Interview: Katherine Jenkins: “When people are so interested in your personal life, of course it’s weird”

A diva? Not likely. The classical superstar talks babies, press intrusion and returning to the record label that discovered her with ELLA WALKER

It’s always the pretty, talented women that get the trolls, the hate, and all the online bile.

Cheryl Cole, Jennifer Aniston, Rihanna, Miley, Lana… their clothes, relationships and careers ripped into on a daily basis, shredded by scathing tweets, spiteful editorials and plastered all over the deliberately humiliating sidebar of shame.

And it’s become normal. So normal I’m expecting the Daily Mail disciple, publicity junky and bonafide diva version of Katherine Jenkins to answer the phone, because in a Google snapshot, that’s what she’s made out to be, not the sweetness and light version that really does take the call.

To be fair, getting to speak to her was a slight struggle: several cancellations, one bitter, sacked PR company and a phone connection that kept dissolving, which meant several minutes braving Psy’s Gentlemen while on hold.

Once we’d got through that though, the Psy moment being the most traumatic, the Welsh classical crossover singer was polite, kind, succinct and private, without being peevish or cold. It was almost disappointing; a demanding, unfriendly interviewee can be rather a joy to write up.

Right now the 33-year-old lass from Neath, whose soft Welsh murmur is borderline hypnotic, is preparing for a concert alongside the National Symphony Orchestra and special guest Celeste as part of the Forestry Commission’s Forest Live series (“It’s an amazing setting,” she bubbles. “I’m very, very delighted that I’ve been invited back”). It’s just another moment to add to a year that’s proving, so far, to be giddily hectic.

In January Jenkins re-joined Decca Records, the label that first discovered her a decade ago while she was a 20-something singing teacher, and went on to produce six of her albums. The move comes after a lucrative but fairly miserable stint with Warner Bros, who wanted to capitalise on her poppier elements and drag her into the mainstream slush. It didn’t work.

It makes you wonder whether she wished she’d returned to Decca sooner. “I think sometimes you have to go away to try other things to realise what you want and what you enjoy most and the things that matter,” she admits.

“[Decca] totally understand classical music,” she adds. “I’m certainly having a fantastic time; I’ve nearly finished the album. I don’t want to changes things because they’re working. I’m in a really happy place.”

The album, her tenth, which has a nice symmetry to it, is set for release in November, but Jenkins will perform the odd track off it throughout the summer if you can’t wait.

Between the label switch and the new album she also got engaged to New York artist, actor and director Andrew Levitas in April this year, and he, by the way, has a very good beard (she split from former fiancé, TV presenter Gethin Jones, in 2011). Have they started planning the big day? “There’s a lot going on and we haven’t been engaged for too long yet, so we’re working on it but no set plans yet…”

And she’s just become an aunty for the first time too, to her sister’s two-week old son Rhys: “I know! It’s been a wonderful year in terms of the album, Decca, the OBE, and the wedding and then the baby!

Has it made her broody? “I’ve always wanted children because I have a big, close family. It couldn’t make me want children more because that’s always been a priority for me. It makes me happy to see a family growing.”

On top of endlessly flitting across the globe on tour (“You’re not excited by airports anymore, but I like getting there and singing”), from the outside one of the most challenging aspect of being a mezzo-soprano star seems to be the constant paparazzi attention. Type “Katherine Jenkins” into any search engine and pages and pages spit out images of her in stories that can be summed up as “Welsh singer wears clothes” – the latest instance being a dapper trip to Ascot in a blue number with a metallic belt.

“It’s just strange because I’m not sure anybody would get used to that,” Jenkins muses, explaining how she tries to deal with the arbitrary attention and flashing lenses. “I try and live a normal everyday life behind the scenes. When people are so interested in what’s going on in your personal life, of course it’s weird. I’m not sure I’ll ever be used to it, but I think every job has parts to it that maybe you’d prefer didn’t happen.

“The good parts of my job are amazing and I would never want to change that so you just deal with it.”

The good parts have included being awarded that OBE for services to music and charity, running the London marathon in memory of her father who died of lung cancer when she was 15, coming second on America’s Dancing with the Stars, and celebrity perks like easily getting tickets to Wimbledon on your day off (photos online soon, no doubt, and yes, we are terribly jealous).

Her career highlight though is far more grounded: “I would probably say going out to sing for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, that was a really special time,” and, despite the glamour and wealth that comes with classical stardom, losing your best friend is always heart-breaking.

Life coach Polly Noble, who lived in Hauxton and underwent treatment at Addenbrooke’s to try and beat cervical cancer, died in May after an eight year battle. She’d been best friends with Jenkins since 2001 when they were both trying to break into the music industry, and it as Jenkins who announced that Polly had passed away.

“Her life has affected so many people in a really positive way and I think she’ll always be a big influence to people, certainly to me, she was one of the most amazing girls, it’s tragic what happened but for the time that she was here, she was an absolute superstar,” says Katherine. “I feel very privileged to have had her in my life, even for a very short time.”

First published by Cambridge News.


Interview: James Blunt: “I’m wearing women’s underwear”

Love him or hate him it’s difficult to not have an opinion on James Blunt. ELLA WALKER struggles to get her head around the You’re Beautiful singer before his Newmarket Nights gig

The problem with James Blunt is, one moment you’re warming to him and the next he’s telling you how BMW offered him a car for a year to feature it in one of his videos (“I said s*** yeah I’ll do that!”).

