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.
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.