The xx: softly spoken pop stars who shun the limelight

The xx have admitted to shyness – they're not alone

"Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to," sang Morrissey in The Smiths' song "Ask". Shyness is not the character trait you really want to be dealing with as a budding – or established – rock, pop or folk star, and it's a subject that The xx have brought to the fore, speaking out about the crippling shyness that dogged them in their early days.

"It was very overwhelming," said singer Romy Madley Croft, recalling when the south London trio were thrust into the spotlight and 1,000-capacity venues after winning the Mercury Prize in 2010 with their self-titled debut album – an album whose introspective, moody sound more than hints at their introverted characters. Its success gave them the exposure they needed to become more comfortable in public. As the band prepare to release their follow-up album, Coexist, Croft said: "I think we've gained confidence, which is probably the thing that we all value the most from everything. Being forced in front of people to talk, and being put on a stage, you have to kind of… we've grown into it a bit more… It's nice not feeling cripplingly shy."

The world of pop music has always been peppered with shy, unassuming stars, from folk icon Nick Drake through to synth-pop singer-songwriter Ladyhawke. While for The xx the success afforded by their album helped, for others the exposure and the ever-burgeoning crowds of fans that come with it don't make things any easier.

And, little would you know it when you hear her mature songs, but 22-year-old folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling's shyness was once paralysing – and has only been thawing as the singer moves into her early 20s; although her stage chat still can't help but give away her discomfort.

Shyness in folk music, where polite reservation and cups of tea go hand in hand, is one thing; but it becomes even trickier when it comes to pop or rock, where the frontman is expected to be extrovert. Rick Astley is one of the more surprisingly shy pop stars, and another to have to face the spotlight alone – while for all his opinionated rants and attention-grabbing sculpted dreadlocks, trip-hop star Tricky has a hard time convincing people of his shy, retiring character. "People, for years, don't believe I'm shy," he told me. "I've said this over and over. But I'm really shy, so being on stage in front of a few thousand people... people who come to my shows will notice there's no talking between songs; that silence I can't operate because I'm a very shy guy. It's weird being on stage. You have to be somewhere else."

With her bold, loud, synth-pop songs, Ladyhawke is a singer you might less expect to find the spotlight a difficult place. But as a mild sufferer of Asperger syndrome, Pip Brown once told me how, in the early days of her music career, she performed in a group as a backing singer and drummer because she'd never have imagined herself as a frontwoman, let alone a solo performer. Even when she started as a backing singer, she struggled with singing in front of people. "That was a big deal for me because I was really shy and I didn't really want to do it," she said. It was even more of a challenge when she stepped into the role of solo performer. Her striking looks and height only served to draw more unwanted attention. "I used to be so self-conscious I'd walk hunched over because I thought it would make me less noticeable."

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