Once a karate world cham­pion, now the UK’s most likely to break Amer­ica, Anne-Marie is a pop star who knows the mean­ing of hard graft. Eve Bar­low meets her in the mid­dle of her US stint as open­ing act for Ed Sheeran.

Q (UK) - - Contents -

We join the one-time karate world cham­pion and im­mi­nent pop su­per­star on tour with BFF, Ed Sheeran, in the US.

Fackin ’ell!” howls Es­sex singer Anne-Marie when re­minded that she’s here on the 10th leg of Ed Sheeran’s lat­est world tour – the same tour he was on when head­lin­ing Glas­ton­bury in 2017. “That’s mad, in­nit.” Sheeran’s sup­port act and pal has just ar­rived from her own tour­bus which is steam­ing across Amer­ica’s East Coast. Last night she stopped over in Syra­cuse (or “sir-a-goose”, as she pro­nounces it) en route from a head­line gig of her own in Colum­bus. Tonight we’re in Bos­ton as she’s per­form­ing an­other head­line show in Brighton Mu­sic Hall, a dingy col­lege bar. Wher­ever Anne-Marie goes, she is un­fil­tered. That’s the 27- year-old’s sell­ing point. Her de­but al­bum, Speak Your Mind, is aptly ti­tled. Hers is a world with­out pre­tence. It’s rapidly in­ti­mate. She’s prone to over­shar­ing. Up­stairs, the tour­bus has emp­tied into the venue’s green room, in­clud­ing her three lad band­mates. A pho­tog­ra­pher is snap­ping be­hind-the-scenes shots of her while she dry shaves her armpits in her bra. “I feel a bit boob-y,” she says, eye­ing the open suit­cases lit­ter­ing the floor – now a sea of shiny track­suits and enor­mous footwear. Her on­stage get-up will be the bra, paired with a pel­met skirt and match­ing blazer. She’s taken to the blazer with scis­sors so that it dis­plays her steely abs. Anne-Marie grew up win­ning world karate cham­pi­onships and is built to com­pete. Her shoes alone re­quire mus­cle power. She puts a plat­form Ba­len­ci­aga sneaker in Q’s hand to demon­strate the weight. “Those aren’t as bad as my goth boots,” she says while rum­mag­ing. She hands one over. Doof! They’re like strap­ping a pair of dumb­bells to your legs. In or­der to do a mid-per­for­mance high-kick in them, she has to phys­i­cally pre­pare for the ex­er­tion two bars early. Her sturdy footwear has kept her head from soar­ing while she’s clocked up some of her own Sheeran-sized statis­tics. Anne-Marie’s on track to be Bri­tain’s big­gest break­through artist of 2018. Be­ing on the road with Sheeran is mas­sive transat­lantic ex­po­sure (her lat­est sin­gle 2002 is co-writ­ten with him). To­mor­row she’s open­ing in nearby Foxborough for 65,000 peo­ple. Her YouTube view­ing num­bers are in the mil­lions. State­side, she’s been streamed 53 mil­lion times and the al­bum has gone gold. “When I started I weren’t com­ing here go­ing, ‘I need to crack Amer­ica!’” she says. “I’m not scared if I don’t. But I know that I could.” Her mo­tive with Sheeran’s crowds isn’t just about the mu­sic. “I want them to like me as a per­son,” she says. Off­stage, Anne-Marie’s ob­ses­sion with be­ing liked con­trib­utes to her anx­i­ety. She’s work­ing through it presently. “There’s lots I’m fig­ur­ing out,” she notes. Watch­ing Sheeran has helped her feel calmer. He’s never stressed. “Never. He’s so chill.” Anne-Marie tends to ag­o­nise about ev­ery minute de­tail: con­ver­sa­tions had, emails sent. She’s a con­trol freak. “I have a prob­lem with ev­ery thought in my head. I think peo­ple are do­ing some­thing bad so I want to see all of it. The truth is: some things I just don’t need to know.” Re­cently she was read­ing a book (she’s too tired to re­mem­ber its name) about a man prone to dis­as­ter-based logic. “There’s a word for what I am – when some­one makes a mas­sive sit­u­a­tion out of a mole­hill?” In the book, the author re­called wait­ing for his mum to pick him up at school. “He was think­ing, ‘Oh my God, she’s had a car crash.’ He imag­ines all the de­tails – the glass smash­ing and that.” She grows frus­trated with her mem­ory loss. “Argh! It’s like the word ‘catas­tro­phe’. A catas­trophiser?” A catas­trophist. “That’s it! That’s what I do. I un­der­stand it now. I’m try­ing to get out the other end.” There’s a re­lief that comes with dis­cov­er­ing a vo­cab­u­lary so that you don’t have to feel alone. Some years ago Anne-Marie found her­self ex­traor­di­nar­ily down af­ter set­ting up an Agony Aunt fo­rum for her fans (called Agony Anne, obvs). A ther­a­pist soon di­ag­nosed her as an em­path. “I thought I had bipo­lar or some split per­son­al­ity thing,” she says. Hav­ing re­searched the con­di­tion she’s now aware that she adopts the en­ergy of her sur­round­ing com­pany. If you’re sad, Anne-Marie feels that in­ex­pli­ca­bly. It makes her first im­pres­sions of peo­ple

