I’m waiting to interview Harleighblu when I get a text saying we will have to postpone – her car has broken down just outside of Oxford. A couple of hours later, and she’s made it to The Cellar, looking comfortable in a checked jumpsuit and trainers. Despite her eventful journey, she’s ready to perform. Having been lauded by Radio 1Xtra’s Mistajam as the “new queen of hip hop and soul”, and with Rodney P and Trevor Nelson as huge fans, Nottingham-based Harleighblu is clearly an artist with her feet firmly on the ground.
Catching up with her over the phone a few days after her Oxford gig, I ask how she’s feeling about her recent successes. “I didn’t expect it,” she laughs, referring to her first record ‘Enough Now’ having been certified as “Jam Hot” by 1Xtra’s MistaJam before there was even an official video. “It’s been amazing,” she says; “I like to be busy.” And she’s certainly that: less than a week after the end of this particular tour, which culminated in a Saturday headline spot at KOKO, London’s 3,000 capacity club, Harleighblu was already looking forward to performing in Paris for the first time the following weekend. She’s recently been to the US to work on some unannounced projects and has gigs coming up all over the continent, including Romania, Turkey and a festival in Croatia this summer. And all this whilst studying for the third year of her degree at Nottingham Trent.
Despite her packed schedule, she still performs with the same band of fellow Nottingham residents that she was with before she was signed. I ask her if she’s ever felt pressured to take on band members suggested by people in the industry. “Yes, and I really had to put my foot down,” she says. “But I had amazing musicians on my doorstep and it’s about saying: this is who I want to work with. You have to be very sure of your direction.”The people that Harleighblu performs with are her friends as well as her musicians. The importance she places on being surrounded by people she “genuinely likes and respects” reflects her decision to remain based in Nottingham, where all of her friends and family are based.
She reveals to me that she has been confirmed to play at Glastonbury this year, fulfilling what she confesses to be her “geeky goal” of getting booked to play on her first trip to the festival. She will, of course, be bringing her usual bandmates with her. Though her ambitions are big, she remains down-to-earth and, on a rare day off, likes to relax in her hometown and “catch up on soaps with a cup of tea”. She also admits to being a huge fan girl around artists whose music she loves – such as Jake Bugg or Bonobo – but less fussed about those she isn’t such a fan of, joking that if she ever met Cheryl Cole, she would just say “yeah, I’ve heard of you”, and leave it at that.
Though she modestly claims that being picked up by 1Xtra was a fluke, the determination and hard work behind her record tells a different story. Harleighblu is a combination of the names that the her mother had planned for her twin daughters before she sadly lost one during pregnancy. ‘Blu’ was chosen as a nod to jazz singer Peggy Blu, and it seems fitting that Harleighblu has lived up to her name’s musical connotations. A lot of gigging and songwriting came before her signing by independent Brighton-based record label Tru Thoughts, who also represent Bonobo. Did she ever worry that she might not get a signing? “If you don’t have a label, it’s really difficult,” she muses. “When I was younger I was tempted by competitions [such as The X Factor, etc.], but you only get fifteen minutes before it’s on to the next person. Social media can make things more difficult for an artist – you have to really stand out amongst a sea of crap.” You only have to get slightly sidetracked on YouTube to see her point. “I’ve seen some real shockers!” she laughs. “I am so happy that I took the independent, credible record label route. They let me get on with making music and are passionate about their artists. It’s about the music and not just making money. I don’t want to be the next Rita Ora!”
You get the sense that she is determined not to compromise creatively and be moulded; packing up a suitcase and performing her own songs live to a crowd that is “getting down” is the biggest buzz for her. I ask her how she feels about the pressures placed on young female artists to a look certain way, and if this has affected her so far. “Definitely,” she says, “it is there. I was approached by a well-known label – I won’t say which – and they asked me whether I would get rid of my dreads and if I worked out. They said to me: ‘don’t get any bigger’. The sad thing is that the artist is lost in the process of being changed to fit a certain ‘look’, and, you know, trends come and go.” Tru Thoughts seem to provide a different environment, and she confirms that, to them, looks are not relevant. You only have to watch the video for second single ‘Let Me Be’ to see that Harleighblu has a striking look that is all her own. With her dreaded hair, ’60s flicked cat-eyes, and alternating between a headscarf and a jewelled Indian-style headpiece, her image lives up to her soul-diva voice. “I felt like I really came into my own with that record,” she says, “both in terms of image and as an artist.”
The record is an addictive listen, and it shows off the depth of her vocals, as well as her ability to write catchy riffs. The resulting Amy Winehouse comparisons have taken her by surprise. “It’s strange,” she notes, “because I actually only started listening to her after she passed away, but I have had a few people compare me to her. Especially Americans, they hear British jazz or soul and immediately think Amy Winehouse. But she was an incredible artist, so it’s flattering.”
The strong sense of self that she shows in her decisions as an artist is reflected in her lyrics, which are often about getting out of a difficult relationship. She laughs when I ask her if she’s going to write more happy songs in future: “I write about where I’m at in my life at that time!” Harleighblu’s blunt honesty and strong-mindedness make her a unique and refreshing young female voice in the industry. Do her bittersweet lyrics reflect any musical influences? “Yes definitely! Women like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu are my biggest idols. I idolise women that don’t take any shit!”
And with that, she’s off. Probably to enjoy a cup of tea and some soaps on her well-earned day off.