The first time I heard Estelle’s voice, I was struck by her decisions; she had the intelligent phrasing of a jazz singer. Mind you, she was rapping. Her breakthrough single “American Boy” went double platinum at a time when established performers were struggling to chart longer than two weeks. She was beautiful and brown and fashion-forward. She spoke frankly and appeared to be fuss-free. She was worth watching. A few years later, she's returned with a new record and it’s clear that she was also worth the wait. She left her hometown of London and made New York City her home, and recorded one of the most soulful albums of her generation, All of Me. The Akon-penned single “Thank You” is an unconventional uptempo ballad, one that gives Estelle freedom to roam as a vocalist while remaining a warm and real farewell to an unworthy lover. Here Estelle talks Ella, entourages and the end of an affair.
EBONY: Your phrasing is so unique, who are your major influences?
Estelle: My mum had a lot of reggae in the house, that and soca, but my real vocal influence is Ella Fitzgerald. I remember being 13 years old and she was what I imagined my guardian angel’s voice would sound like that.
EBONY: How are you at scatting?
Estelle: I’m alright. I have to be in the mood, it’s not a technical thing as much as a feeling, which is how I approach music and singing in general, whatever comes out, comes out.
EBONY: When I first heard you five years ago, you were rapping. Were you a B-girl?
Estelle: I was exactly that! I wanted to be Puff and Jay so I started my own label when I was 18. Everyone looked at me like ‘Who’s this little Black girl? And who does she think she is?’ I went and hired a publicist and a photographer and said I’m gonna make it happen. And they all came running.
EBONY: Talk to me about this album. What frame of your mind were you in when you recorded?
Estelle: I moved over in 2007 and I was in the middle of it all. I thought I was prepared but when I got here it was times five thousand, really crazy. I’m trying to stay a normal human being, jumping in taxis, touching people….I don’t want to lose myself, I want to stay connected to my friends and not have my head in the clouds, but in some ways I was doing myself a disservice, not treating myself like this amazing singer. It was like I was trying to dim my light so my friends wouldn’t feel bad. But once we sold two million of one single, I knew how hard I worked and I started looking at people around me and they weren’t putting in ten percent of the work I was putting in. Yet they were trying to make me feel like I didn’t deserve success or attention or to buy new shoes if I wanted to. For some of my team it was the first time they’d been out of the country or even out of the state and they were just really bitter. Meanwhile, I’m onstage singing “American Boy” trying to look happy when I had to get on my tour bus to these miserable people who didn’t wish me well. I was exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally. I was like ‘f*ck this.’ When I went into the studio to record “Wonderful Life”, I could barely lift my voice to sing the chorus, which is supposed to be bright and nice. The same for when I recorded “Back To Love." I was in my feelings. I was in the vocal booth texting people ‘Yo, go f*ck yourself’ ‘Don’t ever hit me again’ and then singing a couple bars, you could hear me clicking in the background. It was the worst. I come from a family that’s very open and giving, but I was surrounded by people who were angry at me because I was giving them something.
EBONY: It seems 20 percent of fame is you changing and the other 80 percent is people changing the way they act towards you.
Estelle: Exactly. Ex-actly. And there’s nothing you can do.
EBONY: Can you talk to me about intuition. Do you put yours to use?
Estelle: Oh girl, my last relationship. I knew. In my heart, I knew from the beginning. I was maybe-ing the whole time. And you shouldn’t be in a state of 'maybe' for two whole years. He’d always remind me that he was the only one who was there for me, and physically, he was. But at the same time, he’s with me, and he’s BBM-ing and texting, and people are tweeting me like they know him and my business, I just never felt safe. I went home to London for three weeks and got my green card straightened out and I was home with my mother and my family and I reminded myself that I’m never alone. I have my family, I’m never alone.
When I remembered who I am, I gave him a period of three months to work it out. When I shot the video for “Break My Heart” and was surrounded by Rick Ross’ team and all these men who had no clue who I was and were treating me better than I was being treated at home, I knew it was over. It was the epiphany of life. My mum called me out of the blue and asked ‘What’s going on with you and this guy?’ My mum had gone through it for twenty-something years with my stepdad but she had nine kids. And I sat on that phone and she cursed me out for 40 minutes and told me not to repeat family cycles, that I deserved better. So that night I went home and told him, "I’m going to leave this apartment in three days, and you’re going to leave too. Go back to your mother’s couch." There was no anger. It was the realization that I was worth way more than that bullsh*t.