Hello and welcome to a very special edition of DiS Does Pop, the pop column for those people who downloaded Adele's 'Sky-fawl' at 0:07 in the morning and ended up feeling peckish for some 'crum-bowl'. In case you hadn’t noticed - and let’s be honest, you hadn’t - it’s our birthday this month. To celebrate this achievement, we got on the phone with three of the best popstars the UK has to offer: Marina and the Diamonds, Jessie Ware and Ruby Goe. The 'Three Queens of British Pop' as we decided to dub them.
We think these three women have managed to stand above the fray in 2012 by unleashing great songs with a personality and creativity that is unrivalled in British music. In the guise of Electra Heart, Marina Diamandis took a pop concept album to Number 1 in the charts. With Devotion, Jessie Ware carved a masterclass in effortless earworms and was rewarded with a Mercury Prize nomination. Finally, you may not know Ruby Goe but with the independently released ‘Badman’ and ‘Sq1’ she has firmly established herself as an immensely talented ‘one to watch’ for 2013.
To (re-)introduce the lot of them to you, we chatted about why Fiona Apple just can’t cheer up a bit, the perils of living around crack addicts and what makes a good knuckleduster.
It’s pop but not as you know it.
P.S. Because we're extra nice and want to make sure you make the most out of your DiS Does Pop experience, you can skip to your preferred interview using the links below
P.P.S. You will find the archive of previous DiS Does Pop columns compiled for prosperity over this'a way. These columns include The Top 10 girl bands of all-time... ever, a chat with Pete Waterman, The 10 Commandments of Teen Pop and Sugababes' One Touch re-appraisal, which somehow doesn't use the word AMAZEBALLS.
Marina, Jessie & Ruby
How would you describe your music to the readers of Drowned In Sound?
Marina: The blueprint for the second album was a dark, bubblegum pop album. So it’s quite an electronic record, the lyrics are quite dire and sarcastic. That’s about it really!
Jessie: I don’t want to sound like a wanker so I don’t know. I hate doing this but the nearest I can say is British electronic soul or that’s what I’d like people to think it is.
Ruby: [Laughs] I hate this question.... Heartfelt lyrics, pretty melodies and piano-lead dance pop.
What was the first single you bought?
Marina: ‘Pretty Fly For A White Guy’ by The Offspring. It’s embarrassing and we both know it...
Jessie: It was probably a Take That single, that’s not going to go down well with Drowned In Sound is it? It was probably the Barry Manilow cover, “Come, come into my arms”, ‘Could It Be Magic’.
Ruby: Paula Abdul and that weird cartoon character [MC Skat Kat]. What was it called? ‘Opposites Attract’... I’ve got better taste since then.
Who was your biggest inspiration to become a singer?
Marina: I’ve said these two so many times it’s probably a bit tired but I loved Madonna and Britney Spears when I was growing up. When I was 19/20, I started to learn the keyboard and got into Daniel Johnson, The Distillers, PJ Harvey and Fiona Apple as well. I love Fiona Apple!
I have [heard her new album] and I just want her to be happy. Do you get that feeling? Obviously, I’m a huge fan but I listened to it and I think I need to listen to it again because I was like, ‘I just want you to be happy Fiona!’
Jessie: Maybe Billie Holiday or Whitney Houston. I remember just being a teenager and being introduced to Billie Holiday because I was singing over jazz standards at school, her voice was so powerful. So enchanting. With Whitney she was just one of those singers who was always played in the car on journeys. I loved her pop songs and how she sang with every performance.
Ruby: I don’t know. I think Nina Simone and also my mum was a singer. She died when I was a few months old... my dad told me she singer but I’ve never heard any of her music or her voice.
When was the last time you wrote a song?
Marina: Yesterday. Sometimes it take a few weeks to get a song together entirely, it usually does actually I hardly ever finish them on the day. That was just writing for the joy of writing.
Jessie: About a couple of months ago, I’ve been so busy doing promo I haven’t had a chance to write any songs.
Ruby: Yesterday. I’ve been in LA writing three songs a day for the last fourteen days. Some of it’s going towards the album. I’m writing for different projects too, we’re doing songs to pitch and also songs just for me. So we’ve definitely got a few definite contenders for the next single and some album tracks as well.
What would you rather do: get a Number 1 single, sell out the O2 Arena or win a BRIT Award?
Marina: The second one definitely, because that’s what I connect longevity with out of the three. You can have a Number 1 and get a BRIT Award but not really be a presence in music five years later.
Jessie: Hahaha. I think sell out the O2 Arena.
Ruby: Number 1 single. No! Sell out the O2, I love playing live. You can’t really replicate the feeling of being front of loads of people who know your songs and appreciate what you do.
Marina and the Diamonds
‘How To Be A Heartbreaker’ is the next single from Electra Heart. Was it easier to write from that vacuous side of the persona compared to the tragic songs?
Kind of, they’re definitely quicker to write because when you’re being purposely tongue in cheek you don’t think so much about how much people are going to react as you do when you’re doing something like ‘Teen Idol’ or ‘Fear and Loathing’.
How long do those songs take to come together?
‘Heartbreaker’ took a while because I started writing it with Benny Blanco in New York, I had a vocal hemorrhage at the time, I did maybe a day on it and wrote half the lyrics and then we just stopped recording because I couldn’t do anymore. Then I finshed it two months later, so in that time I honed the lyrics. With pop music I feel a lot of it is the last 5% where you’re just polishing it and making everything clear.
It’s the same with ‘Primadonna’, the verses came out really quickly in like 20 minutes and the chorus took fucking forever.
How much did your choice of producer affect the song you wrote. So if you’re writing with Dr Luke, do you know you’re going to come out with an uptempo pop song?
It massively affects everything and that was what I was most surprised by on this record. If I had written ‘Primadonna’ on guitar and recorded it on the guitar it would have had a different reaction from the leftfield indie press. Whereas if the producer you’re working with turns it into an upbeat dance-pop record then it applies to a completely different audience.
I was thinking about this the other day, it almost seals the fate of the song and also the fate of your fanbase, so you better be sure the person you’re picking is who you want to create your sound for you.
That must be quite an intimidating choice to make?
Yeah it was because, let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone goes to Dr Luke to make a soul record. It’s weird because I recognise I’m a singer-songwriter but as a performer I like a more theatrical show. You almost need that mix because, I can’t be like Cat Power or Fiona Apple and just sit at a piano.
You suffered a vocal fold hemorrhage just around the time the album came out. I'm sure that was a frustrating experience?
It’s the ultimate shitter! It really fucked up my promo, especially for Germany and some other countries I literally did no promo in but that’s just life. It’s only a month ago I started to go out again but it wasn’t too bad. I had friends who used to come around and I’d just write things on my iPad.
Where have you been out since?
It’s usually on tour but the other week we had a weird Christmas party on my bus. That was quite weird but it was literally the best Christmas party ever.
They do that in June in Australia too because it’s the coldest time of year. They just stick on their woolies and have a party
What? Oh my god my mind is blown, I never knew that.
Where were you when you found out Electra Heart was a Number 1 album?
I was in a pub with a pint of cider in front of me. They tell you at noon so you have to keep your mouth shut until six o’ clock. You know when you’re looking forward to something big and you imagine it’s going to happen in this amazing romantic way. I just got a text from my A&R saying, ‘Congrats on the Number 1’.
I was like, ‘What?’. So I called my manager and he wouldn’t answer for an hour because he was fucking golfing. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen like you want it to but it was good though, it was a lovely day.
You’ve mentioned Electra Heart is about modern themes like ‘love and commercialism’ but you dealt with them through an old stereotype of the Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde maneater. Why the contrast?
I don’t know. It’s a mixture of things, on a very normal level it’s almost as clichéd as when you break up with someone you just want to cut yourself off from that part of your life. Looking back on it, I was just depressed all the time so in a childish naive way I was just like. 'I want to dye my hair blonde'. Then I did it and I was right in the middle of writing the album. I think the image fitted some of the songs like ‘Homewrecker’ and ‘Bubblegum Bitch’.
Also, I think at the time I was obsessed with such a big sound change from the first album having total control to the second album having half the control, so honesty and art aside, I used the pop model to open myself up to a bigger fanbase and a bigger audience. Image-wise, I think if you’re playing with those themes you may as well go the whole hog.
Several critics insinuated that the Electra Heart persona was invented as a means for you to justify selling out. How would you respond to that?
It’s quite valid in that in the beginning, I think I released 'Radioactive' in the summer before Electra Heart came out and I had kind of thought about those themes. I mean, I don’t see Electra Heart as being an album about cynicism and commercialism at all, I see it as an album about being young and being in love with someone who doesn’t love you.
But at the time, I didn’t want to say that and also I didn’t know why I wanted to create this character and I felt like when I had done an interview with Popjustice, I kind of made out that... I don’t know, I think that I wasn’t allowed to change and that deep down I wanted to write a pop album and to be a popstar. For some reason, I felt like people wouldn’t allow me to do that which is stupid because I love the album. So I should have just never said anything and accepted that some people would have said ‘she’s not credible anymore’ and that some people would start to be a fan of me; because that’s what always happens when you change your music.
I find Electra Heart quite a sad album to listen to but you must have had a lot of fun making it. Is there a particular happy memory that stands out?
Yeah about halfway through when I started to write songs like ‘Bubblegum Bitch’, ‘Homewrecker’ and ‘Teen Idol’, so it was more towards the end when I was writing the fun songs. I just think I changed moods really, it’s really weird to talk about it because if you haven’t been through a really bitter, depressed phase in your life then you can’t really picture or position yourself in it but I definitely was like that on the first album. I wasn’t really enjoying my life and I thought, ‘I’m still really young, these years aren’t going to last forever’. Once I realised that I began to write much more freely and much more playfully as well. So the pop persona became more accentuated because that’s what pop’s about.
Because it’s written in the first-person, I was wondering if anyone has come up to you and said they related to the lyrics in the songs?
Yeah massively especially in the teen and gay communities, they sort of cut through the review crap and it’s just a completely different response. Especially with songs like ‘Teen Idol’, ‘State Of Dreaming’ and ‘Lies’ are the ones which people relate to the most.
On your Family Jewels tour you had three costume changes and a confetti cannon. How do you plan to top that?
I might have four costume changes now! I’ve got all-new outfits, got some new songs added in it. We’re doing the style of venues, just places I haven’t been to before, so you have to keep it the same to a certain extent. Some of them are much bigger than before and others are in different places, I’ve never been to Preston in my life. The biggest shows I’ve done are 2,500 people, so I really enjoy playing in those big theatres.
Name an ambition you haven’t achieved yet?
I suppose to be recognised as a good songwriter. I think that’s it.
Do you not feel like you are already?
No not really. Especially with this new album because it’s more pop, people feel it’s not genuine or doesn’t have the same depth as if I’d produced it in a cave in the back alleys of Wales. I also don’t think that’s a thing that’s specific to me, I think that’s a pop thing in general.
I think people can be quite dismissive about pop music. Especially, pop music with a concept behind it
It’s a strange thing and I think concepts aren’t very popular anyway. I love it when an artist has a central theme, it shows that they’ve made an effort. Not everyone can do that but that’s the artist who I’ve always been drawn to.
Finally, can we expect anything new from you after 'How To Be A Heartbreaker' because the single wasn’t on the British edition of the album?
I don’t think so. I think ‘Lies’ could be released after ‘Heartbreaker’. I’ve got a Deluxe Edition of the album with four new tracks already.
In the articles you wrote for The Jewish Chronicle your name is written as Jessica Ware. Why the change to Jessie?
My first release was with SBTRKT, it was a song called ‘Nervous’. Everyone calls me Jessie but with journalism I figured I should have my proper name like ‘Jessica' [pronounces this in posh English accent]. It felt weird to use Jessica in a relaxed music setting...
Jessica is quite a formal name
Yeah, it’s very formal and Jessica Simpson had already been there so I just thought she could keep the Jessica title. And then Jessie J came along!
You’ve described '110%' as you “trying to get away with R&B”. When can you tell you’ve gotten away with a song?
I don’t know, I think there’s something about when you’ve been writing a demo all day and you’re still singing it on the way home and you’re excited to show it to other people. I always play my songs to my boyfriend and my best mate and you can immediately tell whether they like it or not.
Also, I think you know when you come out of a session whether it’s right or not. When I wrote ‘Running’ and ‘110%’, those songs just stayed in your head. I felt really proud of them and I did want to show them off.
It seems like your choice of producers was really important in terms of making the album you wanted. What’s the best piece of advice you were given while making Devotion?
Dave [Okumu of The Invisible] just made me less scared about songwriting. He was like, ‘It’s okay you can get it wrong. What’s wrong for you is right for somebody else, just get it out.’ Also, ‘Be true to yourself’. I know that sounds cheesy but if you don’t believe what you’re saying then no-one is going to believe you.
So did you have to get it wrong at lot?
Yeah, oh my god, I got it wrong so much! Got it wrong to the point where I thought, I’m just going to have to face it, ‘I just can’t write a song’. This has been a fun ride but hey ho!' And then it just kind of clicked but yeah god, I just had a load of shit demos.
You know it isn’t right and you’re having to play them to your manager and, bless ‘em they’re very polite, but you just know it’s not right. Absolutely, I’ve got loads of crap songs.
What was the song it clicked with?
It varies because basically, Dave offered up this song ‘Devotion’ to me. He’d thought of the music, it was our first writing session and he was like, ‘Look, I’ve come up with this idea for you, let me know if you like it.’ What he’d made and what we carried on writing, just made so much sense and was a really amazing feeling.
It was like, ‘Wow! This guy who I haven’t actually met before listened to my voice'... We’d been emailing each other before, ‘Really looking forward to meeting you. This is what I’ve been listening to.’ And he just kind of created this really wonderful present and he offered it to me. That was one time where... I feel like Dave did a lot of the work for that but it helped me work out what my sound was. That’s why I love collaborating with people.
It made sense for us to keep working and be friends after that. More and more, songwriting for me where I felt really proud was ‘Running’ or ‘Wildest Moments’. Where I was like ‘Yeah! Wow, this hasn’t been a painful experience and it’s actually come out easy’. There are a few like that on the album where I was like, ‘Maybe I can actually write a song’.
On Devotion, you come across as a really hyper-confident singer but I know when making the album you struggled at first. Is that your singing persona or just a side to your personality you had to discover?
No, I think it’s something that I grew into. I had to work a lot of things out and once it worked the rest of it came quite easily. It wasn’t something I adopted, it was just trial and error really. In a way you know what inspires you and you don’t want to totally emulate them but you want to bring those inspirations into your music. It was just about working with the right people.
And how did you hook up with those right people, I know you got your initial break as a backing singer in Jack Peñate’s band?
It was through my friend Tic [Jack Peñate’s bassist] who works at Young Turks. He’s been a friend of mine for ages and he was like, ‘Why don’t you try and do a session with this guy?’ The guy was SBTRKT, he hadn’t been signed yet but he was making really exciting music, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. I can never forget that a friend put me in that position.
With Dave, my manager met him at a barbecue and said, ‘You’d get on’. With Kid Harpoon [who also produced some of Devotion], I watched him play when I was younger and I got introduced to him as a songwriter. I love that feeling that people help each other out, I feel really blessed because I’ve had that a lot where people have put my name forward really.
Did you put a lot of pressure to live up to that faith which was invested in you?
Yeah absolutely! Once you get signed I was like, ‘Fuck. Not only have I got to work out what I want to do but I’ve also not got to let other people down.’ It was petrifying and thankfully it’s working out now.
What was really lovely about working with PMR [Jessie’s label - an Island Records subsidiary] was that they put the trust in me but they put no pressure, even when I was doing the really crap songs. There was an inherent belief that I was going to be able to work it out. You hear other horror stories about other record labels and I didn’t have that at all.
Do you think you’d have been able to reach where you are now on an independent label?
I can’t really say. I’ve had a great experience of all the record industry. I’ve put out tunes on Numbers which is a small Glaswegian label which is amazing. I put out with Young Turks and they really looked after me and PMR and Island. I can’t really tell but all the people I’ve worked with so far have been great.
There’s a really strong aesthetic to your artwork and your videos. How much input do you have in that?
It’s absolutely coming from me. For my last three videos Kate [Moross] has been my art director, we’ve worked on my font to my website. She does all my art stuff, so it made sense to ask her to do my videos because she could just execute it. I know what I want and I don’t want to ever regret doing something.
How do you decide how you want to present yourself?
What was important for me is that I never want to appear trashy. I want my mum to be able to watch my stuff and be proud and be able to show her friends. Looking sophisticated and classy and something that couldn’t be too current.
I know how things make me feel, nostalgic things, I love people like Whitney Houston and Sade and they had huge success in other decades. No-one’s original, so it's me trying to give nods to people who have really influenced me and been there when I was growing up.
My favourite song on the album is ‘Taking Water’. Can you explain what the song is about?
[Surprised] Oh brilliant. It’s about my little brother who wasn’t having a very good time. I’m quite hard on him and I haven’t always communicated myself well enough. I think I’ve appeared quite mean and I love him dearly because he’s my little brother. That was just me trying to say it in a song.
Did you do anything to celebrate Devotion being a Top 5 album?
I went out for a late lunch with my boyfriend, we had some friends round to mine and we went out to a pub in Brixton. Then we had a little do at ours and my mate got his nose broken outside my flat.
It was awful! The police came round. I was like, ‘This isn't supposed to happen, I’m Number 5 in the charts. Who are you?’ It was quite funny, well it wasn't funny for my mate because he had a broken nose by the end of the night. So I was celebrating with friends and then unfortunately there was some crackhead outside our house.
Hi Ruby, you’re in LA at the moment. How’s it going?
It’s beautiful, it’s sunny. It’s so hot out here, it’s like 105 degrees at the moment so I’m having a very good time.
What have you been doing?
I’ve been recording with loads of different producers and writers out here. Alex Teamer, Soulshark, there’s a whole range of people.
That sounds awesome. Your new single ‘Sq1’ just hit the Internet this week. What’s it about?
It’s about a relationship where things have gone a bit sour and stagnant and you’re looking at that person and hoping things can get back to when they were good in the beginning. So, ‘If you’re willing to meet me at square one then I’m willing to meet you at square one’.
You seem to write a lot from that perspective. I know ‘Hurt’ was about one of your friends who was seeing someone’s husband...
[Laughs] That makes it seem really bad. It was about one of my friends who was in a ‘difficult relationship’ and I was writing it from the perspective of the guy she was seeing. When you write so much all the time, to stop sounding boring and samey it’s really good to look at things from other people’s perspective. Listening to other people’s problems and relationship issues is really great because even if you’ve never been in that position before you can get a different take on it.
When’s the album out?
We’re hoping it’s going to be early 2013, we want to get it just right. We’re finishing the EP with ‘Sq1’ right now and we’re going through the production of the album so it sounds like one cohesive piece of work.
Are trips to LA a regular thing?
No this is the first one but it’s been such a success we’re going to come back in a couple weeks.
Are there any songs you’ve written since being in LA that stand out?
I wrote a song two days ago called ‘Speechless’ and it just came out all in one go. I was stood at the mic, we had some chords jamming with the piano and I wrote it in about half an hour. It’s one of the best things I’ve written in the last year.
And you get to escape to the sun too
Yeah. You can’t avoid it here, it’s so beautiful and inspiring. Every time I go to a new place, especially when the sun’s shining, I end up having a flood of ideas. I’m very, very grateful.
What made you decide to stop writing songs as a hobby and make pop music you’re ‘career’?
I met a lot of different producers, I was doing a lot of demos as a session singer for other artists, so you go in the studio, sing the song and they send it off to pitch. From there I met a producer called Ian Barter [Amy Winehouse, Alex Clare, Paloma Faith]. He said, ‘You’ve got a really great voice and a really great tone, you should think about doing your own thing.’
From there we started writing loads and loads of songs together building up the sound. Other people got interested from Facebook, you put your demos up and then people show an interest and you start taking yourself more seriously but it’s always been a natural desire to write songs.
You’re releasing your music independently through your own label. Why did you decide to do things that way?
Well I was signed to Columbia for about two months [laughs] and that was about two and a half years ago. Basically I was signed by the same guy who signed Adele, MIA, Azelia Banks and a few others. He worked at Columbia and, as soon as he signed me, he got offered a job at Columbia and the new A&R guy just dropped his whole roster. That happens a lot, you get caught up in politics when you’re an artist and you can either give up and work at Tescos or carry on.
I think we live in an age where you have to do so much as an artist, because I’m that kind of person anyway I like to have creative control about what I’m doing, it’s made me much stronger than I would have been under the umbrella of a label. We’ve actually gone out to LA and got other offers now. I can’t talk about it that much but some of the labels we’ve had offers from have been incredible.
So you’re definitely not averse to going back on a bigger label?
Oh yeah once I’ve found the the right one, I will. The options we’ve got at the moment are really great so I’m going to take my time and decide where the best place is to be for me or I could be just back in the same position in six months time. I’m really enjoying the learning curve of running a label, making your creative decisions in different areas like your videos, your artwork, what single you want to do and what producer you want to work with.
It’s really rewarding. You get little things like this morning I woke up and I was told that 'Sq1' got played on radio for the first time. Obviously ‘Badman’ was playlisted and so was ‘Get On It’, so you feel those little victories as your own from top to bottom.
I know you’ve hooked up with Puma in the past. How important was its funding in terms of getting to where you are now?
Oh it was really important. Basically, I started working with them after they saw me at a gig in Cannes and they funded my last video. I played a couple of gigs for them as well like the Puma Olympic clothing party where Usain Bolt turned up, it was incredible. There was a mob crowd around him but it was great to be in the same room because he’s obviously a legend.
I think we’re in a place now, where there are so many ways to skin a cat if you need to get a release done and need financial support. It depends what’s important to you, if you want to keep creative control and you want to do it independently.
You’ve got your own jewellery range, By Rogue, which you said you started because you ‘wanted some good knuckle-dusters’. What makes a good knuckle-duster?
A good knuckle-duster is a statement, stunning, feminine and bold. You add crystals and pearls basically.
What did you do on your last day off?
I had an afternoon off a couple of days ago and I went on the Santa Monica Pier rollercoasters. It was amazing. An incredible view and absolutely stunning! Sometimes you have to stop and realise how lucky you are. Take a look at your surroundings when you got yourself from fuck all.