Talk­ing back

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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?

“Who knows?”

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