British Neo-Soul Singer Paloma Faith Takes a Gamble on Stateside Success

Last year, scientists at the University of Bristol announced they’d come up with a formula for predicting whether a song will crack the Top 5 on the U.K. pop charts. The software analyzes such factors as tempo, beat variation, harmonic simplicity, and something called “tertiary time signature,” then measures it against 50 years of data. The algorithm spits out a binary verdict: jam it or slam it.

Sadly, no such science exists for the larger question: whether bona fide U.K.-bred pop stars will find mainstream success in America. For every Amy Winehouse and One Direction, there are a hundred Duffys and Lady Sovereigns: artists who are talented, interesting, and seemingly marketable, but who land at JFK with a resounding thud. True universality requires some quality scientists have yet to discover. But the rewards for popularity among the American audience—which is five times larger—keep the challengers coming.

The latest and greatest hope from across the pond is named Paloma Faith. The coquettish 27-year-old from Hackney, London—“It’s like the equivalent of Harlem,” she says—seems to have everything we Yanks want in a pop star: model-good looks, a highly cultivated sense of style, an engaging personality, a poetic backstory, and, most importantly, soulful, radio-friendly songs that speak to the themes of love, sex, loss, and betrayal. If there’s a reason she won’t succeed here, I can’t find it.

And so she’s coming to America. Faith is making the rounds before the U.S. release of her second full- length album, Fall To Grace, in November. This dog- and-pony show involves meeting with an endless stream of journalists like me and playing a few industry showcases to build up buzz. Her entrance is certainly impressive. There’s no missing Faith as she walks into Ladino, a kosher tapas restaurant on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, on a sunny late-summer afternoon.

She’s on the petite side, but she’s dressed exquisitely in an aquamarine Dolce & Gabbana number with a cute little hat that brings to mind a ’60s-era Pan Am stewardess. The lunch crowd looks up from their kashrut ceviche, in awe. Faith is polite, composed, and somewhat laconic at first, at least until an American-sized mound of guacamole arrives and seems to open her up. And she’s gorgeous—skin like a china doll, penetrating hazel eyes, and a perfect nose like I’ve never seen. She has the kind of beauty that makes you think she’d be a fool not to aim for a career in showbiz, like how a kid who’s seven feet tall by the age of 16 really ought to give basketball a try, just to work the odds.

Probably not for the first time today or the last, Faith delves into her background. Born to an English mother and a largely absent Spanish father, Faith was always creative, but she daydreamed in grade school and earned poor marks. One day, she decided to make a change, and in just five months, moved from the bottom of her class to the top. At 18, she enrolled in a dance college in the north of England but hated it. “It was the worst thing I’d ever done in my life,” she says. “It wasn’t creative. It was all about physically changing your body so that you could fit somebody else’s creative idea and not have your own. But I’m stubborn, so I stayed and finished it.”

Still craving higher education, she went on to earn a master’s degree in theater directing at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. It was during this period that she began to embrace the idea of a career on stage. Her early jobs tended toward the bizarre.

“I was a magician’s assistant. I was a ghost on a ghost train. I did dark and twisted solo cabaret shows. I did weird performance art things,” she recites. “I was living a life that was really eclectic and managing to make ends meet.”

The ghost train to which she’s referring is Carnesky’s Ghost Train: a creepy, campy Blackpool carnival attraction designed to titillate British seaside vacationers. To get an idea of her cabaret chops, watch the video for her song, “30 Minute Love Affair,” which follows her through a sex shop to a bleak, noirish theater, where she belts out the emotional ode to ephemeral pleasures, Dietrich-style.

“As I incorporated singing into my act, people started saying ‘I love your voice,’” she continues. “But I felt that I wasn’t really a singer. The singers I really admired—like Etta James, Jill Scott, and Aretha Franklin—were, in my mind, better than I was, so I didn’t feel confident enough to call myself one.”

