Once a record makes it to radio, a number of variables can make the difference between unmemorable music and an unforgettable single. It could be a catchy chorus that reels the listeners in, or perhaps an irresistible dance rhythm. It could even be something as simple as the singing itself.
But in the case of Lisa Stansfield's "All Woman," what makes the song click with its audience isn't how it sounds, but what it says. It starts off describing the end of a typical day, as he comes home from work, worn and weary, only to snap at the toll the day's labors have taken on her appearance. "You look a mess," Stansfield has him complain. "It's just not like it used to be." To which the woman responds:
I may not be a lady
But I'm all woman
From Monday to Sunday I work harder than you know.
It's an archetypal romantic confrontation, starting off with tempers flaring and ending with a tender reconciliation. And unlike a lot of love songs, it seemed to spring from real life, not fantasy-land. Perhaps that's why the song -- along with Stansfield's evocative delivery and the lush, string-drenched arrangement -- had the feel of an instant classic. "All Woman" feels like an instant masterpiece, the sort of soul song that will sound just as fresh in 20 years as it does today.
That, in any case, was what Stansfield was hoping for when she wrote the song. "I just thought that song was relevant to a lot of people, really," she says, over the phone during a stop in Los Angeles. "It's about the breakdown of relationships, and people really forgetting why they got together in the first place. It happens all over the world.
"It wasn't about one particular relationship, it was about a lot of relationships. A lot of couples."
To help drive that point home, the video for "All Woman" shows a variety of twosomes -- young, old, black, white -- enacting the same scene in the same apartment. It's quite stunning visually, as the action flows forward seamlessly as the cast changes, dissolving magically from one couple to another.
Stansfield loves the idea behind the video. "It's like saying anyone can be in this situation," she says. "We can all be this sad. We can all go through this."
But she admits that making the video was less than thrilling. It wasn't just the usual routine of shooting and re-shooting that made it a drag, though; it was staging it so that those marvelous dissolves would work on the screen.
As she describes it, each scene would be shot on video, and when they got to the point where one couple disappeared and another was to step in, the director would freeze the frame and draw an outline of the departing couple on a TV monitor. "Then the other person would step in to that space, and match it up on the monitor," she says. "Which was quite tedious, really. It'd be like 'Hold your head up a little bit higher. Can you make your neck two inches shorter?'
"It was really weird," she laughs.
Still, Stansfield is used to the weirdness of television. After all, that's where the young Englishwoman's career really began. "Yeah, I started out doing regional TV shows and things like that," she admits. "And then I went on to be [the host] for a children's pop show, and did that for about a year. Until all this started."
Singing, of course, was what she had wanted to do all along, but as she puts it, "when you're that young, I suppose you take what comes along. And I wasn't really enjoying doing the TV shows. I started out at 14 doing these TV shows, and they were dressing me up like some kind of Joan Collins look-alike. You know? And it wasn't very nice.
"So I thought, 'Forget this. I'm going to do something else.' "
That was nine years ago, and although Stansfield's success didn't quite happen overnight -- an album recorded while she was part of the group Blue Zone sank without trace -- it came with astonishing speed.
"Affection," her solo debut, was a trans-Atlantic smash in 1990. "It was like a snowball," she says. "It went really big in England, then in Europe. America happened last, really, but it was sort of like the icing on the cake."
There were some strange moments in America, though. For one thing, Stansfield is considered a dance artist in Britain, but a soul singer in America, a difference which, she says, was "quite a shock. But like anything, if you see it enough, you get used to it."
Then there were the American reviews of her first single, "All Around the World," many of which likened her sound to Barry White. How did Stansfield feel about the comparison?
"Well, I'm very fat, and I'm very black," she says, then laughs hysterically. "Seriously, I think maybe they found a comparison because when me, Ian [Devaney] and Andy [Morris] wrote that song, we were very influenced by Barry White. It was a sort of tribute to him. Maybe that's why people would have said that."
As it turns out, Stansfield, Devaney and Morris are devoted fans of '70s soul music. That will hardly come as a surprise to fans of her current album, "Real Love," for the songs are full of vintage instrumental effects -- particularly wah-wah guitar.
"That started off as a joke," laughs the singer. "I mean, most things we do start off as a joke, anyway. Andy though, said, 'We'll get some wah-wah on it, and we'll be all right.' And it just ran through the whole album.
"I love that sort of thing."
When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m.
Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion.
Tickets: $22.50 reserved seating, $12 lawn.
-#Call: (410) 625-1400 for tickets.