Singer/songwriter Shara Nelson, who began her career as the first female vocalist to be down with electro-dub b-boys Massive Attack on the Bristol posse’s masterful 1991 debut album Blue Lines, has become the lost woman of trip-hop. Throughout the cocaine-fueled ‘90s, her voice could be heard crooning from the speakers of most cocktail lounges in Manhattan, but that was back when bars were still smoky and Massive Attack was the chill-out soundtrack for the end of the millennium. Nelson, who reminded me of Dusty Springfield – though with more grits and gravy – would go on to become the alternative Black chick of the moment.
While Massive’s comrades from Soul II Soul created the sound-system/soul sista prototype, unlike the more vocally grounded Caron Wheeler, Nelson’s voice was spooky, sinister and somewhat scary as she sang with a naked emotion that soon became the trip-hop trademark. Massive Attack’s blueprint of using damaged torch-like singers was followed by former band-mate Tricky who subsequently hooked up with his first (and best) soul girl Martina Topley-Bird and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow who selected morose muse Beth Gibbons to front the band. Of course, each of these women was brilliant in their own right, but they’ve also achieved a certain level of acceptance and acclaim that has always eluded Nelson, as though she has been erased from trip-hop’s contradictory history.
Propelled by cold technology and hot buttered soul, Massive’s sample-heavy, synthesizer-based soundworlds and soaring strings made the sound of Blue Lines unique, owing as much to Lee “Scratch” Perry and Marley Marl as it did to Isaac Hayes and Philip Glass. The arty b-boy trio of Mushroom, Daddy G, and 3-D might’ve been the band’s core, but it was Nelson’s sultry delivery on the opening track (and third single) “Safe from Harm” that pulled us in.
“Midnight rockers, city slickers, all will feature on the freak-show, and I can’t do nothing ’bout that,” she proclaimed, sounding as though she were a cunning conjurer inviting listeners to follow her into the darkness. Having collaborated with Massive since the early days when they were part of a Bristol sound system collective and still calling themselves the Wild Bunch (their 1988 cover of “The Look of Love” was only a hint of the cinematic dreamscape flow that would emerge three years later), Nelson’s haunting vocals were influenced by Aretha Franklin, but she never tried to copy the Queen.
Instead, wearing her Britishness like an aural badge of honor, she sang in an accented voice that was melancholic and stunning, as Massive Attack became the new punks leading a revolution in sound. Trip-hop was hip-hop grown-up, sipping wine, but still puffing blunts. These dudes were inspired by the movie Wild Style, Rammellzee (who according to writer Greg Tate was, “one part artist, one part thug”) and whatever was the latest music machine flowing out of Japan.
The English had never been, at least up to that point in history, very good at making rap, but they were great at being inspired by hip-hop culture and turning it into something else entirely. Nelson’s “ghostly falsetto,” as Uncut magazine described her voice, was also the anchor to the group’s other hugely influential single “Unfinished Sympathy,” which she co-wrote. While her starring role in the creepy Massive Attack videos and appearances on national pop television shows might’ve suggested her status as an official member of the group, the truth was a lot shadier. Although Uncut also wrote, “Shara Nelson’s lyrics of love, loss and loneliness seemed to establish the mood for a new kind of soul music,” Massive members regarded her as little more than just another vocal cog in their machine.
Nelson later told a pop journalist, “If you want to be more than a great vocalist you should be given a chance. I couldn’t grow with Massive, I felt stifled.” In fact they never thought of Nelson as a “real” member from the jump. In the same article, Nelson went on to describe herself as “another cardboard cut-out in front.”
When I interviewed Massive Attack in 1998, a few months before their third album Mezzanine was released, at a time when the lads were barely getting along with each other, group member 3-D was dismissive of Nelson, acting as though her contributions were “whatever.” Never one to bite his tongue, former member Tricky told writer Chris Cumming, “It would have been good for them to keep doing singles with her, but 3-D got threatened, thinking she’s going to take over the band.” In a separate interview, Nelson confirmed that she had written and recorded songs for Massive’s follow-up LP Protection, but the sessions were halted. “I think (the tapes) are in someone’s drawer,” she said drolly.
Veteran reggae and Studio One singer Horace Andy, who worked with Massive since the beginning and also recorded for their label Melankolic, told me later that day, “I suppose my only disappointment during my time with the group was when Shara left. I just thought her best work was with Massive. I wish she and 3-D could just talk through their problems.” Yet, while Andy seemed to genuinely admire Nelson’s work (as well as Tricky’s, who also felt jerked by Massive Attack, but that’s another story), he made no mention of either of her albums, which was surprising since her 1993 debut LP What Silence Knows was successful in the U.K. at the time of its release.
In England, What Silence Knows was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. According to a representative from her label in a Billboard interview, when the disc came out in the states a year later it, “created less of an impact than expected,” which was a shame, because What Silence Knows ranks as one of the coolest, cruelest and most depressing albums of its era. Spin critic Jonathan Bernstein described Nelson’s voice as “lush and elegant,” but the singer also had a sense of dramatic that was rawer than sushi.
A full-figured woman who wasn’t scared of anyone except herself, the opening track “Nobody” had a fierce bitchiness that sounded as though Nelson was screaming/singing directly into 3-D’s face. “Nobody can tell me what to do,” she yowled, “Cause the things you told me always were untrue.” However, once Nelson released her anger, she retreated into darkness of “Pain Revisited,” embracing her depression with the lyrical zeal of Sylvia Plath or Billie Holiday. “Where can I find some peace of mind,” she wondered painfully, recalling a lover whose laughter she could still hear. “You refuse to be a memory.”
On the swinging ‘60s retro of “One Goodbye in Ten,” the talented singer mines the same territory of teen pop music coupled with depressing lyrics. “I’m a shadow of my former self / cause I know it’s time to be moving on.”” she sings as the strings swell in the background. The track was co-produced by Saint Etienne founders Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, the latter of whom would later describe Nelson as “Very gentle, quite private and incredibly talented.”
As a lyricist, Nelson could be remarkably honest, casually tossing out lines like, “You covered your lies with shades of truth,” which open the title track. Throughout the album, Nelson displays the same smoldering soul and Brit-blues intensity that we heard on Blue Lines, but after a few shakeups at her label, her solo career stalled. A few years later, with the exception of a few guest appearances on various projects, Nelson disappeared from the pop landscape.
In 2011, thirteen years after the release of What Silence Knows, her obsessive song “Thoughts of You,” in which she sings “Was it all in my head, I’m in disbelief, was it all in my head,” seemed all too real when Nelson was accused of stalking and claiming to be the wife of Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong. Tong was ultimately awarded a restraining order against Nelson, while she was tasked with 80 hours of community service. Unfortunately, this was the most recent news I was able to find about the singer. In August 2011, her buddy Bob Stanley wrote a touching article about friendship and mental illness that closed with the hope that “Shara Nelson receives the help she needs to get herself back on track and her voice back on the radio.”
BUY Shara Nelson’s What Silence Knows via Amazon