Posted by Yohannes Zewde, September 4, 2012
In the British music industry, Dionne Bromfield is working in a playing field of approximately one: herself.
British stars of her age – 13 on the release of her well-received debut covers set, freshly turned 15 with the presentation of her audacious second, self-written suite – are expected to dress angelically and sing choral numbers that have stood up to centuries of market research and recreate them, prompting a tear from wowed grandparents. They aren’t supposed to be channelling Lauryn Hill or Jazmine Sullivan, crafting perfectly adjudged, timeless soul melodies and lyrics to the gentle thunder of a hip-hop beat.
If America has a strict lineage of street soul superstars inaugurated from their infancy, from baby MJ right through to Willow Smith, the UK has none. ‘I don’t feel any pressure,’ says Dionne, sitting in her immaculately pressed red school blazer, hair tied back, satchel by her feet in her North London management office, ‘I just do what I do. I love this record so much. I loved the first one but that was a stepping stone. This is my baby. It comes directly from me.’
Everyone around her loves Dionne. It’s not difficult to see why. She’s unnaturally polite and self-effacing. Humility comes as second nature to her. When at one point she says ‘I don’t even really rate my voice,’ I remind her that this is a press release to sell her record and she u-turns, if ever so slightly. ‘OK, you can say it’s brilliant then. But you say it, not me. I just sing the way I sing.’ (It’s brilliant, btw).
It makes a certain sense that while all her school mates were texting their multiple votes for bolshy teen Cher Lloyd on this year’s X Factor – ‘they liked her attitude’ – Dionne was sympathetically rooting for ‘Scouse Sade’ Rebecca Ferguson’s take on classic soul singing. ‘We all hated Wagner, though,’ she adds, reminding you that while she is still not quite 15 and may have minor disagreements with friends over her musical maturity, she still has a firm grip of her senses.
Dionne Bromfield came to the attention of the world’s media when she became the first signing to family friend and mentor Amy Winehouse’s record label Lioness.
The seeds had been sown three years before she entered a recording studio. ‘Everyone told me I could sing from about the age of ten. My mum was always telling me. But I was so shy I didn’t believe them. And the more that people told me, the more I went into the background and the less likely I was to sing. But I was at home once and Amy was round and heard me and she said ‘girl, it’s true. You can.’ And that started something off in me. I started getting just that bit more confident.’
Yet such was Dionne’s reluctance to enter the limelight, she didn’t tell any of her friends at school that she was recording her first album, an unusually gifted adolescent’s teen-charged collection of covers of soul classics, set mostly at a tender lover’s rock pace. ‘I thought they’d think I was up myself if I told them.’ So she kept quiet. In fact, most of the school didn’t even know she was a recording artist until they saw her on morning TV, bringing a slice of pure soul innocence to the This Morning sofa.
There was never any doubt in Dionne’s mind that the second record would be a collection of her own songs. Deposited at the beginning of 2009 for three weeks worth of LA writing sessions, she couldn’t have been happier. ‘I could’ve stayed forever, honestly. The weather was beautiful and the people I worked with were a dream. It was just perfect.’
Such is the brilliant editing of her new record, no songs from those sessions have been used, though they might find some future use. ‘I left a notebook with loads of ideas in his house!’ she says, of the time spent with blue-chip Beyonce and Rihanna collaborator Toby Gadd. ‘I don’t think he’ll use them. But you never know.’
Her writing process began tentatively. ‘The first time I was left in the studio with a piece of music to write to, on my own? I mean, oh my god! Me? Write a whole song? All these thoughts go through your head but the first one is “what if no-one likes it?” You have to just remember that even when I’m working with lots of amazing people, they all started where I started. Plus I’m much younger than them, so they can see that I might be intimidated.’
Eventually she began to see this as a good thing. ‘When you’re working with people that are much older, you get two different sides of a story. You’ll get the kids perspective and the adult’s perspective. This is the only time in my life when I’m going to be able to do this and I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to.’ Decamped to London after the LA sessions, she found her sound with former Incognito henchman John Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick, sometime Duffy collaborator Steve Booker and Paul O’Duffy, known for his work with Dusty Springfield, John Barry and Amy Winehouse amongst others.
It was here that Dionne started developing her writer’s voice. ‘I walked into the studio with Steve and he had an idea for a song. I didn’t like it and I couldn’t think of a way to tell him. I mean, how do I, a 14 year old girl, tell this grown man that I don’t like his idea? We worked on that idea for a bit and while we were doing it something else clicked into my head which became The Sweetest Thing. I started thinking about a boy in my school, the year above me. I’m not going to mention any names here, but my friend really liked him. She just wanted him to notice her. And she’d always say “I just want him to look my way.” And as soon as I remembered her saying that the first line of the song was done.’ She has a remarkably diplomatic approach to channelling heartbreak for one so young. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt it, but I’ve seen it. That makes it easy to write about.’
The confidence in Dionne that began to blossom at a precociously early age, is starting to see the light of day. ‘The only thing I can talk about is the record, really.’ Her maturity stretches to penning the lyrics for the album’s killer ballad, Too Soon To Call It Love (her personal favourite). ‘I used to really, really like this boy. And everyone would tease me, saying “Aah, do you love him?” I’m like “how can I love him? I don’t even know him? I’m 14!” I think there are a lot of people under, say 18, that have these really strong feelings for people and they think that it’s love. But you don’t know what love is until you’ve been through the good times and the bad with them. And that’s what I wanted to sing about.’ Her second album is absolutely the birth of Dionne Bromfield: the artist. ‘To be honest, it couldn’t feel further away from the first one, which I love and I loved making. But this is next level and it had to be.’
The head of her record label had suggested a second set of cover versions to establish Dionne before letting her cut loose with her own song-writing. ‘After the writing sessions had gone so well, it felt like the wrong thing to do.’ So she told him, too. And here we are.The first song that earmarked the sound of the record was the tornado-like blast of big soul emotion on The Sweetest Thing, one of many highlights on the record. ‘We knew we had my sound.’ It is a sound that fits perfectly into the catalogue of a new British soul tradition, of artists like Plan B and Paloma Faith that have contemporised their Motown leanings, freshly minting them for a brand new generation, yet harks back somewhere to the commercial Midas touch of peak-era Gabrielle.
If this is all starting to sound a bit, well, old for a 15 year old, she has earned contemporary r&b and hip hop fans on either side of the Atlantic. Diggy, the esteemed son of Run DMC hip hop royalty Reverend Run and himself a 15 year old US protégé has become one of her most vocal exponents.‘You don’t get artists like Marvin Gaye and The Temptations any more,’ says Dionne, a touch dejectedly. ‘But it was as natural for me to sing along to those artists when I was growing up as it was for my friends to with Britney or The Sugababes. That was the sound I grew up with, the first sounds I loved.’You can hear that linage traced throughout her second album; a second that sounds a little bit like it should be her first. ‘I wouldn’t change what I’ve done for the world. I loved making that first record. But this one is more like a collection of my diaries, rather than what’s on my MP3 player.’
From the tear-stained ballad Get Over It to the uptempo street smarts of A Little Love and Muggin’, these are the sort of songs that both fit perfectly into the contemporary milieu, while reminding you of a bigger and better place. These are not just versions of songs to love, they are new songs to love, period.
It is worth making the point once again: she was 14 when she wrote them. ‘These are my stories,’ says Dionne, a girl who probably couldn’t be named with any more appropriate soul gravitas on her shoulders, ‘I’ve analysed the words when I was writing them. So I can just feel them when I’m singing them. Responding emotionally to these songs is easy. Because they’re mine.’