It is quite a statement to live up to, being touted as The Voice of 2011, but Clare Maguire refuses to appear fazed by the high expectations placed upon her. Instead, as she folds her tall frame into an armchair at a Soho private members' club, the 23-year-old solo artist sounds eminently grounded as she talks about the possibilities that are opening for her this year, and the hard graft that has taken her to this point. Maguire may have tottered in on designer heels – a gift from a high-end supplier hoping her star quality will rub off – but there are glimpses of the girl from Birmingham with the ambition not just to sing, but to tell her own stories.
As the tag on the adverts suggests, she is best known for the powerful set of lungs that are helping her re-invent the torch song on debut album Light After Dark, but Maguire seems inspired as much by her Celtic background. She closes her album with a tribute to that heritage in the pastiche of an Irish ballad, "This is Not the End", recorded in one take with strings and based on traditional tune "The Parting Glass". "I wrote that a week after my grandad passed away. My grandparents are my biggest icons and inspirations. I wanted a track that was for them, for Ireland and for that heritage."
Both her parents in Solihull were products of Irish emigre families, so Maguire grew up in a tradition of singing, storytelling and struggling to be heard above the hubbub of large extended families – 50 cousins, she reckons. "They always loved music, football and parties. When I was growing up we used to have get-togethers where people would sing, play instruments and tell stories. I've always loved storytelling in the music."
Maguire realised early on she owned a powerful voice, but also decided she wanted to impress an audience with her words, too. "Singing was always a release for me. I remember when I was six playing in a school play and all the parents looking at me a bit strangely because I was so loud, so I started miming out of embarrassment. Then I started writing when I was seven, just little poems I could sing, imaginative things that would take me away from the world I was living in."
Having left school early as teachers failed to take her ambitions seriously, the precocious artiste first appeared on the radar in 2008, thanks to an unheralded appearance at the Green Man Festival and the few tracks posted on her soon-to-be discontinued MySpace page. After a bidding war, Polydor stumped up a rumoured £2m to sign her. Aged 19, the budding recording artist moved to London to turn her voice and songwriting into the complete package. Kept under wraps by her label, Maguire was sent to the States on a trip that involved asking Jay-Z to look into her eyes (apparently he can tell through them if someone has star quality – and, yes, Maguire passed the test).
Also on the itinerary was listening to unreleased Johnny Cash demos with lauded producer Rick Rubin and admission to a Leonard Cohen rehearsal. None of this fazed the Brummie wannabe as she worked with a series of songwriting talents – among them Richard X, James Ford, Linda Perry and Salaam Remi – only to decide she was better off following her own muse.
"I went to the label and told them all the different people I wanted to work with because I was fans of them. And I'm still in the studio working and writing with people, but for the first record I wanted it to sound like me and be the beginning of me as an artist. It was a confidence thing, and being desperate to believe in the music."
So, having been tipped alongside La Roux and Florence and the Machine, Maguire has had to sit on the sidelines and watch the rise not only of them, but also of Little Boots and Ellie Goulding. Maguire insists there has been little frustration seeing others enjoy quicker routes to fame. "Florence was already selling out venues with 2,000 people and I had no fans, no record. I got rid of all my social networks and concentrated on making a record that would set me up for the rest of my career. I always get frustrated with myself, because I try not to become complacent and keep myself inspired, but so much kept me excited. Though I have noticed I work really good with a deadline."
Instead, there has been a steely determination to ensure the debut album would reflect her personality and tastes, which is why she struggled to find the right producer. Rather than a list of beatmakers to ensure Light After Dark ticked all the necessary boxes of contemporary pop, Maguire sought one collaborator to ensure a cohesive sound, and found him in Fraser T Smith, a producer known for light R&B productions for the likes of Taio Cruz and Pixie Lott. Once they had written "Break These Chains" together, the direction was set. "I knew what I wanted from the record and he was open towards it. I could see it as a whole album and he hadn't done one before, so it worked for both of us at the right time."
The result is a musically conservative work that hints at the polished classics of the mid-Eighties – think Annie Lennox and later Fleetwood Mac. "I am quite classic and mainstream, that's just my personality," she laughs. "I'm a normal person who loves music." Yet the sound highlights a melodramatic lyrical style typified by the emotional drama of current single "The Last Dance", that keeps just the right side of Bonnie Tyler camp. "I wanted that first record to be very emotive and connect with normal, everyday people. I wanted each track to have a different emotion and its own story. A lot of people are saying it's a bit overly dramatic, but I don't see it as that."
She refers back to inspirational classic albums that offered the whole gamut of human experience, but with their own identity, as the ones she got into as a young teenager defining her own tastes. She begins with the serious names that instantly earn respect – Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Howlin' Wolf – but also includes Beyoncé, Madonna, Prince and the Spice Girls. The title, meanwhile, hints at light at the end of a very long tunnel. "Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to have an album called Light After Dark. I've always been a massive fan of contradictions and I like the visual side, thinking in terms of shows and videos."
Maguire admits to a certain vulnerability when she moved to London to live on her own. "I guess it's being quite an artistic person or my personality, there's just no middle ground. It's all up and down. You're in that headspace of being in a different city to where you grew up and not having your friends or family around, so there is a dark element to that way of living... I didn't let it effect me overly, but I can hear it when I listen back."
What has emerged from her isolation is not just an album of highly polished pop with a gothic intensity, but possibly a treasure trove of further tracks Maguire hopes to give away to fans and put into live shows. With the album as a foundation, she hopes to now use her performances to explore different genres, anything from folk to dubstep, sounds already hinted on the album in 'This is Not the End' and the spacious 'Ain't Nobody'. "I'm obsessive about music and I'm always writing. [Light After Dark] is just the beginning. As a musician, I have got so many other songs and other things to offer."
'Light After Dark' is out on Polydor