In the week that saw The Voice’s first champion Leanne Mitchell fail to enter the UK Top 100 chart with a debut album which sold just 895 copies, I find myself interviewing someone who is arguably the real winner from the 2012 BBC talent show: Bo Bruce. It was something of a shock when Bruce, a pixie-ish 28-year-old, came second in Auntie’s answer to The X Factor last June. She had been the bookmaker’s favourite all along. And hours after she failed to take the crown, her self-released EP Search the Night rocketed to No 2 in the iTunes download chart, even beating world-conquering Coldplay.
Unlike other talent-show wannabes, Bruce didn’t rush out an album to catch the wave of television interest. That was a risk, obviously. But, after signing to Mercury Records, she instead spent six months writing her debut and collaborating with the likes of Snow Patrol and Athlete. When Before I Sleep came out a month ago it made the UK Top 10, and she is now planning a nationwide tour this summer.
Yet regardless of her recent success, the singer, whose full name is Lady Catherine Anna Brudenell-Bruce, remains best known for going down in reality TV history as the poshest runner-up ever.
Her society connections have been raked over in the press. Stories about playing hockey with the Middleton sisters at the private Marlborough College, her links to Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend Florence Brudenell-Bruce, and the 100-room mansion she grew up in became regular tabloid fodder – all fuelled in the immediate Voice aftermath by on-again-off-again speculation about her alleged relationship with her mentor, The Script’s Danny O’Donoghue.
The impression reading such stories of her aristocratic background gives is one of impossibly protected privilege. But meeting the waif-like Bruce in the flesh, with her trademark messy crop, and searching, heavily mascara-ed eyes, she seems raw, vulnerable and not a bit cosseted.
Bruce’s mother was having treatment for pancreatic cancer while her daughter was on The Voice and died a few weeks after it finished. Almost 12 months later, Bruce tells me that she is still trying to process the paradoxical emotions that being thrust concurrently into two entirely separate, but equally disorientating, worlds – one of overnight success and fame; the other of impending loss – provoked. “I just haven’t had time to heal,” she says. “I think I don’t really remember it. I sat a friend down last week and got her to explain to me what I was like. Did I know what was going on? If I think about it I can’t quite believe I did it.”
Bruce split her time filming The Voice between rehearsals and her mother’s hospital bed. “I don’t know what’s going on half the time, now, and I certainly didn’t then,” Bruce tells me, bursting into nervous laughter. “I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a complete lunatic. But I think survival stuff kicks in and that protected me from being able to understand what it was I was feeling so I could get on with it, keep functioning.”
The new album is dedicated to her mother’s memory. The title, Before I Sleep, is inspired by the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, and Bruce describes the happiest time of her life as when “it was just me and my mum and my brother living the middle of a forest together”.
Speculation has been rife that the record, which is heartbreakingly visceral, was written about O’Donoghue and their alleged relationship. She denies this, saying hotly: “I get really frustrated when people are like… all that tabloid stuff, all that ‘who is she shagging?’, ‘who isn’t she shagging?’. The idea that I’d written this whole album about that minor experience, is…” She trails off, looks down for a moment and, regaining her composure, says: “If you really listen to the record you can hear there is someone who isn’t in this world anymore and I miss them so much.”
Bruce gets similarly annoyed with the epithet “posh”. Without going into detail she is keen to stress that her childhood was “pretty unsteady, dysfunctional” and very far from privileged. Her parents divorced in 2005 and she is estranged from her father, the Earl of Cardigan. “You can’t choose what you are born into. I went to a school [Marlborough] and over the years thousands of people went to that school and I guess that because we were there at the same time [the media] wants to make out that we’re friends and therefore I must know the Queen.” She cackles madly with laughter at this. Boarding school wasn’t all hockey with Kate Middleton, either. She says that prep school when she was seven was “like a scene from Annie”. “Every morning we would wake up, Hoover the floors, take out the rubbish, do all the chores and then go to school.”
But things spiralled out of control when Bruce was at Marlborough as a late teenager. “During the holidays I used to stay with mates in London because I didn’t want to be at home,” she tells me.
“For about two years I was living an adult life in the holidays and then going and putting a uniform on and being told I couldn’t smoke or have a drink.” This preceded her going “too far” with drink and drugs and nearly dying aged 17. She was “asked to leave” Marlborough after – she wanted to leave anyway – and abandoned her A-levels.
What followed was a lot of “sofa surfing” in London and New York which culminated in the development of an incredible focus: to become a singer. She spent the intervening decade before The Voice (“God that makes me feel old”) pursuing this dream by working in pubs near record labels and gigging. Her decision to enter the talent show, she says, was despite hating shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.
“Everything in me was against all that stuff. But we all have to accept that they have taken over the music industry. It was a hard decision because I knew I wasn’t that kind of artist. But I discovered I could use it to shine a light on what I was doing already. And I was also creating a joy for my mum to see.” The Voice producers were good about not thrusting the personal tragedy befalling Bruce into the spotlight as other shows might have done.
“I’m very aware of the perception of me as poor doe-eyed Bo always moaning about what a hard time she’s having. But it’s so not like that really. I am going to be OK. I’ve got some amazing opportunities ahead of me. Amazing friends. I’m just grieving and it’s a process. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing it front of everybody else, that’s all.”
And how does she feel about her Voice rival Leanne? “I love that girl. I really hope she’s being looked after. Because anyone in this business – and I’ve only been in it for a second – knows that there’s so much more to it than the record that you make.”
Bo Bruce tours the UK from tomorrow to 27 June. Single ‘Alive’ is out on 24 June