Anne-Marie: I've always loved the idea of revenge

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

image sourceAtlantic Records
image captionAnne-Marie: "I want to start a group of vigilantes for girls whose boys are messing with them"

What do you do when you get bored of your biggest hit?

That was the dilemma facing Anne-Marie as she wrapped up her 2019 world tour. By that point Rockabye, her number one collaboration with Clean Bandit and Sean Paul, was three years old, and the star had sung it more than 250 times.

"I literally got to a point in my live show where I asked everyone 'Do I have to do Rockabye, or can I just miss this one out tonight?'," she says. "And they'd all still want it."

It's not that she's not proud of Rockabye, which was one of the best-selling songs of the 2010s, it's just that she's got plenty more where that came from: hits like Friends, 2002, Ciao Adios, Alarm and Our Song, her new duet with Niall Horan.

One of the UK's most effervescent pop stars, Anne-Marie Rose Nicholson is also a nine-time Brit Award nominee, a world karate champion, a judge on The Voice, and one of the most seat-of-their-pants contestants to have appeared on The Great British Bake Off.

But beneath the bubblegum pink hair and gregarious personality, the singer suffers from a surprising lack of self-confidence.

"Every song I write, I think it's crap until it gets into the top 20," she says.

"Like, when I wrote Friends, I just thought 'Hmmm, this is OK,' but everyone else was like 'This is your next single!'. So I'm basically the worst judge for my own music."

It might sound trivial, but the singer has been plagued by insecurity since her teenage years at school in Essex.

At the age of 14, she was accused of cheating on her boyfriend, an incident that scandalised her classmates. The truth was less dramatic - she'd simply spoken to another boy on the phone late at night - but school is school, and "everyone turned against me" in an instant.

"The rest of my school years were terrible," she recalled in the 2020 documentary How To Be Anne-Marie. "I held everything in and I almost became mute because I didn't want to give anyone a reason to say something bad or have a problem with me."

image sourceAtlantic Records
image captionThe singer says therapy has helped her deal with anxiety

Now 30, the singer says the experience scarred her so much that she "decided to remove it from my memory" - but when she became famous, the insecurities came back tenfold.

"Fear of judgement is massive in this industry anyway, let alone if you have an issue in the first place," she says. "And because I hadn't dealt with it, I couldn't actually mend myself."

The trauma manifested itself in anxiety, stage fright and body image problems. When her second album was scheduled for release last year, she confessed: "I can feel the pressure coming on again to be Anne-Marie and it's really scary."

Then Covid intervened.

Overnight, Anne-Marie's album and tour were shelved. For the first time in years, she was forced to spend time on her own.

"Lockdown was really tough," she recalls. "I've always loved being really busy, because I don't really want to sit on my own, and listen to my thoughts."

Then two things happened: (1) She read a book for the first time in her life - Mark Manson's The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck; (2) She started enjoying the solitude.

"Suddenly, I was like, 'Oh wow, I've never felt this in my life. I've never been able to sit in my living room, do nothing, have a cup of tea, but be OK with my own company.'"

Scrapped album

Filming the documentary in the break between lockdowns forced her to confront her old high school experiences. Reopening that door prompted Anne-Marie to seek help from a therapist.

"It's changed my life, to be honest," she says. "Once a week I have therapy and chat rubbish to her. And every week I learn something. I realised that I'm the way I am not because that's the way I am, but because of everything that I've dealt with in my life."

In one session, her therapist asked why she felt such pressure to succeed.

"I was like 'I feel like my label want me to make hits all the time and I feel like my fans are gonna hate me if the album's crap'.

"She [the therapist] said 'Yeah, but have you actually asked them how they'll feel if that happens? Because I think you're putting the pressure on yourself'.

"And I was like 'Damn, I've been doing it my whole life. I'm a perfectionist, and I'm my own worst critic. And maybe that's why I'm still going in this industry - but also it's quite detrimental to my mental health'."

image sourceGetty Images
image captionTo date, Anne-Marie has been nominated for nine Brit Awards, including album of the year for her 2018 debut, Speak Your Mind

The realisation has changed her career. Now, the goal isn't sales and accolades but making music that feels authentic. The album that was ready to go pre-lockdown has been scrapped. It's replacement is called, with a wry self-awareness Therapy.

Like many artists, she found lockdown gave her breathing space to concentrate on writing, without the distractions of touring and promotion.

"When you're busy, the studio is always the second option," she says. "And even when you can fit it in, it's not worth having a session because you're just so knackered.

"That's always been a bit confusing to me, because you're going to be playing these songs for years to come, so, how can you not spend as much time on that as you are touring?

"So although I was angry about the last album [being delayed], in hindsight I'm really happy because I feel way better about this album than what would have been coming out last year."

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The album has already produced two top 20 singles, thanks to a rigorous process of auditioning songs for her mum and dad.

"I sit there and watch them listening to it because I know they'll probably lie if I asked them on the phone," laughs the singer, who also gets a helping hand from her long-time friend, Ed Sheeran, who co-wrote 2002.

"He's very honest. If I send a song that's bad, he doesn't reply. That's his sign. When he replies that means it's good, or he has an opinion of something that could be better, so he's a great help."

A third top 20 single from the album is almost guaranteed, thanks to a long-demanded duet with six-legged pop behemoth Little Mix.

"This has been years in the making," says Anne-Marie. "We were sending songs back and forward all the time but nothing ever really worked out."

The breakthrough came with Kiss My (Uh-Oh), a song that drips with more attitude than a Drag Race season finale, built around an interpolation of Lumidee's irresistible summer jam Uh-Oh (Never Leave You)

"I'd recorded it as a solo song but for some reason, one night, I just thought, 'Oh my God, Little Mix would sound so good on this.' So I sent it to Leigh-Anne (Pinnock), and they all loved it. And because they made it sound so good, it became a single."

image sourceGetty Images
image captionFans have been clamouring for a Little Mix/Anne-Marie duet for years

While Kiss My (Uh-Oh) is about walking away from a failing relationship, a surprising number of Therapy's songs revolve around the idea of retribution.

"Ever seen a chick lose it? Because everything you did to me, I'm going to do to you times two," she sings on the opening track, x2, aimed at "every person that is cheating on someone right now".

Later, on Tell Your Girlfriend, Anne-Marie threatens to expose a boy who's sending texts behind his girlfriend's back.

"I've always loved the idea of revenge," the singer grins maliciously. "What girls don't want to know what their boyfriend is up to? So I wanted to start a group of vigilantes for every girl whose boyfriend is messing with them."

And what punishments would this posse deliver?

"I haven't actually done this yet but I've got a dream of getting loads of cling film and - God, this is weird - cling-filming someone's car to a lamp-post," the singer laughs.

"I don't know why, but one day I'm gonna do that."

It's not quite Black Widow, but we'll take it. And, once she's finished doling out justice, she's heading back out on the road for her first gigs in two years, culminating in a headline set at the Scarborough Open-Air Theatre on August bank holiday weekend.

Which begs the question: will she play Rockabye?

"I had a rehearsal a couple of days ago and I felt really emotional singing the old songs," she says, while keeping the setlist firmly under wraps.

"I never thought I'd have that connection with them again, after singing them for so long - so that was a really special moment. I just can't wait to perform."

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