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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Video: Lady Sovereign’s Taste Test

Lady Sovereign’s new album Jigsaw is out and about, and so is the musical munchkin herself. Enjoy the clip above, which collects behind-the-scenes and front-of-bar antics from L-Sov’s BlackBook Taste Test, held at New York’s Pianos. Thanks as ever to Two Penguins Productions for the magic-making.

Lady Sovereign & the Booze-Tastic BlackBook Taste Test

With her new album Jigsaw about to drop, pint-size English rapper Lady Sovereign, still “the biggest midget in the game,” braves a tall order of libations. New York’s Pianos is the site of the MC’s tangle with a booze medley designed to appease her surprisingly finicky palate.

Rum Jumbie Coconut Splash BLACKBOOK: Let’s start with a splash of rum. How does this go down? LADY SOVEREIGN: This is really nice, sweet liquor. I haven’t been to the Caribbean, so I can’t say that it reminds me of being there. BB: How old were you when you had your first drink? LS: Probably 13. I was 14 the first time I got drunk on this really cheap, sparkling wine. It was a teenager’s best bet for getting drunk. I miss those park-drinking days.

Appleton Estate Reserve Rum BB: I think it’s time to do some shots. Are you a shot kind of girl? LS: I’m not. BB: Well, you’re about to be. LS: Oh, that’s foul. Tastes like foot. It burns! BB: If you hold your nose, it will help. LS: That really burns! See, if I were already drunk, I would do shots. But right now, I’d gag on it.

Ty Ku Sake BB: Sake… you said you don’t like? LS: No, I hate it. BB: Well, this one comes in a shampoo bottle. LS: I just didn’t like it when I first tried it. It’s like vodka, and I don’t like drinking neat vodka. BB: Just sip it in a shot glass. And, by the way, the order of this is meant to ensure that you’re not going to get too drunk. LS: It smells like vinegar. BB: Like apple cider vinegar? LS: It tastes like vinegar, mixed with shit and lemon.

Gran Centenario Rosangel Tequila BB: This is hibiscus-infused, 100% agave tequila. LS: Are you out to make me look like some sort of alcoholic? BB: Of course not. But this is the club banger, right here. LS: I hate tequila. I don’t like much, do I? BB: Tell me about the last time you were drinking and you had something enjoyable. LS: Well, I got banned from two pubs in one night.

Combier Liqueur D’orange LS: This burns, too! BB: What alcohol doesn’t burn? It burns in such a good way, no? LS: God, if the cops walked in right now, they would be looking at my ID straight away. They’d be like, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” BB: You would definitely get carded. How old are you? LS: 24. BB: You’re going to be carded until you’re 40. LS: I even get carded for rolling papers. It’s ridiculous.

Rum Jumbie Liqueur (and then some… ) BB: I’m going to make you a Long Island Iced Tea with this, and you’re going to tell me what you think. It’s got gin, vodka, rum and lemonade. Seventeen-year-old girls from Long Island drink these. LS: Are you sure that’s lemonade? It looks a bit cloudy. BB: Do you want to cleanse your palate with a glass of water before you taste this? LS: That is not water! BB: Okay, so here’s the Long Island Iced Tea. It’s part hibiscus-infused tequila, a splash of coconut rum, a little Appleton Estate Reserve Rum—the taste of the islands… LS: You shouldn’t be making mixed drinks. It’s a big, bad thing. BB: It’s all booze though, it’s not like we’re mixing it with beer. Don’t worry. Here’s a dash of a 25-year-old Glenlivet and a hint of that orange liqueur. LS: Are you trying to kill me? You are evil. It looks like piss. BB: How does it taste? LS: Horrible. BB: Like getting punched in the neck? LS: It’s worse than swallowing your own vomit. Wait—it tastes better through a straw. BB: That’s because you can get to all the deliciousness that’s on the bottom. You hated all of them individually, but collectively… LS: Mixed together, it’s so good! Two thumbs up.

Vanguard Voices of Hip-Hop Speak Out on Barack Obama

From the droves of people who filled streetcorners and churches to hear the voices of Malcolm and Martin, to the hundreds of thousands of people filling up arenas around the world to hear Eminem and T.I. rap; hip-hop and politics has always been sewn together as an enigmatical fabric. Created as an outlet for expression by youths involved in the woeful transactions of life on the street, hip-hop has transformed from a grassroots civilization promoting positive creativity into a cavalcade of empty material that attracts big conglomerate dollars. But the true essence of the movement seems to have been rejuvenated by the rise of President-elect Barack Obama. An intelligent, charismatic leader — who lists Jay-Z and Ludacris as two of his favorite musicians — Obama’s election gives MCs a plethora of topics to expand upon; no more limitations to the lucre-fueled wet dreams rotating on the radio. As we prepare for a historic inauguration, eight people who embody everything that is hip-hop discuss the parallels between their culture and politics.

Saul Williams (poet, writer, actor, MC): “I would say that Barack means the same thing to hip-hop that he does to America at large. We cannot afford another eight years of the same mess that has run commercial hip-hop, which has basically been held under the thumb of ‘gangsta’ republican rule where a few men have made their greed well known and projected a lack of ethical integrity, financial superiority, and labeling anyone who dares follow an ethical code of their own the street words for terrorist: ‘snitch’ or ‘hater.’ These so-called ‘haters’ may have simply raised the question ‘When will you sing about something that uplifts or that doesn’t glorify the drug trade (i.e. war)?’ Barack affects that by now being the most visible living symbol of a hero for youth and the African-American community, whose most recent ‘heroes’ have been self-professed drug dealers who brag on ‘time served’ and using hip-hop to launder dirty money and ‘college dropouts’.”

Lady Sovereign (Jay-Z protégé from the UK): “[Obama] has some sort of realness to him, doesn’t approach things like everyone else does. He has a real charm, I know that’s not a reason alone to vote someone for president, but he’s a breath of fresh air. America needed a change, and he seems like he will actually achieve that.”

Bun B (One half of the legendary hip-hop duo UGK): “By no means are the struggles of Black America over. With Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president, Black America has the initiative and inspiration it needs to wipe out all the old excuses and get on the ball. Keep in mind, not everyone is happy about the election results; so we still have to be on guard for haters in the midst. The powers that be are not only elected officials, but the corporations who lobby them as well.”

David Banner (MC and founder of nonprofit Heal the Hood): “Barack is the beginning of the change. In order to globally change the perception of hip-hop, hip-hop artists will have to make a change themselves. Most of the times, the world only gets to see or hear the end result, but hardly ever gets the opportunity to see and understand what makes people act a certain way. Hopefully, with Barack’s leadership, the world in general will have the opportunity to see the whole picture.”

Jake Paine (editor in chief of Hip-hop is open to political discussion. Previously, 50 Cent defended George Bush at a time when his public approval rate was on a decline, let alone in the hip-hop community. Although 50 subsequently fielded a barrage of questions on his opinion, he remains a towering voice of rap music. Also, Scarface, a deeply respected veteran in hip-hop, accused John McCain of racism during the election, and was hardly championed for this subjective opinion. I think the more likely thing we’ll see is rappers and MCs continue to criticize America when things are not being done in government. The way the last few months have gone, I doubt we’ll see much criticism of the President. [If we do see criticism], the rapper better have enough status and merit in the claims to dodge the inevitably impending ‘publicity stunt’ cat-calls from the streets and fans.”

K’NAAN (MC from Somalia who boarded the last commercial flight to ever leave his country): “Well, I think Obama’s presidency has already changed the way people of color view themselves, which was never an issue of an absent natural capacity, but rather the constant political voiding to exercise those capacities. But for the rest of the world, the change comes in a different way, in that, those who have seen people of color under the context of North America’s past, now have the opportunity to reexamine and redraw their most sturdy conclusions.”

Tabi Bonney (MC from Washington DC): “Politics is definitely the new hip-hop! Hip-hop is the voice of the people and the new generation, which is now able to vote. That being said, our music speaks on the issues, problems, and good things of our society. I think it is one of the purest forms of expression. Through our artistry you can document the times of history and what was on the mind of the people; everything from Reaganomics up to Obama.”

The Get ‘Em Mami’s (Super-femme MCs whose music was featured on the HBO series The Wire): “We’d have to say that Barack would have to be equivalent to Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac mixed — if he was an MC. He’s already got his Beyonce, because Michelle is the hottest chick in the political game! He basically saved hip-hop. His campaign made the hip-hop community come together, and that’s something no rapper could do.”

Photos: Tabi Bonney by Joshua Cogan; Saul Williams by Evan Cohen