January 20 2012: In late 2007, Estelle sat in the freezing cold on the balcony of her Brentford home and screamed at God. Why, she wanted to know, was she in limbo? In 2004 she had been talked of as the British MC ‘most likely to challenge the mainstream’ and had a top 20 hit with the brilliantly energetic R&B track ‘1980’. And then she was dropped by her record label. ‘No one wanted to take a risk on me. They were more used to a woman rapping on the sidelines, not being in control and at the centre of it all,’ she shrugs. Ahead of her time in her desire to bring urban music to the mainstream, she found herself between record deals, her future uncertain.
But God must have been listening. By the spring of 2008 she was celebrating an international hit from her second album Shine: ‘American Boy’, produced by will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas and featuring vocals from Kanye West. Catchy as hell, from London to LA it seemed to be playing on every radio, in every shop, in every taxi, on every dancefloor. ‘God have mercy! I love that song. It was a juggernaut. After that my life went from 0 to 60. I’ve sung it every day for the past four years in some capacity. People walk straight up to me and ask me to sing it. I’m everyone’s personal karaoke machine. But I won’t complain. It’s the kind of song you dream of having.’
Estelle is not the type to take no for an answer. Back in 2007, instead of giving up on music, she decided to break America. Here she was, the kid with the big voice who grew up in a council flat in Hammersmith with her seven siblings and single mother, who learned to belt out a tune at church every Sunday, who wasn’t allowed to go out at night alone until she was 17.
Estelle’s parents split up when she was seven and all the kids stayed with her mother (her parents got back together eight years ago: ‘It was the freakiest thing on the planet. It just proves anything can happen’). When she talks about her childhood – lots of siblings, one parent, little spare cash – she is lacking in self-pity and full of admiration for her mother. ‘She would make us responsible but she also let us be kids. I took it upon myself to be proactive with my homework. I was smart. I was the kid in class who was always talking and yet would still get all the answers right. I didn’t get As for my GCSEs, but I definitely got Bs, Cs and Ds.’
There was talk at one point of Estelle training to be a lawyer, but her heart wasn’t in it. All she could think of was music. She left school with a GNVQ in media and communication and worked for a website, reviewing gigs, and in a record shop. She rapped on tracks with British producers and rappers, released music on her own label and was signed to Richard Branson’s V2 label.
The ‘little black girl from the ghetto’, as Estelle refers to herself, was determined to be a star. So when, having made the move to America, she spotted Kanye West on the sidewalk outside a restaurant in Manhattan, she had the chutzpah to walk right up to him.
Wasn’t she nervous? ‘No. I’d been working with a producer in Los Angeles and it hadn’t been going well. So I flew to New York and listened to Kanye West’s ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing: The Official Mixtape’ in my hotel room. Then I went out for a walk and saw him in a fricking restaurant. I prayed to God for him to come out. And he did. We chatted. I said, “I love you. I also want to meet John Legend; I want to work with him.” Kanye told me that John was inside, eating.’
West gave Estelle his number and invited her to his studio. When she turned up Legend was there, too. ‘He was probably wondering who this random British girl was. We chatted about music, I rapped a bit. I gave John a CD of my first album, The 18th Day, and told Kanye that I had to go; I couldn’t be a groupie. Seriously. I’ll never be the girl who’s dancing naked in an R&B video. I won’t get my tits out to sell music. Never.’
Estelle, who’s just turned 32, is demolishing a pile of chocolate biscuits and bouncing around on a sofa. She’s just flown in from New York, where she has lived for four years now, and is battered by jet lag. And yet her energy levels put everyone else in the room (including her American manager and British record company rep) to shame. She can’t keep still. Talk of keeping her breasts hidden makes her leap up and stand in front of the mirror. She stares at her reflection: grey sweatshirt, grey leather skinny trousers, black biker boots. ‘My family are all butt-heavy so I was fairly sure I’d get an arse. Not too much of an arse, though.’ She slaps her perfect bottom with enthusiasm and then grabs both breasts. ‘I used to wear baggy clothes to hide them. Then I decided I’d better show them off before I hit 30 and they started to droop.’