“I have a prob­lem with ev­ery thought in my head. I think peo­ple are do­ing some­thing bad so I want to see all of it. The truth is: some things I just don’t need to know.”

hy­per­sen­si­tive, which also makes her ner­vous about oth­ers’ in­stant re­ac­tions to her. The other day she was in a restau­rant, un­able to re­quest bar­be­cue sauce (“I eat loads of bar­be­cue sauce”). She got her­self in a tizz and couldn’t ask a waiter for it. “It’s their job,” she says now. In ho­tel rooms, she won’t or­der room ser­vice. “I de­cide not to eat in­stead. Then I’m starv­ing. I don’t want them to think I’m a bad per­son. They might judge me or not like me.” She doesn’t look au­di­ences in the eye of­ten for sim­i­lar rea­sons. She’ll il­log­i­cally de­cide they “hate” her. Of course, not ev­ery­one’s go­ing to like Anne-Marie. “I know,” she says. Maybe her trou­ble stems from a dis­com­fort with ask­ing some­thing of oth­ers. She smiles at that sug­ges­tion. “Some­times I think I don’t de­serve it. I feel guilty for other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing. I see news sto­ries and cry. I can’t deal with the fact I’m so lucky. I hate it.” She looks aghast at her­self. “I’m fuck­ing in­tense, mate,” she gig­gles. “My fuck­ing brain.”

