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Estelle Swaray: 'the singlest woman alive'

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Why the British rapper, hip hop singer and producer, 28, swapped London, its boys and the UK music industry for Brooklyn's cabbies, leading to ‘an unexpected duet’ with American rapper Kanye West

(Photo: © 2007 Andrew Zaeh)

Estelle, 28, is in Paris for one day. ‘Only thing I can think of in this city is Carrie from Sex and the City,’ she offers, as she fumbles with her microphone in a plush hotel on the Champs-Elysées. ‘You walk around wanting to be her. I love my fashion, I am a borderline freak. Terrible!’ she interjects. ‘I was in the middle of the Galleries Lafayette buying a new outfit after I lost my baggage off the plane. I had my headscarf on and I looked super dusty. Keep me away from rue Faubourg St Honore (a famous Parisian street lined with designer shops) – oh, I’m hyperventilating. Do you understand the heat that is coming off my body?!’

Not selling out

Could you give Estelle media training? remarked British newspaper The Times after an interview with her a few days prior. But after ten years in the industry, Estelle’s attitude is mighty refreshing. A glance at some of the lyrics of her first single 1980, from her debut album The 18th Day (2004) which made her a hit in the UK, is enough to gauge a biography of how she grew up in west London; uncles and brothers in and out of prison daily, 3 beds and 6 kids, church was all day every day...’ These days, Estelle is busy having ‘cabbie wars’ in Brooklyn, where she moved in early 2007. ‘I fucking hate cabbies, cabbies suck,’ she sings. On a more serious note though, why did she turn her back on the UK?

‘I got sick of this crap, of the music for a while, bored of it,’ she admits. ‘It got to a point where it got too much, too fake, too plastic, crazy people – I was like let me go and figure out who I am.’ She set up her own record label, Stellarents, ‘to make my own career work because no-one knew what to do with me.’ No wonder; Estelle was a rapper and producer, so when she started singing she surprised many. ‘I’m not there to pander to anyone’s preferences,' she says. 'If you don’t love it, cool.’

American girl and Kanye West

America does love it though; Estelle is in a short line of British artists – like Dizzee Rascal and De La Soul – who made it across the pond. ‘The problem is we go there and conform to them and don’t be us,’ she says, animated. ‘I am out there performing to girls and guys who relate and know what I am talking about on American Boy (her first single from her new album Shine, released on 31 March - ed). I am not pretending to be anything other than me. Too much effort goes into pretending, let’s just start there, it’s too much.’

She is doing well now though - the words ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ keep cropping up when we talk about her move to the US. She left her British label to become the first act on John Legend's Homeschool Records, and the album features a track produced by British DJ Mark Ronson ‘before he was Mark Ronson.’ She is amazingly down-to-earth when she talks about how American Boy came about: 'I was with (of The Black Eyed Peas), trying to make John Legend like house music. We were pissing around and he came in and started two-stepping. We started rapping and he came up with the melody. We didn’t think it was that hot - I was like this is like euro-house-ish, pop, punky, bass - it’s Jamiroquai!’ And when her manager got Kanye West on it, ‘he just rapped,’ she pauses. ‘He kept freestyling, picking up lines. He gave me 100 bars! I was like don’t no-one tell him that we can only use 16, maybe we can have another song! He gave me a real duet rather than just a feature.’

Love, Senegal and the real Estelle

Maa ngi fii rek!,’ Estelle exclaims when we ask her how she is in Wolof, the official language of Senegal, where her mother is from and where some of her family still live. ‘I’m gonna stop bastardising the language now because people are gonna curse me out.’ She may not speak the lingo, but she plans to go back this summer and play in two shows by Wyclef Jean and Akon, who was raised there. ‘This is where my granddad came from, it’d be an honour to do something more in his memory, he died last year.’

And as for moving back to Europe? ‘I will come back eventually - depends on where I am boyfriend and baby-wise. This is my body clock speaking!’ It’s a point we keep coming back to in our conversation; ‘I’m the singlest woman alive,’ she sighs dramatically. ‘I’m very busy, very independent. A lot of men see that as threatening. I’m bored of figuring it out - next subject!’

'I’m scared a boy is gonna come and sue me pretty soon!'

But we will stay on the subject, because her love life inspired Shine. ‘It took four years to make that record - I grew up, moved labels, moved countries, moved my life up two levels. Every single song has a real-life situation attached to it – I’m scared a boy is gonna come and sue me pretty soon! I went through a lot and I put it in that album.’ Dance, motown, soul, and the zouk and reggae that her Senegalese mum and Grenadian stepfather played in the house are her main influences in a record which she promises is ‘real talk, no preaching. I went through those experiences with guys - hence I’m single – and I thought I probably shouldn’t have done those things, but it’s the realest body of work. This is me - I can’t even and won’t entertain anything else,’ she smiles, before racing out of the room to catch her train back to London.

Estelle on:

The three words which best describe her

(Estelle is) her mother's daughter

Media comparisons with Lauryn Hill

I'm proud, she's legendary. If people listen to me in ten years like they listen to her, you can put me in that category all day!

Being an insomniac

I’m not pleasant in the mornings. I am your night-owl, I go from the club to the studio. Getting me up before 7 and 9 is a real issue - I will be a cow and it is what it is. I am me