Big interview – Paloma Faith: ‘I feel not enough empathy goes on’

Paloma Faith has just released her fourth album, The Architect.
Paloma Faith has just released her fourth album, The Architect.
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Most singers prefer not to talk about politics. Not Paloma Faith. She talks to Duncan Seaman about Brexit, the disenfranchised and why motherhood has changed her world view forever.

Few British singers have dissected matters of the heart over the course of the past decade with quite the aplomb of Paloma Faith. In hits such as New York, Picking Up The Pieces, Can’t Rely on You and Only Love Can Hurt Like This she marked herself out as a torch singer for whom romance often carried a powerful sting.

Platinum sales of her albums Do You Want The Truth or Something Beautiful, Fall To Grace and A Perfect Contradiction suggested many music lovers in the UK felt the same.

On her new album, The Architect, however, the 36-year-old has averted her view outwards, onto the wider world. A combination of factors, she says, led her there.

“It was partly because I felt a little bit disconcerted about music in general,” she explains. “The music I was raised with was very much observation of the current climate that it was written in. My Mum was young in the 60s and 70s and people used to sing about everything then, obviously heartbreak songs would come into it, but they’d sing about everything else in their lives and I feel like that’s something that’s died out and it’s a shame because it’s really important to be aware of the world you live in as well. I feel particularly at this moment in time it’s even more important because it feels like there’s something in the water that doesn’t feel quite right.”

Being pregnant with her first child while writing the songs also made her reflective, she says. “Thinking about what am I going to teach this person I’m bringing into the world and what’s important, how can this child make the world better and feel a sense of responsibility not for themselves but for other people, because I feel like we’ve had a massive demise in community.

Paloma Faith studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. Picture: Kathryn Bulmer

Paloma Faith studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. Picture: Kathryn Bulmer

“Basically I was thinking about qualities that I would want to pass on, like empathy and kindness and understanding and an awareness of oneself within a bigger picture, like ‘I am fortunate because of these things and I am maybe less fortunate because of these things and what can I do about it, rather than just me, me, me and I want this and I want that’ which is what it feels like is going on, on a social level with everyone living on credit and everyone just wanting to own things, it’s scary.”

Changing times also played their part. “The increase in the use of the word terrorism, the increase in voices from the underbelly being heard – around the time I started writing was just after the riots that we had in London and around the UK – and it was about asking questions like ‘why did that happen?’ You can’t dismiss something like that as just young people being crazy, you’ve got to look back and realise what led to that happening, what’s going on.

“I also feel by default when you become a parent you become les self obsessed and you look outwards more.”

The arresting video for Faith’s recent top 40 hit Crybaby depicted a closely controlled society that dealt harshly with signs of emotional vulnerability. The singer feels the world would be a better place if men, in particular, allowed themselves to be more in touch with both their own feelings and those of others.

I feel it would be wonderful to see a politician or two that’s quite high up that isn’t using their ego to manifest things, they’re actually talking about feelings and deeper principles.

Paloma Faith

“I feel that once you’re in touch with your own emotions you start being able to look outwards and see other people have them as well and you might be able to put yourself in their shoes. I feel not enough empathy goes on. It’s strange because I think there’s very much a thin line between politics and empathy and all the issues that I’m discussing. It’s not a political record but it does blow over into it because in politics it feels like people are very desensitised and detached away from how their opinions or their votes or how their manifestos affect the individual and it seems very much numbers based and not enough about what it is to be a human being, like ‘how would this feel? How would that feel?’ and I guess that’s what I feel needs to change about politics.

“I feel even those that argue some of the ideologies that I believe in sometimes seem to egotistical. I feel it would be wonderful to see – and I don’t see any evidence of it – a politician or two that’s quite high up that isn’t using their ego to manifest things, they’re actually talking about feelings and deeper principles.”

Another track features The Guardian commentator Owen Jones talking about the politics of hope – something that seemed to be in short supply in 2016. Faith senses a change is in the air. “This is going to sound maybe dramatic but I feel like we’re in a very dramatic time,” she says. “People didn’t realise that it was World War Two until it was on their doorstep. I believe that we are in World War Three and have been for some time but because it’s not on our doorstep yet, which it will eventually be, we’re in denial about it. Also it’s going to be a much slower, longer process now because of technological advancement; we can actually be at war and in war but not on our doorstep from afar using drones and all those awful kind of things and the internet has a lot to answer for in that sense.

“I remember once I was at a big conference and I met the man who invented the internet [Tim Berners-Lee] and I said to him, ‘You must feel a heavy burden’. He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because you’ve invented heaven and hell, you must feel like almost the closest to God that anybody living could feel because it’s the worst of people and the best of people and you can’t deny either side’. He just felt very uncomfortable and sort of shuffled off, he didn’t really say anything and I understand why because I’m sure not many people pull him up on that, but it is capable of doing terrible and wonderful things and it’s up to use to make it the latter.”

