'I was angry, so angry': How heartbreak, betrayal and Su Pollard helped Estelle find pop success
For a girl from a London council estate, it was a dream come true. The hit single 'American Boy' turned Estelle into one of the world's biggest pop stars – and won her a Grammy. But then life got in the way. Here, for the first time, she talks about heartache, betrayal and bouncing back.
She may have spent her childhood in the London postcode of W14, but Estelle sashays, a good 20 minutes late, into the record-company boardroom with a distinct aura of 90210 about her. With good reason, it transpires. During the winter months, the singer resides in Los Angeles, drawn by the novelty of winter warmth.
"But it's bloody freezing in here," she complains, and so refuses to relinquish her long red coat, her even longer scarf, and, perhaps a touch preposterously on a day as overcast as this, her pair of large sunglasses. Impatiently she asks, "Can we get the heating going?"
The thermostat is duly raised, and as she warms up, so the layers, literal and otherwise, come off. As ever with Estelle, a small but well-put-together young woman famous for her attention to stylistic detail, she is not under-dressed. Today, it's a thick chunk jumper that looks as if it was woven from pure gold, hide-hugging jeans and a pair of knee-high leather boots. On her hands she has false fingernails that extend for several inches, and on her face, eyelashes that curl up on themselves. And though we are mindful that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, her hairstyle, an alarmingly precise and spherical bob, looks as if it was achieved by simply placing a bowl around her head, and snipping. She has brought with her hair and make-up people for the photoshoot, both spending several minutes preparing their respective stations around her. They then request "builder's tea" before retreating to the sidelines, leaving their employer to sprawl languorously across the designer couch alone. It is gone midday, yet she yawns as if she has just woken up. Mercifully, she removes the sunglasses and places them in her lap.
If the aura emitted is one of refined pop royalty, it is at least earnt. In an era where almost all of the – for want of a less tokenistic umbrella term – urban artists in our charts are American, or else have adopted American sensibilities, Estelle remains very much a British girl. Her music has always retained its own distinctive individuality; you know it's Estelle the very moment one of her songs comes on the radio. That she has made it translate so well in America, where she is huge, makes her success all the more notable.
"I always knew I'd make it," she says, not airily but matter-of-factly. "Always had the conviction I'd win a Grammy one day, too."
The 32-year-old is about to release her third album, All of Me, by far the most difficult, and painfully conceived, of her career to date. It was originally due for release in 2010, and then 2011, but life got in the way.
"I suddenly realised I didn't like all this any more," she explains, her hand describing a wide arc in the air, the record-company boardroom representing the industry in general. "In fact, I hated it, hated all the people around me, and I damn near hated myself as well for putting myself through it." She falters, and falls awkwardly silent. "I don't normally talk about these things," she says. But then, as if coming to a silent agreement in her head, she does.
Back in 2008, Estelle was responsible for one of the biggest songs of the year. "American Boy" was an irresistible slice of lissome R&B emboldened and enlivened by a flirtatious rap from mad hip-hop overlord Kanye West. Lifted from her second album, Shine, it went on to sell two million copies, and bagged the singer the much dreamt-about Grammy. Like all the best songs, it came about almost by accident; initially convinced that its frivolous feel wouldn't fit on the album, Estelle considered ditching it.
"It was just something I was playing around with in the studio for fun," she says. "I'd been listening to a lot of Minnie Riperton, and that was the kind of high, dreamy voice I was aiming for – part Minnie Riperton, part, if I'm honest, Su Pollard."
Su Pollard? From Hi-de-Hi?
She laughs. "That's the one. Squeaky-voice lady. Like I said, it was just me having fun. But then Kanye came and did his thing, and we realised it had a really nice vibe to it."
Its subsequent success ensured that from then on, Estelle would be living her own version of the American dream.
Born Estelle Swaray in London in 1980, she was the second-eldest in a family of nine. Her mother was from Senegal, her father, whom she didn't meet until she was 23, from Grenada. She grew up on a council estate in West Kensington, her mother, recently remarried to a painter and decorator, arranging most of their social life around the local church. It was here that Estelle sang for the first time.
"It was just what we did as kids: sing," she says. "We were like the Jacksons and the Von Trapps combined, and by being in church all the time, Mum could keep an eye on us."
Keeping an eye on her children, all nine of them, was effectively her life's work. "She wasn't one of those mothers who let us run the streets, you know? She knew k where her kids were at 12 o'clock at night. She was always very serious that even though we lived in the 'hood, we wouldn't necessarily fall into it."
Were there temptations?
"Oh, completely, all the time. I saw loads of people, friends, getting messed up, and some of those people aren't here any more. Basically, if you go looking for trouble, it'll come find you. But you don't have to, and for me, thanks to Mum, there was always that clear choice. You could choose to go the other way. I did."