The hum­bling of Anne-Marie may have some­thing to do with the fact that most all of her suc­cesses have al­ways been shared. Signed by El­ton John to his man­age­ment com­pany at the age of 18, she is a prod­uct of the stream­ing age and has built an au­di­ence as a go-to fea­tured vo­cal­ist for oth­ers. Her chops are au­ral cat­nip for chart hits. She scored the Christ­mas Num­ber 1 along­side Clean Ban­dit and Sean Paul with 2016’ s Rock­abye – a trop­i­cal house banger more suited to sum­mers in Ma­galuf. Prior to that she’d pricked up drum’n’bass act Rudi­men­tal’s ears, and toured with them for two years. Her de­but al­bum was five years in the mak­ing, whit­tled down from a thou­sand de­mos. First sin­gle Alarm pre­ceded its re­lease two years ago. She in­sists it didn’t feel like a pro­tracted process. “I was learn­ing about ev­ery­thing,” she says. “Fuck­ing hell, I didn’t know how to write a song, let alone what mu­sic I wanted to create or what to look like. I had £ 2 jumpers on and I wore slip­pers for shoes.” Her la­bel At­lantic didn’t pile on the pres­sure, par­tic­u­larly when it came to creep­ing age. Be­sides, An­neMarie has the skin of a pre-teen. “If I looked older I would be wor­ried,” she laughs. “I don’t know why cos Bey­oncé’s 30- what­ever [ 37] and she looks bang­ing. How old is Sia?” Spo­tify has put power in the hands of lis­ten­ers, fo­cus­ing con­ver­sa­tion away from ap­pear­ances, in­stead to­wards songs. “You can be any­one,” of­fers Anne-Marie. The term “pop star” doesn’t sit well with her and the idea of “fans” makes her re­coil. She sees pop more as a ser­vice in­dus­try. “I don’t wanna make mu­sic for my­self,” she says. The songs on the de­but are per­sonal tales, rang­ing from sto­ries of in­fi­delity (Ciao Adios, Trig­ger) to an­thems about own­ing your in­se­cu­ri­ties (Per­fect), but she wrote the lyrics to be uni­ver­sal. On­stage she doesn’t be­lieve in hi­er­ar­chy. “I’ve never wanted to be above any­one,” she says. “It makes me cringe that any­one would want my au­to­graph.” What she’s de­scrib­ing seems to be some kind of co-de­pen­dency with her au­di­ence. Take the song Per­fect, with lyrics about body con­fi­dence: “Some­times I wake up late and don’t even brush my teeth/ Just wanna stuff my face with left­over mac and cheese.” She strug­gles with dys­mor­phia still. “If I don’t go to the gym I feel fat,” she says. “Ev­ery time I sing that song it be­comes less about ap­pear­ance and

more about my heart.” Ev­ery night, she tells crowds to give a “woo” for each line they re­late to so that they can see who feels the same. If a younger Anne-Marie had wit­nessed that… “My life would be way bet­ter,” she sighs.

In the early ’ 90s in East Til­bury, Es­sex, Anne-Marie Ni­chol­son wasn’t pop­u­lar and never dreamed of star­dom. She grew up a mu­si­cal the­atre kid, scor­ing roles on the West End in Les Misérables and The Wind In The Wil­lows. Out­side of mu­sic she be­came a karate ju­nior world cham­pion. Only now is she able to rem­i­nisce fondly. A teenage tear­away, she re­mem­bers her­self as an­gry and dif­fi­cult, trig­gered pre­ma­turely by the pass­ing of her nan. She be­gan to act out when she was 12, fall­ing out with friends, never look­ing for­ward to school, wish­ing days away. At home, she con­nected to Ala­nis Morissette’s Jagged Lit­tle Pill and Christina Aguil­era’s Stripped, and would sit in her room lis­ten­ing for hours. Boys were a night­mare. She was a chameleon and would adapt to which­ever fella she fell for. At 17 she swore off pop be­cause her boyfriend loved En­ter Shikari and Griz­zly Bear. Many of them cheated, in­spir­ing the al­bum’s more acer­bic mo­ments. One ex got in touch re­cently won­der­ing if he was the sub­ject of her wrath. “I was like, ‘No, you prick!’” She finds it amus­ing now but she isn’t look­ing to re­solve the past. “I want noth­ing to do with exes again. That part of me is done.” A trip down mem­ory lane with Anne-Marie is never a pity party de­spite her bag­gage. What­ever in­jus­tice was served by a boyfriend, she doled right back (see the song Bad Girl­friend). “I’m only the wrong’un when they’ve been the wrong’un,” she ex­plains, proudly. “Ev­ery time I got cheated on I stayed with them just to cheat back. Ev­ery sin­gle one of them.” Re­venge was al­ways best served on a Satur­day night, with a WKD in hand and a sec­ond out­fit in her hand­bag. “Just in case!” she says. “It fucked me off if I went out and some­one had my out­fit on.” In the US, pop fans are grate­ful for Anne-Marie’s re­fresh­ing mat­terof-fact­ness. Be­sides Rock­abye, her big­gest hit here is FRIENDS – a col­lab­o­ra­tion with masked EDM DJ Marshmello. The lyrics go: “Haven’t I made it ob­vi­ous? Haven’t I made it clear? Want me to spell it out for you? F-R-I-E-N-D-S.” She reluc­tantly ad­mits that it’s bru­tal. “It be­came this friend-zone an­them of the year. It’s fuck­ing harsh but it’s funny,” she laughs. Funny to Anne-Marie, who’s never been on the re­ceiv­ing end of that sit­u­a­tion. It came from an un­planned writ­ing ses­sion in Lon­don. Marshmello walked into the stu­dio with his marsh­mal­low mask on. Did Anne-Marie find that weird? “Nah. It’s what he is, in­nit?” she says. “When I meet any­one I wear sun­glasses. When I get com­fort­able I take them off. He does the same with his hat.”

