Music for troubled times

On her fourth album, Paloma Faith turns her gaze beyond the love songs to the volatile world around her, enclosing a message for the future within her beautifully crafted pop
Words: Paul Mitchell

small Paloma shot.jpg

“It’s not a coincidence that the only woman over the age of thirty who is doing majorly well in music today has got a bag on her head,” UK singer-songwriter Paloma Faith says, with more than a hint of anger in her voice. She is talking, of course, about the publicity-shy Australian singer-songwriter Sia, who Faith collaborated with on her fourth album The Architect, released today. “Sexism is global – it’s not just within the music industry. I just think it’s despicable.”

Faith’s frustration with gender politics in music today was one of the catalysts for an album that is more political in tone than her previous releases. Back in 2012, Faith told The Guardian that she wanted to write more political songs but she didn’t “feel clued-up enough”, but since then things have changed. “I wanted to write an album that was looking more outward,” she says. “Because all that women in music seem to sing about now is men hurting them and breaking their hearts. I don’t think it’s a great message to send to the world. There’s more important things.”

Faith was born and raised in East London by her English mother and Spanish father, although her parents divorced when she was two. She credits her mother with not only instilling a love of music in her but also an appreciation of the political role music can play in society. “All the music from the ’60s and ’70s that I was raised listening to was very culturally and emotionally aware,” she explains. “Music by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye – who wrote what was going on around them. It’s sad that no one does that anymore.”

She initially sought a career in dance and theatre, gaining a degree in contemporary dance and an MA in theatre directing, and it was while she was at college that she made a segue into music when the manager of the bar she was working in asked her to front his band – without having heard her voice. “He said it didn’t matter what I sounded like because I looked old-fashioned,” she told the Independent in 2010. The band became Paloma and the Penetrators but it wasn’t long before Faith was being pursued as a solo artist, infamously telling the head of Epic Records to “fuck off” – before storming out – for texting throughout her showcase performance. “I said: ‘If you’re going to be anything to do with my career, I’d rather sing in pubs for the rest of my life,’” she later recalled. The errant texter apologised nine months later and Faith promptly signed with Epic, her first release coming in 2008 in the form of a duet with Josh Weller, ‘It’s Christmas (and I Hate You)’. The following year, her debut album Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful? was released and yielded two top 20 UK singles, eventually earning double platinum status in her home country. Her following two albums Fall to Grace (2012) and A Perfect Contradiction (2014) would also attain double platinum status, with 2014 single ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’ becoming her biggest hit to date, peaking at number 1 in Australia and number 6 in the UK.

With the release of The Architect, there is a sense Faith has reached a stage in her career where she is ready to embrace a new way of doing things, along with finding a whole new voice. “I wanted to write something more modern,” she says of her fourth album. “On previous albums I’ve been more concerned with the past.” First single from the album ‘Crybaby’ perhaps gives a sense of Faith’s mindset at the time of writing the album. While the music is classic Faith – smooth electro-pop with gorgeous melodies, addictive hooks and soaring vocals – the lyrics question whether there would be no more war if men learned to deal with their emotions, while the accompanying video, filmed in Ukraine, is a bleak vision of a dystopian future where children are brought up in a human factory to have no emotions or empathy.

“I wanted to write this album about the world I live in now and things I was worried about,” Faith says. “I wanted to cultivate some kind of new epidemic of empathy.” The birth of Faith’s first child in December 2016 also gave her cause to reconsider the world around her. “When you become a parent you automatically start to look less into yourself and more around you and to another person,” she explains. “It’s an animal instinct to try and analyse whether there’s danger or try to create the best possible environment for your child to grow up in.”

To avoid sounding “elitist, patronising or condescending in any way”, Faith chose to portray the issues she is concerned about on The Architect in the first person. “All the songs are written from the perspective of me being someone else, another human being in another situation or another thing in a situation.” Some of the guises Faith adopts on the album include Mother Nature (‘The Architect’), a Leave voter in the recent Brexit referendum (‘Guilty’), a refugee (‘Warrior’), as well as herself at different points in her life. “The songs all deal with different things going on in our world, like climate change, war or the refugee crisis,” she explains. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re in a time where things feel very transient – and not necessarily in a good way.”

Faith is quick to point out much of the sense of transience that is troubling the world today is down to the loss of community. “Culturally everything is gearing towards isolating us from each other,” she says. “Growing up, I knew my neighbours. I played in the street with them. And now I live on a street where none of my other neighbours seem to know each other. Now, when I move somewhere new, I always knock on the next-door neighbour’s door and give them a bottle of wine and say, ‘If you ever need anything, I’m just next door’. I just think it’s very important. You can’t make big generalisations, but I do notice a slow move, a gravitation towards isolation. The internet particularly worries me because it’s the illusion of community and it isn’t real.”

