The movie-obsessed singer Paloma Faith's cinematic vision has been brought to life on her cool, creative and cashmere-classy new album.
Fall to Grace: Paloma Faith's distinctive lyrics, sumptuously produced
Nellee Hooper is a British music producer who made his name working with Björk in the mid-1990s. He has since lent his talents to everyone from Madonna to U2, so when Sony Records asked him to meet Paloma Faith, an English soul singer planning her second album, he had to take a chance.
"I'd never really heard of [her]. I was living in LA when her record came out, so I kind of missed it," he admitted recently.
That record had been a slow-burning hit in Faith's homeland. Released in September 2009, Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? spawned a couple of top 20 hits and went platinum nine months after its release. The singer's flamboyant live shows also attracted attention. Last April, she was invited to headline the Womad festival in Abu Dhabi.
Faith was successful - but not big and international enough to dispense with her surname, like Britney or Kylie. When she met Nellee Hooper, she had to woo him.
The producer recalls: "At lunch she sat and talked in such detail, as if every song was a short film, referencing everything from Chinese romantic cinema to hip-hop. When I played the CD she gave me, the songs flew out of my speakers. We got together and decided right away to embark on this journey."
Hooper was so impressed that he compares this impromptu brainstorming session to his "first meeting with Björk". There was "no idea or fear", he says, "just pure heart and adventure".
Eventually, this adventure would be taken as a trio. Jake Gosling, fresh from success with British folk singer Ed Sheeran, became a co-producer on the album. However, it's Hooper that Faith calls the "perfect interpreter" of her musical ideas.
The singer is a self-confessed film buff who says she tends to think in pictures. Some of the producers she worked with on her first album were less visual than her, which made the recording process a struggle.
Unsurprisingly, she wasn't happy with the results. Faith now compares Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? to a "compilation album" because almost every song was polished by a different producer or production team. She's also admitted that she spent too long telling her collaborators what she wanted her music to sound like. As a result, the songwriting suffered.
Faith is admirably candid for a singer signed to a major record label. At times, she's a little too blunt. The 26-year-old recently told a live audience that she was "bored" of singing her early material.
She also criticised the BBC earlier this month after making a guest appearance on a talent show called The Voice. Faith said her advice to singing hopefuls was "a bit too realistic" and claimed many of her comments had been edited out.
As the singer herself admits, "I just have an inability to lie".
Fortunately, Faith has yet to frighten her PR team when discussing her new album, because working with Hooper seems to have been a positive experience all-round.
"We just got on really well," she explained in a recent interview with the BBC website. "What was really important for me was that he understood my language. [Because] Nellee has such a vast knowledge of art and film, he could listen to what I had to say and translate it for the musicians."
How did this work in practice? Faith says the pair would discuss a song in relation to particular scenes or images from a film. Hooper and co-producer Gosling would then use these ideas to create a matching soundscape.
For example, a song called Agony was apparently inspired by David Lynch's surreal classic Blue Velvet. Faith told Hooper: "I want to be Isabella Rossellini and I want midget cowboys walking past." Then the producers delivered her vision in sound.
The creative process may sound wishy-washy and far-fetched, but there's no denying that the results have a cinematic quality. The album's lead single, Picking Up the Pieces, is a string-draped ballad on which Faith is flanked by gospel singers. It feels epic - like stallions galloping across the silver screen.
The album, which Faith has named Fall to Grace, has several other ballads with the same widescreen feel. Beauty of the End begins intimately before building to a dramatic climax. When You're Gone could soundtrack the denouement to a classic film romance. Black & Blue sounds big and important enough for Steven Spielberg in serious mode.
The album also contains the sultry electronica of Let Me Down Easy, 30 Minute Love Affair's Annie Lennox-style synth-pop, and a stirring fusion of beats and gospel called Freedom. The latter seems to continue the trip-hop revival spearheaded by Emeli Sandé's ˆ – until you recall that Nellee Hooper was a pioneer of this sound in the 1990s.
There's even a sleek slice of Giorgio Moroder-ish disco called Blood, Sweat & Tears. Here, Faith proves she can really play the dance diva. Though with her belting voice and dramatic demeanour, was there ever any doubt?
The constant is the quality of the production: whatever genre they're drawing from, Fall to Grace sounds cool, creative and cashmere-classy.
However, the album wouldn't invite repeat listens if the songs weren't so strong. Faith's writing partners included Dan Wilson, who worked with Adele on Someone Like You, and Grammy Award winner Eg White. It's no surprise her choruses soar when they're supposed to.
But there's also an emotional honesty to these songs that really comes through in Faith's performances. The singer calls Fall to Grace the "soundtrack to my last few years" and says it was inspired by "romances and relationships with friends and family".
With her usual honesty, she admits she doesn't feel "clued up enough" to write political songs. Instead, she focuses on "observing people" and "socio-commentary".
Faith comes from a theatrical background, albeit an unconventional one. Before focusing on her singing career, she worked as a burlesque dancer, an underwear model and even a magician's assistant. Inevitably, her eye as a songwriter is drawn to the dramatic.
This shows on the provocatively-titled 30 Minute Love Affair and the opulent wallow of Beauty of the End, which acknowledges that there's a certain perverse pleasure in breaking up from someone you love. Picking Up the Pieces is just as powerful. "Do you think of her when you're with me?" Faith asks, inviting her partner to compare her to a former flame.
The album's most memorable line comes on Blood, Sweat & Tears. It's a song about the tremendous effort needed to make a relationship work. When Faith sings, "It takes two imperfect people to dance a sweet ballet," it's a neat encapsulation of her viewpoint. Yes, she's a romantic, but she's realistic with it.
The combination of sharp, distinctive songwriting and sumptuous production makes Fall to Grace a serious step up for Faith and surely the next time her label tries to set her up with a new producer, the response is unlikely to be "Paloma who?"
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.