Once Estelle has flopped back on to the sofa, I ask what happened once she left Kanye’s studio. She grins, her lips a slash of red lipstick. ‘John Legend emailed to say he loved my record and he ended up executive-producing my second album. Now we’re really good friends. I call him Brother John. He’s cool as hell. I’ve worked with John, Kanye, will.i.am and Cee Lo and there’s consistent love and respect with these guys. That’s all I ever wanted; I certainly never wanted to be the best of friends with them.’ Although she has struck up a friendship with honorary Londoner Kelly Rowland.
Estelle became a star with ‘American Boy’. And then she disappeared. What happened? She slaps her leather-clad thighs. ‘I needed some space. Plus I never like my records to be lazy; I always want to invent and be new. I have to have something to write about. I don’t just get given a bunch of songs and perform them. I couldn’t do that. I have to give my songs my everything, my heart and soul.’
Yet her new single, the jazzy, Mary J Blige-influenced ‘Thank You’, was written by Akon. She heard the song in the studio and responded so intensely to the heartbreak lyrics that she had to have it for herself. ‘My heart started pounding. My chest hurt. And guess what? Two weeks later I broke up with this guy. And now I can’t sing it without crying. It’s my life. It’s a mess.’ She pauses, brimming with tears. ‘I’ve never cried on stage before. But every time I sing ‘Thank You’ the tears are ready to come. I’m not going to do that ugly face in public. OK, I am…’
Estelle was working on her new album, All of Me, when she broke up with her boyfriend of three years. It’s not a heartbreak album as such – with its smoochy vocals and flawless production it’s got more of a soulful late-night feel – but ‘Thank You’ and ‘Wonderful Life’ are heartfelt love songs. They certainly reflect her refusal to be defeated by anything, especially men.
I tentatively ask about the ex-boyfriend. She says he’s a keyboard player but won’t offer a name or confirm if he used to play in her band. Other-wise she is surprisingly frank. ‘When I first met him I asked him not to mess with me. I asked him to be 100 per cent with me. Please! Three years down the line he did the exact opposite.’ Her eyes flash with tears again. Her voice is croaky. ‘So ‘Thank You’ is about growing up, turning into a woman and not being bitter. Not being angry at myself for choosing the wrong guy.’
She sniffs and reaches for a biscuit. ‘My American friends – an actress, a glasses designer, a school teacher and my homegirl – came round and physically held me up. They took me bowling. I didn’t have a chance to cry; they wouldn’t let me. They kept telling me I did too good by him. “You’ve left him; f*** him!” ’
And now she’s fighting off the men. ‘I’ve never been that girl the dudes flock around. I’ve always been awkward and weird and skinny. My mum calls me every day and often says she can’t believe what I’ve achieved; she remembers me as this shy, tired, timid child. But all of a sudden I’m attracting models. The break-up is over!’ Is she trusting of men, after feeling let down by her last boyfriend? She roars with laughter. ‘I might have to prepare a ten-page questionnaire for each potential lover to answer. Otherwise I’m going to end up that girl who gets hurt again, gets depressed and starts drinking. And no one wants that to happen. It’d be a mess.’
Although Estelle is now settled in New York, she comes to London to see family and friends every couple of months. How has the capital changed in the four years since she left? ‘All the artists who were underground are now superstars, from Tinie Tempah to Professor Green. It’s just brilliant. Every time I see them they say, “You did so much for us. You went to America and proved a British artist can make it.” I always feel so humbled.’
I ask if she feels her life is, at times, scripted – not many struggling singers would bump into Kanye West, have the nerve to chat him up and end up working with him on a number one record. She jumps up and waves her arms around wildly. ‘It really does feel scripted. I might even have to get a tattoo saying “Divinely Orchestrated”.’
Estelle will probably never repeat the success of ‘American Boy’, but she doesn’t seem to mind; she says she feels no pressure even to make a comeback. ‘I just keep reminding myself of the winter of 2007, sitting in my house in Brentford, damn near broke. I only had enough money to pay the next instalment of my mortgage. After that, who knows? But I prayed to God and he came through for me.’
She wraps herself up in a bright red coat and, before heading off into the night, is contem-plative for a moment. ‘I have a real strong sense of God and Jesus walking with me. For that reason alone I’m unshakeable.’ ES
The single ‘Thank You’ is out on 27 February; the album All of Me is out on 5 March