Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

Welcome To B&S





Incredibly a 10-year veteran of the UK`s urban music underground, 28-year-old singer/songwriter/producer/MC Estelle Swaray is this month finally achieving chart-topping mainstream success with her infectious, Kanye West-featuring UK Number One single `American Boy`.

The product of a Sengalese mother and Granadan father, Estelle experienced a strictly religious yet impoverished childhood as one of eight siblings in West London, before years of performing on the capital`s live hip hop/soul circuit eventually led to her first record deal with UK independent V2 Records in 2004. Despite her Top 40 debut album for V2 - `The 18th Day` - spawning two Top 20 singles (`1980` and `Free`) and receiving widespread critical acclaim, however, differences of musical opinion would see Estelle leave said label within a year of its autumn 2004 release to prestigiously end up becoming the first signing to globally-successful US soul singer/writer John Legend`s newly-formed HomeSchool Records. Through which her aforementioned current single and new, second album `Shine` are now released.

Boasting a veritable A-list of contemporary US urban producers (; Wyclef Jean; Mark Ronson; Cee-Lo Green; Swizz Beats; plus Legend himself), the song-driven hooks, grooves, instant lyrics and unforgettable melodies of `Shine` look set to firmly establish Estelle as one of 2008`s premier international breakthrough acts. As the bubbly, fast-talking and forthright West Londoner (who now calls Brooklyn, New York home) hooks up with `B&S for one of her most revealing interviews to date.

Her current UK chart-topping single `American Boy`, which features superstar rapper Kanye West;

“We were just messing about in the studio, joking around. And John (Legend) just said to me `Why don`t you write a song about meeting an American boy?`. So I was like `Well, that`s pretty easy` - because I have a lot of male friends out there in New York. And I unwittingly ended up creating a new ladies` anthem! And Kanye basically just brought his own cheeky self to the track, his own sense of humour. At first he was like `How can you rap over a dance beat?` - and now he`s DONE it!”

How she first hooked up with Kanye;

“I first met him in LA outside Roscoe`s House of Chicken restaurant! I spotted him inside, and I was like `Please Lord, if you`re up there, let Kanye West come outside!`. Next thing, he walks out - and I`m like `Thank you, Jesus!`… `Hey, Kanye, I`m a big fan!`… And we`ve stayed in touch from that. Though he`s blown up big-time since then, he`s just stayed real humble and real cool around me. Plus, obviously, I met John Legend through him.”

The title to Estelle`s new album `Shine;`

“`Shine` is a track on the album, produced by Swizz Beats. It`s basically about me just being a real person and saying that, whatever happens in the world, I`ve still gotta get my shine on! I`ve still gotta come across as happy when inside I feel crap! Like today I may not feel like speaking, but I`m still up talking! And I think a lotta people will identify with it, because not everybody feels like getting up and being sociable and nice all the time. Which is exactly how I feel some days! Sometimes I wake up in the morning and feel like going straight back to bed. But I still have to get up and work, and I still have to take advantage of the chances I`ve been given in life. So basically the song is saying `I`m just like you - a regular human being. You may think of me as this girl who`s looking perfect every 10 seconds, with the make-up and the perfect hair. But sometimes it`s just a big, big charade!`!”

`Shine` being described musically as “a truly original mix of sounds;”

“There`s just so many different styles on this album - reggae, dance, hip hop, soul, jazz, even indie rock. I just went all OVER the place! I was up there just basically having a bag of fun! I wasn`t trying to do anything that was too focused. I`d be in the studio like `I listened to this today, so I`m gonna do something in that vein`. And the good thing about John, was that he realised I don`t come off like it`s me trying to fit into a particular genre. It`s always Estelle, and THEN the genre! You know, my album doesn`t sound like a mix of different genres. It just sounds like an Estelle album, and then you think of the genre that I`m doing it in AFTERWARDS. So John was just like `If it works for you, don`t even sweat it! Just do what you DO!`… So, whatever I was feeling at the time, I just went with. If you`re from London - whether you admit it or not - you can`t help BUT listen to all these different styles. And that all ends up going into the music.”

What she was wanting to get across lyrically on this album;

“I think the main message on the album is just to be REAL. So many of the songs deal with real, everyday things that happen in relationships. You know, sometimes you fall in love and you get treated badly, sometimes you get treated well. Sometimes YOU treat people badly, sometimes YOU treat people well… Overall it`s me just talking; me just speaking; me just venting about maybe somebody who`d pissed me off that week, or about something I was going through I was irritated with… Basically I was like `OK, I`m just gonna write on every single thing that happens to me`.”

Wyclef Jean - who produced two of the tracks - dubbing Estelle “the new Lauryn Hill;”

“He said that in the capacity of my work ethic, after he`d watched me put my vocals down. I was working out the harmonies while he was building the track. And the way I come out with music is I shut my eyes, I see colours and I SING! I know it sounds weird and I don`t know how it works, but I really honestly do. And Wyclef was like `I`ve never seen anyone do that since Lauryn Hill!`! And to me it`s great he even thinks he can put me in that lane! Because that means people will be listening to my album 10 YEARS from now! So please feel free FOREVER to put me in that lane!”

