Yohanna – Funny Thing Is (2008) (Yohanna / Lee Horrocks)
I must admit – this article didn’t quite go the way I envisaged. It was going to be all about small countries, female diva singers and my usual bucketful of navel gazing, solipsistic bullshit that we all love and enjoy. Actually, that’s precisely what you’re gonna get anyway; old habits die hard in a ditch defending my idiosyncrasies. The difference this time is that bizarrely, I ended up corresponding with the singer, Yohanna, herself.
Anyway, random is the new planned and rambling is the new coherence. And poor snowclones are the new annoying. Sometimes I’m so literary it actually hurts. Anyway, let’s get back on track. Yohanna stands in the wings, her song nervously pacing behind the closed curtain, anxiously awaiting the big reveal to you, my strung out caravan of misfits.
So, before you go any further, click on the video link of Yohanna’s song. It’ll help. I like small countries. I’ve found that the people are feisty and funny, conscious of their size but proud of their ‘us against the world’ predicament. When I was a globetrotting relationship manager for a multi national financial services company (try saying that after a few drinks!) I was fortunate enough to visit plenty of small countries, visits, I’m happy to report, paid for by my employers. So, for three years, I used to travel to Brussels every month; prior to that I had frequent (work related) sojourns in Amsterdam. I was summoned to Luxembourg a couple of times to get my butt kicked by a well known global telecommunications company’s in order to explain away a botched implementation. Yeah, Skype – I’m talkin’ ‘bout you. Bastards.
I also once pitched for a global contract with a large pharmaceutical company based in Iceland. I had a couple of days in Reykjavík. It was cold, it was winter and it snowed. It was dark until nearly noon. Perfect conditions in fact for those who view melancholy as but a tiny step down from ecstatic. I succeeded in getting the contract signed with the drugs company - of course – then celebrated with several cocktails in the Reykjavík Hilton feeling pretty good about myself. But, what did I actually know of the country around me?
- I knew, it was cold and that Icelanders did a lot of fishing and were often blonde.
- I knew Blur used to go there in the 90’s and, for a while, Reykjavík was the ‘cool’ place to be.
- I found out in my prep reading that British troops invaded and occupied the country in 1940 (Who knew? Sorry guys!).
- I knew that a beautiful singer called Yohanna represented Iceland in the 2009 Eurovision song contest with her rousing ballad Is It True and was robbed of Brotherhood of Man type fame by tragically, and wrongly, coming second.
It is, of course, to Yohanna that I now pivot and discuss her obscure, but evocative song, Funny Thing Is. It’s an odd choice, I know, but - if this is the joker in the pack of my favourite songs - musically and emotionally, it more than holds it own against the better-known competitors on the list. Scanning my iTunes top 25 most played songs, Funny Thing Is stubbornly remains a permanent fixture in the upper reaches. Others may come and go, but Yohanna’s song, artfully entwining empowerment, insecurity and big-voiced ‘you-go-girl’ choruses, is always there for me to have a surreptitious ‘diva moment’. It is my favourite sing-a-long.
I guess my liking for diva type torch songs was something that only grew gradually. Even though I went to school with Lisa Stansfield* , for years after, I only ever listened to boys thrashing loud guitars, shouting themselves hoarse. This was amplified during my own rock career – yes, I write the word ‘career’ sarcastically – where I consciously crafted a certain rock stereotype; Marshall amp, Epiphone guitar; plenty of feedback. Indeed, the charms of a well-written female ballad beyond, say, The Winner Takes It All or Aretha belting out You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman, evaded my playlists for years. My group used to do Walk On By but only because the Stranglers did so first. Dionne Who? Exactly. And then a strange metamorphosis happened…
I started to feminize my tastes and got all metrosexual on-yer-ass. I can even remember the date and the cause. Lucie Silvas and Breath In, 2004. (Lucie Silvas is, by the way, a lost British great, bow your heads in shame, fickle public). From that moment on, I was all about the girls. Classics like Erma Franklin’s Another Piece of My Heart, Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind, nestled with anything by Carol King, Jodie Mitchell up to the mid 70’s, early or late period Alison Moyet, some Avril Lavigne, most Taylor Swift, late 80’s Cher, upbeat Mary Chapin Carpenter, bits of Pink… Wearing my apron in the kitchen, I’d blast out girl power ballads, shake my booty and yell into the wooden stirring spoon that there ain’t no mountain high enough. An attractive image, no doubt you will agree.
So I was a prime convert for Yohanna when she sang her heart out representing Iceland on the Moscow stage at 2009’s Eurovision. She was a stunning vision in a full-length blue ball dress, her long blonde hair gently blown in the air like a classy 80’s pop video. Effortlessly she won over the audience – and me - with her heartbreaking ballad Is It True. See the video below. Best 2nd place ever? Click the video below and watch her!
