Interview: Joanna Cotten’s Moment as a ‘Funkabilly’ Artist May Finally Have Come
Joanna Cotten may have gotten a fresh boost of fan support as a backup singer-turned-duet partner on Eric Church's 2019 Double Down Tour, but as far as her style goes, she's still the same soulful, Memphis-soaked vocalist who came to Nashville years ago to pursue music.
"We've got this song, "Funkabilly," and it's really true to who I am," Cotten tells The Boot. "Gospel, country, rhythm and blues -- it ain't nothin' but a country girl showing off her roots. I grew up in Memphis, and when you live in the South, of course you have a lot of gospel influence. Memphis is very soulful. When I grew up, there were horns on country radio! It was T. Graham Brown, and a lot of soul music was on country radio at the time, so that has very much influenced my sound and the soul that I have."
In the mid-2000s, however, when Cotten was signed to Warner Bros. as a solo artist, that kind of music didn't get much airplay on country radio. The young singer struggled to find a home for her music, and ultimately walked away from her label in 2007 without an album to show for it.
"I never got a shot to get to the people -- to just see how they responded -- which was probably the saddest part, for me," Cotten remembers. "Because I knew that if I personally could take my music to the people, I felt I would get a strong response."
Years later, Cotten would go on to prove it: Onstage with Church, she garnered a grassroots fanbase of people who walked away from the superstar's tour dates blown away by the backup singer who'd performed alongside him. She has another reason to believe that her "funkabilly" style's time may have finally come, too: the meteoric rise of Chris Stapleton. Just like she had always done, Stapleton blended soul and country.
"He kinda paved the way for a lot of people, I think. But my time was even before that," she explains. "[At the time], I was at Warner, and I think they just didn't know what to do."
5 Things to Know About Joanna Cotten
The singer says that, at this point, she's not exactly sure what a new body of solo work would look like. It's possible that kind of project would include some of the songs she recorded while attached to Warner -- the ones that never made their way onto an album. "I think there are some amazing songs that will stand the time on that record. I think people would still respond to some of that music," she says.
Cotten has brand-new material in the works too, she goes on to say, despite navigating a hectic travel schedule during the Double Down Tour. "I have taken a pause from songwriting for a while, just being on the road and adjusting to that life. It sort of drained me of my creativity, because I would just be tired when I got home," she relates. "I'm hoping during this break [from touring this summer] I can really get back in there. But I have, here and there, gotten some things people haven't heard."
The singer is proud of the songs she recorded during her brief time as a solo recording artist, and, to this day, she still considers some of them career songs. That can make it a little intimidating to return to the studio, she admits.
"There's only one "Funkabilly,"" Cotten says. "There are a few other songs, a song called "Keep My Faith," a song called "Loving This Day" -- I just think that they'll stand the test of time, and I don't know if I'll ever write another one of those.
"It's a different phase of my life now. But unless I'm in the room and open to it, I know for sure I won't," she adds.
Despite the changes, Cotten is adamant about the fact that she's essentially the same performer she's always been. "I've evolved as an artist, just because I'm older now and I've seen a little bit more of the world, but I think I'm fairly true to my roots -- which is Memphis," she explains, adding that while she isn't sure what shape the next step in her career will take, she's excited to see it unfold.
"We're just starting to wrap our brain around it. I've collected some new songs and just started to get my team together to see where we might wanna go with it," Cotten goes on to say. "Again, it's still a little bit funkabilly! A little bit funky, a little gospel, inspirational, and country too -- I know I've got some stuff that could go right to country radio."
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