In the 1980s in Manchester, a star was born. A star who spent the decade cherry-picking their way through the history of music, losing themselves in warm stacks of vinyl, and gradually developing their very own talent and style. Forget the likes of Stephen Morrissey, Bernard Sumner, and Noel Gallagher – these gentlemen had nothing on this nine-year-old girl. "It started when my big sister came up close, and said to me, Jo, I bet you can\'t write a song. I went into the bathroom, locked the door, and came out ten minutes later with an acapella track about beaches and diamonds." Josephine Oniyama laughs loud and long. "There\'s been a lot more since then!"
Working her way through a huge stack of sausage and mash in London\'s Troubadour Club, the venue where Dylan and Joni Mitchell famously played in the \'60s, Josephine Oniyama is in a setting that is perfect for her – a place fit for an industrious singer-songwriter and a down-to-earth lass. Born in Hulme in 1983, and raised all over Manchester by her single Liberian mother, Josephine has always been hungry for music. As a child, she would constantly play her mother\'s worn records, and be in raptures to the sounds of Fela Kuti, Johnny Cash and Bob Marley. As a young teenager, she fell in love with Oasis and R.E.M, while in sixth form, she curled up with Van Morrison and Nirvana. Today she obsesses over idiosyncratic, contemporary musicians like Joanna Newsom and Regina Spektor, as well as legends like Odetta, Lonnie Donegan and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her own haunting soul-folk comes from yet another well, bringing to mind the bare bones of Cat Power, the deep soul of Joan Armatrading, the rootsy shimmer of hi-life, and the raw charms of rock and roll. "I don\'t know where my songs come from", Josephine smiles, scooping up some gravy with her spoon. "They just do. Sometimes they have meaning straightaway, sometimes they sort of grow. All I know is that writing them makes me happy, so I\'m going to keep doing it." Four years after she wrote her first song, the 13-year-old Josephine picked up her first guitar. "It was in a guitar group in school – a little kiddie guitar, really. But I couldn\'t put it down. Every time I learned a chord, I\'d write a new song around it." At that time, she didn\'t think she could sing, until her teacher heard her one day, and was blown away. "So I thought I\'d give it a go", says Josephine, with typical humility. "\'You can\'t really miss music in Manchester when you\'re a teenager, so I properly went for it." At 15, she sent her first homemade tapes to promoters; at 16, she got her first gig at Manchester\'s famous Night And Day club. ("It was terrifying", she laughs, pulling a face at the memory.) At 18, she started thinking about songwriting properly after falling in love with the music of Bob Dylan, and the way in which he could make sad songs uplifting. Soon after, she realised something even better. "I realised I didn\'t have to pretend to be anyone else. I realised I could write songs just about being me."
Josephine has spent the last decade working her fingers to the bone. She opened the Liverpool Proms in 2000 with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and has since played with Roger McGuinn, Josh Ritter, Cara Dillon and Kelly Joe Phelps. She even recorded her first demos with Elbow\'s Mercury Prize winning singer-songwriter Guy Garvey. She\'d still see him years later on the way to the studio, as she went to work between gigs. “It’s good that someone like that won as they are the kind of people that would carry on doing what they do without awards.”
But in 2008, Josephine\'s time has come too. Her musical output is instantly lovable, both gorgeously old-fashioned and joltingly fresh. From the rollicking rockabilly of Closer to the melancholic pop of Davey, the ragged jazz of Down to the country lilt of Darker Things to the post-punk simplicity of Down To The River, her talent is wide, and her accomplishments stagger. "I\'ve been lucky, really", Josephine says, with no hint of false modesty. "I\'ve had time to grow up, and I\'ve met lovely people who\'ve made all the difference." She\'s also started writing with Ed Harcourt, and her active MySpace site shows her gaining fans by the gig. Josephine smiles as she polishes off the last of her mash and talks about the future. "I love people who are unique, who take all these different influences and make music that\'s completely their own. That\'s what I\'ve worked hard to do, and that\'s what I\'m trying to aim for." She looks around the Troubadour as she speaks, maybe thinking of the talents that have passed through its doors, and thinking about the possibilities that await her. She beams brightly. If her hopes match the power of her music, then Manchester will have much more to answer for.