Dollars to Pounds: Lulu James

June 27, 2013

Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in Manchester. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.

I remember reading a very, very old interview with George Michael in Smash Hits! magazine where, among other things, he talks about mayonnaise. He had a lot of love for this condiment, a love that bordered on addiction, and he’d slather it on everything that he possibly could.

I’m not comparing Lulu James to George Michael, nor do I know where she stands on mayonnaise, but when the 22-year-old soul singer casually said “I would love to be able to cut somebody open and fix them back up,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Wham! singer’s remarks. There’s something about all the best UK pop stars: no matter how big or famous they become, they tend to remain just a little bit weird.

Lulu James isn’t a pop star, but she’s certainly poised to become one. Born in Tanzania, she moved to South Shields in Newcastle, a place not renowned for a vibrant music scene, when she was six years old. Her debut single dropped a bit over a year ago, and since then she’s signed to RCA, her fan base has steadily swelled, she’s shared bills with unit-shifters like Jessie Ware and Rudimental and she’s even appeared on Later… with Jools Holland. Her music is a shiny, soulful take on vocal dance music, taking influences from folks like James Blake and Mount Kimbie to their logical, pop-tacular conclusion. It’s not radical by any means, but both as a songwriter and a singer, James brings more personality to her music than the rest of the competition. It pretty much summarizes where UK pop is in 2013.

When I speak to her, she’s just come out of the vocal booth—she’s laid down five tracks in the past two days—and is unwinding in “the cosy bit” of the studio, where there’s a TV—“so I can watch the soaps if I wanna,” she says in her enthusiastic Geordie brogue.

Stream: Lulu James, “Step by Step”

The bands I usually cover are posh boys who met at university in London. When I found out that you were from South Shields I thought it was pretty cool. Am I dead rough compared to them?

Yeah! They’re all dweebs, comparatively. You don’t hear of many artists coming from South Shields. Yeah, but that’s because you don’t know! It’s good to be from South Shields. Have you ever been?

I’ve only been to Newcastle once. I liked it, though. Good. You should come back and visit South Shields. We have a lovely beach.

The thing I liked about Newcastle is that it sort of has everything there, but not quite as flashy as anywhere else. I stayed with my friend, she lives in Whitley Bay. Whitley Bay beach is never as good as South Shields beach!

Never? Why’s that? Because South Shields is the place to be! Whitley Bay’s lovely, and it’s huge, but South Shields is a bit more sandy, less rocky. And you’ve got the fairground there, you’ve got the amusement park, you’ve got Bent’s Park where loads of live music goes on during the summer. And we’ve got all the pubs lined up on the beach, so you can get straight from the water and get yourself a pint.

Do you feel the North East doesn’t get enough rep from the music press? I think if they bring themselves up here and take a good look around, they’ll see the talent that we have up here. It’s not appreciated as much as it should be.

But you’re gonna change that. Absolutely!

I read that you wanted to be a forensic scientist. How long did you have that the dream for? That’s been a dream since I was about 10. Basically I’ve always had a bit of an interest in seeing guts and blood and stuff. It’s never freaked me out. I would love to be able to cut somebody open and fix them back up. [laughs] It sounds really weird. Not many people want to sleep over at my house.

I guess the music career has taken over that path. Well, just a little bit. I think I’m better at music than I am at cutting somebody open and fixing them back up, so…

But I guess you haven’t had much experience cutting someone open? No, not really. But you never know!

I’ve read a few things saying that you started singing at a church choir in Tanzania, but you stopped singing for a long time? I did, I stopped whilst I was going through my teens. I think one of the things was that I was a really good runner. I put my concentration to sports.

What was it that brought you back into it? I don’t know what happened. I stopped running. I have a massive love for music, I’ve always been surrounded by it, so I feel it was inevitable that I was gonna try to write. I think that was my aim. I sang a lot of covers when I was younger, and so when I started writing I just fell in love with it, expressing how I felt in different ways. I think that’s what made me really pursue music.

And what was it that led you on to dance music, specifically? I think that was an age thing. I think I just grew up. I remember being younger and thinking that dance music was always the same beat, and I think I just started appreciating it as I got older. I just fell in love with it, you know? I love going out and dancing to house.

So you’ve been playing shows with everyone under the sun, but your debut single only came out last year. What’s it like seeing the people react so fast? It’s a bit weird. Sheffield was the first place I had people singing back. They were singing “Be Safe” and it was like, “Woah, that’s weird,” you know? But it’s the most amazing feeling that any artist could ever wish for. It gives you a buzz. You wrote that song, it’s very precious to you, so when you hear actual fans singing it back to you, you realize that you are connecting with people.

How was Jools Holland? Jools Holland was phenomenal. He was just so laid back, as if I’ve seen him so many times, as if I worked for him. He was just like, [adopts super casual voice] “You alright, Lulu?” It was just totally cool. And the crew were some of the best I’ve worked with.

See, I can’t imagine it myself. I always think there must be loads of weird stuff going on behind the scenes. Well, I was sweating. I had next to nowt on compared to everyone else, and I was sweating—and I’m not a sweaty person—so I had to keep on running and getting bits of tissue from my stylist to dab myself every time the camera wasn’t heading my way. So I wasn’t really concentrating on anything else, I was just running around because it was boiling. I even asked Jools—how the hell does he wear a suit in them sort of conditions? [laughs]

Does he have a secret that he’s concealing? Nah. He’s just like, “I just do it”. You get used to it.

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Lulu James