Estelle: 'At last I can speak my mind'

She was hailed as the saviour of British soul, then vanished after a fall-out with her label. Now Estelle is back – with a new set of celebrity friends and some serious attitude...
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The Independent Culture

Remember Estelle Swaray? The lanky, west London girl with striking looks and killer R&B licks? As recently as 2004 the underground phenomenon was being heralded as the future hope of British soul and hip-hop when her debut album The 18th Day grew into a mainstream sensation. The string of chart hits that followed, including "1980" and "Go Gone", showed Estelle to be an outspoken woman with a soul voice to make you melt and some intelligent and witty rhymes to boot.

The fact is, though, that you may well have forgotten all about her. Despite the initial hype, little to nothing has been heard of Estelle following the excitement of that debut. With her second album failing to materialise due to record-label wranglings, Estelle was forced into the musical twilight zone. Until now.

In an amazing turn of fortune, Estelle has picked up the shattered pieces of a career that began almost a decade ago. She's moved to New York, signed to a new label – HomeSchool Records, run by soul and R&B singer and producer John Legend – and is set to release Shine, a revealing and intimate album that boasts an enviable list of collaborators including hip-hop maestro, man- of-the-moment Kanye West and everyone's favourite collaborator, Mark Ronson.

On a trip back to her native London (she grew up in West Kensington and Fulham), the 28-year-old Estelle sits before me, grinning wildly. Her hands are placed firmly underneath her thighs like an excitable schoolgirl, while her legs sporadically kick back and forth. Her boyish haircut, manicured nails and fitted jean dress reveal a sleeker Estelle than the girl-next-door look she was sporting a few years ago. It would seem that Ms Swaray has changed since the UK last set eyes on her.

"This is me growing up," she says without hesitation. "This album is Estelle as you see her, you know? No apologies, no worries, just me speaking my mind. It's a big 'Fuck you' to anybody who said I shouldn't be me."

Refreshingly candid about her relationship with her former label V2, as well as the rumours surrounding her new album and label boss, Estelle makes clear that her integrity is in rude health. Her language is animated and littered with expletives and she often refers to herself in the third person. For some, such a grammatical conceit points to arrogance or even madness, I, however, take it as a sign of her confidence. She also spins what seems like clichés about "being true" to herself and "keeping it real", but that's not to say she does not have a point.

Estelle's independent stance has been evident since her time as an underground rapper and singer; not only did she release music on her own label (Steller Ents) she also built up a favourable reputation working alongside rappers such as Blak Twang. Picked up by V2, it seemed that fate had looked on her fondly. But when the label tried to coax their young protégé into a rock direction, Estelle confesses it was a "confusing" time in her history.

Watch the video for "American Boy"

"What about me suggests that I want to go rock?" she says with a glint of fury in her eyes. "I was like, 'You've taken someone who's made it from the underground to this level and telling them to forget the things that people are loving about her?' They wanted me to work with Linda Perry, who's worked with Pink and Gwen Stefani. Those women are trying to be me. They're trying to be as real as I am. They [V2] didn't get who I am. They just didn't know quite what to do with me and that's been my life story."

Needless to say it was a relationship that would soon lead to singer and label parting company. But, luckily for Estelle, there was someone who knew exactly how to nurture her gift for penning soulful, R&B classics with a twist of tongue-in-cheek rapping. Since signing to John Legend's label, Estelle has been allowed to write what she likes with whom she likes. So rare is it for a female musician to pull all the creative strings, it has been suggested that Estelle's friendship with her new label boss is more than just platonic. It's a rumour she vehemently denies.

"Do you really think he'd give me a record deal if he'd slept with me? It's borderline insulting. It detracts from the record and all the work I've put in. Ten years of me doing this, 10 years of me hustling to make a record and 10 years of female empowerment."

It's female empowerment that lends itself as a theme for Shine, an album that delves into broken relationships, torn hearts and closure. Hardly surprising then that the record was conceived at a time when Estelle was going through a period of emotional turmoil.

"The whole aim of this album was just me venting about things that were pissing me off. I had huge blocks of time of self-doubt, based on the crazy folks that were around me pretending to be my friends. I dated three or four wrong guys. One or two of them spawned this album. But that's what I had to go through to get to where I am now."

And where Estelle is now is New York, a city she emigrated to in May last year following her signing to HomeSchool Records. It's a move that has allowed Estelle the autonomy she so craved with V2.

"I think growing up has given me that freedom. Even if I was signed here in England I'd still be the same person. If someone had offered me a deal in Germany, I would have gone there. You just go where you're wanted and where you can feel happier doing it."

It's disheartening to think that Estelle had to leave Britain for everyone to realise once again how talented she is. In an age where white female "soul" artists such as Duffy are celebrated for their vocal range and singers such as Kate Nash are embraced for their passing social witticisms, Estelle must feel cheated that she was never fully recognised for possessing all these attributes.

"I don't feel cheated," she says almost with a sigh. "I think it's more hypocritical than racist. If it's good music, it's good. Don't say a white artist doing soul is quirky and a black artist doing rock is not quite right.

"If you're going to have that kind of standard where music is music, let everyone do it. Let my music succeed in pop and rock arenas. Put me in the NME awards, the same way you put Kate Nash in there. Amy Winehouse is getting nominated for an NME award? Nominate me for one because that to me is the same kind of music."

But that's not to say that Estelle feels pressure to gain mainstream success. Her only prerogative is to succeed on her own terms now. "People appreciate it when I'm just being me. When I start having to do dance routines, people get really bored and start not believing it. I just wanted to make a bunch of songs that were true to me. This is Estelle."

The future hope of British soul, R&B and hip-hop is back. Let's hope this time we don't take her for granted.

'Shine' is released on Atlantic on 31 March

Soul sisters: Five women who have inspired Estelle Swaray

Ella Fitzgerald

'She possessed a voice that is complete perfection. She was amazing right up until the day she died. Always a lady'

Mary J Blige

'This woman has the ability to make me feel in ways other singers can't. I think that sort of impact is what every artist strives to achieve'

Dinah Washington

'She was one feisty-arsed woman. She had an incredible talent despite being on all kinds of drugs. I think Amy Winehouse has taken her whole style from her'

Diana Ross

'She went through the fire and survived. For me, she really did it. She created a great template for women to be women within their music'

Tori Amos

'I love her because she's outspoken and she's crazy. She dyes her hair a million colours a year and is completely free. I love it'