Anne-Marie: ‘I had to turn to therapy to talk through what my brain was saying to me’

The singer on opening up and not holding back for her new album Therapy

If pop star Anne-Marie was a superhero, her origin story would revolve around the boy she cheated on at school. Her classmates found out and for years afterwards bullied her remorselessly. She could have protested, pointed out that the guys they knew double-crossed their girlfriends all the time and without consequence. But it wouldn’t have helped.

“I’m an artist who is able to travel the world. I was also bullied at school,” says the singer, born Anne-Marie Rose Nicholson and begetter of such bubblegum epics as Alarm, Friends and Don’t Play. “And I bet a lot of people didn’t have any idea about that.”

As a troubled teenager growing up in a hard-knock town in Essex, Anne-Marie’s idols included Eminem, Mariah Carey and Pink. She was drawn to their music. And even more so to their honesty.

I have a lot of things going on. Why should I be okay in a flat in London when there are homeless people? I have such guilt about my life

“They were never scared to talk about what was happening in life. Even if it was disturbing stuff,” says the 30-year-old, ahead of the release of her second album, Therapy (appropriately named, as we shall discover).


“They made me think about what I wanted to achieve as an artist. Do I just want to write songs that people will forget after a while? Or do I want to make a difference? Even though it’s quite scary.”

Anne-Marie doesn’t hold back on Therapy. Consider new single Beautiful – a banger with a jagged edge. “I woke up, look in the mirror today / Got so many things that I wanna change,” she sings, her hurricane voice landing somewhere between Beyoncé and Halsey. Later, as the track hurtles towards its chorus like a weatherfront approaching landfall, she observes. “My new clothes don’t fit anymore, now / Me and the mirror still continue to fall out.”

There’s a great deal to unpack – in both the song and the LP to follow on July 23rd. Going all the way back to school and the bullying she suffered, Anne-Marie has struggled with eating disorders and low self-esteem. And with a deep-rooted guilt complex.

“I have a lot of things going on,” she smiles. “Why should I be okay in a flat in London when there are homeless people? I have such guilt about my life. And that’s not great when you’re going through a pandemic and people are dying. I didn’t have a great time.”

Anne-Marie’s music has a steam-roller catchiness and you can certainly dance to it. However, she feels it has a serious message for fans too. Which is we’re all human, with our own flaws and woes. And our own unresolved issues.

It was those traumas – the bullying, the guilt – that led her to undergo a course of therapy last year. Hence the album title and the new openness with which she feels able to discuss her problems.

“I had to turn to therapy to talk through what my brain was saying to me,” she says. “Luckily I found someone that helped and I managed to get to [a positive] place. It was hard. I know that other people have felt the same as me [through the pandemic]. It’s been tough. With therapy I’ve been able to talk through that. And come out the other end with a different mindset. Since then, I’ve tried to be involved with as many charities and activist stuff as I can.”

Anne-Marie was born in East Tilbury, Essex, in 1991. Her mother, a teacher, is a local, her father, a builder and handyman, a transplant from London’s East End (not Ireland, as per an early draft of her Wikipedia page).

She enrolled at stage school at age five and by 12 was starring alongside a young Jessie J in a West End production of Whistle Down the Wind. In her teens, she developed a parallel interest in martial arts. In 2002 she won double-gold in the world championships and five years later placed first in the UK equivalent.

But performance would eventually reassert itself as her first love. In 2013 drum and bass crew Rudimental hired her as a live vocalist and she sang on their hit Rumour Mill. That success gave her the confidence to pursue a solo career and in May 2016 she had her first hit with Alarm, a co-write with One Direction producer Wayne Hector and Rag ’n’ Bone Man/Shakira collaborator Ina Wroldsen. A Christmas number one followed as she guested on Clean Bandit’s Rockabye. Next came her 2018 album Speak Your Mind, the year’s biggest selling UK debut.

It's strange when you see confident people. They're probably the ones with the most going on in their heads. It's a weird juxtaposition

Lockdown was a struggle, as she says. Still, she has kept busy. In addition to recording a new LP, she was the focus of a documentary: Music & Therapy: How to be Anne-Marie. Rather than the standard pop puff piece, the film was a deep dive into her difficult past. She held back tears returning to Palmer’s College secondary school near her childhood home. And she grew overwrought going for ice-cream with her family, as strangers recognised her and said “hello”, (“how do they know it’s me”, she said, slightly panicked).

“The documentary hopefully showed people that everything may look perfect on the outside. At the same time, you don’t know what’s going on on the inside. Some of the people who were having a tough time [in] school… my hope is that seeing the film will have made them feel not as alone”.

She’s speaking to The Irish Times the morning after England’s devastating penalties loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. Anne-Marie was glued to the action. Later, she took to Twitter to urge her followers to be “vigilant about racism”. Given the toxicity unleashed on social media following England’s defeat, her warnings would prove all too prophetic.

“It wasn’t going to be all plain sailing was it?” she says of the result. “It was an experience to be sure. And so much pressure [on the penalty takers]. Unbelievable – I can’t imagine what they can be going through.”

England’s defeat was a reminder that soccer stars are human, too. But, then, Anne-Marie has long understood standing on a pedestal doesn’t convey superpowers.

“There are all these people that you see and you think, ‘Oh, they’re meant to be an artist because they’re so confident and flamboyant and all this stuff’. The truth is, they are often people who have been through a lot. It’s strange when you see confident people. They’re probably the ones with the most going on in their heads. It’s a weird juxtaposition.”

Still, she feels things are getting better. There is an understanding that celebrities are people, with the same hopes, fears and vulnerabilities as the rest of us. She nods along to the suggestion that Amy Winehouse would have received a more understanding reception from the media today than was the case the run up to her death 10 years ago.

The same is true of Britney Spears, agrees Anne-Marie, who, of course, watched the documentary Framing Britney Spears.

“We’re all guilty of saying words and stuff about people and tweeting things and not thinking about the consequences. I think even the paparazzi have changed their ways. I don’t think it [the hounding of Winehouse and Spears] would be tolerated on social media now. I don’t think that would be allowed, which is a good thing. Obviously it was, back then.”

Before Covid struck, Anne-Marie had been counting down to the biggest tour of her life – including a date at Dublin’s 3Arena. She has warm memories of Ireland, which she played as support to Ed Sheeran in 2018. They’ve maintained their connection and Sheeran has a co-write credit on Beautiful. Yet she feels she has learned as much from him in a personal sense as a musical one. One of his first pieces of advice was to call her parents every day – so that she was plugged into people outside of the music industry.

“He’s an amazing person to have as a friend. He has taught me a lot. When I first got into the industry I felt I had to have a sort of ‘other self’. I had to pretend to be someone – to be an ‘artist’. When I met Ed, it made me think. It was like, ‘Oh wow, being himself is enough’. He is so good at being famous. He enjoys interacting with people. I’ve always been quite anxious about those things. What I learned from Ed was the importance of being honest.”

Therapy by Anne-Marie is released on Friday, July 23rd

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics