne Murray, Crystal Gayle, Don Williams--I'm afraid I still have a weakness for that kind of stuff."
Around 1982 Tikaram's family moved to Basingstoke, a suburb south of London. At the same time, her brother gave her a guitar. While she was learning to play, Tikaram immersed herself in the folk-rock sound of the 1960s and 1970s; Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits all contributed to the development of her vocal and musical style. Tikaram staunchly resisted the most popular musical trends around her; in 1989 she told Melody Maker: "Going into the Eighties I remember Visage and all the new romantic stuff--my brother was a member of the Duran fan club and I remember being appalled by that."
At the time at which Tikaram began writing her own songs, she was preparing to enter university (the equivalent of the American undergraduate system) and expecting that she would eventually study law. Writing music began as a break from the study. This approach to producing songs stuck with Tikaram even when she became a professional; she explained to Jon Wilde in a Melody Maker interview: "I associate song-writing with everything anti-intellectual. It was a great freedom for me when I started writing songs because I'd been studying at school and college for so long.... I knew it had to be a quick, spontaneous process." Apparently, the shift from writing songs in her bedroom and playing guitar for her family to international success happened with similar ease. While singing at a South London Tavern, Tikaram caught the attention of a music agent. From there, as Wilde later described it, Tikaram's career took off with story-book speed: "She's immediately rushed into a recording-studio where she knocks her own songs into shape. With a place being held for her at university, she puts an academic career on hold and signs to the biggest record label in the world. Her debut single storms the hit parade. Her debut album sells millions and makes her an international success."
Tikaram's first effort, Ancient Heart, appeared in late 1988 and was handled by two important English producers: Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke; the latter had worked with one of Tikaram's idols, Irish folk-rock musician Van Morrison. The recording process that Argent and Van Hooke chose, described in Musician, set up the sound that would ensure Tikaram's recognition: "The pair took the inexperienced singer into the studio to record ..., first laying down her voice and guitar to a click track, then creating the record's lush soundscape with layers of synthesizer, bass and drum machine."
Fans bought the album in droves, pushing its sales up to 3.5 million within a year. Ancient Heart remained in the top ten--and often the top five--on U.K. charts for more than six months. By the spring of 1989, Ancient Heart had gone double platinum in Britain and had become the number one album on charts across Europe. Her most striking successes were in Norway, where Ancient Heart remained at number one for over 15 weeks, and Turkey, where Tikaram became the most popular international musician. British and American critics couldn't say enough about her voice and the enigmatic lyrics that showcased it so well. A reviewer for Glamour epitomized the kind of excitement that listeners expressed: "Haunting. Primal. Passionate. The most impressive album so far this year is Ancient Heart .... Her deep rich voice is unusually mature." She was frequently compared to other female musicians who have earned respect as folk musicians, including Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Lucinda Williams, and Suzanne Vega.
In the early spring of 1989 Tikaram went on a six-week tour of Europe; during the tour, she collected a gold record from virtually every country in which she stopped. Mat Smith in Melody Maker described the effect that she had on an audience in Switzerland: "In Zurich, loyalty means an unprecedented three encores and a wild Swiss crowd who just won't go home even when the house lights are turned up. During the gig there were moments so pure they could only be described in tears, moments when Tanita's soul hovered above our heads glinting like a lighthouse in a storm." By April of the same year, she had started on her tour of the United States, consolidating her popularity with American fans.
While on tour, Tikaram was already writing the songs for her second release, The Sweet Keeper, which she cut with the same producers and musicians who worked on her first album. She told Wilde that the "title for the album came from this book I have by the Indian writer, RK Narayan, called The Vendor of Sweets. I remember thinking that the title had a great childlike quality to it." The unrestrained praise for the first album, however, was not repeated with the second; although sales were still strong, many critics, including Melody Maker 's Bob Stanley, were more skeptical: "While Tanita is a huge fan of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, her lyrics barely compare. On The Sweet Keeper ... they have progressed to the point where they sound simple but are often impenetrable." Stanley was even ambivalent about that mainstay of Tikaram's success, her voice: "It's her voice which remains the centerpiece of The Sweet Keeper. Tan sounds even older than she did on Ancient Heart, 20 going on 46, but her voice now wavers and changes from song to song. On the single, 'We Almost Got It Together,' while it's still identifiably Tanita, it sounds as if she had a couple of gins before the tapes started rolling."
