What makes a great songwriter? Is it the ability to convey a message or emotion through song? Is it all based on the catchiness of melodies or phrasing of words? Or is it all purely based on musical capability? Ultimately it comes down to balance and knowing when less is more or vice versa.
Our country is filled to the brim with talent and so we decided to share some of our favourite South African songwriters of the past ten years with you.
I haven’t been this excited about a local artist in ages. Soulful, progressive, moody and smart – Yannick Ilunga might not be a name you recognize right now, but trust me, in two years time you won’t be able to look anywhere without seeing it. He has slowly been building and calculating exactly how to release and introduce his very unique blend of neo soul/future pop to the world. Thank the universe that his debut EP “The King of Anxiety” is now out and receiving international praise. His writing is poignant, but instead of echoing his obviously vast variety of influences redundantly, he is able to make it sound fresh and evoke nothing but hope for the future. And the future’s bright, man. (Werner Olckers)
To talk of heartfelt lyrical poetry and prose and not mention The High Priestess herself would be tantamount to treason. Beckmann is a forward-thinking wordsmith, the modern matriarch of neo-alternative SA songwriting. Beckmann’s career blossomed as one songwriting half of the otherworldly electro-operatic duo, Lark, and has since formed alternative grunge rock band BEAST. Lyrics from the latter are some of her best work to date, interspersed with autobiographical musings that give us a fleeting glimpse inside her ethereal cognizance. They also conjure up intense thoughts and images of one’s emotional and physical power and being in control of that power. Externally influenced by the tribal and visceral, Beckmann is more at ease with her internal self than most and it’s a quality felt by all of those who witness her vocal prowess live. (Tecla Ciolfi)
Jaco van der Merwe
Rapper for Pretoria-trio Bittereinder, has the ability to weave words together like he’s a grandpa reminiscing about his youth. He juxtaposes stereotypical beauty with the nitty gritty, as heard on ‘Ware Verhaal’: “So spoeg ek my hartjie uit in netjiese rytjies/rympies wat seer en heelmaak soos ‘n chirurg se snytjies”. In ‘Doodsberig’, his growth is undeniable: “Don’t give a damn if a fan recalls my legacy/dis 2014 en ons almal is celebrities.” In ‘Rymtevaarder’ he further demonstrates his skill as the title translates as “rhyme traveller” which is a neologism – and a pun on “ruimtevaarder”, which is Afrikaans for “astronaut”. He’s adept at telling stories in a way young Afrikaans people can relate to, and he does it over a beat anyone can jam to. (Jacques Cilliers)
Often described as a genius, virtuosic blues guitar riffs and solos abound in Patlansky’s music. Not to be overlooked, his lyrics range from catchy and upbeat to emotional and nostalgic and are delivered by his melodious vocals that, when the time calls for it, are lined with a bluesy roughness reminiscent of the greats. Patlansky has managed to accumulate a wealth of fans across a broad spectrum of ages which can be seen at his live performances, the crown jewel in his musical artillery. To witness him live it to see the layers of effort and complexity in his music that are revealed courtesy of his stage presence, improvisational techniques and technical skill. (Michal-Mare Linden)
A great emcee has the ability to captivate the crowd by telling a compelling story over a fresh beat. Durban-born Simiso Zwane, better known as Okmalumkoolkat has these skills, and a couple more to boot. He has a couple of monikers, all a testament to his affinity for wordplay and creating a culture for young South Africans. His solo career picked up with ‘Sebenza’, introducing listeners to his culture-jamming psyche. With references to “SABC4”, townships, Macbooks, and Peter Parker, it’s obvious the Future Mfana lives in a digital Mzanzi. His newest release, ‘Nice Shandees’ affirms this, with the lyrics: “Yea, I fought them from the sky, lightsaber, assegai.” He’s a man before his time, mixing pop culture and SA heritage flawlessly. (Jacques Cilliers)
This man is a lyrical enigma and is responsible for some of the most recognisable crowd-chanting raps of the last few years. It’s thanks to his magical side project Brainwarmth, that I hold him in such high esteem. The release of “Look At My Gun”, created with beatmaker Alex Van Rensburg, marked a shift in perspective for me. There is an emotional vulnerability that begins a journey into the hypocentre of the creative mechanism of his brain. In PHfat, his crushing raps juxtaposed by carefully executed falsettos could easily have you mistaking Zietsman for two separate performers. The structure of each song is considerate and calculated. His attention to detail during live performances is entrancing. The words fall from his mouth with ease of grace, creep up on you and swiftly kick you in the nuts. And still, you’re left smiling at the end. (Angela Wieckl)
