Amy Winehouse grabbed more Grammys. Leona Lewis spent more time at No. 1. And Duffy and Adele garnered tons more press coverage.
But Estelle has a few things those other hit-making British songbirds don’t: At 29, she’s at least four years older and more experienced; she’s the only one who moved to the United States, and she’s the only one equally skilled at rapping.
“With my music, I don’t have to stay in one lane. One day I’m in Motown, and the next day I’m in reggae,” said Estelle, who won a Grammy with Kanye West for best sung/rap collaboration for the smash “American Boy.”
Her persona is like her music - a combination of contrasts. In her mind, Estelle has crafted an alter ego for the stage: “Audrey Pepa,” a hybrid of elegant actress Audrey Hepburn and streetwise rapper Pepa (of ‘80s-‘90s duo Salt N Pepa).
“It’s someone who looks cute and is together but would give you a fat eye in a minute,” said Estelle.
Her style influences are disco queen Grace Jones and 1960s icon Edie Sedgwick and her musical heroes are Mary J. Blige and Ella Fitzgerald. “I like to go as far different - and as far appropriate - as I want to go. Some days I might be wearing a little dress, and some days I might be wearing something with wings on it and be confusing.”
Who knows what Estelle will wear at any given tour stop? One thing for sure is she will sing “American Boy,” which almost didn’t make it on to “Shine,” her second album and first with John Legend’s Homeschool label.
When she recorded it, she thought it might end up as a B side to a single.
“We wrote it as a joke,” she said. “I played it for John Legend and he said, ‘I think this is a hit.’ I was like ‘Please don’t put it out.’ I’m ashamed to say anything to him again. It did surprise me. It was cheeky, it was fun, it was nothing serious. And here we are.”
Estelle seems to have a way with luck. Take, for instance, how she met Kanye West. She just happened to be outside Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles when the rap superstar was inside eating. She introduced herself and he, in turn, introduced her to Legend, who happened to be with him. They invited her back to the studio for a recording session and she became the first artist on Legend’s new label. She calls it “destiny.”
After signing with Legend, Estelle moved to New York simply out of convenience. For her album, she worked with various producers, including Wyclef Jean, Swizz Beatz, Jack Splash and will.i.am in Miami, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
One of the best albums of 2008, “Shine” is a seamless blend of soul, hip-hop and reggae, filled with samples (George Michael’s “Faith,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” Bob Marley’s “So Much Things to Say”). Not only does the album showcase Estelle’s wide and deep talents, but she shines onstage, too.
Her star quality was evident in November 2007 when she appeared with Legend and his new Homeschool artists at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis eight months before her album was released. She was unquestionably the most memorable newcomer of the night, sparkling as both a singer and rapper.
Estelle is focused and hard-working, she says. “A bit of a control freak, sometimes to my detriment. But you have to be in this business,” she said by phone from New York as she was about to attend a Fashion Week photo shoot.
The ever-ambitious Estelle had her heart set on winning the Grammy for song of the year for “American Boy” - “just because the sheer amount of work we did promoting that song. We whupped ass in almost every country in the world, either physically or on the satellite or the video somewhere and performed the hell out of that song. I really wanted to win with that, but my second thought with that was if you’re going to lose, at least lose to Coldplay.”
Estelle thinks timing had something to do with the success of her song, which hit the airwaves when Barack Obama’s campaign was in full force. “After (President) Bush not doing so many great things for the country, it was like we need people to like America again,” she said. “So it was like a Brit girl saying ‘America is OK.’ People were into it.”
Has that Brit girl found herself an American boy?
“I have,” she said succinctly. “And he has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m doing.”
Estelle has begun work on her next album. She promises that the new disc will rock. “I like the feeling of going out there and completely spazzing,” she said. “Right now, the direction is Coldplay, Marvin Gaye.”
Fanta Estelle Swaray was born in West London, the second of eight children raised by a strict Senegalese mother and Grenadian father. While working at a hip-hop record shop, she figured out that rapping was a faster track to stardom than singing. In 2001, she was one of three female MCs featured on a U.K. single, “Domestic Science” by DJ Skitz. That led to her winning best female artist at the U.K. Hip-Hop Awards for the next three years.
Her 2004 debut album, “The 18th Day” on V2 Records, yielded the U.K. hit “1980,” and she won the best newcomer prize at Mobo (Music of Black Origin) Awards. “Shine” earned her two Mobo trophies last year. She also was nominated for a Brit Award - England’s answer to the Grammys - for best British female solo artist, but at last week’s ceremonies Duffy took that prize.
“To me, I was just performing and that’s the only reason I went,” Estelle said of her performance with the rock-dance duo the Ting Tings on a mash-up of “American Boy” and their song “That’s Not My Name.” “I watch the Brit Awards every year, and no one is satisfied about whoever wins. I just wanted to go and have one of the best moments at the Brits ever. And I think we achieved that.”
In fact, Duffy dominated the Brits, with three, while Coldplay went home empty-handed. Why is girl power so big in British pop these days?
“We haven’t really had our chance, other than the Spice Girls, which weren’t representative of all of us at all,” Estelle said. “You’re getting different versions of British women. There’s me, there’s Duffy, there’s Adele, there’s Amy. There’s a couple more versions of me coming out. I think people appreciate it because they never knew it existed.”