A sultry slide guitar, the lonely moan of a blues harp, the righteous thump of a fatback bass and the sticky soulful rhythm of a Beale Street backbeat… Joanna Cotten’s music lays it all out like a slow ride down through the Delta. Then she starts to sing, and all Heaven breaks loose.
She calls her music "funkabilly," and the appellation fits just right, serving as a dead-on description of Cotten's undeniable artistry – a heart-stopping mix of God-given talent, flawless technique, and deep-down Southern soul.
"I have to sing for people, that's just the way it is," Cotten says, setting her long blond hair in motion with a shake of her head. "It's like a beast inside of me that has to come out, and it's been that way since I was a baby girl."
Born in Memphis and raised in Forrest City, Arkansas, Cotten was pulling on her mother's skirt as a 4-year-old, saying, "Mama, when I grow up, I'm gonna be a singer!" Driven to distraction by her daughter's persistence, Cotten's mom finally relented.
"She said 'If you're serious, I want to do this right,'" the singer recalls. "She took me to this lady named Gloria Borell 15 miles away in Wynne, Arkansas, and she started teaching me breathing techniques, art songs and hymns."
Those initial voice lessons set the vocally gifted Cotten off on a lifelong journey that would take her from local talent shows to the Memphis Grand Youth Opry and Rhodes College to Nashville's nightclubs, all the way to New York City – where she attended the prestigious Juilliard School – and then all the way back again.
While attending Juilliard, Cotten was faced with the question “which musical direction do I want to focus on conquering first?” Something in her heart told her that a life spent in New York was not truly where she belonged, so she packed her bags and moved back to Nashville.
Cotten began singing regularly at Jack's Guitar Bar, building a large and loyal following. When Jack's closed, she moved to another local club, 3rd and Lindsley, and opportunities continued to build. Cotten was introduced to EMI Music Publishing’s Bruce Burch, who helped the singer develop her writing chops and facilitated her songwriting deal with EMI.
That helped lead to a record deal with Warner Bros. Nashville, which proved to be a heartbreaking experience for Cotten. Even though she was told it was because she was different that the music executives were attracted to her in the first place, the reality was that her music did not fit the standard major label ‘formula.’ Unfortunately, music in Nashville that does not fit the ‘formula’ rarely gets heard. Such was the case with Cotten. After recording 21 songs and waiting 5 years, it was apparent this was not the road she belonged on.
It was then she parted ways with her label and took a step back to regroup and once again find herself musically. With no skittish committees to pacify or radio formats to please, Cotten found freedom in her latest album, “Joanna Cotten,” which she produced.
“This record is collection of some of my favorite songs,” Cotten said, “When my co-writers and I were writing these, there was no agenda. We were just having fun creating music — and that’s what I wanted to get back to. It hits closer to my R&B Memphis roots. There are no steel guitars and no fiddles and, quite honestly, I believe it is a more cohesive piece of work than anything prior to it.”
One thing is certain — the same tenacity present in Cotten as a child is still there today, as evidenced by these lyrics from “This Thing I do,” off the new album:
“I can’t help this thing I do, ‘cause it’s living in me, this gift that has been given me.”
“To me, life is a journey and I have grown with every turn in the road,” Cotten said. “No one can take away my gift, and even though there have been bumps in the road, I will continue to pursue what I love and carve out my own path along the way.”