The unflappable and unapologetic Estelle reasserts herself on new album All of Me
'Hiatus' is a dirty word in Estelle Swaray's vocabulary. Although it's been four years since the British singer released her breakthrough album Shine, which contained the feel-good Grammy-winning hit pop single "American Boy" featuring Kanye West, she describes the ensuing years as a whirlwind of songwriting, touring and personal drama.
"Close to 300 records were recorded for this album," she tells MSN Canada over the phone from Los Angeles. "I've learned to work and write within the storm."
The album she's referring to is All of Me (Atlantic), her third. Released in February, it reflects her ability to take on just about any genre -- from R&B and rap to dance-pop, retro soul and rare groove -- and make it work with her sly charm and self-assured delivery.
The tracks are interspersed with jazzy, conversational interludes that intentionally recall Lauryn Hill's seminal 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Estelle's versatility as a singer-rapper is very reminiscent of the former Fugee and so is her seemingly unflappable self-confidence.
For example, she has zero qualms stoking a combative vibe during her shows in an effort to be as real as possible with people. During an invite-only gig held during the Toronto International Film Festival last year, she bluntly chided the "mother***ers over here" in the VIP area for remaining stationary during her set.
When reminded about that gig, she takes the opportunity to readdress the stiffs in the audience that night. "Like, mad people would've loved to been in your spot right now having fun, watching a show," she says. "Enjoy yourself!"
A native of London, she released her debut album The 18th Day in 2004. Three years later, she relocated to New York at the insistence of R&B crooner John Legend, signed to his HomeSchool label and released Shine. When "American Boy" became a top 10 hit in the United States and Canada, her life went into overdrive.
All of Me's hectic recording sessions -- which included a trip to producers Book & Bronze's Toronto studio to work on the song "Cold Crush" -- ended with the break-up of her relationship. Looking back, she now calls the album's themes of heartache and self-love "prophetic."
Let's start with the Canadian connection to the new album. The song "Cold Crush" was produced by Toronto producers Book & Bronze. What do you like about that song?
It felt old school. It had that '80s London rare groove. I used to DJ and some of my girlfriends used to DJ and one of them specifically used to DJ rare groove music and old school soul like Cheryl Lynn and Joanna Gardner -- that kind of vibe.
At first I didn't think it fit the album and then everybody on my team was like, 'Are you crazy? This song is ridiculous!' I'm like OK! OK! OK! Everyone loved the track. So we kept it. It's just a feel good song. It feels warm.
How does it fit in with the rest of the album? In recent interviews, you've said the songs reflect where you were at emotionally in your life as you were putting the album together.
This album's been sort of prophetic... When we were writing "Cold Crush," I was in a real melancholy mood and thinking how it would be so good if there was a real cute guy somewhere on the planet that I wanted to be excited about again. I was having that moment and that's where that song came from. It came true because now I'm single again and I'm having to approach guys because guys are scared to approach me. [laughs]
You've said in the past you like the Common song "Break My Heart," in which he raps about approaching a woman with an unapproachable vibe and then breaking her heart. Your version is about the same subject but from the female's point of view. Is there a connection between the songs?
I think Common did it on the level of, 'I'm a man and I'm going to break your heart' and I did it on the level of, 'I'm a woman and I'm being very honest with you. Please don't break my heart. I know you're saying that you might. I know you're saying you're not perfect and you want all these things from me.'
A lot of men walk into life and think, 'I'm gonna give this little speech to this woman and she's good and I got that.' They don't realize the power of their words. [The response] is actually based on a woman's age, what she might want and what she might not want. It becomes a whole thing when a man's approaching a woman. People should pay attention to that. [My song] is a little more like, 'Yo I know you're a man, but I'm letting you know what I can and cannot deal with. Please don't f*** with me.' [laughs] It's that kind of energy.
So that's the energy you like to put out there when you're single?
Oh yeah. Well, that's the only energy I can put out there because I have no patience for -- in the words of Amy Winehouse -- f***ery. I have no energy for it.
What type of energy do you like to project when you're performing on stage?
I've never been the girl that's like, 'OK, I'll just go with whateva' -- too scared of offending a guy or too scared of being truthful to a man. I don't believe in that. I believe in you are who you are. You get one life. I'm not gonna pretend for the sake of somebody else's feelings, especially when I'm not married to them or invested in them. Nah! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. [laughs] This is who I am. It's not an act when I get on stage. It's very real.