It’s an issue, particularly when my mum has asked me very nicely to give him a chance (“He’s always there for me when I need him!”).

Blunt’s always been a bit of an odd one though. Since his crooning 2004 breakthrough single, You’re Beautiful, press coverage has swerved wildly – as has public opinion. Mums love him, for teenage girls he’s guilty pleasure fodder only, if at all, and for anyone else dumb enough to care about what people think of their music taste, he’s laughable.

It’s almost too easy to slate him: there’s the plummy accent, the yacht parties, the bikini clad girls, the saccharine ballads, the silly lyrics (immortalised by Rob Brydon in Gavin & Stacey), the Ibiza villa complete with basement club (“Blunty’s Nightclub Where Everybody’s Beautiful” – seriously), the awkward TV appearances… I could go on.

But he’s had an unexpected turnaround in the last year. It started with the release of the dangerously catchy Bonfire Heart off his fourth album, Moon Landing (don’t lie, you’ve definitely bellowed along to it while doing the washing up: “People like us we don’t/Need that much, just some-/One that starts/Starts the spark in our BONFIRE HEARTS”), and it took on a whole life of its own once Blunt got his mitts on Twitter.

He’s been trolling his trolls, and it’s absolutely brilliant. (Family friendly) favourites include:

@JamesBlunt And no mortgage. RT @hettjones: James Blunt just has an annoying face and a highly irritating voice.

@JamesBlunt Try singing it. RT @AltySi: I cannot put into words how much I hate James Blunt.

@JamesBlunt I’ve never stopped loving you. Please take me back. RT @NatzD123: I used to love James Blunt.

The guy is certifiably funny – who’d have thought it? When we speak – ostensibly about his return to Newmarket Nights (his uncle once ran the Jockey Club grounds as an estate manager) – he’s just landed in Darwin, Australia on his world tour and tends towards being both sparing with words, and diplomatically restrained in his answers.

“I had one song that was seriously overplayed and when a song gets overplayed it becomes annoying, and then people associate the artist with that same word,” he explains pointedly when asked why he thinks he’s been the butt of so much negativity.

Is he still fond of the track in question, You’re Beautiful? There’s a weighty pause before he replies with a protracted “Yeah”: “That’s the cornerstone of my career. It’d be a much smaller world tour without it; it’d be a tour of North London. Haha.”

Now 40, Wiltshire born Blunt (real name, James Hillier Blount…) has sold more than 17 million albums and 20 million singles, and still can’t walk down the street in Europe without being hounded by grabby fans, but he seems strangely bemused by the fact his music strikes such a chord with a certain chunk of listeners: “I think I spend a lot of time trying to get the songs right when I’m writing them so they’re just genuine and honest and they mean something to me, and hopefully perhaps people connect with them because of that.”

Not much of a thinker you might conclude, but Blunt becomes far less brief when it comes to his haters and trolls – and how he deals with them.

“If someone calls me a one-hit wonder, it’s worth reminding them that they’re a none-hit wonder,” he laughs shrilly. “I wouldn’t say I’m hitting back, I’m just laughing at the way we all take it so seriously. Twitter is just an opinion based platform. To focus on any one opinion and take it to heart is silly.

“Even the fact that Twitter makes the news is mad really because it’s some guy on his own in his bedroom probably with his trousers round his ankles firing off nasty words.

“But I play a concert at Newmarket say, where there’ll be 20,000 people who will turn up, some of them will have bought albums, they definitely bought those tickets, they might have booked hotels and trains to get there and some of them will have queued up outside and yet we focus not on the 20,000 but on the guy on his own at home who couldn’t even be bothered to pull his trousers up from round his ankles to say he didn’t like my songs.”

His social media witticisms are also a way to engage publicly without being filtered by hacks, whom he is generally quite wary of (irony of writing this noted). “People’s characters are very one dimensional in the way that they’re projected through the media: some are popular, some are unpopular, some are good looking and some are not. It’s very black or white all the time and [Twitter] gives me the opportunity to say [I’m] not just a guy who sings a miserable song,” he sighs ruefully.

The media spin and the negativity on social media don’t stop him reading his reviews though. “You’ve got to, because some you learn from. I think it would be bad to read only good stuff about yourself, that’d make you go a bit mad as well. Life’s about balance really.”

See, sometimes he’s not only sensible but immensely likeable and relatable. He’s equally pragmatic on the topic of fame: “I love what it’s brought to me in that it allows me to do my hobby as a way of life. For that it’s fantastic,” but he’s realistic about its trappings: “I love doing music but we tell our kids they should try and be famous as though being rich and famous is a measure of success. I think success should really be measured, not in fame and fortune, but instead by your happiness and the number of good friends you have.”

So is he blissfully happy? Blunt pauses before slipping back into the pool of generic “I’m lucky” isms: “I’m very lucky to do a job that I love, I tour with an amazing band and crew…” etc. then he ruins it my mentioning that his upcoming arena tour in the UK is “costing me an arm and a leg.”

Honest, yes, but he’s much more interesting, much less spiky and far less attractive to trolls when he’s having a laugh.

Take his latest video, Postcards (yes, the one that got him the BMW, but bear with me), which sees him playing an Alan Partridge role wearing a lairy Hawaiian shirt (“it was quite loud and proud. That whole outfit was designed to be seen in the video and hopefully never in real life,”), taking the mick out of himself driving around hordes of pretty girls and hilariously sampling You’re Beautiful.

