On a bright London afternoon Paloma Faith arrives, fashionably late, at her record label headquarters in Derry Street. She is wearing a red spangly coat, black vinyl trousers, vertiginously high-heeled boots and the dinkiest tiny bowler hat perched on top of her pinned up red hair. Really, you’d think she’d have made an effort ...
Actually, it’s the effort she’s made that has made her late. Sitting down she apologises, but she’s been on the phone all morning talking to journalists about her soon-to-come album and she had to do her make-up and get dressed before she came out. She didn’t much feel like doing it at eight in the morning when the phone calls began. A cuddle and a hot drink is all she wants at that time in the morning, she says. To get ready to come and see me in person she says she was putting the make-up on with one hand and holding the phone in the other. You wouldn’t know.
Her make-up looks perfect. A razzle-dazzle spectrum of eye shadow glitters on her eyelids and three tiny perfect little dots lead off from the corner of each eye up towards her hairline and the bowler hat (she’s been known to don what looks like rabbit ears for photographs, but the hat is a neat alternative).
As we sit down she starts apologising again. Not for her lateness this time, but for squeaking at me. Well, it’s not her who is squeaking at me. It’s her trousers.
Every time she pulls a spike-heeled foot up beneath her on the leather sofa we’re both sitting on, the kecks she’s squeezed herself into give a protesting squeal. And every time they do she says sorry. She’s clearly a very polite and well-brought-up young woman.
Not that she needs to apologise. Wannabe pop stars should wear squeaking trousers and dainty headwear (which remains on throughout our conversation, although the red spangly coat has been taken off by now). Rather that than another bunch of surly boy-men in jeans and Converse trainers talking about guitar pedals and how much they really, really love Neil Young.
Or maybe we’ve just been conditioned to assume that our female popsters will invariably make an effort. Is it possible, I wonder, for a woman in the music business not to be concerned with her image? She thinks not. “But at the same time I’ve always liked dressing up. I dunno whether it’s sexist or not, but I think little girls like dressing up.”
She’s more interested in style than fashion, she says. “I don’t really know who makes what. I’ve started to learn a few names. But I have to write them on my hands when I go to see them so that you can thank the right people if they lend me their stuff.”
She does admire Alexander McQueen, she says, “but I don’t think I see him as a fashion designer, I see him as an artist. The way he packages stuff and shows is all part of why I like him. It’s not just his clothes.”
Of course, she could almost be speaking about herself. Every day is a performance for Paloma Faith. Now 24, she has spent her adult life dressing up; whether as a magician’s assistant, working in upmarket lingerie shop Agent Provocateur or being an actress. She appeared in the recent remake of St Trinians and can be seen in the new Terry Gilliam film The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus alongside Heath Ledger -- who died from a drug overdose during filming. It begs the question, how many times have you been asked today about Ledger? “About four or five. Do you want my answer? He was humble and unaffected by his success.”
This afternoon, she is playing the part of the pop star in waiting, a top 20 hit already to her name (Stone Cold Sober), another, New York, ready for release and an album, Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? in the wings.
She’s made the album which has soul and jazz influences, with the likes of indie troubador Ed Harcourt and Greg Kurstin, who also made his mark on Lily Allen’s latest record The Fear (or download depending how 21st century you’re feeling today). Ask her to describe her sound and she offers “it’s quite cinematic”. What she doesn’t say is that it’s an album that for all its widescreen flourishes -- and radio-slick production -- rests and falls on her voice, which is a huge firework of a thing, with echoes of Amy Winehouse’s slurred depth and torchsong twang.
Whether that’s enough of course is another matter. The first thing she tells me on arrival is how nervous she is. “It’s been a long time. Five years I’ve been writing. I’ve written about 220 songs. It took me ages to get a record deal and finally this is it. It’s like a make-or-break situation, because the industry is oversensitive.”
Surely a top 20 single in the bank is a good start. “Yes, but it didn’t do well enough. If the next one does as well as that I’ll still get dropped.”
And yet we keep getting told that, musically, 2009 is the year of the woman. “Yeah, I think I’m on the tail end of it. I’ve been going for a long time and it was frustrating not to get a deal before, because I was like: ‘it’s happening and I’m going to miss it’. And I just got in, I feel, at the last moment. I meet people in the industry and they’re all saying ‘I’m looking for a boy now’.”
Faith’s earliest musical memory is fighting with her mother about having to go to piano lessons. She gave up when she was 13. “I regret it so much now because I’d be much easier to book myself.” Mother was a primary school teacher bringing up Faith on her own in London. Her Spanish father lived quite close. She’d visit him on weekends. “Sometimes.”
Childhood for Faith was all about music, marching alongside her mother on anti-Thatcher rallies and looking out of the window at school.
