[written and organised for Fault magazine]
25 minutes into our interview, I notice that the timestamp on my voice memo app isn’t moving. Fuck. I’ve interviewed a few massive stars in the past, but their combined music has never reached as many listeners as the bright-eyed woman perched on a stool in front of me, sipping an unlabelled bottle of green juice. And I’ve never had my tech flip out on me like this. Yes, it is a second hand iphone I got via carphone warehouse that won’t connect to the London Underground’s wifi, but it’s barely a year old. ‘Ah did it not get anything?’ she asks, peering over at my phone as my heart thuds away. It was such a great conversation as well, fuck. ‘Ah well, I can talk all day, I’m Irish’ she says, I relax immediately and restart the recording. There’s a calm energy behind those sunset-coloured eyes; as we talk about the highs and lows that inform her autobiographical debut album, Matters Of The Heart, she occasionally pauses in thought, but it’s brief. I’m a pop enthusiast who really appreciates her work, both solo and as an enormously successful hit songwriter, so naturally the interview has dealt with her skills and knowledge, but her academic confidence is offset by a laid back, playful attitude. She’s easy to talk to because she knows herself.
So I was just talking about the song that kickstarted your career, Jojo’s Too Little Too Late. How I first heard it aged as a bullied preteen, its powerful themes of taking a stand against someone who’s hurt you, loving yourself by cutting them out. You said you love hearing these stories.
Yeah, whenever that song comes on and people realise that I wrote it, I get a story. Like oh my God my boyfriend cheated on me, I drove around Los Angeles screaming the words. I was 17 when I wrote it, 19 when it came out, and it changed my life in every way. It was a very amazing time, it was a scary time, being thrown into the industry like, ‘let’s go!’, and I’m like aaaaahhhh I’m just a normal person! The album is all my experiences growing into be a woman, growing into an artist, and growing in a culture where, well… I moved to LA when I was 23 to get better at what I do, to be up against the best, and I’ve still never been anywhere like it, the parties, the fame, the feckboys, I’m proud of myself that I survived it.
You said that your friends view you as a therapist.
Yeah I never get tired of people venting to me, if you want me for seven hours in the night I’m there. What always comes out of that for me, is like understanding human nature better, and that’s what I’m fascinated by, I’m that nosy person who wants to know how everyone’s doing.
Do you pull lyrics directly out of conversation?
I do! I don’t always understand in the moment that I’m being inspired; I’ll start thinking about an earlier conversation and I’ll go ooohhhhh… Sometimes people say stuff to me and I go woof, I’m writing that down, there’s a song in that. Like with my track It Is What It Is, the guy kept saying it to me, and I kept saying there’s a song in that. It felt like it was a phrase that everybody uses day to day, an unresolved, bittersweet acceptance, and I used it to accept that I’d never be with someone, and I walked away after I wrote the song.
It’s funny that you wrote that back before it became the Love Island phrase. Where were you when you found out they were going to use your song, The Vow?
I was watching it! What was weird was that when I wrote the lyrics of The Vow, I woke up in the middle of the night at my friend’s house and wrote it, and I didn’t go back there for 6 months until they invited me over to watch the final. So I’m in that house again watching it, the song’s intro starts playing, and I’m thinking why is someone playing The Vow from their phone, I’m looking around the room like this is an important moment guys! And then my boyfriend screamed and I ran to the tv, then I heard my voice and started screaming, because I’m obsessed with Love Island! It was the best surprise, then the song went number 1 in Ireland, I’m getting videos and tags of proposals and weddings with it in, for me as someone usually a considers their self a very heartbroken, heartbreaker writer, to have written a song that’s positive and can be used for a wedding, it was mindblowing.
Is your love for Love Island influenced by your experiences in Los Angeles?
I like the show because it’s human nature. It’s unrequited love, he’s just not that into you, rejection, ghosting, breadcrumbing, it’s highlighting how things can be handled the right and wrong way, it’s a psychological showcase of what happens in love. In a two month period you get to see people falling in love and falling apart, I think it’s heightened for tv but it’s such great television, it shows the flaws in people, where people have to grow.
What music do you go to if you can’t talk to someone and need therapy?
I go back to the greats, I listen to Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Carol King, Lauryn Hill, I watch performances, I watch documentaries on great albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, I listen to my favourite Alicia Keys album Songs in a Minor. I also love music that I can just slutdrop to, that’s not really deep and meaningful, but I have to connect with something in the song, whether it’s the bass groove or the drum beat or the lyric. If I feel that a song’s overwritten, song doctored, that there’s no feeling there, I switch off; I have to feel like it’s real. I know the industry, so I know when something’s not out of inspiration.
It’s interesting that the music that helps you work out the hard personal issues also helps you as a songwriter.
Yeah, like In The Name Of Love [released by Martin Garrix] I wrote when I was about to quit the music industry, I was broke singing in wedding bands in LA, I didn’t want to go to the session that day, and I was talking about the music industry in that song; Halsey was writing about a person in her life that she would do anything for, but my point of view was I’m broken from this, what would you do for me in the name of music. We were both able to identify on that bridge; ‘you bring me back to life and it’s all in the name of love’, it’s like my addiction was to music, but it can also be a really tumultuous relationship.