Some of the other A-list collaborators involved in the project;

“Cee-Lo was inspiring to watch, because he`s such a calm person for the superstar that he is. His whole vibe was just real relaxed, whereas a lot of the producers were really hectic and jumping around., for example, was real excitable. I`d be holding my computer as he pranced around the room and be like `I know I`m small but I`m right here! Please don`t jump into me!`! Then Mark Ronson is like a baby genius. He looks like he`s about five years old, and you just wanna cuddle him. He`ll just sit there calmly with his guitar, and then he`ll just come out with these songs where you`re like `What do YOU know about this? I`m SURE you`re not old enough!`!”

The main difference between `Shine` and Estelle`s debut album, 2004`s `The 18th Day;`

“I think `Shine` is more grown-up. This is Estelle with no reservations. This is Estelle not apologising. This is Estelle being Estelle and not caring. Basically I think working in America hasn`t CHANGED me, it`s just ENABLED me more. In that there were situations where I could walk in and say `I want this` - and it would HAPPEN! Whereas in Britain maybe it WOULDN`T happen because people didn`t quite get it. It`s nothing personal - it`s purely the difference in the state of people`s minds. In the UK it was more `It`s never been done before, so why do you think you could do it?`. Whereas in New York it`s like `Why NOT? TRY it!`!”

Estelle`s early background in West London;

“I grew up in West Ken(sington) with a lot of family members, a lot of crazy uncles, cousins and aunties… And yes, crazy MOMENTS happened! But while yes, we were poor and it could be looked back on as a really bad life, it never felt like that at the time AT ALL. It never felt like something was wrong. It felt NORMAL! But, after seeing the things my mum had to go through, I guess it has taught me to have a get-up-and-go attitude to life. You know, don`t wait for anyone to do FOR you! MAKE it happen! There`s more to life than just taking what someone gives you!”

How, after starting out singing in church and then being influenced by Ella Fitzgerald and Mary J. Blige, she got into a music career;

“I`ve no idea! Things just kept happening for me and I just kept saying `Thank you! I guess I should, right?!`! You know, it just kept MOVING for me! It just CONTINUED! And my thing was always `Well, if I wasn`t supposed to be DOING this, these things wouldn`t HAPPEN! They wouldn`t APPEAR! They wouldn`t PRESENT themselves!! Just like my attitude today is `If I wasn`t supposed to have gone through what I went through, then I wouldn`t be at the point I`m at right now!`! Especially when people come up to me and say things like `I`m glad you`re back, Estelle! My man was abusing me, and your song `Free` off the last album gave me the courage to leave him!`! You know, when things like that touch me it really does make me feel like `OK, you`re doing the right thing! Stay on it!`!”

How she looks back on the early days of her career prior to her first deal;

“Those days just seem like yesterday. I always say `You can`t stand on the top of the mountain unless you have a mountain to hold you UP`. And I look back on those days as my mountain that I had to climb to the top of! You know, I was never gonna get there without going through everything I went through in the past. And in particular, from those early experiences, I learnt quickly to follow my heart and to stop listening to other people.”

Her first record deal with V2;

“Thank God for it, because it put me where I needed to be. And I also thank God that they knew when to let go and were like `OK, we don`t know what to do with you - go ahead and find somebody who DOES`. Because there`s a lotta labels that hold on to artists, or just drop them and then give them the stigma of being unworkable. You know, things go wrong for a lot of artists after being dropped. So I thank God that V2 didn`t drop me. Instead they let me be bought out of my deal and didn`t go round slagging me off to other people. Then looking back musically, I guess the main problem was V2 are predominantly an indie rock label. And at the time where I was going was nowhere near indie rock.”

How Estelle then became the first signing to John Legend`s new label HomeSchool Records;

“I`ve known John for a while. On my first album he actually featured on `Hey Girl`, played piano on `Free` and featured in the video. Then he also started to work with me on my second album for V2. But, because V2 didn`t get what I was trying to do, I basically told John `I need to leave this label`. And, because he was gonna work with me regardless, he was like `I`LL sign you! I`m looking to start a label. Let`s get a deal in The States!`. So I was literally like `Oh, OK`. He asked who my lawyer was; I e-mailed him the details... And he sent the paperwork over next week! Simple as that!.. And I feel very, very blessed! Because, each time I feel I`m gonna be out of the game, something comes along to keep me in it!”

Moving to New York from London;

“The reason for me moving was mainly because I was SIGNED over there. It was simple as that! I had no choice, because they`d call me at four in the morning for meetings and stuff, and I`d be half-dead trying to further my career! Plus, over there they actually had a plan and they already had a blueprint. You know, because they`d seen it happen with this type of music before, it wasn`t confusing at all to them. It`s not like `You got a Number ONE? With THAT song?`. Instead, the attitude over there is `You`re SUPPOSED to get a Number One with that song!`! And if you DON`T get a Number One, it`s like `Well, why HAVEN`T you?`! It`s not about your race per se in the grand scheme of things, and it`s not about what brand you fit into with your genre of music. It`s more about how good the SONG is, and what blueprint they`re gonna follow - because they`ve already DONE it! So my advice to British urban artists is, if you can`t get the deal you want here in the UK, go and look elsewhere! You know, why should you stay in one place and one country if they`re not offering you a job? It doesn`t make sense! People need to know there`s more out there than Channel U, MTV Base and the BBC. There`s a WORLD out there! Go and travel! Go out and get a different perspective!”

The single `American Boy Feat. Kanye West` is out now. The album `Shine` follows on March 31, both through Atlantic/HomeSchool Records

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

Join the B&S Mailing List

Blues and Soul on Twitter