Interview: Estelle – Singer and Songwriter

Posted: July 25, 2008 in interview, music
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Estelle

Date of Interview: 07/25/2008

© 2008 Clayton Perry

Although Estelle’s emergence comes several years after her British debut, her appearance on the west end of “the Pond” has brought about numerous comparisons in American circles, with various media outlets dubbing her “the British version of Lauryn Hill.”  Such a comparison is easy to make at first glance, since soulful lyrics and brutal honesty lie at the core of Estelle’s work.  Upon closer inspection, however, Estelle breaks the definitive mold.

Unfortunately, in a cultural era best-known for disposable music, Estelle’s “second coming”—and formal American introduction—took four years to generate, despite her triumphant crowning as 2004’s “Best Newcomer” at the MOBO Awards, which was preceded by three consecutive wins as “Best Female Artist” at the UK Hip Hop Awards. As fate would have it, heavy-weight production assistance was needed to bring the West Londoner to the masses.

With the fervent support of John Legend and Kanye West, “American Boy” soared up Billboard’s Hot 100 chart during the summer of 2008, and in the midst of its successful run, the song received gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. Several months later, Shine was placed on the short list for the Nationwide Mercury Music Prize and Estelle garnered two additional MOBO Awards: “Best UK Female” and “Best Song” (for “American Boy”).

Upon review of Shine, Estelle managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Dinah Washington, The 18th Day and the long road to American success.

Clayton Perry: Your second album, Shine, serves as your introduction to American audiences.  In October 2004, however, you came out with your critically-acclaimed debut: The 18th Day. How have you grown, since then, as an artist?

Estelle: I was 24 when the album came out. I was mad at myself. I was getting to know me and being comfortable with me. For the past five to six years, I just lived. It was a little crazy what I went through, but it feels great now.

Clayton Perry: Having experienced a great deal of success on the other side of “the Pond,” what does American success mean to you?

Estelle: It’s a springboard to the rest of the world. America is a huge market, so it made sense to try my luck. I kind of want to touch the world efficiently everywhere. America is the biggest audience. For that, it was the biggest target.

Clayton Perry: On a professional level, what is the most important lesson that you have learned over the years?

Estelle: The more you know about who you are in life, the quicker things happen. The more you do, the more things happen. I have done this for almost 10 years now professionally, so now it feels like, “Okay, cool.” I’m way more efficient, like a machine.

Clayton Perry: While on a promotional tour for Shine, I happened to catch you on a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina.  During your performance set, you noted that there was a story for every song that you’ve written. What was the story for your first single, “Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)?”

Estelle: That was me and my girls talking about guys trying to get you to be with them and stuff. We’re like these really powerful women. We’re pissed off at guys, like, “Oh, he didn’t call me. He’s supposed to call today [laughing].”

Clayton Perry: I see [laughing]. Well, your lyrics have a very universal appeal, even though you’re speaking about your particular experience. How did you manage to bottle the familiar and then make it relevant to others?

Estelle: I just tell the truth. The story I tell is the truth. Every lyric is a conversation I’ve had.

Clayton Perry: Writing down the truth, is there a particular process you undergo?

Estelle: As quickly as it comes up, I’m usually looking for a piece of paper. That’s how I do therapy. I just write about people. I think when you’re done with crazy guys, that is the best form of revenge. When I was writing this album, at the end of it, there is this whole story based on one chick in there. I said, “Oh, my God. This s**t will never live this down.” It wasn’t my intention. It was my way of writing about how I empowered myself more to get revenge. I just tried to think through my head why I did the things that I did.

Clayton Perry: Upon your arrival to the States, various media outlets branded you as “the British version Lauryn Hill.”  How are you like her, and how are you not like her?

Estelle: I think these comparisons come up because we both love reggae music. I love reggae music. I grew up from reggae. My mom and my stepdad listened to it all day and all night. I don’t remember hearing R&B, so to me, that’s the number one thing. We’re very different in that I’m a different type of woman. It’s not preachy to a point. Her lyrics are really quite complicated lyrics. Mine are more down to the point. It doesn’t take away from her. When you listen to it now, it is as powerful as it was listening to it ten years ago.  I just think with me, I don’t do long-winded. I don’t overextend anything. When you listen to the song and the way I sing the lyric, that’s the way I speak. When we have a conversation, that’s the way I talk. When I’m onstage, that’s how I speak to people.

