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Interview: Bebe Black

With an intensely striking vocal, a genuine knack for melody and effortless style, Bebe Black is a name worth keeping a very close eye on. The London-based, Columbia signee featured on a typically late-night Benga track ‘Icon’, and blends 90’s dance with a host of influences, ranging from jazz to grunge; throw in a punchy attitude, some dark subtext and the result is Black’s brand of sultry pop that has everything in place to find a home in our increasingly female-lead mainstream.

PlanetNotion: Where does the name come from – assuming you weren’t christened Bebe Black?
Bebe Black: I was christened Naomi, but Black is my surname. My Mum used to call me Bebe in letters, but she’d write ‘B.B.’ and then one day I just thought it worked as a stage name. Although sometimes I do regret it and think I should have just stayed as Naomi Black!

PN: You were studying fashion – how did you get into music?
BB: I went to St. Martins to study fashion and just didn’t really like it very much; it just wasn’t for me really, so I thought I’ll go and get a job. I went and worked at Topshop as a stylist, like a personal shopper. So I was doing fashion but just didn’t really wanna do it – I was dreaming of singing on the side but hadn’t sung for so many years because of nerves.

We’d get people in all the time that were singers and they’d be moaning, and I’d just think I can definitely do it better than you! You do appointments with people and they didn’t really seem to like their job, and I thought I definitely would rather be doing your job. So I left London, moved to Dorset, and ended up making music and getting in touch with old friends and it just sort of went from there really; I suppose slowly but surely my stage fright melted away!

PN: So did you sing growing up?
BB: Yeah, yeah definitely. And then I did a solo in a school show and I was so fucking terrified that I actually made a conscious decision that I am never, ever doing this again, so I just stopped. And then threw all my efforts into art and fashion and writing – I wanted to be a writer. I liked fashion and wanted to write about clothes, like that was totally feasible – “I’m just gonna go and be a fashion writer!” I wanted to write a book, I still would like to write a book – I think one day maybe I will.

PN: When did it you start to feel like a proper artist then?
BB: I was in this little duo, and we used to do sort of jazz and blues. I don’t know what it was really. I think maybe just when people like enjoyed it? We always wrote our own tracks but I really don’t know when it suddenly clicked, or when I thought I can do this as a proper job. I think ’cause I used to get the odd fifty quid here and there – “I’m a pro I just got fifty quid for doing that show!” Then I just started writing on my own because I wanted to write more sort of pop. I said to the guys, “Come on let’s do this”, and I think they didn’t really like what I was writing – which is fine – so I was like okay I’ll give it a crack on my own and then people seemed to like it!

PN: How did the Benga collaboration come about?
BB: Well we’re both signed to Columbia Records and then my A&R man Mike Pickering sent me the track and was like, “Do you like this? Could you give this a crack?” and I was like, “Yeah!” I was a fan of Benga; I am still obviously a fan of Benga, but beforehand was like, “Yeah okay I’ll give this a go!”

PN: How did Columbia approach you?
BB: It was through my management, I just played to them. Well I played to Mike Smith – that was who signed me – and then I also played to Mike Pickering, who has Deconstruction Records, but they decided to do it together. I put the tracks on MySpace – very old school, no Soundcloud, couldn’t work out how to do a Soundcloud properly! And then put the link to the MySpace on Facebook and was like, “Everybody listen to these tracks that I’ve done”, because at that point people had only heard me really do like blues. This was like over 2 years ago; it feels like it just sort of happened over night almost. I’d lost my job, I was on the doll at that point and it really took me by surprise because I didn’t know how they were going to go down – it was only me that had heard them really, and a few other people.

PN: Did you produce them yourself then?
BB: It was a friend (well an ex-friend) – I guy that I know back in my home town, but don’t worry about that because he’s a…

PN: But he helped you start it all?
BB: Well… Yes and no… It was like a bedroom recording that went on the MySpace and people seemed to like it, so it just went form there and all happened to quickly. I put the stuff online and then my friend was like, “Do you wanna play my night?” It was Valentine’s Day and I was like, “Fuck i haven’t got a band!” These are really big songs so I thought there’s no way I was gonna sit there on the piano on my own because I’d make a right pigs ear of it! Everything happened so quickly, and all of a sudden I was playing to this room of industry people and it was my first gig and I was like oh shit… That’s how it all happened – quite a whirlwind.

