The Australian trailblazer Joanne Accom – or just Joanne – is not the same artist who broke out spectacularly in 1998 with the now house music classic Jackie, winning the ARIA for ‘Highest Selling Single’ the following year. She has grown. And, 25 years on, Joanne isn’t done surprising the music scene – or herself.
Melbourne’s Queen of R&B and House isn’t so much as launching a comeback as manifesting a continuation. “It’s like starting over but I’m not starting over with where I’m going right now,” she declares. “I’m so excited. I think I might be more excited than I was back then – and I was a very excited kid.”
Joanne has always been “a real music nerd.” Born in London, with South African heritage, she was raised in a no-nonsense household, attending church and prioritising education – her parents nonetheless supporting any extracurricular interest in the arts, dancing and music. Thanks to her older sister, Joanne developed an affinity for vintage R&B, soul and funk (Chaka Khan, Anita Baker and Shalamar) before discovering contemporary R&B, hip-hop and house (as a kid, she’d constantly sing Black Box’s Ride On Time at home, laughing, “My poor family got no peace whatsoever!”).
Initially an aspiring rapper, Joanne fell into Melbourne’s popping multicultural R&B scene, the South Eastern suburb Dandenong a hub, via her school networks as a Nazareth College student – liaising with, and learning from, a plethora of gifted musicians. CDB, among their members the older pupil Andrew de Silva, performed at the sock hop prior to landing a record deal and becoming crossover stars, leading a homegrown R&B wave with Kulcha, Past To Present (later Ilanda) and Deni Hines. “There was a lot of representation – especially for a woman of colour like myself.”
Joanne sang privately but, possessing a deeply mature voice during the era of the sweet-toned Mariah Carey and Aaliyah, was unsure where she belonged. That changed after Joanne heard Mary J Blige. “I really resonated with Mary J when she first came out, because there was a rawness in her voice,” Joanne recalls. “Her sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before at the time – that fusion of hip-hop and R&B which I loved.” Joanne fronted a band performing hits by Blige and Jodeci at the school talent show – and they won, a massive confidence boost. “After that, I couldn’t shush,” she laughs.
On graduation, Joanne secured management – and formed an all-girl group. But, impossible to contain, she soon embarked on a solo career – expanding into dance music, encouraged by producers who appreciated her dynamic vocals.
One day, the nineteen-year-old covered Jackie – an obscure song previously recorded in the ’80s by Elisa Fiorillo, then Lisa Stansfield’s early UK band Blue Zone. “I knew that I wanted it to have attitude – ‘I wanna give it edge, I wanna give it sass, I wanna give it a bit more energy,'” she remembers. “I just knew what I wanted to do and went with gut instinct and heart with how I sang it.”
Released as ‘BZ featuring Joanne’, Jackie was a runaway smash, reaching #3 in Australia and Top 5 in New Zealand – Joanne suddenly a pop star. She signed to Universal Music Australia and, in 2001, delivered a debut album, Do Not Disturb, showing her R&B, disco and pop influences with the original singles Pack Your Bags, Are You Ready, Busted and So Damn Fine. Joanne was determined to establish her credentials as a singer/songwriter, too, cutting the emotive ballad I Don’t Know – the opposite of a feisty cheater anthem. She opened for Destiny’s Child on The Survivor Tour and was part of the fabled Rumba festival alongside Craig David and Nelly Furtado.
Post-Do Not Disturb, Joanne retreated from the spotlight, focusing on learning more about singing, music and herself as she gigged in a prestige cover band, Past To Present, with members of Ilanda. The vocalist’s vocalist even mentored others.
“There’s this perception with artists that they just stop using their instrument or they stop nurturing their craft and that, if they’re not on television or if they’re not dropping a song or releasing music, they’ve fallen down some dark hole – which is not the case at all. A lot of artists take a break for varying reasons and a lot of the time they are still involved in the industry in some ways. For myself, I was still nurturing my instrument and using my muscle. I think the biggest takeaway from that time of my life was the enjoyment of getting in touch with being a performer again but, more importantly, nurturing this muscle – this voice of mine.”
Joanne had an epiphany when riding the Vengabus. The star knew that her songs were still played on radio – and that there was a booming ’90s nostalgia. But, in 2016, she joined the Vengaboys’ sold-out ANZ tour blockbuster as sole Aussie guest. Performing solo for the first time since the 2000s, Joanne realised just how jams such as Jackie and So Damn Fine had endured in the collective memory. Even twentysomethings knew the lyrics, defying generational divides. “There was this moment of me really pausing and hearing and seeing people singing along and understanding just how much these songs were loved,” Joanne says. “It was that feeling and that moment that made me walk away from that tour and go, ‘I don’t think my journey as an artist is done.'”
Above all, Joanne gained new insight into her artistry – recognising that, more than being an esteemed singer/songwriter, her purpose is to uplift audiences and spread joy. “I have come to accept that I am that girl that gets the party started – I am that energy,” she enthuses. “Ultimately, I just really want to create music that makes people feel good and makes people dance and makes them sing along.”
Joanne’s return is auspicious – post-pandemic, people are seeking connection. “Our world has changed a lot, and we’ve gone through so much, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of music.”
In 2022, Joanne accompanied local punk band Private Function at the Meredith Music Festival for a rousing rendition of Jackie that went viral. Now she’s “coming full circle,” recording a modish disco house version of Jackie for its 25th anniversary produced by Australia’s Mind Electric, in addition to various other remixes. “I’m really excited to re-do the song that so many people love, and celebrate that song, but to bring my current vocal to it. But also it is very exciting to bring a new edge and a new sound to it in 2023.” Indeed, Jackie 2023 has “conviction”.
However, Joanne does have fresh music in the pipeline. She’s fascinated by DJ culture – and the proliferation of dance genres in the digital age. (“I am obsessed with the studio – I always like to call myself a co-pilot when I’m in there.”) Imagine it as a renaissance.
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