Interview: Speech Debelle
“The most unexpected win in Mercury prize history,” said Amazon’s head of music buying while watching a 4,000 percent increase in sales on the morning after the night before. “Shit the bed” was the text reaction from one friend after Jools Holland failed oh so poorly to show his surprise. Even the joyous, table-mounting reaction of Big Dada – the exceptionally deserving winning label – had a can’t-quite-believe-it feeling to it.
It seems the only person that wasn’t surprised Speech Debelle won the Mercury Prize was Speech Debelle. Speaking to Ragged Words three days before the ceremony, the South London rapper was in little doubt her debut Speech Therapy was set to claim the £20,000 prize. “Do I think I’m going to win…?” “Yeah.”
Were most other artists to come out with such forthright forecasts, you’d accuse them of Noel Gallagher-like ‘biggest band in the world’ bravado. Yet Speech Debelle’s confidence is refreshingly sincere and as infectious as the giggles that are littered throughout an interview about, it has to be said, one of the year’s most serious and soul-bearing albums. “Honestly that’s how I feel about this album,” she continues when predicting the win. “I know music, you know. I know a lot of different types of music so therefore I can listen to my album and say that this is what I consider to be good music.”
“It’s not fast food hip hop, it’s a proper three course meal piece of work – the writing that’s gone into it, the concept that’s gone into it. A lot of rappers make mix tapes and send them to people. This isn’t a mix tape, this is a real conceptual album.”
It’s true that Speech Therapy is certainly not an instant gratifier or an album to be quickly consumed but nevertheless, in large parts, it is a very warm sounding record. Acoustic guitars are rarely heard side by side with rap music and that makes Speech’s folk-tinged take on Hip Hop all the more original. Calling for Mike Tunng’s assistance on parts of her debut clearly helped this but so did, er, listening to Chris Martin??
“Oh man. I think for this album the two biggest influences were an album called Bitter by Meshell Ndegeocello and just generally Tracey Chapman and as well as that a bit of Coldplay but mainly the music from the first two in particular made this album sound the way it does. A song like ‘Searching’ you can hear Tracey Chapman – it’s light, it’s not aggressive but it’s also got really heavy lyrics.”
Those heavy lyrics detail the troubles a young Corynne Elliot – Speech’s real name – had growing up, from her father leaving (Daddy’s Little Girl) to being thrown out of home and forced to live in hostels at the age of 19 (Speech Therapy). However the greater the interest has become – and Speech Debelle has probably done as many interviews as shows this year – the greater people’s fascination with wanting to know the story behind each song has become.
“I have made a conscious decision about what I’m going to say and what I’m not going to say but because of the type of album I’ve made people want to know eeeeverything (laughs),” she says. “They don’t just want to know what I had for dinner but how I feel about it! And I can understand it with that type of album but I think it’s good to have things that are private to you. And for journalists, that’s their jobs so I don’t wrong them for that at all.”
Contrary to the whirlwinds that greeted, first her Mercury nod, and then win, Speech Therapy was in fact a long time in the making. Speech may have sent ‘Finish This Album’ - one of the first songs she ever completed and one which made it onto her debut – to Big Dada boss Will Ashon and sign a contract within days, but that was four years ago. In an age when bands with little roadtesting are thrown straight into the studio and subsequently thrown off the roster just as quickly, it’s encouraging that some artists are still allowed to mature in their own time.
“I’m really blessed to label I am because really they should have run in the other direction because the music business now is such a problem that it’s extremely difficult for artists to sell. I’d been to meetings with BMG, Sony and some people said maybe you should sing and maybe you shouldn’t say these things. There were not a lot of people that are willing to take chances at a time like this,” says the 26-year-old Speech
“So It took a long time to make the album,” she continues. “I had to figure out what I wanted to make. I don’t think I knew that back then and I certainly didn’t know how to work with other musicians. But as soon as things started making sense, it was a done deal.”
While commitment may have been forced to change in the last month, Speech intends to go back to Australia – where she recorded her first album - at the end of the year to work once more with Wayne Lotek. She’d like to release it next year too and despite telling Raged Words she’s quite happy to keep telling us how she feels, her next record will be slightly more wide-reaching.
“It will (be a personal record) but I think it will be a bit more social though. I’ve only started to write one song so far and it’s called ‘Her Name Was Jade’, basically a song about Jade Goody. There’s something so interesting about her story, it’s so British – she will go down in British history. It’s this girl from a working class family in Bermondsey and if you’ve been to Bermonsey, you’ll know what Bermondsey is like. And then she lived what they call the American Dream and goes and makes millions of pounds using the industry that uses people every day. And she made millions from it. There are just so many lessons from her story.”