Ultimately he’s a hard act to get a grip on: all sharp angles moulded round a need to entertain and a lifestyle that garners heaps of bitter jealousy.

Finally, I ask him to tell me something surprising about himself.

“I’m wearing women’s underwear.”

Is that true?

“Yes it is.”

I told you he was a bit of an odd one.

Quick fire round:

What’s the best music industry advice you’ve been given? Get a good manager.

What do you do on your days off? Interviews. Ha. Normally I’d do speed tourism and go out with my band and run round a city and see what it’s all about.

What are you listening to at the moment? The last thing I bought on iTunes was that song from the Drive soundtrack, Night Call by Kavinsky.

What song do you most love to play live? Same Mistake.

First published by the Cambridge News.

Interview: Jacqueline Wilson: “My perfect day would be to write a tiny bit, and then read all day.”

Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson

As Jacqueline Wilson’s latest heroine takes to the Cambridge Corn Exchange stage in Hetty Feather, ELLA WALKER finds out what makes the much-loved British writer tick

You wouldn’t think it, but Jacqueline Wilson can sound quite devious.

“If you have kids going through a hard time in Victorian days, even though I try and write about it as realistically as I can, it doesn’t seem to upset protective mums as much as my modern books,” laughs the oft labelled “kindly aunty” of children’s fiction.

Despite her popularity, the prolific writer (she’s currently working on her hundredth tale), has come in for quite a bit of sniping since her days working on teen magazine Jackie, usually from the aforementioned overprotective mums who think her books are too gritty, too revealing and too grown up.

That of course, if you have any sense, is absolute rubbish. Whether you’re a girl in your mid-twenties (like me) who learnt everything she knows about boys from Wilson’s Girls in Love series, or are 11 and being gently nudged and helped through the knots and worries of school and home, that woman is an absolute wonder.

“It bothers me that people sometimes feel they know what’s in my stories without having read them,” Wilson muses, without anger. “I think they’re quite moral stories and I’ve seen several times someone saying, ‘oh, Jacqueline Wilson her stories are about drugs and sex’, and actually there’s no drugs in my books, no sex in my books.”

The beauty of the Wilson is that she’s honest and doesn’t treat children like fools who don’t know what’s going on around them. What she does write about is “children going through a hard time. Certainly I do write about parents divorcing, parents getting ill, I do touch on a lot of troubling things but I always try and end with a positive note.”

Hence why she’s sold more than 30 million books in the UK alone.

Growing up on a council estate in Kingston, Surrey, Wilson left school at 16 and didn’t take A-Level English until she was 40, but was always reading, perpetually writing stories in Woolworth notebooks and making up characters in her head.

“When I was growing up long ago in the fifties, children’s books were slightly bland. I was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on, but I used to think these children aren’t quite real enough and why do all their mums and dads just get on? And why are they all so rich with their big houses and their huge gardens and everything?

“I did make some kind of resolve that if I ever got lucky enough to be a published writer I would write about life the way I see it. And luckily for me that’s actually happened.”

Tackling divorce, abuse, foster care, mental illness, homelessness, grief and all the toughest parts that come with realising your parents don’t have all the answers, or even a fraction of the answers at times, her stories (beautifully illustrated by Nick Sharratt), make you weep, laugh and think.

Here’s hoping the Rose Theatre Kingston captures these qualities in the new stage version of Hetty Feather, Wilson’s newest character threatening the reign of the loud mouthed, curly haired Tracy Beaker as her most loved creation.

Coming to Cambridge Arts Theatre, it’s based on the first book in a series about Hetty, a little girl abandoned by her mother at a Victorian Foundling Hospital.

“Her story is quite dramatic,” explains Wilson, on why Hetty has struck such a chord with readers. “I think it’s quite easy to be drawn into her story because she has probably the worst start in life, being handed over to a foundling hospital when she’s only a few days old, but she’s such a spirited, funny little thing.”

Switching between the bleak foundling hospital and a loving foster home, Hetty is clothed and fed and educated but treated very strictly indeed. “For a little rebel like my Hetty, this is just so difficult. I think most people, old or young, like to read about some spirited young thing to who all sorts of hard things happen but she doesn’t let them knock her down entirely.”

The book has been adapted by Emma Reeves, who’s contributed to many Tracy Beaker TV scripts, and sounds rather fun, packed with circus skills and acrobatics. Wilson is thrilled with the casting of Hetty too, which bodes well.“I’ve met Pheobe Thomas, the actress who’s going to be playing Hetty and she is just so right for the part; she’s small, she’s spirited, she’s got lovely long, naturally red hair. I mean she just looks made to be a Hetty!”

So she isn’t worried about having her story twisted and turned into something it isn’t? “Everybody working on it is taking Hetty very seriously,” says Wilson. “I’ve always had very positive experiences so far.”

In fact, her career to date, other than the odd overzealous parent, has been ridiculously successful. She’s won the Smarties and Guardian Children’s Fiction prizes, was named Children’s Laureate in 2005, has been twice highly commended for the Carnegie Medal, and was recently made an honorary fellow of Corpus Christie College, Cambridge (“which is a huge honour”).

Surely there must be some downsides to being a full time writer? “I don’t know about that,” she says in her soft storyteller’s. “All I know is that this is what I like to do.”

