Interview: Ms Dynamite talks therapy, self-help, motherhood, and coming back after eight years away from the spotlight
The Mercury Prize winner says she's happy to be making music again
It's been a full eight years since Ms Dynamite released an album, and a good five since she started speaking about recording another one. The last time we heard from her, on 2005's Judgement Days, the follow-up to 2002's Mercury-winning A Little Deeper, she sounded full of foreboding, its brooding tempo a far cry from her joyful, career-defining early single, “Di-Na-Mi-Tee”. The album sold poorly, and Dynamite, born Niomi McLean-Daley, promptly withdrew from the music scene altogether.
Few pop stars of her generation have made such an initial impact, only to then disappear quite so comprehensively, and aside from three brief appearances in the spotlight since – unwittingly, in 2006, when she was arrested outside a nightclub, and later sentenced to 60 hours community service for assaulting a policewoman (“if I had been completely innocent of that,” she says now, “I'd be shouting it from the rooftops; but I wasn't”), and on two reality TV shows, Sky 1's The Race, and ITV's Hell's Kitchen – she pretty much vanished.
Her much mooted comeback single, then, is intriguing for many reasons. “Cloud 9”, which mixes drum'n'bass with a sweet reggae lilt and a breezy vocal, is almost as infectious as that early single of hers, and so offers suggestion that whatever was troubling her throughout Judgement Days has passed. Further indication comes from her Twitter account, which reveals a woman in the clutch of an almost delirious optimism.
“Keep pushin4ward, dnt givup, giv til theres nothin left Stand tall&firm, rise high, shine bright, laugh&love hard, right until the last breath,” one reads, exhaustively, while elsewhere, she re-tweets assorted Oprah Winfrey homilies (“things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out”) alongside those from an outfit called Spiritual Truths: “Things are not always as bad as you think. If you step back, you will see there is more to any situation than meets the eye.” All of which suggests the woman has spent her time away nose-deep in self-help books. True?
Dynamite, now 32 years old and looking, in the flesh (and in long, fake eyelashes), terrific, laughs out loud. “Oh, loads! They've been my salvation! They are so useful, so vital! See, I'm attracted to positive thoughts. If I get up in the morning and read something positive, and that can be anything – a headline, an email, a tweet, whatever – it makes me feel so much better about the day ahead. Self-help books are brilliant in that way; they are so full of such good advice. I have to stop myself from forcing them onto other people, if only because I want them to help others like they've helped me.”
Livewire: Ms Dynamite with her Mercury Award in 2002 Ms Dynamite arrives for our interview 90 minutes late, trailing a light jacket, her handbag, and a thousand apologies. She's had a hectic few days, she explains: a live PA in Liverpool, then an overnight drive back home, then football trials for her 10-year-old son Shavaar, followed by a mercy dash to A&E after he fell from a tree. Composing herself, she orders a latte (“with soya milk, please”), and places her iPhone on the table, its glass front smashed into a terrible mosaic. “Need a new one now,” she points out, largely to herself.
The self-help guides, which she read in tandem with having “an awful lot of therapy”, were wholly necessary, she says, a life-saver, given that she spent so many years confused and conflicted. She was born and raised in Archway, North London, to a Jamaican father and Scottish mother, the oldest of 12 children. She rarely saw her father, and shortly before she turned 13, her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“I don't want to sound like I'm feeling sorry for myself because, honestly, I know I've got so much to be thankful for, and I hate sounding like a self-help book myself, but I had a lot of issues, and I was very angry. My mum having cancer didn't help; she nearly died of it. And growing up with a single parent who turned up to my school concert bald after chemo… well, that was a shocker, traumatic. I had five younger siblings that were born and passed away, 12 of us survived, my father was only around periodically. There was never any food in the house – toast for dinner wasn't unusual – and, so, yes, things were pretty difficult. I clashed with my mother a lot, with everyone.”
By 15, she was living in a hostel and drawing Jobseeker's allowance, hoping to go to university to study social anthropology, and become a teacher. But she also loved her music, and would write and perform on the side, safe in the knowledge she wasn't good enough to get anywhere with it. But then, the day she was due to start university, she landed a recording contract. At 21, she released her debut album, which was universally hailed for its vitality and intelligence. Suddenly, her life had changed, and her opinions on youth issues – for she had many – were being sought by government types keen to show finger-on-pulse awareness. Then she won the Mercury.
“On the surface, sure, I had all this confidence, all this character,” she says now, “but when I went home at night, I just felt completely unworthy. I had no self-belief: as an artist, a singer; nothing. It was all so strange. I couldn't come to terms with it. Suddenly I had money, and I didn't have to worry about feeding myself. But I couldn't believe I was allowed to get away with it, that people were paying me to keep singing, when I couldn't even really do that, not properly…” She needed to feel grounded again, and decided, cogently, to have a child. She had always loved children, always craved motherhood. “I've been ready to be a mother ever since I popped out into this universe,” she says. “And I always imagined myself having loads of children one day, like Angelina Jolie: surrounded by them, and giving them so much love.” At the time, she was dating her bodyguard, 22-year-old Dwayne Seaforth, and quickly fell pregnant. She gave birth to their son in 2003. The couple split two years later.
“I won't lie, because of course it's been challenging, but being a mother has always felt instinctively right, and good. And so after my second album didn't do well, I knew that I needed to stop everything, and just focus on my son.” If she hadn't, she adds, “I could've gone crazy, and probably would've.”
Several years passed, her life now largely and, the way she tells it, blissfully domestic. The therapy she underwent “was one of the best things I've ever done,” and gradually she felt the creative itch return. “I just sat down with my mum one day, and said to her, 'I'm ready again. Just watch me'.” She started singing in clubs again, belatedly satisfied with the limitations of her voice.
“It's like I decided I had a nice tone to my voice, and I was okay with that.” She laughs. “I still remember the day I accepted I was never going to be Whitney or Mariah, because I realised I didn't want to be – had never wanted to be, in fact. It's like, why was I so hung up over it? I wish I knew. But that was a complete revelation to me: that I was okay being me.”
Nevertheless, her confidence did continue to waver. “I'd be on stage in some club, looking out into a crowd of kids, and a voice in my ear would say: 'You idiot! You're too old for this! What do you think you're doing, grandma?'”
At which point, presumably, she turned again to therapy and self-help? “I did. Lots! The therapy helped.” Meantime, she ploughed steadily on. Writing new material took time. She couldn't decide whether to go electronic (“which I know, and love”), or more organic, more pop-friendly. Her comeback album was initially mooted for release in 2010, then 2011. It's entirely likely, then, that “Cloud 9” is one of the more tortuously conceived singles of recent years. But it's a good one, and it augurs well for the new album, whichever direction it ends up taking, and which she hopes will be ready next year.
“Look, I'm just happy anyone is remotely interested in what I'm doing anymore,” she says. “That's the privilege, right there! That's amazing to me, and humbling. But, you know, what is supposed to happen will happen, so I'm going to take my time about it.” She sips at last from the soya-milk latte she has spent the last hour ignoring. “Because, in life, there's no rush, not really. Is there?”
Ms Dynamite and Shy FX release their new single, 'Cloud 9', on 21 October on Digital Soundboy
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