Jamelia: Some kind of superstar

At 15, Jamelia seemed destined for greatness, but fate intervened. Now, still only 23, she is back on track to become the biggest name in British R&B. Nick Hasted meets her
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The Independent Culture

When Jamelia disappeared four years ago, it seemed her coronation as Britain's R&B queen might be postponed for ever. Four hit singles, including the Top 5, anti-materialist "Money", and a 2000 Mobo award were a precocious start for a girl only 18 when her success began. But an unexpected pregnancy enforced a two-year sabbatical, during which time Mis-Teeq, Ms Dynamite and others pushed British R&B into the mainstream. Jamelia also had an abusive relationship with her baby's father to escape from as she endured her exile. In retrospect, though, it was the making of her.

Where her debut LP, Drama (2000), was, for all its success, syrupy and conventional, its successor, Thank You, is a triumph, exploding with mature musical ideas. The breezily addictive huge hit "Superstar" gives little hint of the unconventional creativity elsewhere. The new single, "Thank You", is as striking for its psychedelically phased instruments as for its tart retort to her abuser; elsewhere on the album, sexy Saturday-night songs and innovative hooks keep the listener's brain buzzing. It may be the best UK R&B album yet, at last justifying the promise EMI saw in Jamelia when she auditioned for them, aged just 15. She is 23 now and, well aware what a surreal leap this is from her working-class Birmingham roots, can hardly contain her delight at the latest turn in her roller-coaster life. Polite, intelligent and bubbling with good-humoured confidence, she's ready to discuss almost anything.

A rare cloud on the horizon is the frustrating failure of Thank You to match the sales of "Superstar". The selling-point of its upcoming relaunch is a collaboration with Chris Martin, from her label-mates Coldplay, on the future single "See It in a Boy's Eyes". That confirms the musical openness that makes Jamelia remarkable. "It was an excellent collaboration," she enthuses, "because he stays true to his indie roots and I stay true to my R&B roots, and it sounds like a whole new genre. Everyone expects me to collaborate with the Missys and the Jay-Zs, but it's so interesting to work with people outside the genre that you're used to. He had a different way of working. It was: whatever we feel, that's what we're gonna put down; it doesn't matter if it makes sense. I'd love to do it a lot more. I'd love to work with The Darkness - I think they're brilliant!"

Such playful adventurousness defines Thank You, as Jamelia coaxed its producers into adding unlikely sounds - from a sampled voice played as a piano note, to a radio's mobile-phone interference. "There was a lot of compromise on Drama," she remembers. "I was a teenager: I didn't know any better. But this time I've had a lot of creative input. I didn't want anything to sound like anything you've ever heard before. I used about nine producers on the album, because I didn't want any two songs to sound the same. I would like to appeal to a wide range of people. That's why American artists are so big. They have had a much longer time at this R&B game than we have. But I definitely feel I have the potential to rival them." She grins at her impertinence. "I always aim higher than I can reach. Just the fact that I got my record deal shows me that anything's possible."

Jamelia skipped through genres even as a child, starting with her mother's taste in reggae and ragga. R&B entered the mix when she was eight. "I started seeing Aaliyah, Mary J Blige and TLC on TV and I really got into them, because these were people who looked like me," she laughs. "By that time, I'd discovered I could sing, so I drove my mum crazy. I used to listen to the radio obsessively. My mum's punishment for my brothers would be to ground them. But I didn't go out anyway. I wanted to stay in and listen to my karaoke machine. So my mum's punishment for me was to take it and my stereo away. She could do it for an hour, and I'd be in tears. I think the longest she took it was two days, and it was probably the worst two days of my life."

Other aspects of her background prepared Jamelia for the dislocating strangeness of her later success. Her mother, a community education worker, who had Jamelia when she was 17 and two boys as well by 21, kept her sensible. "I wouldn't say it was hard, growing up," she remembers. "I didn't have a painful childhood; I had a lovely childhood, with morals and values. We weren't rich, but money's not everything - my mum showed me that. Where I grew up, more or less everyone was in single-parent families. Being in such an adverse situation drew us close together. My mum has always been my biggest role model. She's so strong."

This new kind of normal family life had its own quirks. Her father was gone before she was born. "There's loads of things nowadays that people find weird," Jamelia observes. "I've been to loads of funerals, which is a bad thing. I've never been to a wedding. One of my friends had both parents, a mum and dad, in the same house. I'd go to her house and think, 'I wonder what it must be like.' The thing is, she's exactly the same as me. But I still sometimes think, 'What would have been different if my dad was here, in the house?' But if I lived my life all over again, I would not change a thing. It made me the person I am."

When, aged 15, she stood up in an EMI A&R man's office and started to sing, her future was sealed. He offered her a contract on condition that she passed her exams, securing her future even if she failed to achieve stardom. "My mum used to say to me, 'You're working too hard.' But at that point, I was like, 'I really could be a singer! I could be like Mary J Blige!' Before I got offered my deal, I'd not dreamt of being a singer. It wasn't worth dreaming about, because it would never, ever, happen to me. It was only when I was offered the deal that I realised how much I wanted it."

Finally unveiled to the public when she was 18, after three years of grooming, Drama's success seemed to herald a smooth ascent to stardom. It made her pregnancy more shocking. "When I first found out I was pregnant, I thought it was the worst thing ever. The worst timing, when everything was going so well. I was so worried, I didn't tell my record label until I was nearly five months pregnant. I thought my career was over. As I won my Mobo, my mum hugged me and said, 'No matter what happens now, at least you've got this to show for it.' And it felt like the end. I thought, 'This is the last thing that's going to happen to me.'"

EMI found out only when someone told The Sun. "I burst into tears and said, 'I am so sorry.' I was so scared, because I'd seen it happen to other artists who are on the way up, get pregnant and are literally [she snaps her fingers dismissively] dropped. It was how it worked at the time. But they sent me flowers, and the head of the label said to me, 'Don't worry. When you're ready to come back, let me know.'"

During the break, Jamelia finished her musical education. "When I first got a deal, I was very complacent," she admits. "The possibility of it being taken away from me made me so hungry. I realised how badly I wanted to be a singer. When I was ready to come back, I started watching TV programmes like Behind the Music, just to see how the big stars get their status. I learnt so much. With Americans especially, you see that they dedicate 100 per cent of their time to being a musician; they put their all into it; they train like athletes. I was thinking, 'I don't want to be the best in the UK; I want to be the best in the world. This is what I have to do.'" Even before that, she had removed one dead weight from her life, her daughter's father, the man who beat her and who was responsible for the submissive Jamelia of Drama - and is the subject of "Thank You". "There was a breaking-point when my daughter was born," she remembers. "I thought, 'This cannot carry on. I'm responsible for her.' That gave me the strength to say, 'Forget it.' It's taken me two years to get over it, as far as I can. I'm so happy now. Every time I see my daughter smile, it's the most amazing thing."

Jamelia's problems aren't entirely over - her brother was arrested recently in connection with the shooting of two Birmingham girls on New Year's Eve 2002, a family trauma she won't discuss. It doesn't seem to detract from her intense joy at her second chance at success.

"I love to see the reactions on people's faces, just by seeing me," she says. "Giving someone that reaction just by being yourself is the most amazing feeling. My friends are astonished I don't get upset by people asking for my autograph. But how could I? Of course, I don't have thousands of fans. But at the moment, about 10 a day is really nice. Especially girls. Some days you just feel so horrible, and to have someone say, 'I really appreciate you,' is the most flattering thing in the world. This is the best job for me. I love it so much."

'Thank You' is out on EMI on Monday