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A Quietus Interview

For Whom Debelle Tolls: The Return Of Speech
Simon Jay Catling , January 17th, 2012 12:26

Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle returns next month with her second album, Freedom Of Speech. Simon Jay Catling speaks to her about the pressures of sudden exposure and the life experience that's informed the next phase of her musical development

Talvin Singh, Ms. Dynamite… Speech Debelle? The South London rapper’s debut album Speech Therapy largely fared well with critics. But beyond that, general perception has marked Speech down as one of the Mercury Prize winners that never made it: an anomaly among a procession of winners who strolled to the top of the charts the following week, and Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage a year later.

The trouble with this assumption is that it bases the notion of success on subsequent sales, and as a result shows the Mercury up to be of little more artistic worth than the BRITs. Speech Therapy’s win in 2009 felt like a final shift, from celebrating the pinnacle of “alternative music” to something judged by an industry reliant on the likes of Elbow and Arctic Monkeys, neatly positioned to give them timely sales spikes.

So if that sounds a little defensive of the artist, that’s because it is. Firstly because Debelle's second album Freedom Of Speech is good - really good, actually. Speech Therapy acted, like so many debut albums do, as an autobiographical account of her life up to that point. It was an LP written largely while spending her teens living in hostels and on the sofas of friends, after becoming estranged from her mother and dropping out of school. Recorded years later, it was inward looking, an evocative account of her life story but with the focus kept solely on her. By way of contrast, Freedom Of Speech isn’t wholly introspective, though the lyrics of tracks like ‘Angel Wings’ find her reflecting on the father she and her mother left when she was young. She takes her personal history and uses it as a means for learning lessons and progressing with life, saying “But now I feed my truths, nourish the young cubs.” For the rest she looks outward: taking a stronger socio-political stance, she tackles the Arab Spring, the UK riots and the future of mankind with what comes across as a thirst to understand more. Throughout, she displays an awareness that she’s not grasping the whole picture, but has the strong desire to do so regardless. It all comes together on the album’s final track ‘Sun Dog’, a disarmingly ostentatious seven-minute song that sees Warp Records’ Kwes – whose production is a highlight of the LP – pull in strings of subtle majesty that eventually gather together and mount a glorious ascent to spine-tingling crescendo.

And secondly? Throughout our 45 minutes together, from the moment she walks in wearing sunglasses and a toothy grin, to a final positive summary of where she is in life right now, Debelle completely obliterates the sloppy journalistic angle I enter with - that of the prize winner who struggles with success (or perceived lack thereof) and retreats, before fighting back.

There’s no regret about the Mercury, nor the subsequent spat with her label Big Dada. She seems genuinely surprised when I ask her if there is, and constantly refers to the autumn of 2009 as “fun”. The implication in her responses is that she's refusing to rest on her laurels, and that each album she releases (and I'm sure now that there will be more) will gradually reveal more and more of the knowledge she's been acquiring. In the meantime we have Freedom Of Speech, an album that sees Speech Debelle develop herself as an artist, instead of just her profile – something far more important in the long term.

Working chronologically, let’s go back to that Mercury Prize win. At the time of it you seemed very confident, predicting that you’d win. Certainly in interviews you didn’t hold back, but underneath that was it a lot to take in?

Speech Debelle: It was partly taking it in and not taking it in, if you know what I mean? It was kind of like being in a trance state - you just keep going. I mean, it was a lot of fun. It was hard work though, I got to the point though where I was having about two or three hours sleep a night and it was starting to take its toll on me emotionally. At that time I certainly wasn’t prepared for that amount of success, it was just me and the label and it felt a bit like David & Goliath. I didn’t have a manager, certainly didn’t have an accountant. It was me and my mates, I had my best friends and tour manager and my PA just coming along to the ceremony – it was fun though.

You mentioned it started to take a toll though, were there parts of the whole experience where you felt that you weren’t comfortable with the sudden scrutiny?