“For me the private joy of having laboured for a bit and suddenly finding a solution to the plot or finding a sentence or even a phrase that sums up exactly what I mean, that always gives me just a little thrill,” she says, but admits: “I am my most fierce critic too, but it’s lovely when I feel yep, that bit’s working, that’s ok, and then nothing is nicer.”

She also spends a lot of time meeting readers – her book signings have been known to last up to five hours. “When, with eyes shining, they tell me just how much they love this or that story, that’s a wonderful feeling too.” See, she’s lovely.

Now working on book 100 (“a very long novel about an Edwardian girl this time,”) Wilson cites Hetty Feather her favourite to date. “For so many years I’ve written very contemporary stories and loved to do it too, but it’s lovely to have a complete change. I was a little anxious that children might not take to historical novels and the change of tone as much as they do my contemporary books, but I’m absolutely delighted that they seem to like them just as much, if not more.”

As well known for her reading habits as her penmanship, apparently Wilson devours a book a week. “I think I read probably more than that!” she says, reeling off a list of Victorian biographies. “I’m also a member of a reading group and we meet once a month so I’ve got to keep up to speed there. I’m very happy to read. I think my perfect day would be to write a tiny bit, and then read all day, that’d be lovely.”

It sounds idyllic, as does the snippets of time she has between reading and writing: “I like to go for walks, I did go for a long walk in the park yesterday but unfortunately at the moment you have to don your welly boots and squelch through the mud, it will be lovely when it dries up and one can go for long walks again, and I also love shopping. And I love art galleries and museums.”

However, perhaps most marvellously and most surprising is the fact Wilson also adores dancing. “One of the happiest times of my life was in late middle age when I used to go line dancing,” she says, laughing. “Which is considered incredibly naff I know and I didn’t go quite as far as to wear the Stetson but I did have a pair of cowboy boots and I did absolutely love it.

“I still feel a little wistful sometimes whenever I hear country music.”

First published by Cambridge News.

Interview: James Arthur: “I was angry at not having control”

After a tough year and controversies galore, what has the X Factor winner learnt? Ella Walker finds out

James Arthur has obviously been taken aside and had a word with.

And by “had a word with”, I mean threatened to within an inch of his tattooed, talent show winning life. Presumably not by the PR he publicly sacked on Twitter…

Journalistically speaking, it’s a gutting state of affairs. No blurting, no swearing, no moaning, no hating on Simon Cowell? The Middlesbrough born 2012 X Factor winner has gone and straightened his image out.

It was inevitable really; there’s only so much railing against the man and your record label you can do before getting slapped back down.

After feuding online with Cowell, ranting on social media and badmouthing fellow X Factor winners, in Arthur’s case, the tipping point came last November when he made a homophobic insult in a diss track aimed at MC Micky Worthless. As iTunes started offering refunds on his album, Syco stepped in, took over his Twitter feed and saved his career.

Preparing to launch the summer outdoor season at Newmarket Racecourse (“I do like a bit of a flutter, but I do it more on the football than I do on the horses, but it’s always worth a pop,”), when we speak, the 26-year-old is chastened, polite and humourlessly subdued, a lot of his answers falling neatly and well coached off his tongue. “The X Factor was a great platform to showcase my abilities as a musician. So yeah, I’m really thankful, really grateful towards the X Factor.” Sure James, sure.

Beating the adorable Jahmene Douglas in the ninth series of the show under the tutelage of Nicole Scherzingher, Arthur won viewers over with something the show hadn’t seen too much of before: credibility. Crossing soul, rock and rap, he was pretty cute too, in a stubbly, denim shirted kind of way. With a background of school suspensions, foster homes and sleeping rough, he was also an underdog overcoming the odds, bringing his family back together by singing on the telly.

It was actually a shame to see him fall so quickly into a brutish, self-destructive spiral, lashing out and letting fame get to him.

“I’ve definitely got to grips with it now,” he says, admitting: “I was in a bit of a dark place before and I was a bit angry at not having control in certain areas but obviously I’ve learnt that I’ve got a lot of work to do before I can really take hold of everything and do everything myself. You’ve gotta work hard and you’ve gotta gain the respect of everybody.”

So far this year there’s been no online spats and no public fallings out – although his just released mix tape, All The World’s A Stage, could change that with its terrorism references and thickly layered profanities. “I’ve done and said things in the last year or so that have maybe portrayed me as negative and I’m upset about that because I’m a really positive person,” he says. “I wanna be famous for making great music, I don’t wanna be famous for being outspoken. I guess I’ve learnt to just do what I know how to do.”

The thing is, slate him for his behaviour, but his voice isn’t half bad. His debut self-titled album peaked at Number 2 in the charts, and his singles Impossible and You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You have enough pop hooks and R&B currents to properly “get a crowd going”. He’s right in saying “it might be one of the best albums ever to come out of the X Factor”.

But Arthur’s adamant that his next one, with a potential release towards the end of this year, will be more him. “The last album was great. But at the same time I would like to have more personal things on there, I’d like to keep connecting more with the fans. Last time it was full of strong anthemic songs, maybe this time it’ll be a lot more personal.”

The last year should give him a lot to draw on.

“I’m doing it a little bit differently this time, I’ve got my acoustic guitar and just me and I’m sitting with a pad and pen and writing, as opposed to last time which was a bit of a whirlwind for me,” he explains. “I was working with a lot of different producers, and although that was a really good opportunity, I wasn’t used to it. I’ve always written by myself in a bedroom where no-one can hear me. You’re not worrying about people judging you.”