It’s game time and Anne-Marie is fid­get­ing ner­vously by the stage door, a pair of rose-tinted sun­glasses in her hands. She puts them on. She takes them off. On. Off. As the rest of the band bound on­wards, she breathes in deeply and whips the glasses off, leav­ing them on a ledge and run­ning onto her plat­form like a samu­rai en­ter­ing bat­tle. Tonight’s crowd are so loud you can feel their cathar­sis in your chest. Their pop idol, their truth­sayer, their coun­sel­lor may in­tro­duce each song with the fore­warn­ing that they might not know an al­bum deep cut, but they know ev­ery beat of fizzing elec­tronic pop tak­ing place over the next hour. An­nie-Marie never plays three songs with­out a break to chat. “Don’t be

scared to move,” she of­fers. “Let go!” she cries. “It’ll make me feel bet­ter about my­self.” Dads shout ev­ery word, kids beam with hearts in their eyes at a be­liev­able role model. It feels whole­some but it doesn’t look cookie-cut­ter. “I thought I was gonna be al­right tonight,” she says up­stairs later about that split-sec­ond de­ci­sion to lose those sun­glasses. In Colum­bus three nights ago she gave her­self a talk­ing-to be­fore her set. She told her­self to stop car­ing about peo­ple’s re­ac­tions. “Don’t fuck­ing think about it,” she re­peats now. “Just tell your­self, ‘I’m the bol­locks.’” It’s ex­haust­ing to con­stantly be hav­ing to realign her men­tal space, never mind jug­gle her own tour with the Sheeran slots. But she naps

where she can. Ear­lier she’d fallen asleep on the green room’s couch in plain sight of her band who grabbed a manda­tory iPhone pic­ture of her. Just days ago she asked Sheeran if he ever got so tired he wanted to stop. “He al­ways tells me to fuck­ing work hard. And I do,” she says. “But some­times I’m like, ‘Mate, I just need to sleep.’ And he’s like, ‘No. Get up!’” The karate kid in­side urges her to keep fight­ing. “In karate when you work hard at some­thing you win a medal,” she says, hope­ful. “I’ve re­ally worked hard this year.” It’s not quite a medal but as the crew pack up, Twit­ter alerts her that some­one got her face tat­tooed on their arm. She recog­nises the por­trait as a pic­ture of her on this year’s Brit Awards red car­pet. “Look, they’ve even got my dou­ble chin,” she says, cack­ling but also hor­ri­fied. There were medals up for grabs at the Brit Awards this year and last. She’s been nom­i­nated for five gongs and re­mains empty-handed. “It would have been nice,” she says with a shrug. You can’t win them all, but Anne-Marie is still plenty vic­to­ri­ous.

“Some­times I think I don’t de­serve it. I feel guilty for other peo­ple’s suf fer­ing. I can’t deal with the fact I’m so lucky. I hate it. I’m fuck­ing in­tense, mate. My fuck­ing brain.”

Back­stage in Bos­ton: (from left) a close shave; “Hmm, so many to choose from!”; the rose-tinted glasses are def­i­nitely stay­ing on.

The karate kid: (top) world champ Anne-Marie busts some moves; (above) with friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Ed Sheeran.

Pic­ture this: Anne-Marie in both photo and tat­tooed form.

Pop idol: Anne-Marie tells her fans to let go, Brighton Mu­sic Hall, Bos­ton, 13 Septem­ber, 2018.

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