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Red, White and Too Few

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Natalie Merchant, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow and, of course, Sarah McLachlan, are musicians who readily pop into mind when someone mentions Lilith Fair. But what about Julia Fordham?

The British singer-songwriter-guitarist played several Lilith dates last year. She also has sold a combined 2 million records and scored two top-40 hits (1988’s “Happily Ever After” and 1989’s “Where Does the Time Go”). But Fordham’s fan base in the United States is cult-sized, which means she typically plays small venues such as the Coach House, where she performs tonight.

It’s in England, Europe and Japan where the veteran musician has amassed her biggest following over the past dozen or so years. So when she spoke enthusiastically about a recent concert, played in front of 5,000 adoring fans, you knew it didn’t take place here. The locale: the Philippines.

“I just got back. In fact, I came straight from the plane into the rehearsal studio with my keyboardist [Jeff Young] and lead guitarist [David Clifton],” said Fordham, 36.

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“We’ve had this incredible success in the Philippines. There’s this anti-Marcos song from my first album (“Julia Fordham”) called ‘The Invisible War’, and it has basically been adopted by the Filipino people as their national anthem. They have this affection for me that’s quite fascinating, really.”

Citing Joni Mitchell, Rikki Lee Jones, James Taylor and Paul Simon as key influences, Fordham is blessed with a powerful contralto that calls to mind the husky timbre of Joan Armatrading and Toni Childs. Her expressive voice is undoubtedly her strongest asset, a compelling force that glides from tender, near-hushed vulnerability to more emphatic declarations of love and loss.

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Stretching over five albums, Fordham’s themes have focused on shared truths, frequently of the most personal nature. “More Than I Can Bear” is about a woman who realizes that her best friend is dating an old flame; “Wishing You Well” is a formidable kiss-off number; and “I Want to Call You Baby” is a warm, embracing ballad.

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In perhaps her most revealing piece, “Killing Me Slowly” offers a disturbing portrait of obsessive love and self-torment. Found on her 1997 “East West” recording, (as well as last year’s “The Julia Fordham Collection”), the autobiographical sketch shows just how far we can fall when under a lover’s spell. Sample lyric: “Striving toward salvation/clutching my last drop of dignity/Go on take the pillow/Smother me, smother me.”

“Sometimes I do feel like dropping that one from my set list because it is such a very raw, open lyric,” said Fordham, who was born in Portsmouth, England, but now lives in Santa Monica. “Although it’s a very personal song for me, I think people can recognize themselves in it. At some point, all of us have been there.”

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While Fordham’s lyricism has always had a sharp edge, her music has been layered with an assortment of glossy production touches that have led to comparisons to Lisa Stansfield, Alison Moyet and Everything But the Girl. Before the recording sessions for “East West,” Fordham decided on a more organic, stripped-down, acoustic approach.

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“This time out, I was after something simpler and different,” she said. “So it was a bit of an alternative for me to really build the songs around my acoustic guitar playing. It was definitely scary at first. But in the end, I gained some confidence and realized that what matters is the intrinsic quality of the songs, not how much you can decorate them.”

Fordham, who dropped out of school at age 16 to pursue her dream, says she feels lucky to have carved out a career that has endured without the benefit of any mega-selling albums.

“There were some fleeting moments of doubt when I left school, but I chose the university of life,” she said. “I’ve played in pubs and coffeehouses, worked at a radio station, traveled, dealt with a lot of different personalities. . . . When you’ve forced yourself to make a living through music, it becomes a marvelous motivator. I don’t regret making that choice.”

Would she like a higher-profile here in the states?

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“I guess that missing ingredient for me is that huge radio smash,” she said. “But audiences are so fickle. . . . It may come one day, or it may not. So many people have a big hit and then they disappear.

“Honestly, I’m much happier trying to maintain a level of purity--or at least integrity--to what I do,” she added. “I feel a real sense of achievement and pride in putting out my ‘Best Of’ collection. There’s 12 years of my life in that bloody box.”

* Julia Fordham plays tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Michael Miller opens at 8 p.m. $16.50-$18.50; (949) 496-8930.


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