“This time round, in order to make music I’m…” he says, pausing haltingly as though about to say ‘proud of’. “I’m really in love with, I have to do it this way.”

Sound-wise, there’ll still be a soulful feel and his knack for vocal improvisation, but Arthur is definitely leaning more towards his rock influences. “The whole thing will be guitar based and I’ll be playing more on the record. I’m really influenced by [the band] Brand New, I really love them and I’m trying to incorporate that in my writing, so I guess it’ll be a mix of soul, and post-hard-core punk rock.”

While that sounds like a bit of a muddle, he’s not lost one iota of his ambition. “I wanna write the best album I’ve ever written, so I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove. I wanna be the best so I’m going to try and make the best music there is.”

The fact is, it’s going to take some time for his bad boy image to drop (Cowell told the press last year: “Somebody should have told him to shut up and just put the records out,”), and perhaps impossible for him to ditch the X Factor baggage. “That’s not really in my control,” he agrees diplomatically, adding convincingly: “It will always be there, and I’m proud of it you know? It gave me so many opportunities so I’m not really fussed whether or not I shake the tag.”

And however you feel about him (there hasn’t been a spikier debate on our features desk over a celebrity interviewee in a long while), he’s made it and he believes in himself, whether this whole fame thing is what he expected or not. “Growing up my thoughts of the music industry were probably quite dreamy: you’re rich and everything’s glamorous, like the movies, but there’s a lot of competition. It’s obviously quite a lucrative business now so there is this side to it that can be quite political, but if you’re in the right place and you’re making the right music it can be a good place, definitely.”

First published by Cambridge News.

Interview: Paloma Faith: “You can’t have everyone like you.”

With a new album and a sell-out tour about to kick off, ELLA WALKER tussles with the refreshingly frank songstress about being a perfect contradiction

“It’s nice to speak to somebody who also sounds like they’re under the age of 10 on the telephone. It’s like two little kids having a chat!” says Paloma Faith with a mischievous chuckle. “I always get asked when people ring up about bills if my mum or dad are at home. Do you ever get that?

“If it’s the gas company, they just go, is your mum or dad in? And I’m like, I pay the bills here!”

She certainly does. Pop with a jazz vibe and a red lipped, pouting nod to all things retro, Paloma Faith blazed onto the British music scene in 2009, indelibly marked by her awe for idols Etta James and Billie Holiday.

Funny, chatty, attention seeking and utterly, charmingly blatant about it, she announced herself with flame-coloured hair twirled into a neck-breaking tower and the punch and glamour of her first two singles, Stone Cold Sober and New York.

The girl had class, burnished with style and an eccentric, intriguing background.

Born in North London she was raised by her mum (“she brought me up to be everything she wasn’t,”), working intermittently as a life model, magician’s assistant and cabaret singer until she famously walked out of an audition with Epic Records because the scout vetting her wouldn’t turn his phone off. Several months later, they signed her.

Since then she’s had parts on the big screen (St Trinians/The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and the small (Coming Up/Blandings), and now the 32-year-old is touring her new album, A Perfect Contradiction.

“I wanted to do something more up tempo,” she buzzes, explaining what drove the record. “When I was on tour I really enjoyed the bits where I got to dance.”

It was also a chance to make an album with more of a “celebratory feel” that would balance out her back catalogue: the soaring, punchy debut Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? and the 2011 follow up, Fall From Grace, which Paloma happily admits “was quite ballady.”

This time around she’s gone for a funkier edge. Seventies dance beats, RnB undercurrents and staccato lyrics (and a spooky video) make up first single Can’t Rely On You, produced by Pharrell Williams, while Only Love Hurts Likes This recalls some of the warmth and soul of her former offerings.

“I keep jumping from one thing to another, trying something out differently sonically,” Paloma agrees. And the name? “I think that I am one,” she says simply.

Throughout A Perfect Contradiction she mines the “pull between light and shade” for material, shaking into frame the harder bits in life in order to extract the goodness.

“You can’t really enjoy anything unless you’ve had a really hard time,” she states matter of factly. “All the bits that have happened to me or have gone wrong have really made me appreciate it when they don’t, so that’s why they’re perfect contradictions; because I’m speaking in the lyrics about hardship, but they’re hopeful sounding songs.”

Despite the sweetly dark thread of trauma that thrums through her music, putting the album together wasn’t quite such a wrenching process. “I was a little bit like a competition winner for most of the experience,” she squeaks. “I had a lot of people who were saying yes to working with me that are just the best in the business.”

Raphael Saadiq, John Legend, Plan B, Pharrell and Stuart Matthewman are just some of the gold plated names that said yes (the list is long). It’s impressive, particularly for a songstress that doesn’t seem able to consistently (if ever) please critics.

The Guardian slapped two stars on A Perfect Contradiction while the Telegraph opted for three. Does she read her reviews? “Occasionally,” she admits, musing: “Critics give me quite a hard time. They’re a bit cynical and I don’t know what it is, I think it might be something to do with my enthusiasm or the fact I’m quite driven.”

She tends to shrug it off, despite being a self-confessed “sensitive” soul. “I don’t really adapt to suit people, I’m not a fading violet, I just am what I am and people like it or they don’t,” says Paloma bluntly when asked why she considers herself “like Marmite”. “I tend to generate quite extreme responses because I’m quite defiant in who I am and I don’t really buckle.”

She adds: “It’s always either ‘oh my god I love her, she’s amazing!’ Or, ‘what an absolute idiot.’”

