UK-born rapper Estelle Swaray is living the life of a black Carrie Bradshaw. Having relocated to New York to pursue her art (music), she’s also been able to indulge her passion—fashion. Just don’t call her the British Lauryn Hill. Already a star in her homeland, the 27-year-old daughter of Senegalese and Grenadian parents has drawn comparisons to the force that was L-Boogie because of her talent for switching effortlessly and credibly between harmonious singing and hard-core rapping. She isn’t likely to suffer a public meltdown though. Last year Rolling Stone dubbed her one to watch, and she’s all set to break the US having signed to her friend John Legend’s Homeschool label. And she’s certainly got powerful backing. Working with a battalion of the hottest producers in the game, including Kanye West, Will.i.am and Wyclef, the Londoner has every reason to shine on her new album.
Displaying a supreme confidence not to be confused with arrogance, Estelle is self-assured, streetwise and without airs and graces. Talking to her is like talking to your best girl friend. The self-confessed fashion-addict and round-the-way girl talks to Clutch about her strategy for success and how she plans to be herself in the music industry.
Q: You’ve been called the British Lauryn Hill. How do you cope when everyone’s expectations are so high?
I let people deal with their own expectations. I don’t bother with that. I just do what I’ve got to do. For me, I just want to make great music that people want to listen to. If saying Lauryn Hill is going to get the message over, cool. Then I’m gonna play you my stuff and hope you like it. I’m not too bothered about it ’cause if you wanna see Lauryn, go and see Lauryn. I’m not her.
Q: The British hip-hop sound is very different to the American one. Are you afraid that your music will be lost in translation?
People love it. Now they’re a little more open to our sound because of Amy Winehouse and Floetry, and back in the day we had British artists out here like Monie Love and Slick Rick. Everyone’s becoming a little less like ‘What?’ and more like ‘Yeah! That’s fresh, that’s new’ so it works better for me.
Q: Is it refreshing that you’re starting from zero in the US market, or is it frustrating that people think you’re new to the biz when you’re a veteran?
It’s refreshing because in England I can’t really go back and do a lot of things that I’d like to do because of the way my career is perceived, like doing the club circuit. People will be like, ‘Why are you doing the clubs? You’re a big star’ and it diminishes your work. Whereas in the States it’s like I get a second chance at this so I can do it this way, let me try that.
Q: Does it bother you that people see you as more of a rapper than a singer? Will you be showcasing more of your singing on this record?
There’s a whole bunch of singing on the album, the same amount as on the first album—no one bought it though, so no one would know. I think people saw me as a rapper more because I started in the industry as a rapper. I always sung. I don’t really care about whether people think I’m a singer or a rapper because I’m just doing my thing and I’m not too bothered about what people generally believe about me.
Q: So what can we expect from the album Shine?
It’s just my most honest piece of work to date. It’s great music and great lyrics. It’s inspiring. It’s going to keep getting better. Every song has a life situation attached to it. So all these guys that I’ve been going out with and dealing with that are crazy, they’re all in there. For instance, I’ve got a song called “More Than Friends,” which is about a guy I was dating, well, not dating but going out with, and he wasn’t quite sure whether I was his girlfriend or his f**k buddy. And I was like ‘Really? I feel like you’re my boyfriend, which one do you wanna be?’ So I said, ‘You are not ready for me so peace out!’ It was just that whole moment of empowering myself rather than just being a victim and crying, ‘Why won’t he date me anymore? Why won’t he claim me?’ I just got sick of it.
Q: Does he know that song is about him?
Yeah he does. And he’s a friend still, so it’s pretty fun.
Q: On the album you’ve worked with John Legend, Kanye West, Will.i.am, Wyclef and many others… that’s like, wow!
It wasn’t a time to be star struck, it was more a case of getting the job done. John is my friend so I never think about him like that. The rest of them I knew through people, and when we got in to the studio they were like, ‘What do you do again? Let me see what you do? Cool!’
Q: When you met John five years ago did you ever think that five years later you’d be sitting in a studio recording with these people?
No, not in this capacity but at the same time I’m not the kind of person who walks in to something without some kind of plan. They say if you don’t plan, you plan to fail.
Q: Why did you decide to call the album Shine?
There’s a song on the album called “Shine,” and it’s about saying that this is how I feel, this is my crazy, this is my year. The chorus goes, ‘This is my song / I’m just like you / I’ve got to fight to stay strong / Just ’cause it glitters, don’t mean that it’s gold / But I’m a shine while my lights on.’ That’s how I feel. It’s a hard struggle and when you listen to the album you’ll be like I’ve been through that too on almost every song. But while I’m here and while I have the time and when I get the opportunity I’m gonna have a great time with it. It’s me laid bare.
Q: Where do you get that confidence from?
There are a lot of artists out here who are media trained, and I’m not that person. I speak my mind. And when people come to meet me or see me on stage, exactly how I’m speaking to you now is exactly how I speak to them. I feel like it’s easy to be yourself. It got to the point where people were trying to tell me I should do this and do that but I wasn’t really feeling it. Now I listen to people talk and I just use what I want to take from it. That’s my attitude.
Q: You’ve got a great sense of style. Where do you get your fashion ideas from?
I’m a fashion freak! I really have issues! I don’t quite know where to go shopping yet (in New York). Those that are obvious are not so good. Between just loving to shop and loving fashion, I like being ahead of the times and fresh. Every day is an outfit, every day is a look. The first two or three months I was in New York I was very Sex and the City, high-heels everywhere. People were like, ‘Do you style yourself?’ and I was like, ‘Of course I do!’ I was so happy. It was so funny.
Q: Finally, you’re going out with your girls on a big night out. What three things do you take in your clutch?
My Blackberry, which is terrible because I shouldn’t be anti-social in a club, but I am; my lip gloss and some money, a bank card or some cash.