I guess this was around that heartbreak period of your life, was that your first, properly hard experience?
Yeah, having no one who actually really loves you, no family there, having to get used to all new food, no sausage rolls, they didn’t even prawn crackers in the Chinese restaurants… I love LA but I hate it, everyone judges each other, everyone uses each other, everything is a business exchange, you just wanna have a normal exchange and it’s like who do you know that’s famous that I can get to. Everyone talking about their looks… that can tear you down, but I luckily had a lot of support from back home, my parents would send me care packages of my favourite crisps and chocolate, I went home every Christmas, so I was still very supported, that’s definitely why I’m strong.
You’re an intense worker right? Like you don’t tend to drink anymore, you only ever tend to binge on shopping, which makes sense as it slots really neatly into your career.
You know some people like to drink because it loosens them up, I’m straight onto the dancefloor without a sniff. Alcohol will just make me the opposite, like I’ll be crying into my wine ‘why didn’t he text me back???’ You know what, I did just realise I think one of my vices when I was in LA was bad men, bad love. When you listen to my record, its sections – heartbreak, hope and love – are in the timeline of how I wrote it, and really the heartbreak part of it was me thinking that I didn’t deserve better love. As the album goes on and as my life went on, I realised that I deserved better, I moved back from LA to London, I found healthy people to be around and healthy love.
Did that process influence songs like Pixie Lott’s Broken Arrow?
That was written very personally about what I was going through. It was all very dramatic but we wrote that so fast as it was so genuine, me Pixie and Toby Gad. She really fought for Broken Arrow to be a single as she really believed in it, I was so happy about it.
How did you feel when you first heard her singing your words?
I think that whenever I’m in the room with an artist I definitely try to push them vocally, and the main thing for me is that the story comes across, that they remember they’re not just singing, they have a purpose to be emotional. I mean Pixie’s never had an issue with being a great singer, once she tapped into the emotions of the song she sang it amazingly.
It’s funny, as Pixie had a bunch of different singles around that time, and Broken Arrow is such a serious, sad song…
Absolutely hahaha, because I’m the heartbreak one! I’m always going to try and insert some realness and substance into every pop artist that I work with, that’s kind of what I do, but keep it a little pop.
So like did Pixie know about this emotional situation you were going through, before you started writing the song together?
Yeah we were friends, a lot of the time we just talk. Writing with people is connecting, you can’t really write a good song if you don’t have a relationship. On my album it was the same thing, with Take What You Can Get, my friend knew what I was going through, and she’s a writer too, and I needed someone to bounce off. The song turned out so good because I had that friend, not like a new person that I had to explain the whole situation to.
So when did that carnage and torture and heartbreak stop, or rather when did the recovery start?
When I moved back and I wasn’t afraid any more to put my own music into the world, to start my artist career and be vulnerable. Because I was doing my passion, which is songwriting, which means you’re in the studio, and there’s a massive part of my heart that wasn’t being fulfilled, because I’m an entertainer! I love telling stories, even being the butt of the joke. Singing live is when I really feel people can see me as I am. I don’t play a character on stage, I’m just who I am, the stories of my album are exactly what I lived, I don’t have separate songwriters working with me, I just have a friend sometimes to bounce off.
So before that, did you ever date feckboys who weren’t interested in what you had to say?
Yeah of course, I had celebrity flings, I dated a songwriter which was very difficult, when you’re competing in the same job, I’ve dated men who used me for their careers, who took advantage of my, you know, my supportive and empathetic nature, I dated narcissists, sociopaths, I dated them all. I had some great people whose hearts I broke though, I can hold my hands up and say everyone’s an asshole to somebody.
So I recently went on a date to a D’angelo tribute night, like DJs playing D’angelo-esque songs, it was amazing. A couple of days later, I was preparing for a long day of work, cooking my lunch, and checked out your track Unrequited for the first time. It was weird as the lyrical subject was completely separate to where I was at, but sonically it just hit the spot, definitely felt like it had that D’angelo blend of power and softness. Where did you write it?
Thanks! I wrote it in LA.
Ah right, that’s funny as there’s a calmness to it, I assumed it was from this recent period.
Oh I still go back and forth to LA for work. But yeah Noah my cowriter told me he was from Philly, like Jill Scott and so many of my favourite Neo-Soul artists, we bonded over my ‘make good art’ tattoo; Neil Gaiman gave this speech, ‘when you’re broke, when you’re rich, when you’re heartbroken make good art.’ When we sat down I felt this energy from him, Noah got the bass out, started playing these strings, I had the lyrics already and we produced it all that day, it was a really magical moment of good art. Its bridge is the Jackie Wilson lyric that Eddie Murphy screams in Coming To America, ‘to be loved, to be loved, oh what a feeling’, because I wanted to sum up what everyone wants, to get Jackie Wilson’s blessing to have that part of it, I was so happy. That was one that just flowed very simply.