Paloma Faith is one of only two solo British female artists whose first three albums have gone platinum.

Paloma Faith is one of only two solo British female artists whose first three albums have gone platinum.

The song Guilty is written from the perspective of a Leave voter in last year’s EU referendum who has come to regret the choice they made. Like many, Faith admits to feeling shocked by the result in favour of Brexit. “It’s one of those things where you surround yourself with like-minded people and maybe exist in a bubble then, you assume everyone thinks like you because everyone that you’ve surrounded yourself by does. But then when you listen to the voices of people that you haven’t spoke to they were loud on that day and it was shocking to me but also it was another example I think of there being a need for change. I don’t think people were necessarily voting specifically for Leave, I think people were voting to be heard, to say ‘We’re here’. A lot of them were ignored people who wanted their existence to be made apparent and collectively they did. The riots were probably [caused by] a similar group of people as well in general. Obviously there’s exceptions at all times; most of the time people vote selfishly and not for the greater good which is a shame.”

For all that, Faith says she feels hopeful that “young people do seem way more politicised than than maybe my generation seemed when we were young”.

“I’m an exception but most people my age don’t feel any sense of responsibility or drive to even vote. I know so many people who don’t vote or who pretend to me to vote because they’re scared of having their heads bitten off, but I know they don’t. I think people are confused. Russell Brand came out and wrote that book and he was encouraging everyone to vote, and then he admitted that it was a mistake because it doesn’t work. [But] you have to [believe it does].”

In March Faith will take the album on the road. The tour begins at the First Direct in Leeds, a city with which she feels an affinity. After leaving school in north London, she studied for a degree at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Chapeltown.

“It feels like a really important part of my growth as a person because I spent three and a half years there studying between the age of 18 and 21 when you’re really turning into an adult,” she says.” I feel a strong bond to the city. I’ve got loads of friends there as well.”

Faith’s experiences of the Northern School may have turned her away from a career in dancing – she says at one point pointedly: “It upset me because I would probably have been a dancer if they’d been a bit nicer to me, I think I was good enough to be as well but they just beat it out of me pretty much” – nonetheless she did forge a friendship with fellow future pop star Ricky Wilson while they both worked at Milo bar in Leeds city centre. She recalls “bumping into him” when she was first trying to establish herself in music “and we stayed in touch from then”. In 2015 they sat next to each other in judges’ chairs on TV talent show The Voice.

Paloma Faith was a judge on the 2015 series of The Voice alongside her friend Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs.

Paloma Faith was a judge on the 2015 series of The Voice alongside her friend Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs.

The same year Faith picked up her first Brit Award, for British Female Solo Artist. In her acceptance speech she remarked that it had been “a long time coming”, yet it seems the award doesn’t occupy a special place in her home.

“It was the symbol of the award that was important to me rather than the award itself,” she explains. “It doesn’t have pride of place; it’s actually in a box still somewhere in amongst all my storage, suitcases and stuff, because I’m not really the type of person to have lots of boastful things, I just don’t like it, it makes me feel uncomfortable having pictures of myself or things I’ve achieved on the wall at home.

“But it was really important to me to win at and know that I’ve got it because sometimes you feel in life – and I know loads of people do, my Mum did as a teacher in Hackney for 45 years, people just work and work and work and they do such great things, much greater than mine, like doctors and nurses and teachers and people who run the postal service and people who drive the transport and they never really get acknowledged for all the graft they put in, my Mum left education and there wasn’t even a goodbye card after 45 years of service – and I just felt it was really symbolic to me to win that award because I come from a long line of family that is predominantly working class that hadn’t been acknowledged. That’s why I wanted to say thank you to the people who set the tables, who clear up at the end of the night, who did the lights. I said that in my speech then the next morning when I went to the airport somebody in security said, ‘Thanks for giving us your award’ and it meant so much for me because of that. It represented a long line of my association with people who weren’t acknowledged.”

Today Faith finds herself trying to balance family life with the demands of the music industry. She thinks it will take time. “I think when children grow up a bit they become a bit more robust but mine is still only a little baby and my child doesn’t understand why I’m leaving or just feels hard done by if I’m not there so I’m trying to always be there as much as I can when the baby’s awake, which is only for 12 hours a day.” It is a juggle, she says, but she hopes it will work out. “I’d hate to have a child that doesn’t know me or resents me because I wasn’t there.”

The Architect is out now. Paloma Faith plays at First Direct Arena, Leeds on March 2. www.palomafaith.com