SD: I think what I realised was that I wasn’t a pop star. I think that’s the basis of this album. To quote ‘Blaze Up A Fire’ “I’m not a pop star/ I’m a motherfucking thug” - which doesn’t mean I’m a thug, but I realised I’m from a different place. My culture, my background, my neighbourhood, my influences - I had no real business in pop, some of the events I went to at the time of the win I had no place in. Another thing I realised, when the album came out and people were comparing it to what Elbow sold, was that our careers are on completely different paths and we weren’t supposed to sell the same amount. I thought, "I’m going to take this album and be proud of what I do". It wasn’t a pop album in any sense of the word! [Laughs]

Is that something you would be comfortable with doing?

SD: Well I’d certainly be comfortable with doing it if it sold proper numbers, but it’d be better not to have to make a pop album to do it. I think the closest we’ve had to that recently was Kanye West’s My Twisted Dark Beautiful Fantasy. It’s not a pop album but it’s still sold great numbers – it’s what we all want, I think.

You fell out with Big Dada around this point too. In hindsight, with the whirlwind that was going on, was it something that could’ve been avoided? Was it a knee-jerk reaction?

SD: Oh no, that needed to happen, we needed to fall out. It’s a relationship: you speak to each other every day, you email each other all the time. It’s really intense and I think, like with any intense relationship, you sometimes reach a point that you’ve not been able to communicate beforehand. So it blows up and you say, "Well this is what I don’t like, this is what I need, this is what I don’t need." But then we sorted it out and they said the same to me, and I realised that everyone essentially wanted the same thing - they just hadn’t communicated it in the right way. I’m not special, a hell of a lot of artists fall out with their labels, it’s just I was asked the wrong question in an interview about them at the wrong time and I’m quite reactive and vocal. If I was asked that question another day I would’ve answered differently probably.

And the sudden jump in profile didn’t help that.

SD: Exactly, exactly.

A few months after that it seemed like you were well on the way with the follow-up album. However, this seems to have come out a lot different from how it was originally intended. Back then you seemed quite set on The Art Of Speech as a title and you’d finished a song about Jade Goody. What happened to this? Were there ideas shelved and re-started during the intervening period?

SD: Yeah, I started with the album title first, I’ve always had three titles and I expected The Art Of Speech to be the second one and Freedom Of Speech to be the third. I started making The Art Of Speech but it just didn’t feel right.

Why not?

SD: The Art Of Speech didn't reflect where I actually was as a person. I did the Jade Goody song - I think that’s still going to be around as a B-side – and at that point I’d written ‘Elephant’ which has made this album, but I just couldn’t make what I expected the overall album to sound like. I paused for a bit and then started to try making Freedom Of Speech and it just started flowing so much more easily.

How easy a process was it to leave that initial idea behind and move on? Did you find it difficult to get yourself up for it?

SD: Once I knew that’s what I wanted to do, then in terms of writing it was very quick. It was probably as fast as recording the first one, even though I already had most of the first one written at the time. Songs like ‘Studio Back Pack Rap’ were written in half an hour. We spent more time on the music on this album. I had more input into how this one sounded, at every stage up to the point where it was being mixed, and had every single element of each track of playing over and over again. I wanted to create a certain type of feel.

How did you come across Kwes?

SD: We’ve got similar circles, we both know Micachu, we share lawyers. But it was my A&R who suggested him.

He’s clearly a massive influence on this album as producer, something you’ve recognised in your ode ‘Studio Back Pack Rap'. How did it work between the two of you?

SD: Working with any good producer is about saying, “I’m going to give you what you want and I’m going to not give you what you don’t need,” and he’s done that. He knew when to say, “Nah, that’s not going to work.” One thing in particular was the use of strings. He really changed what I’d done with those and, yeah, that was difficult for me. But I respect his opinion, he has a superb ear - far superior to me – so if he says no then I’ll listen to him and give him the space he needs. Once we got to a certain point between the two of us he’d take the song away. Every time he came back it had been taken to another level.

It sounds like that was quite a big thing for you to do - to allow someone else to take your songs away and edit them. Particularly as, again, you’ve released a deeply personal album.

SD: But I know what my limitations are. I’m no producer, and I’ve known that for a long time! I’ve been making music for a long time and I know what I can and can’t do, so it was cool.

What was the time period for writing these songs?

