Becoming a parent transformed Paloma Faith’s outlook on the world and added a political edge to her new album, with songs about the refugee crisis, Brexit and domestic violence wrapped in her distinctive pop sound. It was important I didn’t write about myself, she tells Janet Christie
If you were in a park in London today and saw a woman with a baby, talking to her offspring about trees and holding out its chubby fist to stroke one, it could well have been chart-topping singer Paloma Faith. Known for her album success – the Winner of the British Female Solo Artist Award in 2015 is the only British female artist apart from Adele to have three platinum albums – and as a judge on TV talent show The Voice, she gave up her spinning red chair to become a mother last year. Now with her baby aged ten months, she’s back with a new album, The Architect, released on Friday and an arena tour, which comes to Scotland in March.
“My intention is to get my child to notice things, to look outward and be aware of the world,” she says. “So when we go to the park I take the baby out and stop in front of the tree, talk about the tree and get the baby out of the pushchair and say ‘touch the tree’, stuff like that. I see people bustling through life, but I try and stop and explain why things are the way they are – even though the baby doesn’t necessarily get it. And touching things gently is important, so if we see a dog I will say ‘can we just borrow your dog for a moment’ and we stroke it gently.” Faith laughs, she’s long used to people thinking she’s a little eccentric and she doesn’t care because she reckons she has a great role model in her own mother, a primary school teacher for 45 years.
“I feel like I was raised in an amazing way and if I could be near as good a mum as mine, then I’ll be pleased,” she says.
Faith’s approach to parenting is thoughtful, now that she’s embarked on a journey she’s been itching to start for the past decade. She and her child’s father, French artist Leyman Lahcine, favour a non-gendered approach and apart from confirming the child’s age, when asked about gender or name, Faith politely demurs with a “we’re not really talking about that.” She doesn’t rush to soapbox about it, but when it comes to her fourth album, she’s more than happy to talk about her more political approach.
This morning Faith is all chirp and charm, her voice higher in speech than the powerful instrument that blasts out bombastic lows and soaring highs. Born and raised in Hackney and Stoke Newington, her accent is all “summink and nuffink”, she’s open and friendly and laughs a lot. And she’s very happy with her new album.
With videos for the singles Cry Baby and Guilty filmed in Ukraine and featuring a dystopian future where emotion and empathy are forbidden, this is her most political yet. It’s as if parenthood has awakened a protective instinct about the society we live in and she’s moved beyond writing about love and relationships. There are songs about Brexit, the refugee crisis, racism, domestic violence, motherhood, Trump and social anxieties.
“It feels fulfilling to do summink not so much about myself,” she says. “While I had time off I was listening to all the music I love and was brought up listening to, and realised none of my favourite songs of all time are love songs. So I was thinking about the artists I admire and what they had in common, and I felt times had changed. I feel like I have people listening so I’m going to use my voice for doing good.
“Nina Simone said you have a duty as an artist to speak about things happening in the world around you. I’m not ONLY going to sing about what’s going on around me, I’m going to mix it up, but for this album it was important I didn’t write all about myself. I’d done that and got bored with my own joy,” she says.
If Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and Tina Turner were childhood heroes that she listened to growing up, this album was directly influenced by Marvin Gaye.
“I love his What’s Going On album. His label didn’t want him to put it out because it was too critical about Vietnam, but actually it’s a love album. That really inspired me, the idea that there’s a slim line between love and politics, and kindness and compassion. I think if politicians operated from a more emotionally aware perspective, things would run better. That’s what I stand for and I’ve tried to make a love album, without it being about romantic love. It’s supposed to be about kindness,” she says.
Faith comes across as disarmingly modest about her platinum-selling status and of her new album says: “I’m pleased about it because I feel like it’s better than the last.” Bear in mind that the success of 2014’s A Perfect Contradiction, with the lead single Only Love Can Hurt Like This selling over half a million copies and 55 million streams on Spotify, swept her to Brit Award fame, but for Faith that’s no guarantee of a continued upward trajectory.