You can’t argue that she’s got an army of staunch fans though (her Cambridge Corn Exchange gig this month sold out instantly). “It’s obvious to me the humans in this country respond well to me,” she laughs. “I think they like the fact I don’t sugar-coat everything and I’m genuinely honest.”

Dangerously quick-witted and intimidatingly up front, Paloma is known for having a mouth on her. Not that she cares. “I think people are just afraid of being controversial,” she chatters. “Even my mum gets scared when I say things. She’ll call me up and go ‘Oh my god Paloma, why did you bother?!?’”

Her most recent plunge into the press’ grubby, excited mitts, was a comment on Beyoncé (who she adores), in which she said it was a shame the Drunk In Love singer markets sex as power when “she’s naturally sexy and she’s naturally intelligent and powerful as a woman without adhering to the male gaze in that way.” Cue a whole lot of bloggers sharpening their claws for some out of context celeb juiciness…

But worrying about offending people isn’t something Paloma wastes much time on. “I think I’m a brave person. I’m willing to endure the consequences of my actions,” she says, adding pragmatically: “You can’t have everyone like you.”

Paloma’s braveness extends to her wardrobe; a cornucopia of haute couture shapes, saturated colours and wefts of shimmering, eye-popping fabric. The last time she visited Cambridge Corn Exchange she tottered out entirely drenched in sequins with art deco arcs of black and gold concealing her arms, swinging shafts of golden light high into the rafters.

Sometimes you can’t help but be more fussed about what she’s wearing, than what she’s singing.

“It’s not really important to me, it’s just part of who I am,” she replies when asked what style means to her. “I’ve always dressed up; my mother brought me up to be very well presented as a kid. She’d lay my outfit out the night before school every day and tell me about the importance of colour coordination.”

So it’s a family trait? “I think it’s because my mum comes from a very poor background and it was quite ingrained her and her family to always come across as worthy because they felt they were lacking in other things.”

“Obviously, that combined with the fact I’m quite a creative person means I come out with quite experimental versions of that,” she says wryly. “I’ve never been the kind of person who’s comfortable not looking nice.”

When you come from a family mainly made up of well-turned out, opinionated women (her dad was out of the picture by the time she was 4), it’s no wonder. “Every time I see my mum and I don’t wear make-up she asks me if I’m well. I’m like mum, I just don’t have any make-up on and she’s like, ‘well you look dreadful,’” Faith cackles.

While the style obsession might have been passed down, Paloma reckons her music career is thanks to pure graft and determination on her part. “I don’t believe in anything being in the blood,” she says. “If it was in my blood, I wouldn’t be a singer. They’ve got no rhythm and no voice between the lot of them my family.”

Thanks goodness she does.

First published by Cambridge Magazine.

Interview: Nick Mulvey: “It’s not a thinking thing, it’s an instinctual thing.”

Hailing from Cambridge and blurring the boundaries between jazz and almost everything else, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey is preparing for the launch of his debut album, First Mind. ELLA WALKER finds out more.

Nick Mulvey’s speaking voice has a constant, restless edge of agitation to it.

His singing voice though is a richly layered wonder that loops and grips and draws you in.

It’s also just one strand of the Cambridge born singer-songwriter’s arsenal of talents and accolades. Now based in Dalston, East London, the multi-instrumentalist (he’s a big fan of all things percussive), is the son of an opera singer and the grandson of a pianist, he’s supported Laura Marling and is lined-up to tour with London Grammar in June; was longlisted for the BBC’s Sound of 2014, has a degree in music from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is just 26-years-old.

Impressive, no? He also started out in Mercury Music Prize nominated jazz group Portico Quartet.

When we speak Mulvey is travelling back from Cornwall where’s he’s been doing his first round of shows with a live band. His solo gigs to date have just involved him expertly picking at an acoustic guitar, but things are beginning to seriously escalate for the bearded musician.

Since releasing his second brilliant, melodic EP Fever to the Form in 2013, he’s gone from echoey gigs in churches (he played the Emmanual United Reform in Cambridge last November), to turning 150 people away at his last Cornish gig this weekend. He’s even deemed cool enough to appear on the Made In Chelsea soundtrack, so there.

Laid back, although sometimes wavering from intense to disinterested, it’s quite a leap considering, musically, he’s notoriously difficult to pin down. “I always find it very difficult to describe my sound because it’s quite limiting putting words on it,” he says thoughtfully. “From my end there’s so much going on, so when someone says ‘put it in a sentence’ it’s like arghh!”

“I definitely don’t have a word for it and to be honest, in this day and age when often reading about music is one click away from just listening to it, I don’t think I need to put it in a sentence anymore. People can just listen.”

It’s a good point. Throwing yourself into YouTube is also helpful when trying to make sense of his influences which are just as tricky to track. There’s the stuff he grew up with, “The Beatles, blues music or great songwriters like Van Morrison,” then his teenage years, pumped with “the hip hop and drum & bass and raves I went to”, submerged in years of electronica, followed by “modern classical music and people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass and minimalist music”, while at the same time he was getting into “pop music from Zimbabwe or ceremonial music from Senegal or lots of Congolese music,”. He also got “really interested in Islamic music and Moroccan music and Egyptian music.”

He sounds like he’s all over the place – how do you distil those influences and find a common ground, unique to you? “Between all this different stuff,” Mulvey muses. “What I like is where hypnotic and texture based repetitive music meets song and song-writing and song-singing.”

