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'There's quite enough narcissistic pop around': Paloma Faith on music, protest and the failings of The Voice

Paloma Faith remains one of music’s most flamboyant and outspoken stars
Paloma Faith remains one of music’s most flamboyant and outspoken stars Credit: Kate Peters/Contour by Getty Images

I’m a naturally polarising character,” declares Paloma Faith. “People are either like ‘She’s the most annoying person on earth’ or ‘Oh my God, I want to be with you all the time, you’re magnetic’. It’s just one or the other.”

Her laughter has something of the brash, brassy chuckle of a young Barbara Windsor. “I quite like myself – I don’t care if anyone else does or not.”

Faith is certainly one of Britain’s most flamboyant and outspoken pop stars, a combination unlikely to endear her to everyone. She plays brash, theatrical pop that draws on vintage soul and disco, dresses in an eccentric mishmash of thrift-shop fashion and arty haute couture and offers opinions on anything from politics to child-rearing in a distinctive, East End accent accompanied by twinkly smiles and little gusts of laughter that make you question how seriously she expects you to take it all.

On the day of our interview, one of my colleagues at The Daily Telegraph had named Faith the “worst dressed” at the Q Awards ceremony, where she turned up in a red-and-white-striped, flared jumpsuit with metal jewellery strapped to her chin. “I thought I looked amazing,” she says huffily, then cackles with laughter. “At least they noticed I was there.”

Meanwhile, the comments Faith made while walking the red carpet led to sceptical headlines about the 36-year-old pop singer’s decision to raise her 10-month-old baby to be “gender neutral”.

Faith returns this month with her new album, The Architect

“Oh, please!” she says, rolling her eyes. “I was talking about allowing children to wear colours and play with toys irrespective of stereotypes, which was how I was raised. My favourite toy growing up was a He-Man with glitter on his chest. Which probably explains a lot.”

She always refers to her child, with French artist Leyman Lahcine, as “the baby” for reasons that have nothing to do with gender politics.

“I’ve had letters sent around by a good lawyer to say I don’t want any mention of the gender or any photos printed. I’m just trying to juggle being a mum with keeping the baby completely out of the public eye. I don’t know how that will work, but I’m going to do my best.”

Faith is about to release her fourth album, The Architect, and beneath the confident bluster, she does seem nervous about its reception. “It is the album I’ve always wanted to make, the one closest to my heart. So I’m worried it’s going to be a car crash.”

There’s no system in place to support the artists. Simon Cowell supports the people on his shows. He’s emotionally invested.On the failures of The Voice

She has been working on it for the past two years, during which time she also appeared as a judge on talent show The Voice. “It was quite scary. I wasn’t sure if I trusted myself not to put my foot in it. I mean, I know what I’m like. I gabble, I say the wrong things to the wrong people. I’m fine among people who love me, but I couldn’t watch myself on TV!”  

The Voice (which this year moved from the BBC to ITV with different judges) has been a viewing success but has a terrible track record when it comes to creating stars.

“There’s no system in place to support the artists,” says Faith. “It’s just like, all right, we’ve finished filming, off you go. Simon Cowell supports the people on his shows [The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent]. He’s emotionally invested in making it work because he doesn’t want to ever be defeated. I don’t think there’s anyone else doing that.”

Faith has a degree in contemporary dance and, before she was scouted by a record label, was studying for an MA in theatre design and direction, funding herself with part-time jobs, including sales assistant at Agent Provocateur, singer in a burlesque cabaret, bartender, life model and magician’s assistant. “I did music for fun. I’ve always said yes to every opportunity that’s come my way. That’s why I’ve got an insane CV.”   

When we meet for lunch, she is wearing an elaborately brocaded pink and blue cardigan over a floral-print dress. With piled up bleach blonde hair and loud red lipstick, she looks every inch a star, but points out that she dressed like this before she became famous.

“I’d turn up in a ball gown to pour pints in a bar job. I don’t like mundanity.” She comes from a long line of “pretty fabulous women” and her mother and aunts “all dress up and wear sequins and leopard-print.” Her mother was a single-parent schoolteacher in Hackney. “I’d get teased and my mum used to say, ‘Not everyone will like you, and you’ve got to prepare for that’. She’s a wise woman, my mum.”

It was, she says, a politically aware household. They followed the news, got involved in campaigns and went on protest marches. This has fed into The Architect, which marks the first time Faith has been confident enough to “come out all guns blazing”.

The Architect is packed with glittering, bravura soul, pop and disco anthems, delivered with Faith’s typically exuberant swagger and style, but the themes are rooted in socio-political concerns. “The title track is a heartbreak song from Mother Nature. She’s saying, ‘I gave you everything and it wasn’t enough!’”

Paloma Faith performs on stage in 2016 Credit: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns

Faith characterises the album as being “about empathy, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, love in an age of anxiety and loneliness.” There are songs about toxic masculinity (Crybaby), aggressive warmongering (WW3), female empowerment (Still Around) refugees (Warrior), social stereotyping (Kings and Queens), individual isolation (Lost and Lonely) and the need for more kindness in our social discourse (I’ll Be Gentle, Love Me As I Am). It also includes recorded readings from Samuel L. Jackson and Owen Jones, the Labour activist.

She knows this is not what might be expected from her. “I’m branded as quirky and I find that quite dismissive. Like, because I’ve got a sense of humour, people laugh at everything I say. And sometimes it’s not meant to be funny!” She cites her inspiration as Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, John Lennon and Marvin Gaye.

“I was raised on protest music. There’s quite enough narcissistic pop music about ‘Oh my broken heart’ and ‘Oh my poor Western existence’. It irritates me a bit. I even irritate myself when I look at my own back catalogue, I just think ‘Oh you d---! Stop moaning and bloody do something positive!’ So I have.”

“I’m branded as quirky and I find that quite dismissive"

She may be the first pop star I have ever spoken to who actually considers herself a role model. “Maybe that’s not something you choose, but I’m always aware of responsibility. I wouldn’t do something that I wouldn’t be able to explain to a child. That’s my philosophy.”

She objects to the “everyday sexism” that underpins pop music. “If you’re a woman and don’t take your clothes off in a video, people say ‘oh you’re prudish’. But just because I don’t want to have sex with the viewer on camera doesn’t mean I don’t like sex.”

With the repercussions of the Harvey Weinstein scandal still continuing to unfold, she says “I do believe [sexual harassment] goes on in the music business, too” but adds “I’ve never experienced that. I think all the men I’ve ever come across have been scared of me. For reasons of which I have no idea.” And she hoots with laughter.

The Architect will be released by RCA on Nov 17