With 1991's Everybody's Angel, her third release in as many years, Tikaram tried changing her production style, albeit still working with Van Hooke, Argent, and most of the same musicians. She shifted the style of the music some, moving towards a rhythm and blues sound: "I'd been listening to a lot of these collections with people like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, and I realized that most of these '60s soul singers weren't particularly loud, they just knew how to control their voices." Moreover, making the most of her first attempt at co-production, she insisted on live recording sessions--during which the musicians are taped playing together, rather than the more common pasting together of a song that has been recorded piecemeal.
The production created a sound that Musician 's Cronin found particularly successful: "Throughout her new record Tikaram puts that lesson to good use, coaxing wide-ranging dynamics out of her extraordinary voice." He declared that "Tikaram found the warmth she was looking for." Other reviewers, however, as well as fans, received this album with less enthusiasm than they had the first two. As with The Sweet Keeper, Everybody's Angel, according to critics, suffered from too much musical production; Jenny Jedeikin in Rolling Stone explained: " Everybody's Angel adds horns, backing harmonies and strings to the Celtic arrangements that Tikaram fans have come to expect. However, because her voice is her strongest asset, Tikaram would be better served by less cluttered accompaniment."
The drop in Tikaram's critical success with the release of Everybody's Angel, which several reviewers characterized as simply too much too soon, was accompanied by an occasionally vicious attack on her public image. She had started out as the darling both of the teen pop scene--gracing the pages of Seventeen and Glamour-- and of serious music critics precisely because she would not conform to the self-advertisement expected of music celebrities; eventually, however, a number of critics rejected her for taking herself too seriously. For the critics who did not care for Tikaram's music, this quickly became the focus, as they lambasted the singer for her choice not to market herself as a sex symbol.
At the lenient end of the spectrum are Wilde's comments about The Sweet Keeper: "Like its predecessor, Ancient Heart, it's a strangely self-contained work. These songs, like the ones which launched Tikaram's career, are emotionally detached to the verge of frigidity.... Lyrically too, they never quite emote, always hanging back, preferring to keep themselves ambiguous and unresolved." Paul Lester, writing for Melody Maker, picked up on that charge: "That voice is something. It really is starved of emotional expression"; he went on to administer deeper criticism by stating, "Horny she ain't. Horn-rimmed, maybe. Welcome to Librarian rock." Stanley closed a review with a similar sentiment, commenting that "now if only she'd swap that black outfit for something a little more cheery--a gold lam suit, perhaps?," and another Melody Maker reviewer began a piece with the observation that "she's not exactly sexy is she?"
Although these reviewers clearly saw Tikaram's understated persona as a fault in a female performer, the majority of her listeners--according to sales--still find something valuable in her music and image. And the extent to which she controls the production of her music and her image has increased. Continuing at her previous pace, Tikaram prepared a fourth album, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, for release in the spring of 1992; for this work, she again augmented her own role as producer.
by Ondine E. Le Blanc
Tanita Tikaram's Career
Singer and songwriter. Began playing guitar and writing songs while preparing for university, c. 1982-87; discovered while playing at London tavern, c. 1987; recorded material for first album with producers Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke, 1988; signed with Reprise/Warner Bros. and released debut album, Ancient Heart, 1988.
- Selective Works
- Ancient Heart (includes "Twist in My Sobriety" and "For All These Years"), Reprise, 1988.
- The Sweet Keeper Reprise, 1990.
- Everybody's Angel Reprise, 1991.
- (Contributor) Mark Isham Virgin, 1991.
- Eleven Kinds of Loneliness Reprise, 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, May 22, 1992.
- Glamour, September 1989.
- Life, May 1989.
- Melody Maker, March 11, 1989; June 10, 1989; December 23-30, 1989; January 27, 1990; February 24, 1990.
- Musician, April 1991.
- People, March 12, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, March 7, 1991.
- Seventeen, April 1989.
- Stereo Review, May 1990; January 1991.
- Vanity Fair, April 1991.