The result, after pottering, tinkering and listening to all of that, is his debut full length record, First Mind, out on May 12.

He’s been working on it for more than three years, with a lot of the guitar parts in particular “brewing” while he was still in Portico Quartet and playing the Hang – a steel drum type invention that you rarely see bandied about.

He left the 2008 Mercury Music Prize nominated jazz outfit, whose album Knee Deep in the North Sea lost out to Elbow’s Seldom Seen Kid, in 2011.

“It was a change I needed and wanted to make,” he explains matter of factly. “Even though there are some moments when I miss them, in general it was the right move, it all works out. It was the right move for them as well, they were happy for me to go.”

Despite the months of hard grafting, and the pressure of being up on stage all alone without his former bandmates, Mulvey is more hyped than terrified by the prospect of the album release in two weeks’ time.

“I’m not nervous, I’m really, really excited,” he buzzes. “I’m very proud of it and I feel like I’ve done my best and when you feel like you’ve done your best then it liberates you from being too nervous because it’s like, well, I’ll get what I deserve.”

The name, First Mind, he explains is shorthand for how he develops his music: “I don’t think my way to my music, I feel and play my way to my music. It’s not a thinking thing, it’s an instinctual thing.”

He adds: “I woke up one morning with the fully formed lyric, ‘Why would we ever second guess when we both say the first mind is best,’ and I just really liked that and decided to run with it.”

While Mulvey struggles to pick his favourite track on the record (“You love all your children don’t you?”), his last single Cucurucu seems to have captured audiences, and snagged the most radio airplay. Why does he think that is?

“I don’t know really, maybe because of the very honest and open sentiment of ‘yearning to belong’. People can identify with that,” he says, suddenly getting quite animated. “It’s obviously the setting of quite a famous poem by DH Lawrence [Piano] and the way that poem works is he really sets the scene beautifully. It starts with the speaker hearing a woman in the dusk singing, and that takes him back down through his memory to ‘A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings’. So listeners are really following that line.”

The song is pretty stunning, building so you get caught up in Mulvey’s nonsensical Cucurucu embellishment, which fizzes and soars but leaves you strangely sad.

On why Piano appealed as a starting point, Mulvey explains: “I love poetry, I always have done. It naturally filters in.”

As a musical and literary magpie (in his track Nitrous he also borrows lines from Olive’s 1990s absolute dance classic You’re Not Alone ), who else is currently on his radar?

Mulvey enthuses: “I’m listening to a lot of this guy Arthur Russell. He’s from New York in the 70s and 80s, he was cellist but he also made disco, and it’s very, very interesting music, particularly an album called Calling Out Of Context.”

Scribble that down for next time you want to channel your inner hipster.

When it comes to the last gig he went to though, Mulvey’s mind goes blank, disappearing off the line to ask his girlfriend before remembering he just saw St Vincent play in Paris (how do you forget that?) and to rave about London rapper Kate Tempest, a “very awesome artist” who’s been working with Dan Carey, who produced his album.

Although he won’t be back on home turf until the Cambridge Folk Festival this summer, and he’s all caught up in this debut album business, Mulvey is still working on snippets of new material. “In a way I’m always writing, to be able to do it at all I think you have to do it a bit every day,” he says. “I’ve got lots of new little bits and pieces coming through.”

Hopefully he’ll stay on equally impressive form.

:: First Mind will be released on Monday, May 12, priced £8.99, available from all good record stockists.

First published by the Cambridge News.

Interview: Mark Grist: “People stop me in the street and ask me to insult them.”

Poet, rap battler and all round nice guy Mark Grist goes rogue and returns to Cambridge Junction for a show that’ll make you mind work. ELLA WALKER has a chat with him

Mark Grist is ridiculously inventive.

A former Peterborough teacher turned poet and ethically sound rapper (you won’t find him spouting anything homophobic, misogynistic or racist), Grist has a serious knack for wordplay. Oh, and he ticks all the boxes for charisma, enthusiasm and lyrical speed.

First breaking out in 2012 after teaching teenage grime artist MC Blizzard a thing or two in a rap battle that went viral (it’s clocked more than 4million YouTube views) he spends his time challenging the stereotypes of poetry and hip-hop, visiting poets’ graves and is now bringing his latest show, Rogue Teacher, to Cambridge Junction.

The show, which got rave reviews at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival, revolves around Grist’s life, going from loving so much about being an English teacher, to becoming increasingly frustrated with government policy and the red-taped bureaucracy being lashed across classrooms.

“Eventually, after a lot of telling young people to follow their hearts and use their skills and do everything they ever wanted to do with their lives, I decided I should do the same,” explains Grist, who initially left his teaching post for a year. “The show is this story of leaving the classroom, realising it was actually quite a safe environment and going out into the wide world to try and exist as a poet, facing the kind of gruelling poverty and bizarre series of hoops you have to jump through in order to make a living as an artist.”

The “gruelling poverty” bit is obviously said with a laugh, because Mark Grist is funny. Very funny, and very self-aware, quick to note what makes him and this new, strange existence weird, interesting and appealing.

Because the weirdest thing is, he really did go from teaching GCSE English to rap battling on YouTube. “I accidentally became kind of pseudo famous,” he says in bemusement. That Blizzard rap, which saw him slam the 17-year-old with lines like “don’t start clicking, I know this might look like some kind of extreme babysitting” and “you’d still give yourself a hernia trying to assemble flatpack furniture” while wearing a suit, mind, transformed everything.