“I always feel like the next one’s the one that’s going to be the ruination of my career,” she says.
“I start thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to do if this doesn’t work?’”.
She’s got to be kidding. She’s got four platinum albums – isn’t it a bit irrational to fear it might bomb?
“I don’t think it is irrational in this current music climate because look at some of the massive artists that came out at the same time as me – like Duffy, where’s Duffy? I don’t think anything’s guaranteed, everything’s changing. With this album, Spotify is the most powerful thing on the planet now, and I don’t have a Spotify following, so I am literally trying to build it now.”
Where Faith does have form is live gigs, something she’s looking forward to with the album tour, which brings her back to Scotland in March.
“Performing live, it’s the only reason I do this job!” she says. There’s something about it that makes you feel very alive, having to deal with the moment. I love seeing people’s faces and the instant feedback. There’s also the concept of human fallibility and I like when things go a bit wrong. People don’t remember the perfect gigs, the memorable ones are the not perfect ones.”
She recalls one in Germany at what she calls a “small capacity venue, about 2,000 people” where a power failure cut the lights and sound. “It was small enough to sing without a microphone and lights so we kept going with acoustic instruments and made everyone sit on the floor and light their phones up. It was magic, totally magic. And no-one wanted a refund because they felt like they’d shared a special moment.”
With the album released it’s time to hit the road again, and this time the baby will be coming too as Faith performs for the first time in Aberdeen and her beloved Glasgow.
“I love Scotland, I think it’s my favourite place to play,” she says.
“Yeah, of all the places, absolutely. Especially Glasgow. Because the people know how to have a really good time, everyone singing, and they give you so much back. It’s got a special place in my heart. Also, I’m obsessed by Nicola Sturgeon,” she says. “I wish I could vote for her to be prime minister of the UK, but she’s not in my constituency. I tweeted that once and loads of awful UKIP people had a go, oh the hatred that ensued.” She laughs. “That’s the problem with politics,” she says, “which is why I usually try not to ally myself with anyone. But I got overwhelmed with love for Nicola.”
We can expect a new look from Faith too when she hits the road, as along with her political progression, her eccentric retro style has segued into a more Seventies vibe.
“That era lends itself to pregnancy,” she says. “Your hair grows long and thick, the clothes flow and you don’t wear much make-up. It’s less maintenance than 1940s – always having to do your hair in rollers is a pain. At the moment I just wash my hair, slap on minimal make-up, do a sort of earth mother look and I’m ready to go.
“Before I was so worried about being super thin and was at times too thin. People around me could see I was eating next to nothing and should have said ‘you’re really body dysmorphic and you need to sort this out’. Obviously I don’t want to be huge, but I feel being healthy is more important than being thin, so I can look after the baby. And it looks nicer too. I look younger now I’ve got some fat filling out my lines.”
At what age did the young Paloma first realise she could sing?
“35.” She laughs. Last year.
“I never really felt I was a proper singer. I always felt like I was a sort of impersonator of a singer for a long time. You can even listen to my first album and hear it, that I wasn’t very good then. I’ve learned later in life and on the job.
“And this is going to sound mad, but I feel like I can sing better now I’ve had a baby, that something’s changed in my body. My lung capacity is bigger and I feel more alive and stronger, more enduring, and that’s affected my voice and opened something up in my brain that’s saying ‘you can’. Before there was a ‘you can’t’, an almost physical inability.
“Songs I used to find difficult aren’t any more. But I do feel this album is a challenge singing-wise, because I’ve got some big songs on there. Yeah, I might have shot myself in the foot there.” She laughs.
“Anyway, a lot of people have commented on how my voice sounds worlds apart from the first album. It’s to do with experience and hard work I think.”
Born in Hackney in 1981, Paloma Faith Blomfeld – she dropped the surname “well, it’s not very attractive is it?” – daughter of a primary school teacher and a graphic designer, who separated when she was two, is used to hard work.