“I was a bit of a daydreamer. My teacher would often say ‘Paloma, are you with us?’ I found it really hard to learn to read and numbers to this day give me anxiety. I used to memorise books and pretend I was reading them. I think I read my first book aged 10, which is quite late, and then what happened was I went from the bottom of the class to the top. I became a grade A student.”
She went to a “really rough state school” in Hackney “where everyone was naughty and the police were in every day. I guess I learned to defend myself there. When I went I was very sweet and shy, then over time at secondary I got a bit more mouthy.” As a survival strategy? “Yeah, I think so. But I still did really well at school and I was friends with lots of naughty kids. I got taken to the headmistress’s office once and she said ‘why do you keep the company you keep? They’re not as intelligent as you and they’re always bunking off’. I thought ‘but they’re more fun’.”
Yet, she was never diverted from her studies. A levels led to a degree in contemporary dance at the Northern School Of Contemporary Dance and then a Masters at Central St Martins. From the age of five she’d wanted to be a dancer. College put her off though. She hated it. “At the contemporary dance school it was very much based on what your body can do. Creativity was in the background. You’re training to be a tool for a creative person, as opposed to becoming a creative person.”
Why did she stick it out? “I was determined not to give up because that’s what I felt they wanted. It was me against them.
“I was very opinionated and I guess quite ballsy creatively. What I did, I think, they felt ashamed of. A lot of it was controversial. There were loads of sex references in it.”
Central St Martins was everything her time in Leeds was not. But she was soured for dance. She’s never danced professionally. “No, I completely rejected it. I saw the course out to the end and then rejected it and them.”
Music wasn’t an immediate alternative. Her CV is littered with curious entries. She’s been a ghost on a ghost train, worked in an ice cream van, been a life drawing model, a chicken boiler. And the aforementioned job as a magician’s assistant. It was quite glamorous, she says. “But sometimes sitting in a box for half an hour pretending you’re not there does hurt.”
The thing is, she says, in magic acts it’s the women who do all the work. “It’s a very great metaphor for life. The magician waves his hands about and it’s his assistant that does all the ‘magic’.”
She started singing in a covers band about seven years ago. “They asked me to be in it without even knowing whether I could sing. My first gig I was so nervous my voice was wobbly and I was out of tune,” she says.
“I’ve made mistakes at every stage. I’ve played a shitload of crap performances, both visually and with my voice. I’ve played with dreadful musicians or musicians I wasn’t paying much so they were absolutely off their faces. So I’ve learnt on the job.”
With the title of this album, I ask, are you suggesting that truth and beauty are inimical?
“Inimical? Please enlighten me.” I do. “No, I’m not suggesting that. I’m basically proposing that we accept things that are beautiful without questioning whether they’re real or not, or how it was done or what’s behind it. You know in contemporary culture everyone wants to know how the magic trick is done, how the special effects work. I think sometimes I think you should just allow yourself to be swept up in the moment.”
She tries to define the notion of beauty she’s talking about. “I’m not talking about superficial beauty. I’m talking about what moves you and transports you.”
What moves and transports her then? “Sad films, Edith Piaf singing No Regrets, babies being born, loads of things.”
Time for some quickfire questions, I say. Who are your heroes and villains? “I’ve never been asked about villains. Okay, heroes would be Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Bjork and Grace Jones. Villains? George Bush, Gordon Brown, Ike Turner ...” she laughs out loud at that and then thinks for a bit before adding Mrs Thatcher.
Paloma, are you a heartbreaker or a heartbreakee? “I’ve had my fair share of both but I believe in equality. I don’t believe in putting men on the pedestal. I think women should be on the pedestal.” Men and women don’t really understand each other, she reckons. Is the male of the species worth the effort? “Some of them, yes.”
What’s her best virtue. “Humour.” Worst vice? “That’s a tough one for me. I suppose my worst vice is saying yes to everything. It gets me into trouble sometimes.” Really? Give me an example. “I don’t want to. I’m sure it will come out.” It’s the nearest she gets to clamming up all afternoon.
A week later she’s found her voice again. She glides onstage at Glasgow’s King Tut’s decked out in a cape, headcap, spangly hotpants and bustier and proceeds to sing her heart out.
She’s funny too. And just a little theatrical. Watching her I decide that she’s a sexed up, 21st-century cross between Bette Midler and Lucille Ball. And that’s a good thing to be.
Back in London Faith tells me her favourite movie is Wong Kar Wai’s 2046. She is prone to quoting French poet, essayist, playwright, actor and director Antonin Artaud. People compare her to Duffy but if she is, she’s the arthouse version. “I got asked once whether I’d do Playboy and I said I’d probably do French Playboy because Juliette Binoche did it. And if it was arty.” And she’d probably get dressed up to do it. It’s time to go. Her trousers squeak all the way out of the room.
Do You Want The Truth or Something Beautiful? is released on September 29 by Epic Records.