Entertainment & Arts

Fleur East: I've bounced back from X Factor 'despair'

Fleur East Image copyright Syco Music
Image caption Fleur East had been struggling to make her way in music for 10 years before the X Factor

When Fleur East came second in last year's X Factor, she thought her career was over.

The effervescent singer, with her mane of bouncy curls, had been the bookmaker's favourite to win after her explosive cover of Uptown Funk proved so popular Mark Ronson had to rush the original song into shops a month earlier than planned.

But, to many people's surprise, she came second to van driver and self-confessed "normal guy" Ben Haenow.

It later transpired he had led the public vote since the fourth week of the contest.

"There was a moment of despair," says East, looking back.

"It was a scary time because the [recording] contract's only guaranteed for the winner. So I was thinking 'oh gosh, what's going to happen now? Am I just going to go back into the state I was before I auditioned?'"

But a few weeks after the show, Simon Cowell took her aside and asked her to sign to his record label, Syco.

One year on, her debut single, Sax, has taken up residency in the top 10, while an album is straining at the gates.

"I've been waiting for this moment forever," she tells the BBC. "It literally has felt like a lifetime."

Image copyright Ken McKay / Rex Shutterstock
Image caption The singer previously entered the X Factor as part of a girlband

Born to a Ghanaian mother and an English father, and raised in Walthamstow, London, East has wanted to sing since she was a child.

"I'd perform in the mirror, I'd pretend to do interviews, I'd practice my autograph for hours."

She first auditioned for the X Factor in 2005 as part of girl group Addictiv Ladies - who were eliminated in the first week.

There followed a decade of false starts and hard work, gigging around the country to no avail. But East insists there was no stigma associated with the competition.

"I wasn't tarnished by that brush, because I'd left so early in the competition. People didn't even realise it was me, to be honest."

At her peak, she was working as a session singer and providing live vocals on tour with DJ Fresh. But, by 2014, her diary had dried up and she was sitting at home in her pyjamas, watching daytime TV and battling depression.

It was her family who pushed her to re-apply for the X Factor and, with nothing to lose, she decided to give it one last shot.

Looking back, she says the decade of struggle and rejection had knocked her confidence. "So when I finally got through to the live shows and knew the public were voting for me, that gave me the boost I needed.

"The X Factor was the final push I needed to have the presence and confidence on stage, which I didn't have before. It's a crash course in the music industry. If you can survive the show, you're ready for the industry."

Image copyright Syco Music
Image caption The album artwork defies convention, favouring a stark action shot over a face-on profile

East admits she would have been "crushed" by the "fickle" and "volatile" music business had she succeeded first time around.

And although she doesn't mention it, the time she spent gaining a degree in journalism and contemporary history has clearly given her a wisdom and perspective that's rare in the pop industry.

That maturity has allowed her to make bold creative decisions on her album, Love, Sax and Flashbacks.

Take, for instance, the cover photo. Conventional wisdom suggests a debut record should carry a face-on portrait of the artist, to establish their identity. East rejected that in favour of a shot where she tosses her gargantuan hair back, obscuring her face altogether.

"It reflects energy and movement and who I am as a performer," she explains.

Then she dispensed with featured vocals and guest raps from higher-profile artists - which can help newer acts onto radio playlists.

"It is quite brave," she admits. "Initially, I left spaces for features. There are a couple of songs where I said, 'oh we could have a rapper here' or 'I could do a duet there'. But then… I kind of threw myself into the songs.

"I did so many different drafts. Six or seven versions of each song. I re-wrote raps. So when it came to reviewing the songs, I just thought, 'well, if it's not needed, let's just leave them how they are.'"

Image copyright Syco Music
Image caption The star says she wants to put the fun back into pop music

Perhaps most foolhardy of all, she scrapped songs she'd recorded with US super-producers Babyface and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, whose previous credits include Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Beyonce.

"It's a real honour to work with these people," she says, "and that Darkchild song was really cool. I don't think it's one that will disappear into oblivion - but it got to the point where I had to whittle the album down."

Ditching R&B - a genre where British artists tend to suffer in comparison to their US counterparts - East settled on a Technicolor brand of retro-pop, powered by the parping brass that underscored Uptown Funk.

Was she ever worried that her solo material would sound like a watered-down version of Ronson's megahit?

"I don't think so," she says. "I can't ignore what I grew up listening to. My parents used to listen to Michael Jackson non-stop. They used to listen to Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder.

"Uptown Funk salutes a lot of those old school sounds as well - and I think that's why everybody loved it so much. There've been a few hits in the same vein, like Blurred Lines and Get Lucky. I think people miss that sound. I definitely missed that sound."

She says her album is a deliberate reaction against modern pop, which has become too self-absorbed and serious.

"My album is very uplifting and positive and fun. That was my mission - to get people up on their feet and escape the seriousness of life."

Image copyright ITV
Image caption Fleur's X Factor performance of Sax was one of the show's must-see moments this year

The lead single was unleashed back on the X Factor stage last month, to an audience of nine million viewers.

It was a stunningly assured show, with East channelling Tina Turner and Janet Jackson before taking a daredevil backwards dive off the judges' desk. It sent Twitter into meltdown, while music website Popjustice called it "the show's most exciting ever alumni launch performance".

It even left Simon Cowell momentarily lost for words - until he finally stammered: "That was off the chart. This is why we make the show."

"I was very nervous before that," admits the 28-year-old. "It felt like such a huge deal. I was coming back as an artist in the real world - and the contestants were there watching me, so I felt I had to set an example for them."

"Then there was the backflip. And I had my coat taken off in the first minute of the song, like Madonna at the Brits. There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong!"

But if East gets her way, very little is going to go wrong now that she finally has her dreams within her grasp.

"I just can't wait."

Fleur East's debut album Love, Sax and Flashbacks is released by Syco Music on Friday, 4 December.

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