Samantha Mumba is sipping a half pint in The Long Hall, her favourite pub to visit when she comes home to Dublin from LA. She's one of those instantly recognisable Irish faces, and yet it is 15 years since Louis Walsh "discovered" her and 13 years since her first single was released. Her presence probably doesn't turn as many heads as it used to, but nor is it yet a case of "Samantha who?"
Mumba is on the comeback trail, with a new single out this month and an album in the pipeline, except this time around, she’s doing it without the help of a either a big record label or an influential pop mogul.
Born in Dublin in 1983 to an Irish mother and Zambian father, her natural beauty means she stands out from the lunchtime pub crowd. She is casual in a check shirt, a slick of red lipstick the only concession to pop glamour. Her words are mangled slightly by a touch of a Californian drawl, but Mumba is still as Dub as they come.
The former Billie Barry kid became Ireland's pop princess in 2000 with hits such as Gotta Tell You, Body II Body, Lately and Always Come Back to Your Love. Her debut single reached No 4 in the US charts.
The casual check shirt is not a total surprise. When it came to her image, even in the early days of her music career, she says, she always tried to be as “anti-puppet as possible”. When she was 16, one music executive told her that she was too clean-cut and that it would be better if she looked like she had “just been f***ed”. She ignored the advice.
There were times, however, when she couldn't back out of an outfit decision, most notably the dress dripping with diamonds and worth more than £5 million that she wore to the Spider-Man 2 premiere in 2004.
“It was one of those things that I had to go with, and looking back, I’m just like, ‘Why did you put yourself in that predicament?’ ” she says, visibly mortified.
“I just didn’t know that that was how the dress was going to be, and the press were saying, ‘Look at this one looking for attention’. I was dying a death, calling my mum and saying, ‘Don’t buy the papers’. It’s that kind of stuff that people don’t know about, and think that you’re just this idiot with your tits out and ass out.”
Samantha Mumba was a unique package when she came on to the Irish music scene. She sang R&B songs, was female, young, black and Irish. She was our highest-profile female pop star, and for a while she appeared to herald a new dawn for the genre in this country. Then the music, and her music career, came to a sudden stop.
In 2003, a number of music labels began to merge under the umbrella of Sony Music Entertainment, which left many recording contracts in limbo, including hers. For two years, she legally wasn't allowed to release music. An absence that long from the charts can be decisive for any musician's career. But Mumba had been working non-stop since she was 15, and she says that, rather than let it frustrate her, she enjoyed the enforced time off.
“I couldn’t do anything for those two years. Which worked for me anyway because I got to be at home for a while and to go out with my friends at the weekend,” she says. “I just had to grow up and figure my s**t out and decide what I wanted. I did everything in reverse. Your teenage years are meant to be spent on the piss, and growing up and deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life, but I made that decision about what I was going to do very early on.”
The cancelled comeback gig
When she returned after this break a few years later, her career suffered another blow when a gig in Vicar Street was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. This humbling – if not totally humiliating – experience saw her disappear again. So it's a gutsy move to return to the fray now as an independent artist. She says her appearance on RTÉ's songwriting show The Hit, which earned her a top five single with Somebody Like Me last summer, gave her the confidence to attempt a comeback.
“Living away from the country, I’m a bit afraid that everyone is going to go, ‘Tsk, your wan’. I’ve always been conscious of that. I was surprised by the support and realised that I wasn’t as hated as I thought I was,” she laughs. She is aware that she might be an easy target to slag, but she has no problem with that.
“Well, nothing I released flopped ever,” she says. “Anything musically I’ve released has always been a top 10, and I liked the idea of just leaving it at that. So that’s what scares me about going independent, because I don’t want the last thing I do to be a s**t storm and a disaster, and I did it to myself. I am scared to have any expectations. I’m hoping for the smallest, and if it becomes anything more, then great.”
Since Take That led the way with a successful comeback, a lot of acts we thought had had their day have come creeping out of the woodwork. ITV's Big Reunion documented the various personal struggles experienced by some members of 5ive, Atomic Kitten and B'Witched. In comparison to them she was left fairly unscathed, because her tour manager made sure that she was kept away from the party lifestyle.
“Everybody needs to work hard, regardless of, ‘Oh, you’re in the public eye and you’re a pop star’, or whatever it is,” she says. She doesn’t believe the lifestyle of a pop star is what tips some people over the edge. “It’s actually an easy enough thing to do. There’s people working harder and getting degrees. Really, really working and saving lives. I think it’s just a bit of a cop-out, to be honest.”
She can see how successful acts can lose control, a la Justin Bieber, if they are surrounded by "yes people".
“You’ve more money than sense, everybody is saying what they think you want to hear. Nobody is saying, ‘Cop on, you’re making a show of yourself’.”
She once went out with rapper Sisqó, but she is now happily married to an American police officer, Torray Scales, and is stepmother to his son, Mason. She hasn't given up on acting: she recently starred in a TV pilot, Valley Boys, and has a part in upcoming horror film Home.
Gay fan base
The plans for her comeback started last year when she performed to a sold-out crowd for the first time since 2003 at F
AG, one of Dublin’s most popular gay nights. “I was blown away by the support,” she says. “I’m not quite that same pop star any more, but it was fun playing one for the night.” She was delighted to discover her gay fan base. Referring to the debate on marriage equality, she is bemused that a debate needs to happen at all. “That’s what bothers me, it’s like I didn’t wake up and decide to be black today. You don’t decide these things. That’s who you are.”
Now that she is in control of her career, going it alone without a label, she plans to focus more on her voice and will replace dance routines with a live band. But she won’t leave her old material out in the cold. “I’m not an arsehole. The only reason people like what I do is that they like those songs, but I want to try out my new material as well. I want it to be a lot broader than what people think it will be.”
If Mumba, now 31, never reaches the heights of her teenage pop career, she’s happy just to be making music she loves. “I’m more of the attitude that I don’t give a s**t what sells now. I just want to do something that I’m proud of. If there’s a hundred people in the room, or 10 people in a room, once it’s something that I am proud of, I am okay with that. But it did take me a long time to get to that place.”