Delilah interview: “Have you really listened to how I sound?” British youth standing tall, as radical soul singer Delilah tells us how she showed the industry how to do it right.
“Dubstep was never really my thing”; Delilah, guest vocalist for Chase and Status in a past life, is easy-going but firm about this when I meet her for a chat post-gig about her debut album, From The Roots Up. It’s understandable that she has to be – despite the organic, evolutionary process of her music, and the sincere way in which its form and content collide to create to create shifting, surprising pop, press are often desperate to stick the dubstep label to Delilah as performer. In a way, it’s this keenness to relate the 21-year-old to what is perceived to be “of the moment” that makes much press about her music irrelevant to what she actually does.
On stage and on record, Paris-born Londoner Paloma Stoecker is a performer who sizzles and startles with unpredictability, and in conversation she’s not so different. She’s just as quick to shift from quiet earnestness to beaming, cartoon-voiced humour as she is in performance to jump from bass-driven hits to Regina Spektor-esque piano numbers written for her mum.
Despite what she might be labelled as, Delilah totally embodies her album title in her ability to spring from the roots of a musical movement, but take her own directions, standing as a musician who has an ear in one scene and her voice in another. Anyone who downloaded the ’2 – 4am’ mixtape, released as a free digital download earlier this year, will know that this is the truth, and that her music is itself incredibly truthful, in its open-mindedness, and its breath-taking honesty, combined with a radical sound that echoes Holy Other, Burial and The-Dream, or even the minimal soul of ‘Broken English’-era Marianne Faithfull. The songs that Delilah writes aren’t necessarily the songs the industry initially wanted her to write; rather, she makes lovingly crafted, careful and creative pop that never takes the direction you think it’s about to take. She may have been a fixture at BBC Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend, but in terms of the artful boldness of her take on British soul music, she’s closer to Neneh Cherry or Fine Young Cannibals than any of her peers on the playlist.
“All the big names who write the songs that become number ones, I sat in sessions with them. And they’re just all doing the same thing. ‘OK I get it, you’re all making tons of money, you’re doing really well, but that’s boring’.” – Delilah
“Some people hate that!” she says in surprise, commenting on the anti-formulaic, non-conformist shape of her songs. So why doesn’t she just throw in a drop or a break where her listeners are expecting one? “I think it’s just because I’ve spent such a long time writing; when I started I got kind of thrown into the mainstream…all the big names who write the songs that become number ones, I kind of sat in sessions with them. And they’re amazing, all of them, but they’re just all doing the same thing. And I was like, ‘OK I get it, you’re all making tons of money, you’re doing really well, but – that’s boring’. I can’t spend my life doing something that somebody already does because it works, I’d rather try and push the boundary, and if it does work, who knows, people might be doing what I’m doing! So, I think I just decided not to do the obvious.”
This take on song writing seems brash and brave for someone trying to make it in mainstream pop, and it’s what’s left her toiling over her debut album for three years now; since being signed at seventeen, Delilah has, in her words, “worked her bollocks off” to bring her fans the album she hopes to push boundaries with. 2012 is the right time for it all to fall into place, though, “because it’s relevant to now, I think, the music that I do. The music industry is moving on from just dance-orientated tracks; it’s still very dance-led right now, but I think stuff is moving to a different place, a bit more experimental.” Lifting off from her grounding in the music the press think she makes, Delilah is poised to surprise them all with her tentative step into a newer, fresher horizon when her debut album is finally released on Atlantic this month.
A self-proclaimed “control freak”, the singer also has a co-production credit on the record, apparently because “making my album was like a giant version of Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I’m just sitting there singing stuff to people, they’re trying to play it, and I’m going ‘Move, I’ll do it myself!’” It’s this degree of nurturing attention, this fully-embodied personality that seeps through in the quiet hums and bristling twilight moments of her music; the immersive, hands-on approach of someone who ditched college at seventeen to travel the world and watch some of the most famous producers at work. Music is her education.
“When I was younger I would listen to Destiny’s Child, and I would think ‘I don’t sound like Beyonce, so I’m a crap singer.’” – Delilah
Astounding as Delilah’s ear for songcraft might be, though, the voice is the thing. Open, soft, strong, honest, it’s a vocal signature that makes her unforgettable. “I always thought I sounded strange,” she says. “When I was younger I would listen to Destiny’s Child, and I would think ‘I don’t sound like Beyonce, so I’m a crap singer.’ It wasn’t really until I signed a record deal that I went ‘all right, I must be able to do something’, but even after got offered a record deal, and I got offered a couple, I was like, ‘Are you lot sure? Have you really listened to how I sound? I squeak and I pop, and I go up and down,’ and they were just like ‘yeah, it’s good!’ So I just decided to take their word for it.”
With a string of scattered airplay already behind her, the years leading up to this moment have been fraught but intermittently fulfilling for Delilah. Now, with a fistful of songs composed at her piano and a worldly wise approach to the studio, she’s standing on the brink of her career, ready to take strides away from any “obvious” preconceptions about what she’s capable of, and to finally shake the reductive label that has keeping her in its shadow.