Rebecca Ferguson begins our interview by apologising. She has a sore throat and says she’s sorry if she coughs from time to time. “But other than that, I’m fine,” she continues in her strong Liverpudlian accent before letting out a girlish, slightly nervy laugh.
The singer will be playing the Love Supreme Festival this July, showcasing numbers from her third album, Lady Sings the Blues, which is her interpretation of songs by troubled jazz singer Billie Holiday, predominantly taken from Holiday’s 1956 album of the same name.
Ferguson is best known for being the runner-up, to Matt Cardle, in 2010’s X Factor. Since then she has garnered critical acclaim and significant commercial success with her albums Heaven and Freedom. But covering songs so closely associated with the legendary Holiday is her most audacious feat yet – and one that seems to have paid off: the reviews, while not being raves, have been positive, praising Ferguson’s exemplary vocals and the feeling she injects into standards such as All of Me and Stormy Weather.
Fans of the 28-year-old’s previous work will be familiar with the husky, melancholic timbre of her voice. She sings about relationships and their break-ups with a soulful tenderness. There’s a depth to her work and she has co-written much of her material. Unlike other products from the reality TV show there’s a darkness to Ferguson’s lyrics which, one could certainly argue, finds it home in Holiday’s back catalogue.
“I think initially it was the sound of the music that attracted me to Lady Sings The Blues,” explains Ferguson, who is quick to admit that she understandably had concerns about covering music by such a monumental figure.
“But I listened to the album again and again and fell in love with it. It felt like that was where my voice fitted. At this stage I feel my voice has to be constricted a bit with pop music, whereas with jazz it’s free to do whatever it wants.
“Yes,” she adds thoughtfully, “that’s what I loved about Lady Sings the Blues – I got to be me.”
Ferguson already knew a little about Billlie Holiday’s life – a tumultuous journey through drugs and degradation which left her dead at just 44 – through studying her at college at 15. She saw the Holiday biopic (starring Diana Ross) just before she embarked on the project and came away mesmerised. This much is obvious as she continues to speak about her – in a steady, reverential tone.
“I feel that only now have I really got to know her. Yes, now I can say that I fully understand her as a person, an artist at that time. I’ve looked into who she was and find her a really interesting character.” She coughs slightly, apologises and pauses before speaking again. There’s a real seriousness to her next words: “She was somebody who had a lot of dignity considering she had so many problems. When it came to music she was very dignified.”
Over her short career Rebecca Ferguson has also had her difficulties. She made headlines by dating fellow X Factor contestant Zayn Malik of One Direction, who was six years her junior. The relationship ended after four months. Then in 2011 it was reported that her former management company Modest were suing her for breach of contract. There was an ugly public exchange in which Ferguson Tweeted that the company were “vile” and accused them of forcing her to do interviews just moments after collapsing. Modest filed a High Court writ seeking 20 per cent of the star’s future earnings. The matter was settled out of court in 2013. Prior to our interview, her PR has requested that I don’t ask any questions about her ex-boyfriend or questions surrounding “personal legal circumstances”. Given her past issues it is perhaps unsurprising that Ferguson identifies so strongly with Holiday, a woman who, for many, embodies the destructive nature of celebrity. And yet, Ferguson explains, she was very careful to put her own stamp on Lady Sings the Blues – “to apply my own life to it.” Which songs resonated with her?
“Don’t Explain because it’s basically about someone who is cheating on the partner and you know it, but put it to the back of your mind. I could relate to that and so I put those emotions into it. That and Lady Sings the Blues.”
She pauses before going on: “What was another I could really relate to? God Bless the Child. I understood this one because of my new found fame… when you’ve never had money and suddenly when you’ve got it everybody wants it and in the end you find that people just want to be around you because of what you can offer them.” Can she expand upon this?
She doesn’t hesitate. “I felt at the time that I was the go-to person for everyone. I was trying to get my head around fame and the fact that all of my dreams had come true, but at the same time people were looking to me and thinking, maybe she can make my dreams come true. That was quite a weight to carry.
