‘Sax’, Songwriting and Coming to America: An Interview with Fleur East
I've always dreamed big and believed that if you're going to dream big, you've got to go all the way.
It's an uncommon feat, but now and then, a particularly incredible reality TV performance goes viral overseas and makes its way across the pond.
By the time Fleur finished strutting through the backstage corridor and shimmying her way across the stage with her impeccable, superstar-level performance of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" on The X Factor UK, she was met with a standing ovation by all four judges, including her notoriously critical mentor, Simon Cowell. The Twittersphere tweeted. The blogs buzzed. Almost instantly, a star was born.
Fleur's rendition did so well, in fact, that Ronson and company were forced to bump up the release of "Uptown Funk" early. Why? Because Fleur was already sitting on top of the UK Singles Chart at No. 1 before the original even had a chance to come out yet.
But Fleur wasn't just some starry-eyed hopeful who stumbled into an X Factor audition. In fact, she'd already been on the series once before in 2005 as a member of the now-defunct girl group, Addictiv Ladies. (They lasted for one week.) Years later, she hustled as a solo singer, at one point even notching a drum and bass UK hit in 2013 with Drumsound and Bassline Smith's "One In A Million." Still, she never quite got her big break.
Persistence paid off, leading to a tremendous run on the show all the way to the season finale. And while she didn't end up taking the crown (Ben Haenow took the win instead), the smash success of her electrifying lead single "Sax," as well as her 2015 debut LP Love, Sax and Flashbacks, proved that she really didn't need the title, anyway.
This spring, Fleur will debut her "Sax" stateside.
I spoke to the singer about her X Factor run, reality TV star misconceptions, songwriting, crossing over to America, world tours and the probability of pulling an ANTI, Rihanna style.
Bradley Stern: I know you've been asked about this performance forever, so forgive me. There are those performances on X Factor that surpass the usual hype and make it overseas, and yours was absolutely one of them. I have to ask, when you were performing, was there a feeling that this would be game-changing?
Fleur East: I think I was just really enjoying the moment when I was performing, and then as soon as I came offstage and saw the reaction online and spoke to people that were in the audience and my family, they were just saying that the atmosphere was electric and that it was incredible. Then I kind of knew that something had happened.
It was like a lightning in a bottle moment. Amusingly, you were charting so well that the original was pushed up early. Did you speak to Mark [Ronson] and Bruno [Mars]?
Yeah, I actually saw Mark the following year in February, and he was really nice. He came up to me and said "Hey, really good to meet you, I owe you a drink or something," and then I laughed. He was really cool. He was really nice.
Simon was your mentor. He's produced massive phenomenons. What's it like working with him, and what do you think it is about him that makes him so special in finding superstars and cultivating that talent?
I think he has a good eye for it, and a good ear. He kind of knows instantly when he sees something. He'll know pretty instantly - and the thing I love about working with him is that he's so on it. He's so brutally honest. I like that, because in this industry, that's what you're going to face day to day, so it's good to be prepared from someone that's your mentor, someone that you're working with on a daily basis. It's good to kind of have that first hand, definitely.
When you say working in this industry - of course there's a lot of rejection, a lot of hustling. This was not even your first time on the show. Did you learn anything from the experience of hustling in between your seasons on the show that kind of helped you when you did make your major label debut?
Yeah, like you say, it's kind of taking the rejection and having to pick myself up again and keep going. To me, that's just prepared me for every eventuality. Even after the show, I felt really strong and I think that was good, because then I didn't have to fear when I went into the show. I was just so confident. That was really important to get me as far as it did.
So then fast forward: you have this deal and you're thrown into a situation where you can work with amazing producers and songwriters. Did you set any ground rules for what kind of people you wanted to work with, or were you sort of like, 'let's try everything and see what sticks'?
Yeah, I think we were all unanimous on the direction that we wanted the music to take. I think that it helped being on the show, with all the songs I did. It didn't take time to figure out [the sound] at all: It's got to be really uptempo, have those old school influences, old school hip-hop funk — all those passed down. So, we weren't really limited in that way. We went in the studio straight away.
Then "Sax" happened, which did amazing in the UK, and overseas in general. Can you tell us about the making of that song specifically?
Basically, we got into the studio and it was me and Camille Purcell, JHart and a producer called Electric, and we got in the room and we were like, 'Okay, this has to be an uptempo song — something that I can really perform to and, most importantly, something that reflects my personality.' That's why I think the verses are really talky. They're telling a story about different experiences. It's quite cheeky. It was really instant. It didn't take too long to put together. Once the ideas just start flowing, that was it. We just fed off of each other and the song was made. When we heard it back for the first time, after we recorded and heard the first mix, everyone just knew that it had to be the first single and we were like "Yeah, we got it! This is it."