(The UK, as usual, had put up some bollocks that no-one remembers. Why do we, land of pop mastery, always have to be so shit these days at the Eurovision? )
So Yohanna. What a voice! What poise! What control! This cello led song gradually ratchets up the emotional tension until the final chorus where Yohanna finally lets rip, singing high and pure over the top of her backing singers; soaring in fact. The combination of a beautiful woman singing about deceit and betrayal universalized the song, the emotion; we’ve all been there. We’ve all loved. We’ve all been hurt. Yohanna should have won the contest. She was the greatest ever second place! I’m convinced that if she had won, I wouldn’t be here six years later trying to explain to you all outside the Nordics who the hell she is. Believe me, you’d know.
But my story doesn’t end here. I downloaded her album Butterflies and Elvis (crazy name, big in Sweden) and here is where the song Funny Thing Is came into my consciousness and onto my list of favourite songs.
It all starts rather peacefully; a piano playing a simple riff, the comforting beginning of many a slow building ballad. After a couple of bars Yohanna comes in, her voice welcoming and pure:
“Life’s a magic wand Dreams will never end”
Already we’re channeling ethereal; music, voice and lyrics perfectly capturing a mood of innocence and hope. But ominously, we’re quickly convinced that this isn’t going to a Disney fantasy, a carpet ride to clichéd emotions: Yohanna, and the musical backdrop are now leading us to a different place:
“When I try to run Somebody pulls me back” And then we’re cantering onto the ‘big’ chorus with drums, bass and guitar signalling this transition. Yohanna takes her voice up an octave and teaches wannabes and never-will-be’s exactly what a fucking chorus should be sung like – powerful, dramatic and yet tuneful. “The funny thing is,” she sings and the listener is drawn in; what is the ‘funny thing’ what is the irony about to be exposed, what journey are we heading on? We have the mental image of Yohanna gazing at herself, commenting on who she is, how she is perceived, maybe whom she is expected to be in order to get on in life. Her vocals and her passion drive us ever forward, drawing us in. She means it, man. She really means it.
Drop a level to verse two.
“I wanna be myself // And nobody else//It’s no fun being what you’re not //So just forget about it.”
We’re now inexorably building to the second chorus. We know already, learning from the first chorus, that this song has got ‘big finish’ written all over it. We know we are in the capable hands of strong voice, a passionate singer who loves to let go and this is all gonna end with the listener inevitably joining in, bellowing out, inexpertly perhaps, the hook line. Actually I do a good counterpart harmony myself at this point. If I have one criticism of the song it’s that I’m not on it.
Second chorus complete, Yohanna repeats and repeats ‘The funny thing is, that I can see myself” - the tension building with each repetition; you know she’s holding back and that at any moment she’s going to release her powerful voice, start ad-libbing the tune and break out into some kick-ass vocal improvisation. This is the ending that all good ballad/torch songs should possess – passion, guts, drive; the vocalist tunefully riffing over a crescendo of musicians and chanting backing singers. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do – soul singer style – Oh Happy Day type call and response sort of thing – but never have. Yohanna succeeds, channeling her heroes – Whitney, Celine, Aretha – but still remaining unique.
If I want an uplifting song where I can join in, feel the power of the music, ponder over the lyrics, envy the vocalist, then Funny Thing Is has to be the song. Criminally, hardly anyone knows about it here in the UK. Yohanna, though still young, is cruelly under-appreciated here (though check out her Facebook.
I wish her well in the future, with writing new material and new successes. Speaking personally however, with Funny thing Is, Yohanna is already up there with the best in my opinion. The very best. My list of great songs includes such untouchable artists as The Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, The Byrds; The Eurythmics. The Beatles, and Elvis.
Yohanna; you are the Iceland of this group; small, feisty, independent – but holding your head up high against the big guys. You’ve earned your place on my list of greats. Which all goes to show, you don’t have to be perceived as a commercial success to be an artistic success (see Lucie Silvas).
Of course Yohanna should be more famous, of course her tracks should be in the international charts but, selfishly, I’m glad I found her and know her. She is my diva guilty secret. But I’ve just let that secret out of the bag. In a way, I’m glad. You go girl!
Repost from 2015 (revised)
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• Not lying – I really did go to school with Lisa Stansfield – it was Oulderhill School, Rochdale, early 1980’s. Yes, we sang together in the school play, yes she became more famous than me; no we never had a romantic relationship (though who turned down who, I’m too much of a gentleman to say!). But I’m here for the long haul. She may have been around the world but I’m still rockin’, still rollin’, still writing. One day her Wikipedia entry will say – ‘Lisa went to school with Tim Robson’. It will also show she’s a few years older than me. Mee-ow!