PN: How would you describe your live show?
BB: We do either full band, and we have everything on there, so it’s a really big sound. We have lots of equipment, people get quite scared when we turn up! Then we also do an acoustic set up where Alex, who’s also in the band, plays keys and it’s just me and him; he’s probably the best pianist I’ve ever heard. They’re session musicians and they’re lovely, it feels like my full band.

PN: What about festivals this summer?
BB: We’re playing a few small festivals: Sound Island festival – that’s like Plan B, Rita Ora – that’ll be quite fun, but we’re obviously getting ready to release the single.

PN: When’s that out?
BB: I can’t actually remember, the date keeps changing! I keep hearing different dates, I don’t officially know it, but I have it on my email. I probably should check!

PN: It’s great to see it getting Radio One play.
BB: Well I was being hypnotised at the time so I didn’t hear it – long story! But I heard it afterwards on iPlayer. She got my name wrong, it is “Bebe” (pronounced “Bee-bee”), she said like, “Bebé”, she even made a joke and was like, “She’ll go to america one day and they’ll be like [mockingly] ‘Bebe’”, taking the piss, it was like oh no – that is how you say it! But she’s (Sara Cox) amazing – it was quite surreal. Apparently my sister cried. My sister’s pregnant and she was driving and said she had to pull over, hormones everywhere, and then she called my mum saying, “I heard her on the radio!” It was like calm down you’re gonna cause an accident!

PN: What about the album?
BB: The album’s coming out on 9th September and it’s called Bury My Love.

PN: What are your main influences?
BB: I went through a lot of phases growing up and I do think they all sort of contribute, subconsciously. The punk thing was always quite a big deal for me, with a bit of grunge thrown in, because I always used to looked at Courtney Love and thought, “When I grow up I’m gonna be like Courtney Love.” I think I even had a sort of blog… I absolutely adored her basically! It’s kind of like a lot go girls growing up visualising their wedding day, or what your kids are gonna be called, or what your husband’s gonna look like, and I just thought I’m gonna be on the stage like Courtney Love, and I’m gonna play guitar and be fucking wild! I don’t play guitar and I’m nothing like her, but I do still have this little thing inside me that adores her as much as i did when I was a 13 year old girl. All of those women, Siouxsie Sioux – I think I’ve said her in every interview I’ve ever done – I adore her, think she’s such an incredible woman; I just loved all that really.

I think that’s where the fashion interest came from ’cause I loved that whole movement in the 70′s in the UK, going into the goth movement. I love that in this country we have such a strong visual identity that goes with our music and I think that’s why fashion and music came hand-in-hand for me, because I think the British are doing it better than anybody else. Apart from Courtney [Love], she’s an American. But actually she is British by proxy because she did lose her virginity in England I think, so she’s a little bit British!

All these strong women, with strong identities, who had a lot to say in they lyrics. Even like Gwen Stefani; I grew up absolutely adoring Gwen Stefani. I think actually No Doubt – ‘Don’t Speak‘ was the first single I ever bought, with like birthday money.

PN: That’s a lot better than most “first single you ever bought” answers.
BB: I bought it from John Menzies, so that says a lot about how old I am! Old school – like Woolworths, God rest it!

PN: What inspired you to start out with jazz and blues-style music then?
BB: The jazz and the blues have sort of just always been there. I’m not suggesting that it’s jazz or blues, but I loved Marilyn Monroe growing up; she had that voice, that kind of heavy vibrato. I loved all that cute stuff, almost like musicals, and as you get a bit older you realise, and you go a bit deeper, and you start liking Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday and Etta James, those voices – there are just so many.

PN: So it’s vocal driven?
BB: I love vocals. I love a strong, beautiful vocal, not just on a woman, also a man. There’s just something about those… Like Édith Piaf – beautifully raw. I sort of wish there were more vocalists. Like I already want to make my second album; I’d love it to be more stripped back. I shouldn’t being saying that – I’ve not even released my first one!