That was my next question - was there a light bulb moment in the room where everyone said that was the hit? Clearly...
Definitely. The thing is that I was really fortunate because that happened really early in the writing process. After that, I started different studio sessions with "Sax" and playing that, and that was like the standard that we repeated.
Was there pressure from anyone to replicate the success of "Uptown Funk"?
I don't think there was pressure, but I think we would have been foolish to ignore the sound of "Uptown Funk," so I think it was kind of like a guide for sure.
You're coming to America with the song, which is an entirely different audience, although there's already 20 million streams on Spotify as far as I can see, so you're doing okay. [Laughs] But crossing over is not super easy for anyone — it really doesn't matter who. What prompted the decision, and do you feel any hesitation about going abroad?
I've heard that it's a completely different ballgame, obviously. It's so much bigger of a market than the UK, so it's a whole new experience for me, but I've always dreamed big and believed that if you're going to dream big, you've got to go all the way. I'm not scared in that sense. It's a new market. It's fresh pop music coming from a different country, and thinking about that, it's quite daunting, but I'm really excited and I can't wait for people to hear my music and get it out there.
One of the interesting things about the album is that everything visually, musically just felt like such an established persona already, which is very impressive for a debut. Do you feel like you'll ever explore other genres or kind of pull a Rihanna and drop an ANTI when nobody's looking?
Probably! I mean, I feel like I'm quite versatile. I want to do lots of different styles. Even before I auditioned for X Factor the second time, I was doing a lot of dance music. I was performing at drum and bass festivals. I was doing EDM music before I even auditioned. So, I feel like I can kind of dip my toes in lots of different [genres]. I'll see. I think whatever I want to do, I want to do something I could really put a big show into, and really entertain people with something amazing.
Do you plan on doing performances here? Is anything set in stone yet?
Yeah, I don't have anything confirmed at the moment. But, for me, 100% that's what I definitely want to do.
Cool. It's almost Valentine's Day. Do you have any Valentine's Day plans or traditions? Or is it a sensitive subject?
[Laughs] I don't have any traditions...it's nice. It's nice to get spoiled and it's just kind of an excuse to treat someone that you love. Yeah, I'll definitely be doing something...I just don't know what yet.
Do you have a favorite love song you'd recommend for the day?
That's an interesting one. I love "Unthinkable (I'm Ready)" by Alicia Keys. I love that song. It's such a great song. I love it.
Any dream collaborations in the near future that you'd love to work with?
Yes, it's a long list. [Laughs] Alicia Keys! I'd love to sing with her. Pharrell Williams, I'd love to work with in the studio. I'd love to write with some people from the UK, like Ed Sheeran, Emeli Sandé...there's a very long list.
Now you say writing, would you ever consider writing for other artists?
Possibly. Even writing verses from my first album, there were songs that I didn't use because I just felt that they weren't really for me. But I think that happens naturally when you write songs. You're in a different mood in every session. There's so many songs out there that could potentially used by other artists.
I think that the big misconception with reality show-bred talent - for a lack of a better term - is that they think, oh you chuck them in a studio with a few producers, bang out the hits. I don't know that people necessarily know that you write, even.
Yeah, you're right. There's a preconception that I come from a talent show. I probably just got given loads of songs and just recorded them. That's why I think it was really interesting to be able to know my backstory, because I came from trying to make it in the industry for a good ten years before I even went onto the show. It just so happens to be that I didn't have a moment. I didn't get a break in that time. It just so happens X Factor was the platform that made it happen. I didn't expect it to happen to me. I didn't kind of wake up one day and decide to audition. It's not like overnight for me.
They don't really know you've been putting in the work behind the scenes.
This is an impossible one to predict, but what's life looking like ten years from now for you?
Yeah, that is kind of impossible. For me, I guess a world tour is a big thing on my list. That would be incredible. I hope I can try to get as many albums out as possible, so by that time, probably...eight albums down [laughs]. Yeah, and hopefully pick up some awards along the way. Obviously, a Grammy would be a big, big one.
What would a Fleur World Tour look like? Would there be lots of dancers and things like that?
So many dancers. For me, it would be an experience. I would want people to leave and not to say "Oh yeah, it was great, I really enjoyed that," but to say "Oh my god, you have to see it. You haven't seen Fleur? You need to go." I want people to recommend it to everybody and to come back again for a second, third, fourth time. I want it to be a spectacle.
Now you just have to make that happen.
I just have to live up to that.
"Sax" will be released in the US this spring.
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