“That’s all I ever saw. My mother was majorly hardworking and I’d go to my dad’s at the weekends and he’d be up till 2am, 3am working. I think it’s to do with the fact my dad came to this country as an immigrant and my mother was from a very poor background. They’ve had it instilled in them that the only way they could escape their reality was by working hard and trying to achieve. That’s the only way to be that I’ve ever seen. In some ways, I need to do the opposite, work less, because it’s not healthy to be that obsessed,” she says.
After school Faith studied dance at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, then theatre at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Funding herself with cabaret singing, life modelling and magician assisting (Was she ever cut in half? “Of course, but it’s kind of boring sitting waiting in that box”), she caught the attention of a record label and her first album Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? was released in 2009. As well as three other albums, she’s had parts in films, St Trinian’s, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Peter and Wendy, and acting is something she’d like to explore more.
“I’d love to, but I don’t think my agent’s getting me enough auditions. Also, I’m not sure whether I’m very good at it! But we’ll see.” She laughs.
As Faith says, she was already on her soapbox when she began writing her new album, and had written the title track The Architect, from the point of view of “Mother Nature, or God, or whatever you choose to believe in disappointed in humanity because we’ve been given everything and destroyed it,” she says. “So I was working on it with that title, then became pregnant and had a really strong sense of creating a new life, so it felt very appropriate.”
Becoming a parent has made Faith more political, although she grew up in a politically aware household anyway.
“I was raised on the protest trail of Thatcher’s Britain and I remember being a little kid in my pushchair shouting, you know… ‘Maggie, Maggie, whatever it was...
“Out, out, out?”
“Yeah! Out, out, out! It was really fun, cos I was a toddler. And now I feel like there’s a natural thing that kicks into place in parenthood where you’re looking out for danger and increase your concern about the world around you, because you are more worried about your child than you are about yourself.”
Of all the issues vexing Faith today, the most pressing is Trump. “Donald Trump and his ego!” she says, “With this guy from Korea cos they’re gonna potentially use their egos to plunge us all into a living hell based on complete stubbornness and ridiculousness. But I haven’t written a song directly about that. The album’s more about human qualities I feel are going amiss: empathy, kindness and compassion.”
Faith is more specific in skewering Brexit, however, with the single Guilty reflecting on the vote from the perspective of a Leave voter who regrets their choice.
“It’s an important issue for me,” she says. “I’m Spanish as well as British, so I feel very European and it’s never made sense not to be in the EU. My upbringing, culturally, has been majorly mixed: I have family in Italy and speak Italian, my dad’s Spanish, mum’s British, my step-father’s Chinese, my child’s dad is French Algerian, I mean I couldn’t be more culturally diverse if I tried! So when things like this happen and people start going on about not wanting to mix, I find it shocking. It’s like ‘oh, we still have people who think like that’.”
This time round, as well as getting political, Faith has also developed in terms of wanting to branch out musically, collaborating with the likes of Sia, John Legend, Jesse Shatkin, TMS, Starsmith, Tobias Jesso Jr, Eg White, Rag’n’Bone Man and on spoken-word contributions from Hollywood actor Samuel L Jackson and political journalist and activist Owen Jones.
“Samuel L Jackson is a really kind, amazing man, but quite foreboding. He commands the room and is charismatic... everything you’d imagine. I mean, I’m sure he doubts himself constantly, because you’d have to, to be a good actor, but I didn’t get that sense. I felt very secure around him.
“When I first started I thought I might only ever make one record in my entire life so I wanted to make it by myself, whereas now it feels really nice to see what different people bring out of you. It’s a challenge when you work with people you really respect and think are better than you.
“It’s good for you to progress and learn and yeah… life shouldn’t ever be stagnated.” n
Paloma Faith’s new album The Architect, on RCA Records, is out on Friday. She plays the BHGE Arena, Aberdeen on 5 March, 2018 and The SSE Hydro, Glasgow, on 6 March, tickets from gigsandtours.com