Estelle isn’t due to appear on stage for another hour. But in the basement of Zavvi on Oxford St – formerly the Virgin Megastore – a hundred-odd Estelle fans have already installed themselves. If you have a mental image of what Estelle fans might look like, it’s probably not dissimilar to the scene here. Upwardly mobile B-boys and young commuters affect a modicum of detachment – as, indeed one might, when situated beside a gaggle of teenage girls singing American Boy. Outside by the staff entrance, however, lurk two middle-aged “fans” who look more like Chas & Dave’s stunt doubles than connoisseurs of sleek British R&B. They’ve already met Estelle going in. Now, they’re waiting for her to go back out.
Five floors up, in her makeshift dressing room, the 29 year-old singer ponders the occupational hazard that is the autograph hunter. “It never ends!” she exclaims, “They ask you to sign something, so you sign it. Then the next time, they’ve had a picture printed out of the time you signed something for them. And then they want you to sign that. And, at that point, you’re like, ‘Hmm. I think I’m over this.’”
In all probability – six months after a long residency at number one with American Boy – Estelle Swaray is also “over” singing to crowds of rush-hour shoppers. But you wouldn’t know it the way she parades on stage in the store’s basement, alchemizing a promotional obligation into an event. “I love you,” she tells the throng, before adding, “But I’ll love you even more if I know you’ve bought my album.” The album, of course, was Shine – a record that singlehandedly restored a little self-esteem to the beleaguered genre that was British R&B. After all, if Kanye West went to the trouble of rapping about Ribena, “London blokes” and wags in American Boy, wasn’t it about time that Britain took Estelle to its heart? Of course, in the six months since its release, Britain has done just that.
From the floor at the Mercury Music Awards – where she also made the shortlist – you could see her on the balcony, flanked by her band, scrutinising every performance by her fellow nominees. Asked if she enjoyed any of their turns, the 29 year-old singles out the Northumbrian spook-folk of Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. “I didn’t get it at first,” she says, “It was so different, but I loved how haunting it sounded – and, at the end, I was like, ‘This is really quite beautiful.’”
One of the more remarkable sub-plots of that evening, of course, concerned the presence of Estelle and the eventual winners Elbow. Having both been let go by their former label V2, you venture that the evening must have whizzed by in a benign blur of vindication. The pop graveyard is littered with the names of British black female singers – Shola Ama, Dinah Carroll, Shara Nelson – bumped off labels that saw no long-term potential in what they did. Despite having scored a hit four years ago with 1980, it seemed that, Estelle stood every chance of joining their ranks.
Tell her as much, however, and she shoots you a look that you don’t forget in a hurry. The way Estelle tells it, it was V2 who fell considerably short of her expectations. “When 1980 was a hit,” she remembers, “it just flew way over anything they thought was possible. Then this new guy came in, who was from an indie background. So all his ideas were to do with working with indie bands, like Bloc Party.” A helpful Estelle reprises the expression of utter bewilderment that the suggestion prompted the first time around. “I was like, ‘What?! He wanted me to work with all his folk. The indie folk. That has no bearing on my future. These people mean nothing to my career!”
For Estelle, the final straw came when her former label boss Jamie Binns apparently asked her to bear in mind that, like every other artist on the label, she was no more or less special than any other act on the label. “He was like, ‘You’re just a product, and no-one thinks about you when they go home.’” I don’t object to being a product. I know what I do is a saleable thing. But if I’m working 700 times harder than anybody else in the building, then there’s a problem.”
It’s not the work itself that Estelle disdains. Indeed, as the second of nine children raised by a single mother, Estelle says she was no stranger to hard work by the time she became involved with music. It’s all there, of course, in that autobiographical debut hit – “mum worked late and we learned to cook/Rice, peas, chicken and stew pea soup”. What her mother was too busy to teach her in person, she delegated to an impressive bookshelf. Between the ages of 12 and 16, the soon-to-be pop star ploughed through all three volumes of J.A. Rogers’ 1967 exhaustive history of interraciality, Sex And Race: A History of White, Negro and Indian Miscegenation in the Two Americas. “It just seemed like a series of interesting facts to me,” she says, “Like, you realised just how far black people permeated all areas of society. Like, there were black people in the bloodline of the French royal family, but history doesn’t necessarily tell you all of that.”
It’s slightly embarrassing to realise that you have, in fact, been patronising Estelle with a backstory she doesn’t recognise. She baulks at any portrayal of her that depicts her as the victim rather than the author of her own circumstances. Perhaps the closest she came to victimhood was a brief period of depression three years ago, which followed the demise of her last serious relationship. She withholds her ex-boyfriend’s name, but will say that he was also a musician. “It got to the point where I think that he perceived my career was going downhill. Then he got to saying, ‘I want to have a kid.’ And I was like, ‘Well, how are you even going to support that kid?’ I grew up in a huge family, so I know how much effort you put into raising a kid.’ He also did other things which left me, like, ‘On what planet is that acceptable?’”
The relationship might have ended, but not before he inadvertently gifted her material for much of what became Shine: No Substitute Love, So Much Out of the Way and the finger-wagging dancehall pop of Magnificent. Much has been made of the apparently serendipitous encounter with collegiate unit-shifter John Legend and his A-list chum Kanye West – which led to her being the inaugural signing to his Homeschool label. In America, several prestigious artists are given their own small imprint by a record company eager to keep them appeased. Thanks to Warners, Jonathan Richman moulders away on Neil Young’s Vapor label. Elsewhere, negligible earners like Neil Halstead and Donavon Frankenheiter modestly subsist in the Universal-financed iron lung that is Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label.
It has to be said that Atlantic’s Estelle couldn’t be more different. When the bearded purveyor of Starbucks soul passed Shine over to his paymasters, the first thing they did was move Estelle to the legendarily upscale Cipriani Residences for two months, before she found her own flat in Brooklyn. Recently, a modicum of controversy attached itself to her when it was claimed that Atlantic effectively sabotaged American Boy’s prospects of becoming a Stateside hit when they stopped iTunes from selling it separately from the rest of her album.” It was, says Estelle, a gamble – but one that has paid off. “They did it because they wanted to draw people’s attention to the fact that there was a whole album where that came from. And sure enough, the album’s taking off now.”
Precisely for that reason, this brief visit to her hometown is almost over. She’ll be back briefly for the MOBOS, where there’s every chance she’ll walk away with a hefty proportion of the five awards for which she has been nominated. How does it feel to be up against the distinctly paler Duffy and Adele for a Music Of Black Origin award? “Hah! I hate this question,” she laughs, hoping that merely disliking the question might make it go away. Can she imagine a scenario in which, say, Duffy wins? For the most fleeting of moments, Estelle looks uncomfortable as she gropes around for something diplomatic to say. Nothing is forthcoming, so, in my best announcer voice, I pretend to that the award actually has gone to Duffy. “You’re… silly,” she smiles, after an epic pause. One suspects that, should the unthinkable happen on the night, her reaction might require a touch more rehearsing.