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Iona Coburn

Oxford’s Best-Kept Secret

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Local artist (and future icon) Iona Coburn, is set to release a long-awaited EP, The Port this month. Her vocal control and shimmering vibrato bear comparison to the greatest jazz voices of old. Her EP, written with producer, drummer and “genius” Barnabas Poffley, has a percussive bite to it, sustaining swathes of thick melodic texture painted with Iona’s unmistakeable, mellifluous voice. Having held The Port in the wings for a while, the impetus for the final leap of faith came from Simon Devenport and Jamie Halliday, co-founders of local record label Deep Cover, whose no-nonsense attitude and savvy catalysed the release of the EP to the world. The stunning video for ‘Silence’ was brought to life by Richard Weston and Meurig Marshall, the director and cinematographer of the multi-award-winning biopic, The Burying Party, featured previously in these pages. We caught up with Iona to unravel the story of Oxford’s best-kept musical secret.

On her musical pedigree…

My dad loves music but my parents are both shit singers – absolutely terrible. I was about five and Dad was going through a bit of an opera phase that week – loads of Richard Strauss and Mozart. He was listening to ‘Queen of the Night’ and said, “Do an impression of that.” It’s one of my earliest memories – him and Mum looking at each other and saying, “She’s quite good.” So they put me through lots of singing lessons. I joined various choirs and the school singing club. I think that’s where I learnt how to perform. These days, I don’t know whether it’s actually the performance element of it that I like anymore. I think it’s the creativity and the thought process behind it. I find performing daunting. My dad is pretty much the reason I have a really broad taste in music – some days it would be Rachmaninoff, other days he’d be playing Public Enemy.

On divine intervention…

I would say the main, genius, god-like figure in my musical life is Thom Yorke from Radiohead. My first experience of going to a musical gig or concert was Radiohead in 2001. I was on a bus on the way back from London. Dad had known about this gig but it had sold out ages in advance. They had this huge stage in South Park, 40,000 people for a sort of homecoming gig during the Amnesiac and Kid A year. We were travelling down Headington Hill and went past South Park. Dad was like, “We’ve got to get out here, even if we just stand outside the gates and listen.” So we were outside the walls, Glastonbury-style. This guy was standing outside, they were maybe a third of the way through their set, and he was standing there looking really forlorn. He came up to us and said, “Do you want to buy some tickets off me? I’ve just been stood up.” So we got a couple of tickets. I was aware of Radiohead before we went in, but not really. It was absolutely amazing, just incredible – a really cathartic experience. The final song was ‘Creep’ – I didn’t know the song at all. Then all of a sudden it started raining, like proper biblical rain. I’ve still got the ticket.

On influences…

I would start with soul music; people like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. They’re the people that give people chills when they sing; they make you feel something. I think that’s wicked – if you have the ability to make people feel something just with your voice and write some baby-making bangers at the same time. Also Funkadelic, Average White Band and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson – those kind of hearty, funky soulful acts I think are really cool. Then you’ve got the voices like Joni Mitchell and, obviously, Amy Winehouse, fucking obviously. Electronically I would throw Massive Attack into the mix, Underworld, LCD Soundsystem, Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers.

On dreams of the big screen…

Another thing that’s definitely influenced the music I’ve written for this EP is soundtracks. All of the Wes [Anderson] and Baz [Luhrmann] soundtracks are wicked. There’s this really amazing soundtrack that if you haven’t listened to, I strongly, strongly recommend it. It’s for Black Dynamite – the soundtrack is by this guy called Adrian Younge; he’s this LA producer, composer, he’s absolutely brilliant. Marvin Gaye wrote an amazing soundtrack called Trouble Man. It would be such an exciting project if someone said, ‘Can you write a soundtrack to this film.’ That’s my dream. It would be absolutely wicked to do that with Barny.

On meeting Barny…

We first started playing music together when this producer who’d heard me sing at the Groucho Club a number of times asked me to do a showcase for them. I agreed without knowing who I was going to get to play with me. My brother Rory had been travelling with this guy, Barny, they were on a motorbike together going through Columbia. They were trying to cross some border in the middle of this desert and Barny’s motorbike broke down. He was like, “Rory, I think this is the end of the road here, you go and hitch a ride. I’m not going anywhere fast, I’ll see you back in England.” Rory told me, “I’ve met this amazing guy. You should definitely go and play music with him.”

On holding back The Port…

Honestly, I got really scared; I became obsessed with the idea of how to perfectly release something. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d written it and had it produced with Barny and then that was it. I was like, ‘Fuck. What do I do now? I don’t know how this game works at all.’ Without anyone to guide me and help me out with it, I thought I would be able to just send it off in an email to loads of record labels, it would get picked up and that would be it – not how it works at all. I really got in my own head. I lost confidence with it, until Simon – knight in shining armour – came along and said, “What are you doing? This music’s really good – do it.” The great thing about Simon and Jamie is that they’re really good ‘yes’ people. Even if there’s something that they don’t necessarily agree with, they’ll say, “Ok, I don’t really know why, but I’m not against it.” I love that because you need people in your life to be catalysts and work with you; I wish I could write an amazing album in my bedroom, but I can’t.


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