Beneath a bougie bar in Sydney’s CBD, a mixed audience of American expats, young couples and seasoned soul music-lovers await Jamila Woods to take the stage at The Basement. The solemn jazz lounge is dimly lit, as we chirping sweet nothings to fill the time, meanwhile watching her band routinely prepare their instruments on the slightly elevated platform.
In and amongst the new wave of Chicago-based artists, stands Jamila Woods. After featuring on Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment‘s mammoth single “Sunday Candy”, the soul singer, songwriter and poet released her debut album ‘HEAVN’ on Soundcloud in 2016. Slowly but surely, the record has spread its wings, finding its way onto other streamer services and into the ears of fans down under. “How did you guys even hear about me?”, a shocked Woods asks mid-show. A fair question, answered simply with laughs.
Woods steps onto the stage cracks a smile at the slowly-building crowd and then gently leans into the LP’s title track. Her striking voice, though not the most conventional pitch, is brutally honest. “Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here!” She exclaims at the song’s close, “This is my first ever time in Australia!” — a familiar and heartwarming sentiment that just never seems to get old.
“Stellar” and “Breadcrumbs” follow close behind, with her band’s live arrangement breathing new life into each song; they elevate her lyrics onto a pedestal, for all to dance gently to and admire. “Sydney, is it alright if you sing with me?”, she cheekily asks during the latter. “LSD” offers a euphoric experience, as Chance the Rapper‘s feature verse is replaced by an impassioned guitar solo. “Emerald Street”, “Questions” and “VRY BLK” pass us by fondly. “I’m going to play a song that’s not out yet!” Woods excitedly announces, “…this song’s called “Giovanni”.” Contrary to its name, it wasn’t a banging European house jam, but rather a slick neo-soul number brimming with quirky instrumental accents and a stellar vocal performance.
A cover of Destiny’s Child‘s “Say My Name” appears out of the woodwork, seamlessly blending into “In My Name” and heralding in the first all-inclusive singalong for the night. Bolstered renditions of “Bubbles” and “Lonely” empower the room to have a cheeky boogie, before “Way Up” provides a sobering moment of stillness. In a very left of field move, Woods and her band tackle a mashup/cover of Rage Against The Machine‘s “Killing In The Name” and cult hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Somehow, the band manage to inject more darkness into the already angsty rock anthems, stripping them back and bringing them to an amble tempo, so that Woods’ haunting vocals billow over the dawdling instrumental like a cloud of smoke.
“Anyone listen to Chance the Rapper in here!? Anyone know the song, “Sunday Candy?”” she asks with a very cheeky grin. The answer is a resounding yes, fuelling the band to offer up yet another downtempo rendition; Woods’ voice is placed at the forefront of the spirited cut, and the instrumental acts as a humble support. The magic of “Holy” and “Blk Girl Soldier” close out the night. Woods offers one final outburst of gratitude, before strolling off the stage, as thunderous applause follows her behind the curtain.
Jamila Woods has no intention of speaking anything but the truth. She’s an artist with a clear conviction, hell-bent on using her God-given talent to breathe life into the next generation — in particular, the next generation of black females. Her music is void of gimmicks, and her voice is as raw as they come, tuned for spoken word poetry as she offers a fresh perspective on the beauty, struggles and triumphs of black America.
Photos by Connor Phipps.