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Lulu James Notion Magazine

Issue 66: Lulu James “Proper Buzzing” Feature

A Geordie Grace Jones in the making? From icy electronica to house bangers, Lulu James has it all.

 

WORDS / Chris Mandle
PHOTOGRAPHY / James Moriarty
STYLING / Jo Shippen
HAIR, MAKE-UP & NAILS / Holly Silius using Mac Pro, Bumble & Bumble and H&H Nails

 

London’s K West Hotel is a striking glass prism, totally luxurious and high-end, but awkwardly out of place – it’s located on a quiet residential street near Shepherd’s Bush tube station. Were it feasible, you could almost imagine it falling off the back of a lorry on the way to a more glamorous location and just… staying there.

Going against people’s perceptions is something that sits easily with Lulu James, the 21 year old singer from South Shields who has fused soul, R ‘n’ B and house music into sophisticated pop. For all the critical acclaim (a mesmerising performance on Later With Jools Holland, endorsements from both Annie Mac and Lauren Laverne) Lulu has no interest in moving down to London – she’s a northern girl, happiest back at her flat in Newcastle.

“Urgh,” she says, biting her lip and staring at the ceiling. “I love South Shields, it’s like, I lived right by the beach at Westoe, and like, I know people who don’t know anything about South Shields try to diss it, but I just love it. It was a great place to grow up, there was loads to do there, it’s a beautiful part of the world.

“I used to live by the Quayside,” she says. “But I moved more central. I actually live right by Central Station, actually, because I was always running late. I’ve got no excuse to miss me trains now.”

While her stay in London is just a passing visit – Lulu is supporting Ellie Goulding on her UK tour, and is heading down to Cardiff shortly after our meeting – she’s enjoying being in the big city. Last night she went to the W Hotel for the launch of Annie Mac’s new compilation album, which has two of Lulu’s songs on it. It sounds like quite a night – when I arrive at the hotel, Lulu and her team are examining photos from a photobooth over coffee and pastries.

Unfortunately, though, despite feeling fresh after last night (well, ish), Lulu’s tooth ache is preventing her from having any breakfast. She picks at a cheese croissant for a minute but, with an admirable amount of pragmatism, realises it’s pointless.

“D’you think I could get a smoothie?” she wonders.

“We could ask,” says one of her team.

We decide to go to a quiet seating area round the corner, one full of plush, regal sofas in the kind of rich purple tone that gets Breaking Bad fanatics frothing at the mouth. Lulu may be tired, but she’s incredibly sharp. Her dry humour and husky cackle make her compelling company.

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Currently she’s making the finishing touches to her album, though she admits it’s pretty much done. “We’re doing some more songwriting sessions, we’ll see if there’s anything else to work with,” she says, hugging a cushion tightly. “I want it out by March.”

Is she nervous? She squirms in her seat, thinking. “I think you’re bound to be nervous when you’re giving the world something so personal… but also, you can be bias, can’t you? This is why I need to make sure it’s perfect. If I’m not into it, I can’t expect anyone else to be. But no, I’m really excited about it. I’m nervous, but that’s the right way to be, really.”

She’s been playing a lot of the new material on tour, up and down the country, including the infectious disco-soul jam ‘Closer’ and ‘Step By Step’, the house track that’s earned her favourable comparisons to Grace Jones.

The new tracks feature similarities with her previous release, 2012′s Rope Mirage EP, which James worked on with North East producer Domzilla. Rope Mirage had an icy, disparate chill running through its core – it wasn’t hard to imagine the pair listening to Four Tet and Flying Lotus records when they were recording.

But James’ newest music is uncompromising pop, though it channels disco, house, soul and R ‘n’ B, too. It’s more intimate, noticeable in Closer (‘If that’s what they will say, come hold my hand, and come closer, hold me‘) -  a stark contrast to the aching loneliness flickering through Rope Mirage.

Closer was written with longterm Jessie Ware producer Dave Okumu, at his house. “He is like, a proper legend,” she enthuses – ‘proper’ being one of the words she says an awful lot during our chat. That, and ‘totally mint’.

“It’s hard to explain him, right, but he’s like a prophet,” she says with a grin. “When he talks to you, you’re just stunned. He’s so nice. He played me the track and instantly everything spilled out. I think we wrote Closer within the hour. It was really good.”

Though she often has the exuberance of someone who is just really excited and really proud of what she does for a living, there’s also a significant toughness and edginess to Lulu. It reflects in her attitude and in the styling of her videos. “I’ve got a killer stylist, she’s a Geordie girl too,” she says. “She lives down here in London, mind. I directed two videos myself. Well, I say direct. I just told everyone what to do.”

In the black and white video for ‘Closer’, Lulu is embellished with the sort of metal studs normally seen on boots during London Fashion Week. From her middle finger right up to her elbow. On her high cheekbones, a beautiful self-defence.

The studs were an allusion to her ancestors, who were from the Masai tribe from Tanzania. “They get branded on the face – with something hot, I imagine,” she told a magazine last year. “They have it along the cheekbones. That’s where I got that from. I thought we’d put jewels there, to represent that.”

 

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Elsewhere, the video for ‘Step By Step’ is pure escapism– Lulu uses performance art to embody autumn, winter, spring and summer, all taking place in, of all places, one of the chapels used in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

“I have a hard personality,” she says. “I come across like any tough Northerner, but I have a sweet side too. In the new tracks I wanted to tell more of a story. Sweetest Thing gives me a good feeling, I want people to connect with me, and with other people.”

Sweetest Thing is a wonderfully frank promise of eternal happiness. In parts it sounds like a Brandy track; elsewhere the rippling beats are not unlike those on Jessie Ware’s ‘Running’; Sweetest Thing has a calmness pulsating through it. The video sees geometric shapes and the song’s lyrics (‘I love what you’ve done for me‘) projected onto Lulu’s body. And it’s proved popular with fans, so much so that one fan wants to propose to his girlfriend with the song in the background.

“So I was on tour with Ellie one night, right,” she says, remembering the story. “And someone got on stage and proposed, during her song ‘Explosions’. I thought that was incredible. Then I get an email from this other guy, he wants me to perform Sweetest Thing as part of his marriage proposal! I can’t wait. I’m going down to Bristol to do it. It’s going to be such a special moment.”

Whatever the outcome – this magazine went to print before the boyfriend got down on one knee – Lulu James seems excited (or, to borrow a phrase, ‘proper buzzing‘) about what’s coming next. Even if she doesn’t know what that is.

“I’m influenced so much by people like India Arie,” she says. “But now, in this day and age, you can take influences from music and fashion and people who inspire you, but ultimately, still go and do their own thing.

“And that’s what I’ve set out to do.”

Our time is up; Lulu wants to go and see a dentist before she gets the train to Cardiff from Paddington. When I bid her goodbye, she says “See you later” with the kind of nonchalance that you only get from Northerners. A kind of bashfulness that’s particularly charming when you consider Lulu James could dominate 2014 with one perfectly manicured hand behind her back.

 
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Our feature with Lulu James originally appeared in Issue 66, available for purchase here.



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