Clayton Perry: I find it interesting that you didn’t listen to R&B growing up, and in previous interviews, you noted that your mother banned secular music when you were growing up?

Estelle: Yeah. She’s not having it in the house. She said, “No!” Even with hip-hop – she’s not too happy about that.

Clayton Perry: So, what are her thoughts on your music?

Estelle: She actually likes it. She likes the fact that I’m being me. She reads my lyrics and she’s seen the stuff that I’ve been through. She’s happy that I didn’t go around and do what she did. She said, “You’re making people so happy.”

Clayton Perry: In July 2008, Shine was placed on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize. How did you find out about your placement?

Estelle: My label called me. “The album’s on Mercury, yada-yada.” Oh, I’m famous! You know what, this is a great album despite all the kinds of pressure I’ve had. They listen to the music. They listened to the sound and they hear that it made an impact. At one point, I didn’t want an album that everyone slept on, that it was just okay. I want people to have a great reaction.

Clayton Perry: Well, Shine is definitely a great album and it comes in the mix of, I guess, the third British invasion. What’s your opinion of the current musical landscape and what is it do you think that British women have that’s so fascinating or people are really intrigued by?

Estelle: British women…we’re definitely our own species. We obviously don’t care. Girl power in a male-dominated industry, there’s a little bit of that. We’re succeeding now because there can’t be a male version of what we do. It doesn’t feel right. That’s why we’re succeeding right now. We do what we do. There’s no male equivalent.

Clayton Perry: What do you think separates you from the pack?

Estelle: I’m just me. I’m not one of those people who is scared of what they want to say. I don’t care. I just make sure I stay real with the music. I’ve done this for almost ten years, so I’m not brand new to this game. I discovered that the fundamentals of an artist is making great music and making sure that whatever comes out of your mouth is the truth.

Clayton Perry: In the past, you have mentioned Ella Fitzgerald, Mary J. Blige, and Dinah Washington as some of your musical influences. What inspiration do you draw from those women in particular?

Estelle: Mary J. Blige, I would say is the feeling. I watched her live. I’ve listened to her sing my whole life. Ella Fitzgerald is purity of voice; just beauty. Dinah Washington, her attitude. She just got that. She doesn’t care. She’s onstage and performing and she would say the cheekiest things. She was one of the first black women to own a house back in the ‘20s. She had men. She handled herself. She didn’t care. She did what she felt like. I read Quincy Jones’ biography. He’s arguably one of the greatest producers at the time and this woman had him up. She’s just a powerful woman at an age when we were mammies and stuff. It didn’t exist back then.

Clayton Perry: When it comes to fashion, you’ve always presented yourself with class and elegance. Who or what influence your style?

Estelle: I’m very much just how I feel it, but my influences are Grace Jones and Edie Sedgwick, Audrey Hepburn – classic, sexy with a hard edge. It’s always classic. At the same time, I speak my mind.

Clayton Perry: You’ve been quoted as saying, “There’s more to life than just taking what someone gives you.” At what key moment in your career have you used that philosophy?

Estelle: When I was in London with a job that I just got, I moved out of my mum’s house. I thought I was okay. It was weird because I said, like, “Okay, this job has kind of set me along for awhile so I can save some money. So go ahead and write music.” The music took awhile, but I made sure that my first job was my music. I kind of decided that I’m not going to take a situation based on what everyone else says I should be doing and what everyone else is doing. I want to do what I want to do first and everything else will follow later. I want to be happy first and foremost.

Clayton Perry: It is well-known that you met Kanye West outside of Roscoe’s Chicken by happenstance, but how did you meet John Legend?

Estelle: Kanye invited me to the stadium to meet him and there was John. He sounds nothing like he talks when he sings. It was random chit-chat.

Clayton Perry: How does it feel to be the artist that was chosen to christen John Legend’s Homeschool label?

Estelle: It feels cool. He’s a great person to be around and he’s very generous.

Clayton Perry: For those who only know “American Boy,” is there a particular song on Shine that you hope people will gravitate toward?

Estelle: Yeah. There’s a couple. I hope people would buy the whole album. I love the album and I hope they listen to the tracks the whole way through. I think people will love “Pretty Please (Love Me),” “Come Over,” or “Back in Love.” I think the ladies would love “More Than Friends.”

For more information on Estelle, visit her official website: http://www.estellemusic.com/

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