SD: Outside of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Live For The Message’ they were all pretty much written in a five month period whilst we were in the studio and making the music at the same time. The last one we did was ‘Shawshank’.

One track that particularly resonates with me is ‘Collapse’, which made me watch the documentary of the same name.

SD: You’ve seen the documentary?

Yeah, what surprised me was that in the press notes you say wrote it in half an hour, but it feels like the resonance of the messages within it have stretched out over the album. How much did you read into it?

SD: I think simply what’s been happening in the world has been a big influential thing. In 2011 a lot of world events have shown themselves to be coming from a very similar place, whereas in the past there’ve been more isolated motives. Last year it was all at once, you know what I mean? The album’s representing different feelings about that come from the same core thing, the underlying issues in ‘Collapse’ probably carry over into ‘Eagle Eye’ – that track’s just a different form of the same expression, and ‘Blaze Up A Fire’ is more of an angrier expression.

‘Blaze Up A Fire’ was written before the riots of last summer but feels prophetic in a way – you recognised that when releasing it right after them. Coming from Manchester our own issues seemed more like copycatism, so the feeling’s always felt a bit more detached from my perspective.

SD: Well we have to make sure we separate between the looting and rioting because those were two different things. The rioting is what the song’s about and I think that’s about Mark Duggan being shot, it’s about when people went outside the police station and asked what just happened and from that moment - the next two days - that was a riot. The looting was just what they chose to show on TV.

Was it only a matter of time before something like that happened though?

SD: For some people it’s a constant state of possibility unfortunately. I mean, even if you’re minding your own business going down the street, you can look and see three black boys up against the wall by the police with trousers down by their ankles and there’s people standing round, older people going, “Just pull up the trousers at least!” and the police tell them to fuck off. It’s that constant tension there where all it takes is for the balance to be tipped just a little too much.

But, going off topic a bit, what do you think the effect of it has been? Has it made people aware of the situation? What struck me walking around Manchester three or four days after the event and to this day is that it might as well have never happened – it’s been completely swept under the carpet.

SD: I think unfortunately what’s happened is that it’s wedged a bigger gap between races, but also the gap between old and young. I think people of a certain age have even more so put young people into the category of a villain. There were a lot of discussions on TV afterwards on the whats and whys, and it basically came down to the view that these were strange creatures doing strange things. If you sat down with a 50-year-old white man from, I dunno, Coventry, and asked them what they thought, they’d not have understood why the riots and looting happened. The looting certainly didn’t do any of the young people any good whatsoever, in any shape or form.

Going back to the ‘Collapse’ reference, and to the documentary. In it Michael Ruppert says that in times of heightened social unrest the divides between races become clearer and become heightened again. In the wake of the uproar Dianne Abbott caused recently and the continuing contentions about immigration, is that something you’d say is the case at the moment? Are we at that stage?

SD: What you have to remember is that when you talk about race coming back in the picture every couple of years, what you mean is: for white people. Race is never not an issue for a black person in Britain. Racism is in the public spotlight at the moment but it’s an issue for white people, it doesn’t change for black people.

So the spotlight’s shining on something that’s always been there?

SD: Some black person’s done something to make a white person say, "Hold on a sec, what’s going on here?", and that’s how we get to the situations we’re in now - for example Dianne Abbott saying what she said.

I think what she was saying had truth in it, for sure, but I think trying to express it in 140 characters wasn’t the way to go about it.

SD: Exactly, I know what she was trying to say. Dianne Abbott’s done a hell of a lot for her community and she’s put enough effort in to do so, she shouldn’t be saying sorry. Say fuck it! Say what you mean, explain yourself if you feel you need to - which she probably does - but don’t feel sorry for saying what you believe.

To return to the album, it does indicate a huge change in your perceptions. With Speech Therapy it seemed, as it does with a lot of first albums, that it was strictly autobiographical. This album still touches on that a lot but more of a look towards the bigger picture as well, a focus on socio-political issues.

SD: The first album was written over a long period of time. The songs on Speech Therapy were up to ten years old. This album was much more in the moment, so there was a much broader spectrum of my character on this album; the last album had seen songs only written for certain reasons – and that’s why it ended up being called what it was. This one was like watching me for five months and witnessing a different facet of my character every day, and I think that’s the probably the difference and what I appreciate about this album.