Shotgun Tori has been steadily meandering through the miniscule folk scene in South Africa, leaving a trail of weathered words littered behind her like breadcrumbs. She wears her lyrical heart on her sleeve so to see a Shotgun Tori performance is to know the lady behind the semi-acoustic. She once told me that performing with her shoes on wasn’t an option for her because she liked feeling connected to the ground which she occupied for that brief, but poignant performance moment and I was like, what a bloody hippie. But it’s only years later, after seeing dozens of her shows that I realized that this was how she left a piece of herself on every floor and in every heart. (Tecla Ciolfi)
If you’re hankering for an artist to hit those heart strings or force his vocabulary and writing right into your brain and have it stuck there for days, Laudo’s your guy. The evolution of aKING is quite something when you sit down and indulge in their four album discography back-to-back. Laudo has a way with words. But not just that, he has a way with structures, melodies and guitar too. He has the ability to twist his tongue around interesting progressions and has a range that many writers only really reach later in their careers. Laudo is poetic, but never soft or subtle. His writing has intent and I for one can’t wait to see where his story telling leads us. (Werner Olckers)
Yes, dear purists, there is very much songwriting, structuring and an art to hip-hop and this guy is the real deal. He is cocky, clever, connected, always aware of his peers or competition, but most of all he is very fucking talented. He knows exactly how to formulaic-ly construct a hit and has had a slew of them to show for it, a feat that solely rests on the strength of each of his hooks – they’re ironclad. Add to this his talent for sampling and lyrical content and flow to back this all up and you have a frontrunner talent. His production is world-class and has only been developing and growing from album to album. I can pretty much guarantee the guy has a 5 year plan and global domination is the end game. (Werner Olckers)
In 2008 Carlin introduced Zebra & Giraffe to the country via “Collected Memories”, an album that he wrote alone and the rest is indie-rock history. The multi-instrumentalist’s guitar riffs are haunting and delicate, yet still manage to exude a rough rock quality. His vocals possess qualities in both deeper and higher registers, which give his songs an additional emotional weight. The expressive honesty is found in his lyric themes run a narrative thread through the band’s discography and even though Carlin consistently revisits his past, it does not result in overdone themes but rather in a multi-faceted view of them. (Michal-Mare Linden)
Every album Dear Reader (formally Harris Tweed) has produced is both beautiful and draining, but more so than anything, necessary. As flippant millennials, we’re in desperate need of a voice to shout the hard truths, like MacNeal does so eloquently on her latest album “Rivonia”. Everything, from the intricacies in the production to the subtleties in the imagery she chooses in her lyrics, deserves time and attention in order to be fully appreciated. Her writing is honest and authentic and interweaves personal experiences with universal truths. Whether she is writing about something as innocent as young love or as sombre and weighty as apartheid, she has a way of drawing the listener into a contemplative space, releasing them minutes later with a changed perspective or altered mood. (Jessica Kramer)
If you appreciate emotionally bare, raw lyrics about love and existence with or without it, then Oosthuizen is your man. No metaphorical shrouds or smoke and mirrors, just honest and disarming storytelling. Vocally the Sons Of Settlers’ frontman is reminiscent of folk legends like Cat Stevens, tonally warm with a range that while not vast, is unwavering. Oosthuizen possesses a calm demeanour that commands your attention, almost subconsciously. He is self-aware and without pretension, which reflects in both his lyrics and performance style. His pleas for understanding, his confessions and his wanton desire for truth are relatable and unifying and you understand the emotions he is feeling, because at some point, you have felt them too. (Angela Weickl)
Best known as frontman of SA folk-outfit Wrestlerish, this man has knack for turning heartbreak into damn great. ‘Oliver Tambourine’ proved Olckers has the ability to turn existential lyrics into singalong songs that teenagers and thirty-somethings can relate to. ‘Bodies of Water’ contains Olckers’ affinity for lyrics juxtaposing nature and love – metaphorically telling a romantic story referencing rivers, shores, bridges and woods are all recurring motifs in Olckers’ songwriting. ‘Battle Ground’ is also a bitter and rather anthemic tune covered in sweet falsetto. “I hope the ground swallows you whole/until there’s nothing left but your bones” masks anger only an ex-lover can bring. Or so it seems. That’s what makes Olckers great – his lyrics tell his story, but there’s room for you to relate to it in your own way. (Jacques Cilliers)