Estelle - It's All About Soul
Author: Tristan Burke
Monday, 14 July 2008
Right now Estelle’s American Boy is universal. The nu-disco smash – featuring a blithe Kanye West – can be heard in the background of every groovy metro store. However, Estelle very nearly didn’t cut the single of 2008.
Four years ago, the UK MC-come-singer broke through with the introspective 1980. But, after her debut LP, as with the much-heralded Ms Dynamite, she fell victim to the fickle British urban scene – a scene notorious for its endemic cultural cringe.
The always resourceful Estelle wasn’t about to disappear like countless other gifted UK soul artists, from Shola Ama to Lewis Taylor. She parted with V2 – they pressured her to be more ‘pop’ – and packed her suitcases for the US, where she’s now affiliated with John Legend’s fledgling Homeschool Records.
This year the glamorous Estelle re-emerged with a dazzling sophomore, Shine – and it’s here we find her, albeit a little run down. She has a nasty chest cold.
Estelle is in her element in New York. “It’s fun!” she raves. “I love it. It’s a great place.”
The soulstress – who is, in fact, speaking on tour from the UK – maintains that her migrating to the US wasn’t necessarily a reaction to a British backlash. “I got signed out there [in the US] and I got sick of hearing my phone ringing at four in the morning with Americans on the other line, like, ‘One last question...’ So I figured I should just go and be on their time zone and get the questions over and done with and be more involved in the label decisions. Especially when you’re making decisions – I make my own decisions – it’s easier for me to be out there and to handle my own stuff.”
Estelle isn’t the first Brit soulster to relocate to America – it paid off for Floetry. While she knows the pair, Estelle wasn’t influenced by them. “I actually waited ’til the last minute to move. My situation looked good over there – that’s why I moved. I already had a career going at the same time as Floetry in the UK, so it was never like, ‘Oh, I see what they do – I’m gonna do that’. I was pretty content here.”
In 2004 Estelle stated that she wasn’t aiming to penetrate the US market. (“America’s America – Americans love Americans.”) The irony is that since the move, she’s savouring unprecedented success in the UK with American Boy a number one.
Born Fanta Estelle Swaray, the West Londoner, one of eight, vibed to her Senegalese mother’s reggae as a child (her Grenadian father is rarely mentioned). Estelle was later introduced to hip hop by a wayward uncle. She had the bug.
Ever a networker, Estelle landed a job in a Soho record store in her late teens. She also began MCing. Crucially, Estelle joined Roots Manuva and Rodney P on stage at the Subterania, effectively announcing her own arrival. Estelle subsequently collaborated with DJ Skitz. She cultivated a grassroots following with mixtapes. And she circulated the indie single Excuse Me, an early indication of her autobiographical slant.
Estelle then forged a major label deal. Many were surprised that, on The 18th Day, she ‘switched’ to singing. As such, Estelle was widely compared to Lauryn Hill.
When Estelle toured Australia with Good Vibrations in 2006, she was already losing momentum in the UK. Today she’s unable to explain why quality British soul artists struggle. “I don’t understand. I don’t even particularly care. All I know is that it’s been an ongoing thing,” she says. “I haven’t figured it out. I don’t have any intentions of figuring it out. I’m just doing what I’m gonna do – know what I mean-”
As it happens, Legend, then unsigned himself, contributed to The 18th Day. “We just stayed friends,” Estelle says of their rapport. “I met him prior to [his] being signed with Kanye West. He was just a good friend of mine. He saw how hard I was working out here [in the UK] and not really getting the recognition or the love that the music deserved, so he decided to help me and bring it to the States. We shopped around for different labels all over the world – and [Atlantic] came and it worked.”
Even early, Estelle was reluctant to cede control, developing her own imprint, Stellarents, which is “on the backburner” as she focuses on promoting Shine.
Estelle has journeyed far with Shine, exploring her trans-Atlantic sensibilities and venturing deeper into neo-soul. She offers an abundance of memorable songs – an increasingly rare thing for an RNB album. “I grew up a heck of a lot,” she says.
Estelle has liaised with a who’s who of contemporary (US) urban music – Wyclef Jean, Will.I.Am and the Anglo-American Mark Ronson – but hasn’t sacrificed her innate English charm. If Estelle faced any domineering from these [male] hitmakers, then she didn’t buckle. They were simply facilitators. “They came in and they gave me me,” she says. “They weren’t about me doing them – or me doing anything that they would do. They were like, ‘You’re you, so what do you wanna do and how do you wanna go about it-’ And they let me do it – and I did. I wasn’t shy or anything. I don’t get starstruck very much. I feel starstruck around Mary J Blige – and that’s about as far as it goes. But, other than that, I was just like, ‘No, this is it, this is me, and I’m not about to change it or be anything other than who I am.’”
Estelle hints that, in future, she may return to MCing, although she was singing before she rapped. “I don’t think I ever ‘straight’ MCed in my life, so I don’t know whether I’d straight MC at all. Maybe I’ll do an album where I rap more than sing and sing on the hooks only. We’ll see.”
Estelle was recently embroiled in controversy at home when she accused the UK music industry of supporting white ‘soul’ artists – and, though Lewis Taylor was tragically defeated, her charge isn’t unjustified. Estelle singled out Adele in a Guardian interview: “Adele ain’t soul. She sounds like she heard some Aretha [Franklin] records once, and she’s got a deeper voice – that don’t mean she’s soul. That don’t mean nothing to me in the grand scheme of my life as a black person.”
Estelle downplays her comments in this month’s Q, revealing, too, that Adele phoned her to insist she wasn’t offended. Still, elsewhere in magazine, the equally straight-talking Adele has a dig at her. (“If it was Lauryn Hill who said it, I’d be bothered,” she says of Estelle’s critique.) So much for the sisterhood...
Back in the day, Estelle was a reviewer for darkerthanblue.com, so she understands the machinations of the media. “I’m definitely more aware and more cautious when I’m saying things in the media. At the same time, I’m a very loose cannon in that I don’t believe in editing myself too much, so I have to really make sure when I say things, I phrase it the right way to have the right impact.
“I’m definitely aware and clear about what I’m saying now when I talk to the media, when I say things, because I know how easily things can be taken out of context.
“I think it was in one particular situation [with The Guardian] but, seriously, I don’t actually care,” she laughs. “It is what it is, and I feel like I speak my personal truth, so I’m not bothered.”
WHAT: Shine through Warner
WHEN: Out now