But, with the industry increasingly taking notice, she began to tone down the performance art while focusing on her voice. “The first showcase I ever did for a label, I incorporated some of my performance art with my singing, pretending to bleed and stuff on stage,” she says. “They came up to me afterward and said, ‘Um, we love your voice, we love your songs, but you really need to stop all that other stuff,’ so I moved away from it.” She pokes a fork into a dish of bacalao, a portrait of a performance artist tamed.

As she recorded and toured in support of her first album, 2009’s platinum-selling Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?, Faith found her niche, embracing a surreal version of cinema’s golden era, where reality seems twisted yet everything is beautiful. “I’ve been trying to make it like a dark fairy tale,” she says. “I want my music to have a timeless quality, neither in the future nor the past.”

As with every success story, she’s had a little help along the way. One unlikely mentor was Prince, who was enchanted by her music and decided to offer some advice, and an opportunity. “He knew my first record—the obscure tracks, not just the singles—and it was an amazing turning point for me because I was midway through writing the record I’m promoting now and it gave me a bit of a kick,” Faith explains. “He had this festival called the NPG Festival [in Copenhagen] last year and he invited me to go and play at it, so I thought ‘now I have to up my game to place myself in an international market.’”

“It was just like a real learning curve, and he was trying to educate me on things,” she continues. “I came back and said to my manager, ‘This is what I need to change. I need to get rid of some band members, get busy, do more rehearsals, and focus on the music more than the superficial elements.’”

Fall to Grace is already out in Britain, and Faith is already a star. (She carried the Olympic torch before the summer games, running in high heels no less.) But now Faith, and Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid, are trying to work the same magic in America that has proven so successful at home. She says she’s thrilled to have the opportunity to perform in America—she’ll be touring this fall—but she’s not about to make any concessions for our differing tastes.

“I’m not going to try desperately hard to become what I think America wants,” she says. “I don’t know what America wants. I just know what I am. That’s all I’ve got.”

True to her word, the following evening, at yet another industry showcase in Manhattan’s Edison Ballroom, Faith seems to be her chatty English self, bantering between songs and making jokes about her body’s “jiggly bits.” As a crowd of black-clad music industry types press against the stage, entranced by the young talent but studiously blasé as New Yorkers tend to be, Faith runs through a selection of hits from both her albums. There are hints of passion from the audience: A woman waves her hands in the air to the music, one of those quasi-religious motions that seem designed to broadcast just how much the listener is feeling the moment. I’m certainly enjoying the show, though I’d like to see her in some kind of smoky lounge, while sitting at a small, round table sipping a martini. Long before her encore, it’s clear that New York, like Prince, will be happy to give Faith a chance. She’ll be huge in L.A., too. But only time will tell whether Faith can make converts of the rest of America.

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Here’s the Trailer for Lifetime’s ‘Steel Magnolias’ Remake

YOU GUYS, IT’S FINALLY HERE! The first trailer for Lifetime’s remake of Steel Magnolias with an African-American cast has hit the internet. As BlackBook‘s singular staff member covering the Black Steel Magnolias beat (it’s a voluntary position), I am pleased as punch to share this with you because it is SO WEIRD.

It starts out with random images of magnolias (clever!) and table settings while somewhat familiar voices repeat famous lines that you’ve heard a million different times coming from the mouths of other people. It is very bizarre! And then we get the first looks at M’Lynn (Queen Latifah), Ouiser (Alfre Woodard), Clairee (Phylicia Rashad), Truvy (Jill Scott), Annelle (Adepero Oduye), and Shelby (Condola Rashad) and an anachronistic reference to Beyoncé, which I assume means that at no point will Jill Scott say the memorable line, "It’s the ’80s. If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past." 

Woof, you guys. I mean, I’m still excited and will watch the shit out of this (and, you know, change the channel at Halloween because I CANNOT WATCH SHELBY DIE), but there’s pretty much nothing special about this except that it’s got a bunch of strong black women delivering awkward line readings from a kind of campy movie about Southern ladies with big hair. I just don’t know if I can handle two hours of Queen Latifah looking sad. When I first saw the trailer existed, I was expecting, on the Steel Magnolias stress scale, to jump up to Rhett, Ouiser’s dog (incessent barking, losing hair), but right now I’m more like a Spud (just sittin’ around, doing Spud stuff).