By her late teens, she was writing her own music and performing it in local clubs. She constantly sent demo tapes to record companies, many of which showed interest. This didn't surprise her: "I didn't sound like anybody else; I sounded like me." But whenever she was invited to meet with label bosses, the meetings quickly turned sour. "They all wanted me to sound like the girl singers or girl bands of the time, acts like Jamelia or SWV, but that was never me, I never could do all that super-sweet singing bit."
And she refused to be swayed. "I wasn't cocky with them, I was confident. I knew I had a good product to sell, but I wasn't going to beg for it. Begging was not the kind of headspace I grew up in. I always thought that if record companies didn't understand me, fine, I'd go and do it by myself."
She did just that, releasing music on her own label, which was eventually signed to Virgin offshoot V2. Her first album, 2004's The 18th Day, was a breath of fresh air whose songs were made memorable by their episodic, diary-like lyrics delivered in deadpan, lip-curling style. "Sexy boys walking round showing interest/ In what I don't know coz we all had flat chests," she sang on the track "1980". The album was a hit, but her label still wanted to mould her into an even more chart-friendly proposition before agreeing to a second album. Her response was unambiguous: she walked away from the deal in favour of starting again. Decamping to New York, she met the American singer/producer John Legend, who took her under his wing, and she quickly signed to a US label. Being in a country that appreciated her talent suited her, and in 2007 she settled in Brooklyn, and began to work on Shine.
A year later, Shine had gone platinum, she had won her Grammy, and she was back in the UK to pick up two Mobo Awards, industry acknowledgement that here was one of the most successful R&B acts the UK had produced in a long time. But it was on this night, her professional vindication, the time of her life, that everything else began to unravel.
"Somebody came up to me to say that lots of people – people I had considered friends for years – were taking advantage of me, and that I should keep an eye out."
Though her initial reaction was one of confusion, she admits that the warning nevertheless rang oddly true, a long-buried suspicion finally bubbling to the surface. The evening turned ugly, and Estelle left early. "I went back to the hotel and threw things around, broke things, and cried. And I never cry. But what else was I supposed to do? I felt suddenly surrounded by all this disloyalty."
As she recalls that night now, her hands fiddling anxiously with the designer sunglasses in her lap, her accent loses any lingering trace of Brooklynese and rediscovers its blunt London roots. "These were people I thought I could trust, but I was wrong. A lot of things were happening behind-the-scenes. They were taking advantage of me. I was working, working, working, barely seeing 20 per cent. But why? They were motherfuckers who I should have probably dumped a long time before. But you know how it is: you're on the road a lot, away from home and family, and you want to have people around you that you like, that you can trust."
And she did trust them, she says, for years, which is why having her eyes opened was all the more painful.
Decisive action was required. "I was like, OK, you have to go, all of you. Sure, I'm going to be lonely for three minutes, but whatever. Go."
Her loneliness would endure much longer than that. "It took me five months, probably, to get it all back together again, but then I was angry, so angry."
At the same time, her three-year relationship with her boyfriend was ending unpleasantly. "Yeah," she says with an expression that matches her thoughts, "I was going through all sorts of bullshit with him as well. There were all these girls... He tried to blame me by saying that, actually, it was me with all these guys, but it wasn't. It was the other way round."
At one point, her lawyers had to intervene.
She laughs a dry, hollow laugh. "It was," she says with some degree of understatement, "a real moment."
Little wonder, then, that the delivery date for her album has been pushed back again and again. Given the circumstances in which it was written, All of Me is an unavoidably darker record than its effervescent predecessors, with tracks such as "Back to Love" and "Break My Heart" full, respectively, of self-help homilies and emotional wariness. She says she cannot sing the track "Thank You" ("This pain inside never seems to pass") without breaking down.
But musically, the album still retains the buoyancy that always made her music so instantly infectious. Where, in 2008, her friend Kanye West poured his own private turmoil – prompted by the end of a relationship and the death of his mother – into his album 808s & Heartbreak, arguably the bleakest hip-hop record ever recorded, Estelle cannot help but remain melodically optimistic.
We speak again a month later, the singer now back in Los Angeles, where she is rehearsing for her forthcoming tour.
"As much as I write songs that are emotional to me, I'm just not able to keep them down in the dumps and all moany," she says. It's all well and good to confess to having been depressed, she continues, but who wants to hear you're still in that headspace? "I want my music to help people get through things, just like it helps me. It's therapy, you know?"
If her experiences have left her more cynical now, she sees this merely as necessary armour in order to survive in an industry full of casualties. "It's like living in a goldfish bowl, this life," she says. "You never know who is looking at you, and whether they are doing so with adoration or jealousy, so my antenna is twitching all the time now." She frowns. "I never wanted to become this kind of person, but then how do you avoid it? I've seen my peers go through this and much worse." She references Amy Winehouse's sad demise, and Corinne Bailey Rae, who in 2008 lost her saxophonist husband to a drugs overdose. "I don't want things to get that bad for me, and that's why I now take time to reset and reassess everything around me. I'm still an optimist, but I'm listening more closely to the voice inside my head. It's got to be done."
'All of Me' is released on Atlantic on 28 February
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