Stepping out as a solo artist back in 2009, it was immediately and abundantly clear that Paloma Faith was the complete (and petite) package.
A captivating chanteuse, a rabble-rousing entertainer and theatrical fashion chameleon, Faith’s debut album, ‘Do You Want the Truth, or Something Beautiful?’ remains a glossy collection of retro-referencing soul and sassy pop.
From the brass-blasted stomp of ‘Stone Cold Sober’, to the epic sweep of her biggest chart hit ‘New York’, the record went on to sell over half a million copies, earning Faith a nomination for Best British Female at the Brit Awards and the honour of closing the 2011 ceremony singing with Cee-Lo Green. At the behest of Chaka Khan, Faith performed ‘I’m Every Woman’ in front of 50,000 people and earned plaudits from Annie Lennox, who selected Faith join her onstage in support of International Women’s Day.
So much more than just a standard pop artist, one of this 26-year-old’s greatest assets is her wicked and wry sense of humour, she’s outspoken and unafraid: she has an opinion. As an artist she pulls from a wide range of sources, her experiences diverse. With a degree in contemporary dance and a Masters in Time Based Arts from Central St Martin’s, Faith is tri-lingual (English, Italian, and conversational Spanish), and a talented actress to boot (she played the romantic foil to Tom Waits’ Devil in the Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus’). You’re as likely to find Faith on the red carpet or on the fashion front row as judging London’s Next Top Tranny at the local working men’s club.
Now as Faith flips the page and writes the next chapter of her story, this Hackney-born girl is keen to express a new level of intimacy with her music. That’s not to say she lost any of her sartorial and performance panache, but Faith’s focus is on her songwriting. On her new, second album ‘Fall To Grace’, she’s made the decision to strip herself emotionally bare.
“At the beginning I wanted to do something that was more of a performance and I still have that element because it is part of me,” she explains, “but I feel like where I’ve been most successful is when I’ve just relaxed and been myself. I feel totally, wholeheartedly behind this album. I feel like it belongs to me and I belong to it.”
Recorded in 2011 with the help of producers Nellee Hooper (Madonna, Massive Attack, Bjork) and Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran), Faith arrived at a crossroads, not in the studio, but during time spent with none other than Prince, who handpicked Faith to perform at NPG Music and Arts Festival in Copenhagen last summer.
“I wasn’t just supporting him, he was teaching me,” says Faith. “He made me watch all the other acts and gave me little lessons. I was completely bowled over. It began as, let’s do a gig, and it turned into spending the weekend with Prince. That was a real turning point for me. I was in the middle of writing the new record and when I left for the festival I felt I’d got to the top of a certain ladder, but when I went home I felt like I was on the bottom of a new ladder. It was scary because I’m at the bottom of something, but I felt that with his encouragement, I could go out there and achieve something.”
On record Faith takes the reigns, moving away from the reference points that characterised her first record – Etta James, Billie Holiday – guiding her compositions into a new, contemporary realm. Collaborating with songwriters such as Ed Harcourt, Matt Hales (Lianne La Havas), Dan Wilson (Adele), Wayne Hector (Britney, Westlife), and even film score composer David Arnold (countless James Bond films,Independence Day,Narnia), ‘Fall To Grace’ is sonically varied, but completely cohesive. From the disco throb of ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ and the giddy dance-pulse that runs through ‘Agony’, to ‘Freedom’ (produced and co written by Al Shux), with its shuffled beats and soaring peaks, Faith’s vocals offer bluesy power and reveal husky emotion.
Backed by spectacular strings and gospel singers, lead single ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ finds Faith exploring the struggle of living with the shadow of a lover’s ex, while ‘Black & Blue’ is peppered with astute social observations. On the twinkling pop of ’30 Minute Love Affair’, she recounts a true experience, a fleeting meeting with a busker in London’s Leicester Square when she was just fourteen. “I asked him if he’d be there the next day and he said he would. When I went back he was gone and I’ve never forgotten it.”
But for Faith, ‘Just Be’ is the album’s crown jewel. “It’s supposed to be a realistic love song for real lovers,” she explains. “It’s saying, ‘He gets on my nerves, but I love him.’ I find that more endearing than, ‘There’s no one out there but him.’ That seems naive. I have a lot of admiration for people who’ve been in relationships a long time, married for years. This is a more knowing take on romance.”
Of the album’s title Faith takes the well-worn phrase, “fall from grace” and with ‘Fall To Grace’, gives it a positive twist. “It’s a journey and I think it’s hopeful, so I wanted to fall to grace rather than from,” she explains. “I’m taking bad things that have happened and letting them turn me into a more complete person. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that inevitably, when anything bad happens to you in life, you always lose a bit of yourself, but then you heal over. In hindsight, even though you’ve lost something, you become stronger. I feel more equipped.”
She adds: “I like the fact that in old songs when people used to sing about heartache there was a real romance in it. I feel like that’s lost in contemporary music, like everyone’s so abrupt: ‘this is terrible’, or ‘this is brilliant!’ It seems so clear cut. So I wanted to bring some of that old-style back – tears can be beautiful. ‘The Beauty of the End’ is about ending a relationship, but indulging in the romance of what you had. I find it strange that people often demonise exes. Unless an ex has done a dreadful, terrible unforgivable thing, I feel like a lot of the time you just go your separate ways and that’s okay. This song is about saying I love you but we’re not going to be together and this is better for both of us. The accompanying string arrangement (arranged by Guy Barker) is kind of like Dr Dre meets Fellini.”
From the off Faith has always been meticulous in mapping the visual imagery to accompany her music, be they videos, photographs or set design. Ever the film fan, Faith looks on this second record as the union of her first two loves: film and music. It’s the soundtrack to her life. “I wanted it to be a homage to film, for everything to look and feel and sound like it was part of a movie.”
There are nods to her favourite film directors Wong Kar Wai and Federico Fellini, traces of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and even Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. “It’s visually very saturated and emotional,” she says. “I’m crying in a lot of the photographs because I was looking at all those iconic images of Marilyn Monroe when she’s about to go onstage and I was trying to make everything look like it was pre-mask. This idea that for me, the show is I’m smiling, I’m always prepared, but before that there’s always real life. All the imagery that I’ve art directed is about capturing that moment of reality and vulnerability before the show begins.”
Of course where these songs, and Paloma Faith, truly come alive is onstage. It’s before an audience that every aspect of her vision is fully realised. It’s in the live delivery that Faith connects with her audience.
“A lot of people write songs because they want to record them in a studio, they want put their feelings out there,” she says. “I don’t write songs for that reason: I write songs so I can perform them.”
Fall To Grace is released on May 28.