Zarif, Sy Kaye and Alexis Strum
Chart star Zarif was a Blue Peter reject.
Meet the upbeat Amy Winehouse. Zarif Davidson is the London-born daughter of an Iranian-Jewish mother and Scottish father who is currently wowing the music business — she has just been supporting US R&B supremo Chris Brown at the 02 Arena — with her exuberant pop-soul.
“What would I say to Amy? I’d tell her to go home to her mum’s and have a nice bowl of chicken soup and a good hug,” says the 23-year-old who attended North London Collegiate girls’ school and studied at London University before deciding to launch a career in music by performing at open-mic nights.
Zarif — she just uses her first name, like Beyoncé — wrote her first song when she was seven, and sent it off to Blue Peter.
“I had a little tune and some lyrics that I remember writing out with my best pen on my best A4 paper,” she laughs. “I never heard back from them.”
Sy Kaye is guided by Russell Brand
Her next brush with fame came when she met Simon Cowell at a party and he advised her to audition for his then-new show, X Factor. “I wasn’t tempted,” she says.
She admits she enjoys those programmes but considers herself a serious singer-songwriter, rather than talent-show fodder.
“I told him I thought shows like that were ruining the music industry,” she says. As with Blue Peter, she did not hear from Cowell again.
She had a typical north London upbringing in Pinner, becoming a group leader at BBYO and doing a tour of Israel after leaving school, but says she was more of a “weird little skater kid” than her peers, and spent weekends buying old soul vinyl from a second-hand record shop. Because of her mum, she listened to a lot of Iranian music growing up. “It’s got big voices and intricate scales and rhythms,” she says. “It’s also very mournful.” Her music, she adds, might be perky, but it features “minor chords and melodies; that’s what I’m drawn to. I like those chords that grab you by the heartstrings even when you’re dancing.”
Is she Winehouse without the anxiety, then? “I don’t compare myself to other people,” she replies, “but my music is definitely more fun and upbeat.”
(Zarif’s debut single, ‘Let Me Back’, is out now. See www.myspace.com/zarifmusic)
The wild pop-rocker with the comedian-lothario manager, Sy Kaye has, as they say on reality TV, been on quite a journey. Only this is not hyperbole. It is a story that takes in a near-fatal illness that lasted for most of his childhood (Kawasaki Syndrome, the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children, that saw his skin fall off and put him on a hospital drip for a year), and a subsequent addiction to alcohol and drugs which led to a four-and-a-half-month-spell in rehab.
“In the last couple of years I’ve turned my life around,” says Kaye, who started off as a roadie for the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and for the last two years has been recording highly commercial, Robbie Williams-ish pop-rock as The Little Wonder Band.
His latest songs, including current release Right Here All Along, are, he says: “Completely about my life. Sometimes I’ll try and make my songs more universal — I’m not self-obsessed — but they’re mainly about my experiences. My illness left me with a warped view of the world, and that comes out in my songs.”
Songwriting for Kaye is a form of therapy, but he has also got his spiritual beliefs — the remnants of his north London Jewish upbringing (like Winehouse and Rachel Stevens, he attended Ashmole School in Southgate and was good friends with Winehouse) — and the 12-step programme which all recovering addicts must follow.
“I still go to shul, and I’ve got spiritual beliefs that I live by — 12 steps is a spiritual programme. What keeps me going is the sense of a higher power, so I meditate and pray twice daily.”
With Kaye being talked up as “the next Robbie”, is he not worried that success will make him go off the rails again? “No, because I’m clean now and any success would be a bonus,” he says. “I’ve got my life together and when I go to sleep at night I can put my head down and be happy.”
Plus, he’s got his co-manager, comedian and fellow recovering addict Russell Brand, to help him when the going gets rough. “Russell’s a good friend of mine and he loves my music. He’s looking after me.”
(Sy Kaye’s single as Little Wonder Band, ‘Right Here All Along’, is out now. See www.myspace.com/littlewonderband)
What do Kylie Minogue, Rachel Stevens and Robbie Williams have in common? They have all sung with or had songs provided for them by Alexis Strum. And now Strum has just won her greatest gig to date — writing tracks for X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s forthcoming debut album. Not bad for a Jewish girl from Chingford in Essex who wrote her first song aged 12, while attending a youth club in Redbridge.
“It was for an Israeli song competition,” she recalls. “It was called Eretz Yisrael [Land Of Israel], and it was meant to be about Israel and tourism. I played it on guitar, and it was a bit worthy, although I thought it was good, but I came last. I was gutted.”
Strum has done rather better since, both as a writer-for-hire and as a performer in her own right, either solo or with her band Dolly Pepper, whose music got played a lot on Radio 1 and Radio 2 last year.
A recent six-week stint in Los Angeles saw her team up for songwriting sessions with Lily Allen’s writer/producer Greg Kurstin, and Britney Spears’s writer Shep Solomon.
But probably her most memorable collaboration was with Brian Higgins of Xenomania, the leading pop songwriting house. “On the way to his studio in Kent I crashed my car just as I was thinking of some words for the song we were about to record,” she says.
There was an upside: the track was called Nothing Good About Goodbye, about an ex-boyfriend, and, moved to tears by the accident, she came up with a suitably anguished lyric. As she says, “If I’m passionate about it, I’ll give it a bash.”
(Alexandra Burke’s debut album with songs by Alexis Strum will be released later this year. See www.myspace.com/alexissongsofficial)