Faith cites the reaction to the recent Syrian refugee crisis as evidence the loss of community has brought about a decline in compassion and empathy. It is a subject she tackles on The Architect in her collaboration with Sia, ‘Warrior’, a moving power ballad with a string arrangement by screen composer David Arnold (the James Bond films, Independence Day) and heartbreaking lyrics: “I am a wounded warrior / Now that the enemy is closing in / Looking for someone to let me in / I’m begging you, take me in”.  It is the fear of the unknown, she argues, that turns people against each other, breeding racism and intolerance. “When the Syrian refugee crisis happened, I was walking on the street and listening to people say, ‘You know they’ve got mobile phones?’ It was almost like saying, ‘I can’t believe that those uncivilised human beings are able to emulate our civility,’” she says heatedly. “It didn’t sit well with me because it could happen to you or me. With people like Donald Trump throwing their egotistical weight around on behalf of the western world we are even closer to being in that situation ourselves. Because there will be a war if he carries on the way he is and it might mean that we, with our mobile phones, will fall victim to the same mass migration situation.”

One of the standout tracks on The Architect is ‘Kings and Queens’, a song which comes as close as this album gets to the love songs Faith wants to avoid. The music is nothing short of euphoric, with a thumping bass line, multiple hooks and a killer ’80s-tinged chorus. Looking closely at the melancholic lyrics, however, gives the song a different slant completely: “We didn’t get it right this time / Maybe in another life / Maybe we’ll be better next time”. For ‘Kings and Queens’ Faith inhabits an earlier incarnation of herself, and says the song tells the story of a boyfriend from her teenage years. “I had a boyfriend from about age thirteen to sixteen. He was my first love and we were pretty inseparable,” she reveals. He was also creatively gifted, she says, but was always missing school for what turned out to be sinister reasons. “He was constantly being called in for an ID parade at the police station – the local police were a little bit racist and they used to call in any black person on their books if anyone who was black had committed a crime. It was so regular it was literally preposterous. A forty-five-year-old black male who was bald and six foot five had committed a crime and [my boyfriend would] be called in. He was fourteen!”

Like most teenagers, Faith enjoyed the drama at the time – “I used to think it was cool that my man had been called into jail” – but she realised later that it wasn’t cool at all. The relationship hit home recently, she says, when she was revisiting the “quite rough” area in London where she grew up. “I saw someone being pinned up against the wall and their faced being shoved into the concrete by the police. I met eyes with the person and it was him,” she says, still with a trace of disbelief in her voice. “I breathed in and was about to say something but he bowed his head as if to say, ‘Please don’t say anything because I’m just ashamed.’ That look – it was very poignant, and I felt it was to do with dignity and him saying, ‘You knew what I could’ve been.’ I wrote the song after that. In his case I just felt like all the odds were against him and he became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somebody told him so many times, ‘You’ll become a criminal.’ If you get told you are something many times maybe you then become it.”

The Architect is, in many ways, a confronting album, unflinchingly tackling uncomfortable but important topics through both the songs and the accompanying visuals. In an uncertain world, creating political music is to be applauded and embraced, and Faith has melded it all into an album that is nothing short of brilliant. This is superbly created pop music, full of addictive melodies, with Faith’s unique and diverse vocals masterfully grabbing the listener’s heart and never letting go – and it is arguably her best work to date.

Her arena tour across the UK and Ireland in March to back up its release will be “futuristically tinged”, Faith says, in keeping with her own growing concerns about what lies ahead for humanity, especially since parenthood shifted her focus to the future. And hopefully, through her music and her public appearances, Faith can change the world along the way – which was perhaps her goal all along.

“I want to cultivate human qualities that I feel are being left behind, like kindness and empathy. The whole album and the whole tour is geared towards trying to do that.”

The Architect is available now on RCA Records. Purchase here
Track listing
1. Evolution (ft. Samuel L Jackson)
2. The Architect
3. Guilty
4. Crybaby
5. I’ll Be Gentle (ft. John Legend)
6. Politics of Hope (ft. Owen Jones)
7. Kings and Queens
8. Surrender
9. Warrior
10. Til I’m Done
11. Lost and Lonely
12. Still Around
13. Pawns (ft. Baby N’Sola, Janelle Martin & Naomi Miller)
14. WW3
15. Love Me As I Am

Bonus tracks (deluxe version):
16. Power to the Peaceful
17. Tonight’s Not the Only Night
18. My Body
19. Price of Fame

UK and Ireland tour dates, 2018
2 March     First Direct Arena, Leeds
3 March     Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham
5 March    BHGE Arena, Aberdeen
6 March    The SSE Hydro, Glasgow
8 March    Manchester Arena, Manchester
9 March    Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle
11 March    BIC, Bournemouth
12 March    Brighton Centre, Brighton
14 March    O2 Arena, London
17 March    Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff
20 March    Echo Arena, Liverpool
21 March    Genting Arena, Birmingham
23 March    The SSE Arena, Belfast
24 March    3Arena, Dublin