Ahead of her headline appearance at Womad, Paloma Faith talks about drama, soul and a meteoric pop career.
Paloma Faith talks drama and soul ahead of Womad appearance
Part film-noir dame, part cockney flower girl, Paloma Faith is trickier to categorise than most pop starlets, not least because she has also gained fame as an actress. Performing at Abu Dhabi's Womad festival on Thursday, the 25-year old's music has been compared to the soul-infused pop of fellow Londoners Adele and Amy Winehouse, except Faith's songs and live performances are overlaid with the pomp and drama of vaudeville.
"I usually change at least once in a concert," she says, her London accent broad. "I'm quite theatrical; I like to wear things that are quite decadent."
Singing and dancing since childhood, Faith was "kicked out" of ballet school at age 12 and describes studying for a degree in contemporary dance as "the worst experience of my life". Around this time, the striking redhead worked a series of part-time jobs, which included being an artist's model, a magician's assistant and using her powerful voice as a singer in a burlesque cabaret.
"I used to wear amazing showgirl outfits," she says. "I feel like that era and style is what suits me best."
Since her pop career began in 2008, Faith has gained attention for wearing a series of incredible costumes, including, at last year's Glastonbury festival, a figure-hugging white outfit that was attached to two giant helium balloons floating several metres in the air. She has also made a number of TV and film appearances, including parts in the 2007 schoolgirl romp St. Trinian's and Terry Gilliam's 2009 fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
But her success thus far has been due to more than just a number of dazzling appearances, on and off-screen. Her debut album, 2009's Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?, made it into the UK album chart's top 10 and spawned five singles, including New York and Stone Cold Sober.
Yet at a world music festival, Faith seems an odd choice for a headline act. A lifelong fan of classic soul divas Etta James and Billie Holiday, she believes she was asked to play Womad because of her reputation as a singer capable of collaborating and improvising with other musicians spontaneously.
"If, when I'm there, someone asks me to get onstage and do a song with them, I'll do it," she says.
But things could have been very different. The ever-feisty singer's first private performance for her label Sony Music ended disastrously, with Faith chastising an executive for texting while she sang, telling him: "If you're going to have anything to do with my career, I'd rather sing in pubs for the rest of my life."
Faith explains that on the day of the performance, she had begun working from 5am on a TV drama, in which she was playing a rather less glamorous character than her real-life self.
"I just thought it was rude because I was already exhausted, then I had 30 minutes to glam up, put all my make-up on and take on a style that was completely conflicting from the character I had been playing. When I got there, I put so much effort in and he was just texting through it. I stopped the show and told him: 'When you've finished that text message, I'll carry on.'"
But Faith must have done something right that day because a few months later she was invited back and given a record deal. Although her fervour served her well on that occasion, it hasn't always. The singer was criticised last year when she complained publicly about failing to receive a Brit award nomination, telling the entertainment website Digital Spy: "I just felt that, given the other people who were nominated, I deserved to be nominated too." The singer achieved her ambition this year however, earning a British Solo Female nod, although ultimately losing to Laura Marling.
But despite her fiery reputation and theatrical flair, Faith believes she is actually a somewhat bashful person and that her showgirl alter-ego helps her to cope with the natural trials of being a performer.
"I try to adopt a very confident, dominant female persona when I'm onstage, but I don't think I really am underneath it. If I went onstage looking like I do when I'm hanging around at home I think I'd be too afraid to perform. It saves me from running off in fear," she says. "Everyone's got their insecurities, but I don't think you want anybody to know what they are when you're a performer."
Faith returns to the idea of insecurity when discussing her cameo in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But rather than expressing doubts about her portrayal of Sally - the girlfriend of the devilish Mr Nick, played by fellow singer Tom Waits - it was her co-star that she believes was feeling anxious. Faith claims the experience of acting alongside the gravel-voiced blues legend was an eye-opener, due to his surprising tendency to forget his lines and second-guess his own performance.
"I learnt that everyone in the business, no matter how highly you regard them, is deeply insecure - because he was as well. He's not flawless and he's not über confident, and I thought that was refreshing."
Despite Waits's alleged insecurities, Faith says she was not disappointed by her encounter with the notoriously gloomy troubadour. "He's exactly what he says on the tin; he's Tom Waits on and offstage. Sometimes you hear about people being really mysterious and then offstage they're really cool and laid back, but everything he said just sounded like a line in one of his songs."
Faith's list of impressive collaborators does not end with Waits. She teamed-up with the Wu-Tang Clan alumnus Ghostface Killah last year for a reworking of her single New York and also appeared (under the pseudonym Cat-Girl) on the 2009 album Born Like This by the underground hip-hop artist Doom. The singer had the questionable luck of meeting the rapper - famed for wearing a metal face-mask during all public appearances - on the night of Halloween.
"He's friends with the guy that did the engineering for me in the studio," she says. "We went out one night and I didn't know who [Doom] was because I'm not into hip-hop. He was wearing the mask and I told him to take it off. He said he didn't want to reveal his secret identity. I said: 'I haven't got a clue who you are, mate.' Then he started laughing and took it off."
With her first album now almost two years behind her, Faith has begun writing the follow-up. She claims that a common criticism of her debut has been that the recordings failed to showcase the vocal power she brings to her live shows.
"The songs I wrote didn't necessarily challenge me vocally. I'm able to sing in a much more gymnastic way... So I'm focusing much more on the melodies and pushing myself to show-off my capabilities."
Her screen life is also busy, with plans to appear in a film about the punk movement later this year. She is in the early stages of writing a screenplay and hopes to one day try her hand at directing.
But first, Faith will bring a little razzle-dazzle to the Abu Dhabi Corniche, for one night only. If you're there, just remember not to text.
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