“For years I struggled with fame and after I got the first year out of the way I started to retreat. I didn’t want to go to celebrity parties and be surrounded by that lifestyle. I just wanted to work and go home and close the door and pretend that I was Rebecca Ferguson before The X Factor.”
She draws the conversation back to Holiday, her voice brimming with passion and understanding: “I learnt loads of lessons and that’s why I related to Billie. Because in some ways she had been through very similar things. Obviously she had quite a tough life, so I can’t relate to a lot of her story, but I felt a very personal connection when I was reading about her and particularly the songs she wrote herself. It seemed that she knew what it all felt like too.”
Ferguson was born in 1986 in Liverpool to Jamaican parents. In her teens she moved to Anfield and had her first child, Lillie May. A son, Karl, followed two years later. Life was conventional and she trained to be a legal secretary. She unsuccessfully auditioned for The X Factor and for P. Diddy’s Starmaker in New York. What kept her going back?
“I had this desire to sing that I couldn’t get away from. It was something that would completely consume me if I didn’t achieve it. It’s funny because I am not someone who likes attention so much, but I just knew that I should be singing. I kept trying to distract myself by training for other jobs, but it pained me that I wasn’t doing what I felt I had been put on earth to do. In one way I wanted more than just to have a 9-5 life, to meet a nice man, get married, have a couple of kids. That steady, normal life. The singing was constantly knocking at my door, so I kept auditioning and eventually they let me in.”
She refers to coming second in The X Factor as “like a lottery win”, but something she didn’t understand at the time. The last five years have been a steep learning curve. She went out and spent money and attracted “a lot of chancers”.
“It’s the saying that new money doesn’t know what to do with new money,” she adds. “Looking back I made all the mistakes that people make when they initially get success, but at same time I am not going to lie and say I didn’t enjoy some of it. But now I understand why I was the way I was.” Did she feel she got the support she needed from the team behind The X Factor?
“Not at the time. When you leave The X Factor it’s just the programme, the show. You’re very much reliant on your family and a good team. I wasn’t educated on business and everything that goes into being an artist back then. When you go on a show like that you just think it’s about the singing, because that’s all you’ve ever done, but there’s a lot more to it, all of a sudden, like different contracts.” She sighs gently, sounding for a moment slightly sad and battle-weary. “If you never studied it you would not understand.”
When Ferguson appeared on The X Factor she was often shy and noticeably nervous during some performances. But the woman speaking to me now exudes self-confidence. The post-X Factor media circus meant she had to adapt very quickly and was taken out of her comfort zone. Yet even now she admits she can still be “a bit socially awkward” at events. But it’s the singing that really matters to her.
“I’ve always felt the need to help people with my voice,” she explains. “I want to convey something personally to an audience. My album Heaven was all about break-ups and it was important to me that both men and women related to what I had been through. When I write and shape music it’s very much with a good intention.”
Writing songs is, she claims, a quick process. She pens the first verse and chorus in under two minutes and then waits another three hours before the rest comes to her. “It’s instinctive,” she laughs. “And that means when it comes to album tracks I have loads of choice.”
At Love Supreme she is looking forward to introducing audiences to a new side to her – her love for jazz. She talks about the freedom that this gives her (it’s perhaps no coincidence that Freedom is the title of her last album) and how jazz musicians “seem happier” because they “play as they feel.”
This degree of inventiveness and autonomy is, I suggest, where Ferguson may see her future career going as she slowly breaks free from the shackles of a closely managed, arguably more limiting pop career. Her reply is warm, but firm.
“I feel like I am at an age when I am in control. I recognise now that this is my talent, which you don’t when you get off a TV show. I’m the boss. When you realise everyone is on your payroll and that you’re the one who’s creating the music, that’s when you start to get some ownership and freedom. I now know that I’m the person that creates my career and creates where my life goes.”
It’s the kind of bold statement of independence and self-awareness that Billie Holiday was never able to live up to. But despite her spiritual kinship with the doomed jazz singer, there is, I am certain, no chance of Ferguson slipping by the wayside.