Paloma Faith has a way of making you feel under-dressed. It's a dull morning at her record company's headquarters and there she is, a 24-carat sex kitten in vertiginous heels and a vintage blue and white dress. Her hair, swept into a Forties-style roll, is a rich, burnished orange and her lips are pillar-box red. Dark blusher and glitter sweep across cheekbones that could slice a grapefruit.
Faith is the latest starlet set to hijack the charts with a retro-soul sound. She's no fly-by-night poppet, however. At just 24, the half-Spanish, Hackney-born singer has worked as a dancer, performance artist, life-drawing model, magician's assistant, barmaid and knicker saleswoman. She made her film debut in 2007's St Trinian's remake and appears in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. If that's not enough to keep her in heels and hair dye, she is now releasing her debut album.
Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? is an unashamedly mainstream soul-pop record, in which propulsive beats and polished production give way to bittersweet tales of heartbreak and Faith's gutsy soul-sister vocals. "Stone Cold Sober", the lead single, not only points to her clean-living ways but underlines the passion with which Faith approaches art and life.
Faith is already famed for the loopiness of her live shows. She has created artificial snowstorms and performed blind-folded while clutching a porcelain doll in her own image. "Well, I wouldn't want anyone to be bored," she giggles in a cockney chirp that belies the sultriness of her singing voice. "All the things that I find beautiful have a darkness about them. The way I dress reflects all that. From a distance it seems quite beautiful but when you look closely you can see it's all thrown together and there are holes in my clothes."
Looking at her background, Faith's taste for the theatrical is hardly surprising. Born to a Spanish father and English mother, she was an intense child who wrote poetry and loved dressing up. She studied contemporary dance at university, and followed her degree with an MA in time-based art at Central St Martins, which included learning how to direct and design for the theatre.
Faith began singing six years ago on the cabaret circuit. She started a covers band called Paloma and the Penetrators, performed in a vaudeville act, joined a women-only burlesque agency comprising dancers, fire-eaters and sword-swallowers, and got a job as a magician's assistant. Another year was spent as a performer on Carnesky's Ghost Train, the touring company that combines magic, theatre and performance art, after Marisa Carnesky asked her to join the show.
"Marisa is the nearest thing I have to a mentor," says Faith. "She introduced me to writers like Marina Warner and all that fairytale feminism stuff. I also learned from the old saying, 'The show must go on.' It taught me what you can do with virtually no budget. It's made me confident on stage and I don't think a lot of singers now are. So many of them seem apologetic. I think, and especially as a woman, that it's your job to go out there and raise hell."
It's inevitable that Faith's Sixties-influenced sound has prompted comparisons to a certain bee-hived singer. Faith lets out a little sigh when I mention Amy Winehouse. "I think she is amazing and she's probably got some of the same influences as me. I don't see (the comparison) myself but I have a lot of respect for Amy so I take it as a compliment."
For a brief period five years ago Winehouse and Faith shared a manager. Having expressed admiration for Faith's wardrobe, Winehouse asked if she'd like to join her band. Faith had her own plans, however. "I suppose I wanted to perform in any way that I could," she says. "Whether that meant being chopped up on stage, or singing, or acting, it was all part of the same thing as far as I was concerned."
Faith's work ethic stems from artistic restlessness and the fact that when she was growing up her mother, who divorced her father when she was small, encouraged her to take up every available after-school activity so that she could go out to work. Her plan is to have the film and music elements of her career operating in parallel. "This album is an introduction to me and the various directions I could go in," she says. "I don't think I'm necessarily defining myself with it. My aim is to get the visual and sonic elements working together so closely that I'm creating a kind of opera. But first I have to prove myself as a singer, and I like to think that now I have done that."
The single "New York" is released on Mon on Epic. 'Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?' is out on 28 September