PN: I think the power of your vocal comes through from what we’ve heard.
BB: I sort of feel there are hardly any of those beautiful vocalists at the moment. I think the last one was like Amy Winehouse – beautiful, beautiful. Imperfect at times, but just so precious. Obviously Adele – gorgeous, gorgeous voice.

PN: Jessie Ware?
BB: I think she’s different, she’s like really classy, you know? Someone like Billie Holiday, who was a bit broken? That sounds awful like, “Jessie Ware, if only you were a bit more nuts!” I don’t mean that at all! I don’t know, I just love it when someone’s pain comes out through their singing; when someone’s story comes through and you can literally hear it in every little inflection – it’s so beautiful. But I am a massive Jessie Ware fan let’s just get that straight! Not like “Bebe thinks Jessie Ware has a rubbish voice!” Not at all.

PN: We won’t twist your words! London Grammar come to mind with vocally-driven music at the moment.
BB: You know what, it’s funny, they were on after us… We played Leeds and Liverpool on the same day – it was Leeds; girl with blonde hair? I heard her warming up and you could just tell from how she was warming up, like I bet her voice is incredible.

PN: Perhaps it’s a bit cleaner, without those imperfections you were talking about.
BB: There’s nothing wrong with clean. I hope this is not coming across the wrong way because anyone with a beautiful voice should be celebrated for it – like it was back then with Billie Holliday, and then Amy Winehouse – I just think she was a treasure, I genuinely think she is still one of the most exciting artists I’ve ever loved and been a fan of, so I’m just excited to see who the next gem is going to be. I feel like there’s a like a little gap opening up.

PN: She certainly left a massive gap.
BB: She paved the way. I honestly don’t think there would be as many female artists if it wasn’t for Amy Winehouse – she really did sort of bash it down for women. I was still in school when i first heard her; she was the first one who was stripped back, just on stage with a jazz vocal and I was always almost bit ashamed because my voice because it didn’t have that husk, and I did secretly still listen to musicals! She showed that you can still be really punchy and really fierce and write these sad beautiful songs, like there was no fucking jazz singers in the mainstream before her.

PN: Was it a conscious decision to write jazz-influenced music then?
BB: Not consciously, but I definitely think she made it cooler to be a female singer-songwriter, because she was so gritty and sexual, but the jazz influence was always there. My Mum loves those vocalists and Dad – God rest him – always loved all that. I guess it’s an amalgamation of all those incredible female artists.

PN: So where does the more 90′s inspired sound come from? It seems well-timed with the mainstream dance resurgence.
BB: The timing wasn’t intentional really. I finished the album a year ago, so it’s felt like a really slow process. But I think so much of it is because I’m getting really impatient – I already want to write my second album! It’s me that’s going to bed at night thinking about it coming out, and I think about it when I wake up in the morning. But I guess nobody else is thinking about my career, why should they! It feels like a long time, but I guess it’s not in the grand scheme of things. But yeah, the album was written a while ago

As for the 90s? I just told my management I didn’t want it to all be piano ballads, ’cause that’s how I was writing at the time. Then I went into co-writes, trying to find a clash of sounds because I had this voice that was a little bit jazzy but I didn’t want people to be like, “she’s trying to be this kind of singer, or that kind of singer” – I wanted it to be something a bit fresh and different – I hope it is. You know when you’ve heard something so much, I don’t even know if it’s shit anymore!

PN: ‘Deathwish‘ was the track that really caught our attention. How did that come about?
BB: ‘Deathwish’ comes from a blues song. It was an a cappella vocal track by someone called Vera Hall, recorded in – let’s say for sake of argument – 1940 something. It was just this beautiful vocal, so we started putting it with drums – I’ve got the original demo we did that’s not as dancey – I actually prefer it!? I would love to put it out. Even this morning I was listening to it – it’s dirty and darker.

PN: Maybe you could add it onto the album? Like a bonus track? Or one that comes on right at the end, after a long silence?
BB: Yes! Like on Nevermind – it scares the life out of you!

- George O’Brien

Bury My Love is out September 9 on Columbia.

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