At age 15 she went to a high school in Paris to improve her school education. No doubt about it: Irma is part of a generation that can do just about anything. She’s capable of removing the blinkers of received ideas and transcending the boundaries between categories. And she was also daring enough to re-record her first album, initially entrusted to the greatly respected New York producer, Henry Hirsch, long-time musical partner of Lenny Kravitz.
“We recorded in a place two hours from New York, in a chapel that had been converted into a studio. I thought it sounded good, but when I listened to it again back in Paris, I was pretty disappointed! Too many musicians around her, too many effects and not the emotion she was after. Driven by the audacity of youth, the 20-year-old Irma took the risk of re-recording in Paris. And it was worth it because the album reveals her personality, with her soft vocals and hazy aura, and shows a gentle modesty that is perfectly consistent with her barely disguised shyness.
She did most of the takes herself from the mixing desk in a studio converted from a former cellar. She played around with the various tracks to recreate the private world of this young woman barely out of childhood and give us a sense of the atmosphere of the bedroom where she composed for many years. Born in Douala into a family from Bangangté in western Cameroon, Irma arrived in Paris in 2003 to continue her secondary school studies. She was 15 years old and already showing some serious talent. This was the start of a new life for the teenager, who discovered the voices of neo soul and singers “with guitars” as she puts it, starting with Ben Harper’s ‘Live from Mars’, one of her favourite albums given to her by her mother and ‘Change the World’ by Eric Clapton, which she dug up from her father’s record collection.
The young Cameroonian guitarist and songwriter redid songs by her heroes in her own style and started posting videos on YouTube in 2007: for starters, a cover of ‘Au Suivant’ inspired by seeing –M- and Camille’s version on the TV programme Taratata, followed by the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’, Yael Naïm’s ‘New Soul’, and Django Reinhardt’s ‘After You’ve Gone’. It didn’t take long for praise to start flooding in; lots of fans wanted to find out (lots) more. Wanted to hear some of her own songs. They got ‘Letter to the Lord’ with its original black-and-white clip, and it opens the album.
“I describe the process of searching for inspiration. I write to the Lord asking him to send me some chords. A love letter,” she says, never shy with references to her faith which is “very important” to her. Later she posted the wonderful ballad ‘Somehow’, a piano-vocal number that concludes the collection, opening up new horizons for this singer-songwriter who had until now composed her own personal brand of mostly sweet, sometimes bitter songs on the guitar.
Irma prefers the subtle charms of light and dark to the glaring lights of seduction. The hype built up so quickly that she started to receive emails from tempted producers, including a big cheese from My Major Company who’d succumbed immediately to the charms of ‘I Know’. Things moved very fast after that. In August 2008, the beautiful stranger succeeded in winning over 416 Internet co-producers in just one weekend; in under 48 hours she had collected the €70,000 she needed to record her first album. “It was amazing because we had reckoned on 5 months to get the money together.” She marked her arrival at My Major Company with a fundraising record that has not yet been matched! And we can expect a similarly bright future for this album composed of well-crafted tunes that will strike a chord with listeners of all generations, and choruses that draw on the influences of all the singers who have struck and shaken her heart, beginning with her absolute idol, Michael Jackson.
“I’ve got everything of his! I love everything about him! His energy, his tunes, his voice, his sensitivity, his showmanship: he had the whole world spellbound! I’d only just started taking classical piano lessons!” Irma trod the same fertile pop and soul path as the former little prince of soul who became the king of pop, if we want a resumé of her style that doesn’t, however, tell the full story. How can you sum up in a few words the multitude of influences that have gone into making this unclassifiable album? She is as indebted to Cat Power and Eric Clapton as she is to The Fugees and Queen, but you can also add Regina Spektor and Fink, the star of the Ninjatune team. “My songs are the fruit of everything I’ve assimilated: two seconds on the radio, a few notes in a film, or a whole album. I just need to set that all to music.” It’s not as if she’s a debutant.
She brought a few of her own compositions with her from Cameroon – ‘I Know’, ‘Love You’, ‘End of the Story’ and others. A third of the album dates back to her early years when the little girl got her hands on a guitar her father had bought and taught herself to play. “Simple verse-chorus songs in a major key”, which the young woman she has become has since reworked to reflect her new liking for neo soul sounds, as on ‘Their Truth’ with its funky hip-hop-like beats, churchy organ, the crackling of vinyl records and her even warmer vocals. You’ll have realised by now that Irma is a composite character with a shifting identity; multiple and yet singular. Like her songwriting.
Her lyrics tell us about her without ever being autobiographical, stories of love, its joys and its disappointments. “The words come to me completely naturally,” Irma says modestly. But her lyrics certainly don’t lack irony. ‘Your Guide’, for example, pokes fun at young people who are indifferent to everything, already disappointed in love, have survived everything, against all the odds.
She is quite the opposite, ready to embark on this strange journey called music and fully intending to perform live, a dimension she added in spring 2010. “I spent the whole of March 2010 with Diam’s. It was the first time I’d been on tour and travelled like that.” Irma has supported many different artists including –M-, Mickey and Tété since then. Each time she had “twenty minutes, five tracks”, completely alone with her guitar and her voice.
And last autumn she performed weekly dates at the Java, just like a real star. The crowd always ended up falling under the spell of her husky melodies. Her subtle charisma will overpower you too – and she promises to enchant us for many years to come. (2) Irma Schultz Keller (born 1 October 1965) has appeared in many movies and television series in Sweden. As a singer, she has made five solo albums and participated in many other music projects like ‘Songs for December’ along with Uno Svenningsson. In 2007, Keller and Uno Svenningsson performed in Melodifestivalen and made it to the second chance round with the song ‘God Morgon’.
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