What are some memorable shows? Do you have to deal with a lot of rowdy audiences?
Oh yeah, all the time! It's a consistent thing because I talk to the audience and some of them will say some things back... You got to let people know that they can't throw s*** at people just because they're on stage. It doesn't work like that -- not with me. Part of the entire experience of my show is having a conversation and talking to people because, as much as we may have an extraordinary ability to sing and make music, we still go through life. If I work out too hard, my muscles are going to be cramped because this is the human body. It's just like everybody else's.
You also have a conversational vibe on the album with the skits between the songs that recall The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which you also reference directly in the lyrics.
That was absolutely intentional. When me and my friends sit down and talk about things, we talk like, 'Yo, he was so amazing or this girl's on some bulls***.' Or, 'Yo, I took her out and this happened; or man, I'm not trying to dig that action.' It gets that real. I wanted to have those conversations because everything's an extreme or everything's in black or white or pigeonholed or in a box and nothing's in a box, and nothing's an extreme and nothing's black or white. It's all grey.
How do you feel about the state of Top 40 music? It's obviously shifted away from rock and toward pop and dance music and a lot of critics say that the messages are more black and white and that it doesn't reflect the grey areas in life.
It goes around every three years. One genre will be poppin' and win all the awards this year and another genre will be poppin' and win all the awards in the next three years. It does that in cycles -- I've noticed that about the charts and the industry and that's fine. You have to give everybody a chance and to rotate. It all feeds each other. There's never a rock song out without an R&B influence or a song without a rock influence or a pop influence. Pop is just popular music. To me it's all grey.
Before you put out the record you released a mixtape with a song on it called "Revolution." On that song you talk about being British and living in the United States and you talk about people that make assumptions based on your accent. What kind of reaction have you had from people in the U.S?
Again, people are used to putting things in boxes and you get people that have come along in the last year in their job and try and tell you who you are. Meanwhile, they were probably interning or working in a chip shop when your first album came out. They have no clue about what they're doing. All of a sudden we're doing a record and they're telling you who you are. You're like, hold on did you even ask me? Do you know where I'm from? Wait a sec? Did you know that I had my own record label [Stellar Ents]? Did you know I was the only girl that had her own record label for a period of time when that was poppin' when no one had their record label? Did you know any of that? No? So don't undermine me for one song on half a record. Don't do that because I'm this small black girl that was hyped from London. It doesn't work like that. It's just a re-education and having to re-educate people on who I am and what I've done in order to get where I'm going. It's been a long road.
Are you at a place in your career where you don't have to prove yourself anymore?
I've never felt like I had to prove myself. I think it was everybody else around me that felt like they needed to tell me I had to prove myself. And I was like, well that's on you. You take that into consideration in your head. I'm gonna keep on doing what the hell I'm doing. [laughs] I've never been that girl that's like, "I'm gonna show you!" I don't do this for the critics. I do it for the fans and the people that come to my show because that's where I have fun. I write from my life experience; it's about proving to myself that I'm a good human being at every step of the way.
What were the main challenges in recording All of Me?
The main challenge is staying one place long enough to see an idea come to fruition. It was a challenge because I've been away for 250 days out of the year, sometimes close to 260. In the next two weeks, we're going to Dubai and Russia in the space of seven days, for a day each, and then I get back and then I rehearse and I get on the road for a month in Europe and the U.K. I don't stop. It really is not a joke.
Are there any songs on the new record that you're particularly proud of?
"Back to Love" was my favourite. It's the first one I wrote for the album and it set the tone. I start my albums with a title versus just recording a bunch of music. Shine was the only album that was named by somebody else. All of Me and 18th Day started by being named by me first.
["Back to Love"] set the entire tone for the album, for my life and what my life would end up being for the next three years after recording that. And it sure as hell turned out to be me falling back in love with myself again.
Are you always working on new music or do you need to be in the right headspace to write?
I've learned to work a bit more efficiently so I've been writing my a** off and it's been turning out good. I think I have a new album already.
Can you tell me anything about it?
Not yet. Not yet. Not yet! Not yet! Not yet! [laughs]
Who are you collaborating with?
I always go back to my foundation, Jerry "Wonda" Duplesis. I definitely worked with Jerry "Wonda" and few new producers. But we'll see.