South London rapper Speech Debelle was the surprise winner of this year’s Mercury Music Prize. Yet her album, Speech Therapy, sold poorly. Speech Debelle tells Tony Clayton-Lea that reports of her demise have been exaggerated – she hasn’t fired her label
W HAT a fuss, what a bother, what a mess. The way this year’s Mercury Music Prize winner, Speech Debelle, tells it, she didn’t “sack” her record company (Big Dada, offspring of the Ninja Tune label) for failing to capitalise fully on her debut album, Speech Therapy, winning the prestigious award. Despite reports to the contrary (on BBC 6 Music News and in newspapers as diverse as the Sun and the Guardian), Debelle – real name Cory anne Elliot – tells The Ticket that “things get taken out of context.”
She says she was asked whether she was disappointed by the sales figures (the album has sold just over 10,000 physical copies, failing to make any dent on the Top 40; compare this to the 300,000-plus sales of 2008’s winning album, The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow), and in reply explained: “I was disappointed that because I was on a small label they weren’t able to reproduce the amount of physical copies of the album needed for the shops. But I’m more prepared for next time. That’s all I said.
“Yes, it’s a small label, and the thing that has been even more distorted is that the album has actually done pretty well; physical copies are a small amount, but the number of digital copies sold means I’ve done okay. Especially when you take into account the kind of music I’m doing.”
And Big Dada – is she still on it? “I haven’t left, I’m still there.” She is quoted on BBC 6 Music as saying that negotiations with various record companies for the release of her second album are under way: “One thing I’ve learnt,” she says, “is that having bargaining power is important.”
In fairness, Debelle doesn’t look overly concerned at being at the centre of all this kerfuffle. This time last year, she was an unknown; the first promo single – Searching – off her then-in-gestation debut album had just been released, so the build-up to the album’s scheduled release in the summer of 2009 was measured, if not downright slow. Did it feel as if she arrived out of nowhere to pull the carpet from under the feet of other Mercury nominees such as Florence & the Machine, The Horrors and Kasabian?
“That’s a fair thing to say. What was it like being on the shortlist and then winning? Well, it wasn’t totally beyond my expectations. It sounds quite egotistical to say that now, but luckily for me I was saying that months before the lead-up to the actual result. Maybe when you want something so bad that you see it as a reality; the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred.
“I was relieved when my name was called out, to be honest. Relief that I wasn’t crazy. Relief that, yes, I can continue with my music. It was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. Before I was worrying about the possibility that if no one recognised me for what I was doing, then I wouldn’t be going anywhere.”
There is all manner of speculation about the reasons Speech Therapy didn’t sell as well as had been anticipated and about poor attendance at post-Mercury gigs. Take your choice from the following: Big Dada’s perceived lack of foresight, illegal downloading, a music industry that views gradual artistic development as anathema, a culture that automatically expects accelerated re- sults on the back of an award, the fact that successful female rappers are in a minority, the rather downbeat, non-bravado content of the record’s songs. But Debelle herself is keeping her counsel and planning for albums two, three and four.
“I have the next five years of my life planned. I had the first album planned years ago, and similarly I have the next one and the one after that. The second album is called The Art of Speech, and it’s on a grander scale in terms of music than the debut – bigger strings, big orchestra, kickin’ drums; lyrically it’s going to more outward looking.”
One song on the next album is called Her Name Was Jade, which is, says Debelle, an unofficial biography of the recently-deceased celebrity figure, Jade Goody.
“Why did I focus on her especially? I think there are so many things about her life that can be taken as life lessons. She seems to be an example of how so many different things can go right or wrong in life. She comes from poverty, which breeds ignorance; ignorance can sometimes bring a mentality of wanting to attain goals and ambitions.” What are Debelle’s thoughts on celebrity status and reality television ? “To a certain extent reality television can be brilliant – some shows are good examples of real life and human psychology, but some of them have nothing to do with that. Those ones are just quick fixes – like crack, you just need another hit. Some of them are manipulative, and then shows like X Factor are there to condition people into believing that being talented is about certain things.”
Someone like you wouldn’t even get past the audition stage. “Absolutely not, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means I’m not the kind of person or songwriter they’d want for the show. Ultimately, it’s insulting to the public to tell them that this is what pop music is all about.”
Debelle’s name is called for her gig rehearsal (she was in Dingle, Co Kerry in the first week of December, filming Other Voices; her intimate gig in St James’s Church some hours later proved her to be a reflective, often engaging performer), so we quickly chat about what 2010 will bring.
In January, a visit to Australia (she recorded her debut there, and will be working on songs for the second album) will be followed by a journey to Ethiopia in the company of Damon Albarn for the charity Africa Express. Then it’s back home to south London, more gigs, and the completion of The Art of Speech.
Will the album be on Big Dada? Speech Debelle just shrugs her shoulders, raises her eyebrows – not rudely or sulkily, just casually. Rightio. What about, then, the general plan for the foreseeable future?