There appear to be two main strands to 'Freedom Of Speech'. You’ve the political side and the social revolution, then there’s still this personal inter-relationship aspect to it. Did you have to change your mindset when you wrote these songs?

SD: I think the relationship songs I write because I need to. The relationship side is the part I just need to put pen to paper, and the other is "If you ask me to, then this is what I want to tell you."

There’s three different songs detailing break ups and you deal with them in three different ways. The one which resonated most strongly for me was ‘Elephant’, where you seemed to be giving up someone despite loving them. Coupled with the fresh lyrical direction you’ve taken elsewhere, and a seemingly real drive to learn and move on, is that an example of you giving up a relationship and almost isolating yourself, so that you can find this “spiritual wealth” that you reference on the album repeatedly?

SD: I mean, possibly [looks doubtful]… I haven’t [thinks]… [more positively] Possibly. It’s part of growing up, this is the longest I’ve been single in quite some time, so I guess you do get to a certain point in life where you do need to be by yourself for a little while and not put my energy into a relationship. Just be single. This is the longest I have been.

You’ve had your eyes opened a lot I guess. You’ve met people at Downing Street and been invited to speak at events.

SD: I've been around them as humanised politicians somewhat, but to be honest I’ve never been interested in what a politician has to say. Politics is something for the people, it’s what we do, we politic in the hairdressers, we politic sitting together having a couple of drinks. Politics is social commentary, that’s the role for me of politics. That’s what we do together, and we talk about social issues and we talk about them in a lot more depth than any other politician and with a lot more insight and with a lot more answers than any politician I’ve ever heard. So to me a politician isn’t necessary for politics.

Especially not at the moment?

SD: I guess we need an Obama, we need a handsome guy [laughs]. It doesn’t matter what he does after, but as long as he’s handsome, right?

You tweeted the other day about Obama, saying something pretty negative about him.

SD: Probably… But then I say a lot of stuff on Twitter. [laughs]

So, I think the track which has really shown progression for you is ‘Sun Dog’

SD: I’m proud of the thought that’s gone into that song. The album, in terms of the process of making it, is similar to the first time. By putting the title song at the end of Speech Therapy it was an indication that the next stage was going to be an evolution for me, and it was different to the rest of that album. It’s the same with ‘Sun Dog’. It’s a step up in gear, in terms of how I deliver a message. I literally studied to make this song. I researched sun dogs and read a lot, the fact that the chord was in G - which to Kwes’ synesthesia is yellow, and yellow is the sun. We tried to make it all tie in, and then also it’s the longest track I’ve ever done.

Listening to that song should really challenge any pre-conceptions people might make about you as a hip-hop artist. Was that the aim? It suggests your music influences have evolved too.

SD: I feel like, musically, I’ve made it in the same vein. The things I wanted to do on this album were to still make sure it sounded melodic and organic. I didn’t want pretend strings, I wanted a string quartet; there’s a real vulnerability to organic sounds over programming it all in. I also wanted to make an album that made you want to nod your head to. In my collection of music I’ve a lot of that, it’s not necessarily songs like Speech Therapy, I like to dance and I wanted to show that. Speech Therapy ruled itself pretty much.

To finish up: three years on from when you came into the public consciousness, and with the journey you’ve been on, how do you feel about yourself now? I remember the last set of interviews where you were talking a lot about your upbringing a lot and the depression that had come from that. Where are you three years down the line?

SD: I’m in a good place! Which comes from age I think. Speech Therapy I was writing at like 19, and at that age you just have angst, you’ve just constantly got a twist in your stomach. Now I’m going on 29, which is a real good age to be. I’m at the age where I do what I want regardless of my career, it’s just me as a grown woman. As you come up to your 30s you’ve gone through that whole "who" and "why" and "who do you want to be?", and you just get comfortable in your own skin. It’s an age of having a lot of fun, waking up in the morning and going, “Ok let’s deal with it.”

Freedom Of Speech is released on February 13th. Speech Debelle plays live at the Jazz Cafe, London, on February 23rd