Meanwhile, Viola Davis is sitting at home and LOLing pretty hard about this.

Cast of Lifetime’s All-Black Remake of ‘Steel Magnolias’ Announced

Back in October we shared the news that Lifetime was planning to remake Steel Magnolias, that classic tear-jerking dramedy about Southern women chattin’ and dyin’ of kidney failure, with an African-American cast. You may remember that I, amateur Hollywood casting director, assembled the perfect cast as a favor to Lifetime and the film’s producers. Clearly they have decided to take a different route, completely disregarding my brilliant choices to play the most important female characters in the history of film. 

According to Deadline, Queen Latifah (from now on referred to as "Queefah") is leading the cast, taking on the role of M’Lynn Eatonton (famously played by Sally Field in the 1989 film). That’s only the tip of the iceberg made up of questionable casting choices!

Produced by Sony Pictures Television, Steel Magnolias chronicles the lives and friendship of six women in Louisiana: ‘M’Lynn’ (Queen Latifah), Ouiser (Alfre Woodard), Clairee (Phylicia Rashad), Truvy (Jill Scott), Annelle (Adepero Oduye) and Shelby (Condola Rashad). Supporting each other through their triumphs and tragedies, they congregate at Truvy’s beauty shop to ponder the mysteries of life and death, husbands and children – and hair and nails – all the important topics that bring women together.

Um, first of all, did you call Viola Davis? I mean, considering she has two Oscar nominations under her belt whereas poor Queefah only has one, it makes sense that Davis would have just played recordings of laughter after listening to the pleading voicemails from the Lifetime reps because she doesn’t have time to LAUGH much less star in a LIFETIME ORIGINAL MOVIE, are you kidding me? So, fine, Viola Davis is out, but Queefah? As M’Lynn? A lady with three children, one of which DIES? No ma’ams, Lifetime. No ma’ams. At the very least, Queefah should be playing Truvy Jones. I mean, she JUST starred in a movie with Dolly Parton, you guys. Think of all the tips La Dolly could pass on to her new protege. 

While they do get a gold star for casting Phylicia Rashad as Clairee per my suggestion, are these people trying to pull a fast one by putting her daughter in the role of Shelby? Granted, my suggestion of double-casting Tia and Tamara Mowry was really just for LOLs, but at least they’d bring in the coveted Sister, Sister audience. I get that Raven-Symone is super busy right now stepping into the starring role of Sister Act: The Musical, thereby coming this much closer to taking over Whoopi Goldberg’s place in this world (speaking of which: You know that Whoopi did not say no to playing Ouiser, and you know that Lifetime forgot to call her), but nepotism? Really? Was Tracie Ellis-Ross too busy?

I supposed I’ll also give a pass on Jill Scott as Truvy, even though I can already imagine the salty tears that Loretta Devine is weeping right now. And I guess Adepero Oduye was supposed to be really great in Pariah, which I forgot to see. Maybe I will "forget" to see Steel Magnolias! (JK, nope, I will probably watch it five times.)

If they pick Terrence Howard to play Drum, I will eat my hat.

Here Are Your ‘VH1 Divas’: Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, Florence and the Machine, and More

The lineup for VH1’s Divas was announced today. In addition to Clarkson, Blige, and Florence, Jessie J, Jennifer Hudson, and Jill Scott are also slated to perform at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom; the concert will air on VH1 on December 19.

In a press release, the cable network announced that the show will “celebrate soul” and pay tribute to the musical output of Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Philadelphia, and London.

VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul will bring together some of the best singers across the globe, men and women alike, to honor the soulful cities that inspired these divas and their art. The cities honored include: Chicago, Detroit, London, Memphis and Philadelphia. Accompanied by one of the most exciting groups of modern soul, The Roots, with ?uestlove as musical director, each diva will pay tribute through not only their own soul-inspired songs, but some of the greatest classics that have shaped a genre.

As in previous years, this edition of VH1 Divas will benefit VH1 Save The Music Foundation and its programs to restore music education in public schools. For more information, please visit vh1savethemusic.org.