“All of a sudden people know me as a rap battler instead of as a poet,” says Grist. “No one’s really that interested in my poetry as such, but people are stopping me in the street and asking me to insult them.”

Rogue Teacher grapples with how that sits with him being a teacher and “whether that contradicts some of the values you originally had.”

Not that he really fits the generic idea of a rap battler. He’s barely sweary, and peppers his vocals with feminism, realism and total sense. Take one of his most popular pieces, Girls Who Read, a takedown of guys who see girls as a collection of body parts to be drooled over: “I want a girl who reads… and the info she gets from what she reads, makes her a total fox”.

Grist explains that he wants to inspire people and make them realise “we don’t really need to do anything that we don’t want to do; it’s quite possible to create our own jobs.”

Not that that isn’t a scary prospect.

“It was terrifying,” he admits, on quitting teaching. “It made me realise how much lots of the little things about your job, and often the things that annoy you, hold you together as a person in a lot of ways.”

Adjusting to the fact he was penning verse rather than marking papers and pointing out uniform misdemeanours, was actually quite a shock. “Routine and the people you encounter day to day at work help shape who you are and help you to feel you are doing something relevant. I suddenly realised I could spend three days in bed, no one would really care. That is quite a different existence and one where I have to try and find ways to feel like it has value.”

Over the last year he’s come to the conclusion he needs to continue working with young people: “I still need to have some kind of educational role because that’s really the way I feeling I’m doing something worthwhile and fulfilling.”

That means working with English departments to help them tackle poetry in different ways and sharing his poetry directly with kids (“I quite like that because if you’re rubbish, then they’ll just tell you you’re rubbish”).

“I definitely find it more nerve-wracking being a poet than being a teacher,” he muses. “My first year of teacher training was pretty much a baptism of fire; I had an awful lot of lessons go horribly wrong.

After five years though, he was ready for a change: “It kind of felt like I was just going through the motions a bit, it was getting quite straight forward and easy. I was part of the furniture, the students didn’t really behave badly for me, there wasn’t a huge amount of challenge left in it.”

Starring in a new Channel 4 documentary series with the fantastic Mr Drew from Educating Essex has definitely given him a challenging element to teaching again. Mr Drew’s School for Boys takes 11 of the most excluded boys in the country and aims to show that no young person should be given up on, and that there are always ways to break the cycle of poor behaviour.

“It’s really challenging, but it’s really exciting as well and it’s probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life,” explains Grist. “Hopefully it will make people realise these families aren’t alone, there’s lots of behaviour that’s stopping children from fully engaging and I think some young people just get written off and we think that can’t be resolved. I hope we show there are ways we can fix aspects of this behaviour.”

From standing in front of kids to taking on MCs, does he ever get tongue tied?

“Loads, actually,” he laughs. “It’s quite easy when you’re reading a poem, you’re just in a routine, and you’re quite safe, it’s when you’ve finished a poem and making your way to the next one, that is where you can get quite tongue tied.”

He adds: “I think now on stage I’m hopefully pretty slick!”

Rogue Teacher won’t be the Peterborough poet laureate’s first starring role at Cambridge Junction. Last October he wowed in the Hollie McNish curated Poets vs Rappers night as part of the Festival of Ideas (McNish is the Cambridge doyenne of spoken word, dontchaknow).

At the time, he finished the night in belly wobbling style talking about what life was like teaching and why poets need more confidence. He was a-mazing.

This time around he’ll once again have the support of Hollie, who’ll be performing too. “I’m very lucky as a poet to be friends with people who are also some of my heroes and I’d class Hollie McNish as one of those people,” Grist enthuses. “I think she’s incredible.”

Other names he recommends for those new to spoken word and page poetry are Luke Kennard, Tim Clare, Luke Wright and new guy Harry Baker (“People will read that list and think they’re just names, but you don’t understand! They’re amazing, search them online, watch them do a thing and you’ll love ‘em!”).

The effect these writers and performers have on him is what Grist aims to emulate for his own audiences.

“I want people to understand that poetry is as much yours as it as anyone else’s,” he buzzes. “I often find that interesting in relation to teenagers because I think teenagers are told what they should be interested in, rather than have a communication about something.

He adds: “It’s a to-ing and fro-ing between me and the audience but it’s one where they know I’m really interested in trying to engage with them.”

Grist’s next project involves even more to-ing and fro-ing, with a whole lot of improvisation thrown in.

Dead Poets Death Match is a show he’s developing for this year’s Fringe with long-time collaborator MC Mixy. The idea is audiences will get to pick from a selection of famous dead poets, learn about them and see them “brought back from the dead” and put up against each other in rap battles “so you can see Sylvia Plath versus Ted Hughes, you can see Larkin versus Sir Walter Raleigh.”

How awesome will that be? We told you Grist was inventive.

Mark Grist on his favourite poem:

I love Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. His retelling of Little Red Riding Hood is still one of my favourite poems. I loved it as a kid, I thought it was brilliant and for me, as a child, that was one of the first moments I realised poetry could be fun and poetry could be for me; it wasn’t something that was reserved for somebody else that I had to rise to a certain level for, but actually it was there for me, and I could enjoy it.

:: Mark Grist: Rogue Teacher, Cambridge Junction, Thursday, May 22 at 8pm. Tickets £13 from (01223) 511511 /

First published by the Cambridge News.