Estelle has just completed a mini UK tour supporting Kanye West but responds like a giggly teenager at the drop of his name – she’s so content right now that she may not have had the time to take in quite how massive an achievement that very tour is. “Trendsetter, diva, visionary, nice person, musician” is how she’d described herself in five words or less (OK, she cheated a bit) – and when Gigwise speaks to the songstress, she comes across as all of these things and more.
In the past few years, West London-born Estelle Swaray uprooted to New York City, ditched her old label V2 Records and in the process has made a new album featuring what can only be described as the A-list. ‘Shine’, out at the end of February, features Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Wyclef Jean, Will.i.am, Mark Ronson and Cee-Lo. And not only that, but she’s now signed to Homeschool, a newish label owned by John Legend, another collaborator and long-term fan. Legend himself describes her as “a unique blend of hip hop, pop, reggae and soul…a special voice”, and this is certainly ever true in her new material which sees her exercising her vocal chords through new foils, and creating a unique identity for herself as “a strong, pretty vulnerable woman that’s pretty much everybody”.
We chat to Estelle just after the penultimate night of her tour with Kanye to find out what she thinks of the tabloid press, what her influences are, and establish that she’d choose a book over a film, love over lust, and is non-committal when asked to choose between sight and sound, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and the UK and the US.
On the fact that she’s being touted as a breakthrough artist so long after she first entered the scene, Estelle sees it as an opportunity rather than a misinterpretation: “I keep breaking through because they keep thinking that I’m done. Being the first rap girl to come through on a mass scale and then obviously doing it again in the US…no-one expected it to go there so they keep using ‘breakthrough’ which is cool.”
Touring with Kanye West has given Estelle a huge opportunity to get her name out there, and the artist certainly wasn’t daunted by playing large venues, despite being equally at home in small jazz cafés. In fact, this is her second large-scale tour, the first time around supporting John Legend. So how has she found the audiences? “The reception’s been amazing, I didn’t expect people to have a memory so good, to show as much love as they did the first time around… People are like ‘I wanna see you, I wanna hear you’… they came really early.”
Her debut album ‘The 18th Day’ was released in 2004 to widespread critical acclaim, and saw Estelle receive various tips for the top, which to an extent she achieved. Fickleness of the UK audience meant that her three-year hiatus left her forgotten, but she’s just released lead track and Will.i.am collaboration ‘Wait A Minute (Just A Touch)’, which is infectious, intense, immediate, and should lead to her being one of the biggest stars of 2008. Estelle couldn’t be happier with her sound, and is extremely excited about the release of Shine in Febrary. “It’s completely recorded, ready, done. There’s so many great people on the album… I’m just so happy.” She reveals to Gigwise that the next single to be released will be ‘American Boy’, featuring Kanye West himself, and says that “it’s going to be hot next year.”
Estelle comes across as down-to-earth, in complete creative control, and driven to the extent that she is furious to deny unscrupulous rumours that the only reason she was signed to Homeschool was because she was sleeping with John Legend. “You know, people can say what they want, if I worried about that I wouldn’t be here right now. But I do find it slightly annoying because they don’t know how hard I’ve worked, y’know? So I just keep doing what I do and make it relevant, just putting my art out there and so that kind of irritates me…it’s discounted everything I’ve done as an artist.” And she certainly has worked extremely hard to get to where she’s at, coming from a strictly religious Senegalese/Granadan family who banned secular music in the house.
When asked about her writing process, and whether she’s detached from her influences (“I’m a real old school soul fan but now I’ve been digging into old school pop music… The Beach Boys and The Kinks and stuff like that. And of course, Kanye’s album.”), Estelle says she is far from disconnected and starts with “a certain type of beat” and “it just fits”. And it seems to come so effortlessly to the 27-year-old, whose songs are laden with hooks, groove, instant lyrics and unforgettable melodies.
All of this talent, and we’ve only reached the second album. So where does Estelle see herself long-term? Would she ever do a Prince and release an album just for the love of music? “I think I would if I didn’t need the money! If I was as rich as they are and I had no reason to do it and I did music for the love then I probably would go for free albums. But at this point in time, where this is something I love and this is something I get to work to do, I think I’ll keep releasing them for sale!”
The amount of big names that Estelle has attracted haven’t changed her, and 2008 is all set to be a fantastic year – she displays a grit in both her lyrics and personality (if the two can be distinguished) which means that as well as getting the publicity she deserves through the collaborators, she’s coy and clever enough not to let the glitz overshadow her unique talent. “I feel pressure on myself to be as real as I possibly can, y’know? People will love you, like you, understand you for what you are… as long as you’re real. People are pretending ‘I’m righteous’ and all that I’m just like ‘why are you doing this?’ it just gets really wrong really quick.“ And the funny thing is, we completely and utterly believe her.