Is it difficult to be the next big thing that never was? Blackpool's finest silences the doubters at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival
What happens to the next big thing when they're no longer the next big thing? What happens when fame, adulation and celebrity beckon tantalisingly, then melt away as though they had never been?
Karima Francis might have the answer to those questions, and it's possible that the answer isn't the one you would expect to hear. In 2009, she – or, more particularly, her incredibly powerful, emotionally-aching voice – was the subject of much hyped-up speculation and anticipation. But her debut album, The Author, underwhelmed the critics.
There was a sense that it had failed to capture all the qualities that made Francis most exciting, most distinctive. It was too safe, too mundane, too conservative. It didn't connect with her raw, confessional appeal. And then, to make matters much worse, Francis fell ill with anorexia, as she was promoting the album.
Four years and a second album (The Remedy) later, Francis is on the stage of the Black Box, as part of the 2013 Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival (which came to an end on Sunday, February 24) playing to a small audience of devoted fans.
Francis cuts a curiously lonely figure up there, with her big guitar, her shock of dark, Dylanesque hair, and a pale face peeking out beneath. She's young, and a bit shy, diffident almost. There's no sense of starry pretence or performativity with her. But then, when Francis starts to sing, you realise what all the early fuss was about.
Her voice – alternately gentle and caressing; crooning and husky; harsh and rampaging; strong and pure – is unlike anything I have ever heard before. It is a revelation: it could move mountains, both by force and by stealth. You feel it passing through you and out the other side, leaving you subtly changed.
This, it seems, is the sound of a young woman baring her soul. Some of the songs actually appear to physically hurt her: she grimaces as she sings, as though the perfect notes are being dragged out unwillingly.
Others float out sweetly, easily: meditations rather than howls of confusion and pain. She leans forward and hollers, or whispers, into the microphone – shades of Dylan again in her stance – but that same sense of searing intensity never leaves her.
It must be said that Francis's power as a singer-songwriter derives almost entirely from her voice, used as an instrument, rather than the lyrics of her songs, which stray – if you take them in isolation – towards the trite or twee at times.
In fact, many of the lyrics I can't make out at all. It doesn't feel like a loss, however, because of the bewitching magic of the live sound. And I like the way each song ends as though hanging in mid-air, or in the middle of a conversation, resonating into the silence.
Too many songwriters think the best way to finish a song is to gather up all the ends, and tie them (often with a grand flourish), before waiting for applause. Francis has the talent, and perhaps the musical confidence, to do things in her own suggestive, instinctive way.
When the gig ends, I'm left wondering about this woman and her thrilling voice. Is it difficult to be the next big thing that never was? Conventional wisdom would say it is. But I wonder whether Karima Francis feels liberated by the absence of scrutiny and the weight of expectation. Perhaps the reason she is able to sing with such power is because now she has nothing to lose.