It’s all here. The voice. The music. The theatricality. British singer-songwriter Paloma Faith is a star on the rise. Same Same chatted to the beguiling chanteuse.
Though she was barely 23-years-old when she released her 2009 debut album, Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?, Paloma Faith had already lived several lives.
A dancer, theatre director, burlesque performer, magician’s assistant, salesgirl at luxury lingerie store, Agent Provocateur, and cabaret performer, the titian-haired, gravel-voiced singer’s album was a dark, seductive, blues-suffused set of songs that won her acclaim for its maturity and emotionality.
She sang with the depth and conviction of a woman three times her age, but despite her originality and flair, Faith’s voice was continually compared to that of Amy Winehouse. She wonders, in retrospect, whether the reductive comparison might not have done more harm than good.
Few know, for instance, that Faith actually turned down an opportunity to join Winehouse’s band. And, sure Faith scored a number of UK Top 40 singles and a Top 10 album but, ultimately, she never fully received her due. She remains little known outside of the UK and it’s a shame given how unique and interesting a performer she is.
In a world of blandly forgettable pop starlets, each glibly singing in voices ruthlessly auto-tuned and stripped of any true resonance or power, Faith was and is the real deal. She, like Winehouse, is possessed of a fine, richly nuanced voice that hearkens back to the likes of old-school gospel greats Etta James, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.
Something else that sets Faith apart is her absolute unwillingness to sacrifice her artistic vision for the sake of mainstream success. Though she was signed to an enviable deal with a major record label, Faith was no wallflower when it came to making her artistic ambitions clear in the lead-up to the release of her debut album.
She was, she says, “pretty uncompromising” when it came to her artistic vision and her overall aesthetic. One of the reasons she avoided signing a deal for so long was, she says, because she feared being “changed or molded.”
“I didn’t want to be somebody’s musical doll or plaything. I wasn’t interested in having immediate success, lots of hits, and then not still being around ten years from now. I was bit concerned, I suppose, that signing on the dotted line meant signing away myself,” Faith concedes.
Three years on from her first album, Faith agrees that she is, and always was, a singer/songwriter whose work, both recorded and live, draws heavily on elements of old-world theatricality and stage performance. She pays as much attention to costumes, stagecraft, sets and lighting as she does to ensuring that her voice is in optimum condition.
Just days after the release of her sophomore album – the bluesy and lush Fall to Grace – Faith is in good spirits, though she’s also tired. She apologises for the fact that she yawns often. Each yawn, rather endearingly, is followed by a slightly bawdy giggle and a hushed, “Sorry! Yawned at you again!”
Raised in Hackney, London in a working-class family, Faith says she knew “very early on” that she’d be a performer, but wasn’t immediately drawn to singing. Indeed, she says she spent the first 17 or so years of her life “totally, fully dedicated to dance.”
She was enrolled in dance classes as a very young child “because my mother wasn’t very graceful and had all these terrible memories of having to dance and not being very good at it.” Faith says, with obvious tenderness, that her mother did not want her to suffer from the same embarrassment.
“I was very quiet as a child. At about age seven, my teacher was really concerned about the fact that she didn’t think I could assert myself so she decided to cast me in the school play as the lead character to try and bring my out of myself and it really worked! I played the lead dinosaur. I had to roar a lot and stuff. I loved it and it taught me that if I’m another character, then I’m not shy,” Faith laughs.
“I learned that if I’m someone else, I can have the confidence I need, so being shy wasn’t an issue anymore because I wasn’t being me, you know? I think that experience kind of stayed with me. That sort of liberation from myself, I guess, and I’ve always performed ever since in some sort of capacity.”
At high school, Faith studied drama, art and dance. She later made a “terrible” decision to study dance full-time at university, but concedes that it taught her valuable lessons about following her gut when it came to making life-altering decisions.
“I ended up doing dance at university, yeah, and absolutely hating it. I came out of that really unhappy, wondering what I was going to do and then decided to do a masters degree in theatre. That actually ended up really inspiring me because it taught me about all the possibilities of stage that there are and opened up a whole new world to me,” Faith recalls.
“I’ve done a lot of jobs that people find strange, as I told you earlier, but all my jobs have been part of me looking for my place, I suppose, as a performer. Each of them is a sort of play-acting or pretending and that’s been very important to learn. They’re all steps along the way, you know? There have been times where I didn’t, you know, fully trust my gut on stuff and I learned never to do that again.”