There are some pop stars – wannabe and established alike – who have a very down-to-earth approach to art and life, the kind of people who don't add frills where frills aren't necessary, and who view the cultivation of enigma only through the prism of suspicion and, ultimately, derision. Ebony Bones is not one such pop star.
We meet on a balmy August afternoon at a bar along the Thames. Heads swivel as she sashays through the place, her magnificent blonde afro bouncing as she walks, and framing, beneath it, an uncommonly beautiful face that is nothing less than an ode to the wonders of symmetry. She sits and smiles and shakes hands, but her enigma quotient is so pronounced that she is impossible to read. She speaks in elaborate tongues, at one point all soft and dreamy, the next exasperated and irritated, as if her yogic calm is perpetually ruffled by ominous, other-worldly rumblings.
We are here to discuss her imminent second album, Behold, a Pale Horse. It is, like its author, hard to pin down, but very fetching with it, a melting pot of avant-garde electro-pop bursting with ideas and styles, each song so individual it rarely feels any need to follow the traditional verse-chorus-verse pattern. Some are instrumental, others not. Some feature the Symphony Orchestra of India, others the London Children's Choir (most memorably on a churchy reworking of The Smiths' “What Difference Does It Make”). I tell her it's a fascinating piece of work, but at this she frowns. “Yes, but in a good or a bad way?” she asks warily. I then ask why it's called Behold, a Pale Horse, and she sighs as if what she really needs right now is a nice soft bed, and not this imbecilic question-and-answer session.
“Well, are you familiar with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?” she asks. “It's a scripture from the Book of Revelations, and it's taken from there. Like you, I'm being a journalist. I'm writing about what I see socially, and I write about trying to find my place in the world.” She looks, suddenly, very serious. “The album is all about reality, but also illusion. It's about distraction. It's quite Roman in theme, actually. What I'm trying to portray here, if you like, is a modern-day Roman Empire.”
Born Ebony Thomas to parents who settled in 1960s London from the Caribbean, Bones was raised in Brixton. Her father ran a record stall, and it was here she first fell in love with music. Aged 11, she enrolled in the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and for the next few years shared a classroom with Amy Winehouse. Her first theatrical role came at 12, Mark Rylance casting her in Macbeth alongside Jane Horrocks. (Which role did she play? “One of the witches, obviously.”) Four years later, she was cast in the Channel 5 soap Family Matters.
“That was a great training ground for me, and it felt important on a personal level,” she says. “Growing up, I never really saw anyone that looked like me in the media; it was something that was lacking during the early Eighties.” The early Eighties? But she wasn't born until 1984, and didn't start acting on the soap until 1999. “Well… I'm talking generally,” she demurs. “In terms of, you know, positive role models, in society, on magazine covers, on TV.”
She spent the next seven years there until, when she was 22, it was axed. At which point she decided to revisit her first love: music. She became a singer and met The Damned's Rat Scabies, who came up with her alter ego.
In 2008, she sent a demo tape to radio stations. It included one stand-out track: “We Know All About U”. It got a lot of airplay, and Radio 1 said excitable things about it that helped thrust her, blinking, into the spotlight.
“But I wasn't ready,” she says now. “It was only a demo tape, and I hadn't even begun to think about the album yet. I was grateful for the attention, of course, but I think it was all a little too soon, too unexpected.” The album, Bone of My Bones, eventually surfaced almost two years later. It didn't quite bring her the success her debut suggested she was destined for. She fell out with her label, and decided to make the follow-up independently.
“Actually, I didn't fall out with my label,” she corrects. “It's just that… well, in the creative environment, sometimes people share your vision, and sometimes they don't. You can't explain it really; it's human nature.”
For the next couple of years, she fell increasingly into a funk.
“And so I followed my inner compass to Mumbai. I'd never been before, and I didn't know what was awaiting me there, but it just felt right.” She spent three revitalising weeks there, collaborating with local musicians and finding, perhaps for the first time, her musical feet. She returned to the UK, completed her album, and shopped it round the major labels. “They all said it was missing something, though. It needed more, you know, cowbells, or whatever. I got tired of waiting to be green-lighted, so I decided to go away and do it all myself.
But “I'm still not comfortable.” She looks sad, an emotion that doesn't sit well on such a face. “I find that, increasingly, we aren't dreaming anymore. It's almost like we've ceased to exist; we're the walking dead, you know? I don't want to live like that. I want to live another way. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm just not sure if I've found the right way yet.”
'Behold, a Pale Horse' is out now on 1984 Records