Nina Simone, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell had already cleared the path for Phoebe Snow. Like those wondrous women of song, Snow is fearlessly musical, her work sweeping through the blues, gospel, jazz, pop, folk -- sometimes within one song. Because of her daring, complex artistry, Snow has been overlooked by the mainstream for years. Even during her commercial peak in the mid-'70s, record companies didn't quite know what to do with the singer-songwriter.
Today, at 50, Snow shows no signs of settling into a single groove. On Natural Wonder, her first album of original material since 1989's Something Real, she pushes her volcanic vocals over gutsy modern rock arrangements.
"The songs always dictate to me what to do," says Snow, who's calling from her New Jersey home. "What people don't seem to know is that I have a big voice."
Oh, we have always known that. But the folk-jazz backdrops of such classics as "Poetry Man" and "Two Fisted Love" were so lilting, her vocals so smoothly paced and languid that the whole mood was intoxicating, almost dreamlike. The early albums -- 1974's Phoebe Snow, 1976's Second Childhood and 1977's It Looks Like Snow -- presented the native New Yorker as an introspective, highly imaginative singer and lyricist. But there were glimmers of let-it-all-go belting on those albums. Columbia, her label at the time, tried to push her in a more acoustic, folksy direction after her first two albums went gold.
But Snow has always sailed wherever the musical winds blow.
She says matter-of-factly, "I think one of the things that got the music industry confused and under the weather right now is that everything has to be categorized. It's killing everything. It always has."
Natural Wonder is not really much of a departure. Snow has explored rock before, namely on her overlooked 1981 album Rock Away. And in concert, she barrels through "Piece of My Heart," the Erma Franklin classic made famous by Janis Joplin. Her voice soars throughout the new CD as the smart, crisp arrangements buoy the vocals. But if you're a fan of the more contemplative, quiet-fire Snow, then Natural Wonder may be a little jarring at first.
"Because the record has a lot of rock guitars, it's rock, I guess," the artist says. "But the whole attitude with radio is that they won't play it because it's not in one category. This album is really who I am, one part of who I am."
Before Snow became renowned for her elastic contralto and scat vocals, she was Phoebe Laub, a shy girl who was born in New York City but grew up in Teaneck, N.J. As a child, she studied piano but switched to guitar as a teen. Snow filled notebooks with poems, which flowered into songs. And, after overcoming stage fright as a young woman, she performed those songs in Greenwich Village clubs. Her set then, as it does today, sparkled with blues burners, folk ditties and jazz numbers.
Around 1973, fellow singer-songwriter Leon Russell signed Snow to his Shelter label, which issued her self-titled debut the next year. The album was an immediate smash, thanks to the floating Top 10 hit "Poetry Man."
"Radio play lists, then, were not so narrow and rigidly formatted," Snow says. "America as a whole wasn't as corporate. The '70s were a better time in terms of music. Now, today," she says with a chuckle, "it's about who's the most controversial and who's more screwed up than the other."
In 1975, Snow gave birth to her only child, Valerie Rose, who was diagnosed with profound autism. A single mother, Snow devoted much of her time to Valerie and curtailed her travel and recording schedule. After 1976's gold-selling Second Childhood, Snow's subsequent albums found smaller audiences. And the singer receded from view at the start of the '80s. Through the decade and into the '90s, Snow sang commercial jingles and performed live here and there.
Nowadays, Snow is still devoted to her daughter, who's 27. With the new album, the singer plans to tour more. Natural Wonder, though sonically more aggressive than her classic work, is as revealing as anything Snow has done. Authenticity still drives her, as it did Simone, Nyro, Mitchell and other independent singing sisters before her.
"You know, I just get scared sometimes how we're giving up our individuality," Snow says. "I like to think I'm a spiritual person and to have a spiritual belief is very important right now. That's what motivates me. I have to believe that things will be better even if they're not. That's basically what I'm trying to say on the album."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun