Last year's X Factor runner-up Fleur East releases her debut album 'Love, Sax and Flashbacks' today.
The bubbly star was in Dublin recently, so we caught up with her for a chat about her pre-TV show life as a musician, going through the X Factor process, recording her fab debut album in Los Angeles and stealing Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars's thunder with her stunning performance of 'Uptown Funk'.
It's been a hectic year for you, to say the least – getting the album done, the X Factor tour and everything in-between. What have been the highlights and the lowlights?
It's been interesting. I guess a mini-lowlight would have initially been told that I was runner-up, because it's kind of bittersweet at that moment; you get that far and you want to win. So I was kind of in a state of limbo after that, not knowing what was gonna happen – and thankfully in January, I was told that I got signed. I went straight onto the X Factor tour, which was amazing. I was thrown into the deep end and it was hard work, but it was a lot of fun. After that, I was just going between London and LA, writing and creating the album, which has been so much fun. I think a highlight during that period was shooting the video for 'Sax' in LA – that was a lot of fun.
Everybody's talking about the X Factor, but you were a working artist before you even auditioned. Has it been strange for you to be referred to as 'Fleur from The X Factor', considering your past?
Yeah, it's funny because the perception is that the typical X Factor contestant is the person who's just working 9 to 5, and just decides to one day go and audition. So yeah, for me it was a very different story. I'd been trying to make it in the industry for ten years prior to even auditioning, but I think it was an achievement for me, actually, to get that far – and for people in the industry to see someone like me who's actually tried and worked hard for all those years to go on a talent show. There's a stigma attached to it – it's 'Oh, it's just people who want to be a superstar overnight; it's not for serious artists'. But y'know, for someone like me, I felt like I'd exhausted a lot of my options. I'd been trying and it just wasn't working – and X Factor gave me that platform that I needed. And here I am; I wouldn't be here without the show.
It was your second time going on X Factor, actually; you'd previously auditioned with girl group Addictiv Ladies ten years ago. Was there any reluctance on your part, going back?
I was terrified (laughs). After my first room audition I got through to the next stage, but I was actually contemplating not going back to do the arena. I just thought to myself that I'd only done the first stage, and if I didn't go any further, there was a chance that I could still duck out. I got really terrified and I kind of thought that I wasn't prepared for the machine that it was – 'cos when I did it ten years ago, it was nowhere near as popular as it is now. So that was scary, but then I just thought I had nothing to lose, and I felt like I had to take a risk – so I just went for it.
It's certainly paid off! Going back to your early days and how you first got into music – did you come from a musical household?
Yes, my mum is from Ghana and she used to play highlife music in the house, and my dad used to listen to music. Neither of them can sing – they claim that they could sing when they were younger, but I don't believe that you just lose your singing ability as you grow older (laughs). But they both just loved music; they used to play music through headphones onto my mum's stomach before I was born and when I was three, they bought me a keyboard. I used to just sit in the living room and make up songs on the keyboard. So they definitely had a huge influence on me. It's funny, because my mum's heard a few songs on my album and she says 'Oh, this reminds me of music that I partied to growing up', which is so interesting because obviously their musical taste had a huge influence on me.
At what point did you realise that you had a talent for singing?
I think I was just always singing, but I was a closet singer – so I would sing in my room and my parents would hear me. So I think it was then. I remember my mum popping into my room once and saying 'Wow, you're amazing – sing that again!'. I used to hate performing in front of anybody, but I was forced to sing in front of family, at family gatherings. Then it slowly developed and I started to love it.
Who were your idols growing up? I hear a lot of Whitney Houston and En Vogue and that sort of '80s/'90s pop sound on the album.
Yeah, definitely. I was also definitely a huge fan of Destiny's Child growing up; Brandy, Michael Jackson – all of the Jacksons, really – it was a real eclectic mix. I listened to Simply Red, George Michael, Bob Marley… a wide variation of stuff.
You went to LA to record – was that a deliberate move? It certainly sounds like it would work in the US market.
Yeah, definitely. When I sat down with my team from Syco, and we initially decided the direction, they just automatically came up with amazing people in LA that I had to work with. We had that confirmed from pretty early on. But it was amazing to go there, just walking through the studio and seeing the plaques on the wall belonging to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé and Alicia Keys… it was such an honour to go in there. And I think it was good for me, too; it pushed me a lot to work harder, because I felt a lot of pressure to go into those studios and writing with those people. So it was good.
Did you have a very clear direction of how you wanted the album to sound, or was it a process of discovery?
It's interesting. I drew on lots of different influences that I grew up with, but I always knew that I wanted it to be uptempo, and I wanted it to sound reminiscent of the old music that I listened to, but with a modern twist. My main aim was to try to get through, in the sound of the music, a sense of performance. That’s really difficult to do, because unless you see something or have a visual, it's hard to imagine that. So it was really important to me to get the energy across in the music; as soon as you listen to it, you get a sense of performance.
A lot of people would assume that because you're coming from an X Factor background, that you don't get to have input with stuff like that.
I made sure my voice was hear, 100%. I think it comes with experience, wanting to get to this point for so long that I had to make sure that my voice was definitely heard. Thankfully, the team have been amazing: they've wanted to hear my ideas, they've taken everything on board and allowed me to have creative freedom. Now, I've got an album that I'm so proud of – that I can look back on and say 'Yeah, I was really happy with that. No one forced me to do anything I didn't want to do.'
Do you think your background in the industry generally prepared you for the recording process and gave you more experience of the dog-eat-dog nature of the industry?
Definitely, 100%. That's why - while I was on the road and struggling to get to this point – when people say to me 'Do you regret anything you've done, or do you wish it'd happened sooner?' At the time I did, but now, looking back, I'm glad that it happened now. I feel like I'm very aware of myself, I know who I am, I'm very grounded, I have the right people around me. I've got all that experience, so I'm not fazed by the glitz and glamour of everything. I realise how hard it is, and I'm prepared to work for it. I think that wouldn't have been the case if it'd happened when I was younger.
I have to ask you about 'Uptown Funk' – your first performance of it last year was pretty great. Do you remember how you felt after you'd come off stage?
I think it was probably the most positive reaction I'd got from the panel – a standing ovation, which I don't think I'd had before. And the crowd, they just kept cheering – I'll never forget that. Even while the judges were speaking, it was still going on. I think it was when I saw my family and they said 'Fleur, we witnessed a moment there'; the mood and the feeling in the room was so electric that they didn't know what to say. Then I realised that it was a big moment, yeah.
Have you met Mark Ronson since? Has he forgiven you for stealing his thunder and forcing him to bring forward the release of the song by 5 weeks?!
Yeah, I met him at the BRITS actually. He sort of said 'Oh, I feel like I owe you a drink, or something' (laughs). That was it, I haven't seen him since. But he was very nice.
Lead single 'Sax' has done extremely well so far – coming in at #3 behind Justin Bieber and Adele. You can't argue with that.
Not at all (laughs). I'm always hopeful and I always dream big anyway, but it's one thing dreaming and another thing when it actually happens. And considering the marketplace as well; there's so many people releasing around this time and Adele was dominating the charts for three weeks. There were so many things against me as a new artist an also the 'on air/on sale' system that's changed everything – and a lot of people are struggling. It's a scary time to release, to be honest – so when I was told it was number three, I was amazed. I feel like I've already had a number one.
The album sounds very palatable for the American market, too – is that something that you're aiming for in 2016?
I hope so. That would be incredible, because so many of the artists that I look up to are American. There's always this view that it's the Americans who are the greats, that you always kind of look up to them – but I want to be the person from the UK who does that for us. I feel like we've got a lot of talent here, and to be fair in recent years, it is getting recognised a lot more overseas with people like Ed Sheeran, Adele. We're crossing over a lot more – so I just want to be that person who says 'We have performers in the UK, too! We have entertainers!'. So we'll see what happens.
Finally, what do you think you'd be doing now, if you hadn't auditioned last year? You studied journalism at college, right?
Yeah, I did journalism and history at uni. I think that was just something for me, though, just to achieve a degree. It's something I always wanted to do, but I knew that I would always do music. I don't know… I think I was trying so many different things – maybe looking into giving vocal lessons, or teaching music, or fitness, getting into personal training… but I didn't ever fully commit to any of those, because the thought of going down a different path scared me. I didn't want to look back in ten years' time and say 'I wish I'd pursued my singing, because I could have made it.' I didn't want to have that regret, so I just kept pushing and I was so persistent.
'Love, Sax and Flashbacks' is out now.