Just when it seemed as if funk was all but gone from mainstream pop, the raw and uncompromising style has resurfaced thanks to an unlikely figure: a petite, flame-haired white woman with large, expressive eyes and a fierce musical attitude.
But Nikka Costa isn't exactly new to the scene. The daughter of legendary composer-arranger Don Costa and a child singing sensation overseas in the '80s, she has released two American albums as an adult. Both sets - 2001's Everybody Got Their Something and 2005's can'tneverdidnothin' - blazed with flavorful hybrids of funk, pop and rock. The sound was driven by Costa's scorching vocals, sass and swagger. Though charismatic and smartly produced, the albums were poorly promoted and came and went.
On Pebble to a Pearl, her new CD released Tuesday, Costa digs deeper into the funk element that has always simmered in her music. This time, the blistering rock layers and pop gloss of her last two albums have been stripped away for an earthier sound.
"This was more of a conscious effort to do a soul record," says Costa, who headlines Recher Theatre in Towson on Sunday night. "We did it all live to tape. That was great, more organic. It was a much different process from can't."
After Virgin Records failed to promote her last CD, Costa parted ways with the company. She formed her own label, Go Funk Yourself Records, and started work on the kind of album she's been wanting to make for some time.
"You have to commit to the moment when you're recording live," says Costa, who last week was at a tour stop in Kansas. "You don't have a whole bunch of takes like you have with Pro Tools. It's very much playing the song as a collective. ... You go for a vibe as opposed to perfection."
Pro Tools is the software used to "correct" music and vocals, pitch and such that is generally used by big, mainstream labels.
Costa says she wasn't in a hurry to sign with another such label after the Virgin deal dissolved. So she funded Pebble to a Pearl herself. The album was near completion, in the last stages of mixing, when an executive at Stax Records called. Costa eventually signed with the recently relaunched label, whose soul legacy greatly informed Pebble to a Pearl.
"Stax appreciated the gritty soul music we were doing," she says. "It's similar to what Stax used to do - the gritty, raw answer to Motown. So the match worked: I feel like I'm the raw answer to pop radio."
Costa's approach - slightly reminiscent of a young Chaka Khan - has always been accessible. Her stage presence (her dance moves with a mic stand rival those of early Prince) is just as thrilling as the music. And although she presaged the recent retro-soul trend among white female artists (think Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse and Duffy) by nearly a decade, Costa has yet to garner the commercial success she deserves.
"The fact that others have had commercial success proves my point all along, that this music resonates with people if they hear it," the artist says.
Though it's unlikely that the dog-eared funk of Pebble to a Pearl will push Costa up the pop charts, it's still another solid effort from the singer-songwriter. It lacks the immediacy and Technicolor vibrancy of can'tneverdidnothin', one of the better albums to come out in 2005. But it's a better showcase of Costa, the vocalist. She sounds at home inside the twangy grooves, her vocals revealing a sexy snap and snarl. Driven by a shuffling beat and punchy horns, "Crybaby" is a prime example.
Throughout the album, it's easy to spot the influences: Ann Peebles on "Loving You," Fulfillingness' First Finale-era Stevie Wonder on the title track and the strutting "Keep Pushin'." But Costa manages to synthesize it all into a sound that doesn't feel forced or too contrived. It's a sound and feel her strong cult fan base would embrace.
"I can only go by my fans that come to the show, and they come. So I'm doing something right, I guess," Costa says, laughing. "They're so dedicated. All I'm doing, man, is trying to create a lifetime of songs."
if you go
See Nikka Costa at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.