Jess Glynne: a new voice in more ways than one
The Londoner came to light singing with Clean Bandit and Tinie Tempah. Now her own album is about to drop, and not even heartache or broken vocal cords can stop her
We’ve been here before. Young Jewish woman from north London; belting voice; distinctive hair. Sound familiar? The comparisons between Muswell Hill native Jess Glynne and Amy Winehouse end there, however. Their musical styles are incomparable, not to mention that she has a long way to go if she is to achieve the success of the late star.
Still, if you don’t recognise the flame-haired Glynne’s face, you’ll probably know her voice. Having teamed up with English electronic band Clean Bandit to provide the vocals on smash hit Rather Be, and house producer Route 94 to do the same on My Love, the 25-year-old has established herself as a contender in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Earlier this year, she and Clean Bandit won the Grammy for best dance recording, and she has made quite an impression on the UK scene, working and writing with everyone from rapper Tinie Tempah to former Girls Aloud member Nicola Roberts.
The problem is, she says, although the success of those collaborations was certainly sweet, there was always a niggling feeling that they were not strictly “her” songs – something that has now changed with the release of debut album I Cry When I Laugh.
“I was very aware of that,” she says. “Originally I was a bit funny about singing a song that I hadn’t written, but I have to be honest: it gave me a chance to get out there, build my own album in the way that I wanted to and learn about the industry.”
A career in music was always on the cards for Glynne, although she took the scenic route to get to this point.
The big vocalists
Growing up, she was “the kid that was singing non-stop around the house”. Her mother worked in A&R for Atlantic Records, although she doesn’t think this made her childhood any more musical than the next.
As a youngster, she inhaled the “big” vocalists: Whitney, Mariah, Aretha, and later acts such as Sheryl Crow and, yes, Amy Winehouse.
Her first gig was the Spice Girls at Wembley: “pretty cool”, she says proudly. The first album she was obsessed with was Craig David’s blend of r’n’b and garage on Born to Do It. Later, artists such as Lauryn Hill taught her the importance of structuring a song and “would have been a massive influence on me wanting to be an artist and actually writing songs”.
Before that she had a close encounter with The X Factor, applying for the show at 15. She is a little cagey about it, brushing it off as a teenage misdemeanour.
“I only ever met the producers at X Factor when I did apply, and I turned away from it because it wasn’t for me. I’m still so glad that I did that, because I’m happier with the road that I’ve gone down. It just wasn’t meant to be for me. I was too strong-minded about what I wanted, and [X Factor is] not an easy road when you’re really creative.”
After leaving school Glynne spent time travelling and then had a succession of jobs before she found her way back to singing. After announcing her emphatic arrival with various collaborations, Atlantic offered her a deal for a solo debut album, but her career starting to take off coincided with a tough break-up with an ex-girlfriend.
“Everything started to happen when I was at probably my lowest point, and it was really weird because my dreams were coming true, but I was feeling like shit emotionally.
“I was really sad when I was writing and feeling pretty blue, but I chose to look at the positives at what was going on in my life. I didn’t want to write a ‘heartbreak’ album. I didn’t want it to be an album that people listened to and felt fuzzy and sad; I wanted people to feel fuzzy and warm and happy and positive.”
The songs might ping with heartache but musically, I Cry When I Laugh is an upbeat affair, from Gave Me Something to the soulful You Can Find Me. In a way, it’s the antithesis of an album such as Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, as it mines optimism from emotional trauma. Moreover, it’s damn catchy.
The album took shape via Glynne’s early collaborations with rising British producer Knox Brown, although some other big names – including Naughty Boy and Starsmith – also feature.
“From the minute I worked with [Brown] – when I wrote Ain’t Got Far to Go with him – I knew where I wanted to take the album,” she says. “We clicked straight away, and I was like, okay, this is the guy who’s going to make the bare bones of it. So when I did work with Starsmith and Naughty Boy, and everyone else afterwards, it all just seemed to fit in.”
It’s interesting that Glynne worked with so many British producers, considering that the album generally sounds perfectly tailored to the American market. That wasn’t deliberate, she says, but rather a by-product of her childhood influences.
“I listened to so much soul music and a lot of r’n’b and American artists. I guess a lot of that music inspired me: the Arethas, Etta James, Beyoncé, Whitney, Mariah, India Arie,” she shrugs. “All that music that I listened to growing up came from there, so I guess when I was creating my own music, it just went that way.”
Whatever happens next, you get the feeling that she’s ready. Glynne has already had a year of rolling with the punches. Yes, there was the Grammy excitement and being nominated for multiple Brit Awards, but earlier this summer she had to cancel a run of big gigs – including Glastonbury – to have an operation on her damaged vocal cords.
“It was definitely not an easy time,” she says. “It was pretty traumatic to go through for the first month. I was in a really bad way because I didn’t know whether my voice was going to change or not . . . and not being able to speak for three weeks afterwards was horrible. Even now, I feel like the strength of my voice is not what it was; I still need to build it up.
“The whole experience wasn’t the most amazing, but you know what? It’s just like my album: you go through these times, shit happens but . . . it happens for a reason. I’m okay now and I’m getting back into it, so it’s all good.”
Such optimism will no doubt serve her well but, given her comparatively quick rise to fame, has the whole thing been how she imagined it as a kid? She bursts out laughing. “No, it hasn’t. I don’t think you ever can know what to expect, because you never know what success will be, whether people will like it, what’s going to happen. Everything that’s happened has been so unexpected. It’s been such a mad journey. I’m just going to enjoy it as much as I can.”
- I Cry When I Laugh is out on Friday