Topanga Canyon in California’s Santa Monica mountains is deeply rooted in some of the most popular music of the 20th century – it has been home to Neil Young, Bob Dylan, members of The Doors, Fleetwood Mac and Marvin Gaye among others.
It is also where singer-songwriter Julia Fordham now lives.
However, you may be able to take the girl out of Portsmouth, but you can’t take Portsmouth out of the girl. She grew up on Hayling Island before moving into Portsmouth in her teens, and then on to London to make her name.
But she relishes the chance to come back here whenever she can – she’s playing a gig at Portsmouth Guildhall later this month.
She says: ‘I actually played at Portsmouth Guildhall on my first album tour – but that was 30 years ago nearly. Then last year I did a couple of nights at The Spring arts centre in Havant and that was lovely.’
During that trip she took in a show at the Guildhall by singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke and it inspired her to make a return where she would play a similar set-up.
I’m up to snuff with Portsmouth Football Club – and I don’t really know much about soccer. We is proper locals!
‘I thought it was beautiful and I really liked how they put that whole place together. The dinner was fantastic. I went and did the whole thing with my mum as we’re both fans of Judie. We had such a lovely time, and the way they staged it, they really make it an intimate club setting inside a theatre.’
Speaking from LA, Julia talks fondly of her home town.
‘It was wonderful to be back, I just so enjoyed that drive into town coming into Portsmouth. It’s a great-looking city, it really is.
‘I lived in Southsea for years, my gran lived in Southsea, that really is my home town. I’m a south coast person.
‘My dad worked at the Portsmouth dockyard – he was an underwater photographer for the Ministry of Defence.
‘My brother’s a big supporter of the team, my cousin works for them, my dad and brother went to Wembley. I’m up to snuff with Portsmouth Football Club – and I don’t really know much about soccer.
‘We is proper locals!’
Julia’s first job was at Radio Victory, but she left the city aged 19 to join Just What I Always Wanted hitmaker Mari Wilson’s backing group, The Wilsations.
‘I had my send off at Rosie’s wine bar and everyone from Radio Victory came along, I don’t know if it’s still there?’ she asks, and when told that it is, squeals in delight.
‘I just found the photos of me there the other day.
‘Maybe I got them off to a good start,’ she laughs, ‘because when they opened I used to do a simple guitar/singing thing. I was also in a local band with my brother at the time called the Noble Crooners who gigged around Portsmouth and Chichester, and we all played there at Rosie’s.’
Later that decade, Julia signed her own record deal, releasing her self-titled debut on Circa Records in 1988, which went on to be awarded platinum status. Her second album, Porcelain, was certified gold in 1989. Julia’s pop and jazz-influenced sound has produced hits such as Where Does The Time Go, The Comfort of Strangers and Happy Ever After.
In the years since she has worked with Grammy-winning producers such as Larry Klein and Grant Mitchell.
And it was through Klein that she met her good friend, and fellow British ex-pat singer-songwriter, Judith Owen.
‘She’s my fantastic top mate. She’s so funny – laugh out loud funny. She’s terrifically talented.
‘I first came to LA to make an album, my fourth, Falling Forward with Larry Klein. Now Larry was at the time married to the iconic singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, and they invited me to come over and do this album at their house.
‘Larry was the person who said to me: “You’ve got to meet this singer-songwriter Judith Owen, she sings like you, she looks sort of like you, I think you might be cut from the similar cloth, I think you would get along”.
The pair bonded over the shared ex-pat experience and an ability to quote French and Saunders and Blackadder.
‘It was like finding my singing soulmate twin.’
Two years ago Julia toured her Porcelain album in full to mark its 25th anniversary. How did she find that?
‘I loved it because it was wonderful doing a whole set of that album. Normally when a new album comes out you don’t do the whole thing, you do a few of them, and then you have to do the ones from the first album and so on, but that was the first time we had ever done all the songs from Porcelain.
‘For me it was a wonderful platform to be back in Britain playing beautiful venues and I was really truly delighted to see how many people came to those shows and still had affection for me and my songs. I loved touring the country and being in the front of the van, it was totally un-glam.
‘I just threw myself into it, and I loved being back with some of my old muso guys I hadn’t seen in a while.’
And it sounds like the tour has given Julia food for thought.
‘Having seen how well that went down, I’m realising that audiences do like to have something to hang the evening on, more so than the artist. It reminds them of a time or pulls them back into something, and it gives the gig direction.
‘I would definitely be open to doing something again, maybe for 30 years since my debut, or East West, which only came out in America originally and is 20 years next year so we’re doing a reissue of that.
‘I really enjoyed it, but the next album I’m going to do is called Live And Untouched. It’s mainly board mixes from gigs – songs people don’t necessarily always hear me do, but I like this compilation and I’ve put them all together so it’s a way for people to hear old favourite intermingled with new favourites.’
On her last tour, Julia played most dates with just a pianist, but this time around she’ll have a full band, including long-time collaborator Grant Mitchell, and her brother-in-law on guitar, Colin Ryan, who she first met during her time with Mari Wilson.
She will also be joined by Portsmouth’s own Urban Vocal Group.
‘It’s a very local show!’ Julia enthuses. ‘I’m just trying to do a local twist, and I’d heard about them, so it should be a really great night. It’s going to be a fabulous show with fabulous musicians.’
On this tour, dubbed Live By Request, Julia has asked her fans to make suggestions for the setlist from her back catalogue via Facebook and email. These suggestions will be placed in and then pulled from what Julia promises will be a ‘very large and fashionable hat’.
‘I thought: “What do people want to hear?” I’ve been doing this request thing and it’s been so much fun. There’s not been too many surprises, lots of obvious favourites, but a few others that aren’t so obvious.
‘I’ve tried to do it like a raffle so if I got 25 requests for Porcelain or Happy Ever After, I’m putting it that many times in the hat, but if there’s only one person who requests the extra track on the Japanese edition, that goes in once, so the chances of it getting pulled out are slimmer.
‘The only surprise is that the most requested song is from East West, which was the only album which wasn’t released here. I guess a lot of diehards were miffed that they didn’t get that released and they felt it, so I am going to do that one,’ she promises.
n Julia Fordham is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Sunday, November 27, dinner at 7pm, show starts at 8pm. £26 ticket, £36 with dinner including booking fee.