So is Paloma Faith a diva or not? As she totters into her Portobello Road members club, a vision in salmon pink on skyscraping heels, bottle-red corkscrew hair billowing, an hour late for our scheduled rendez-vous, it certainly feels that way. But then it’s all double-cheek kisses and gushing apologies in an extraordinary speaking voice (a second career as a bubbly East-Enders barmaid awaits) and straight into an intimate, knee-patting kind of interview. Pop’s dotty auntie natters away and all is quickly forgiven.
Yet there’s serious business going on beneath the vivid cartoon façade of this 26-year-old from Hackney, whose pre-singing career has included stints as an Agent Provocateur sales girl, a contemporary dance student and a magician’s assistant. Saw her in half and she’d be ambition and determination all the way through. “I am ambitious,” she tells me. “I’d like to do as well as I can possibly do on every level – internationally and everything. But I’m not one of those people who’s willing to do whatever it takes, gouging out a few eyes in the process.”
She’s preparing to release her second album, Fall to Grace, later this month, with two summer concerts booked as part of the annual Summer Series at Somerset House – a grandiose outdoor ampitheatre that will suit her showstopping style. This is her moment to put her cabaret-singing, end-of-the-pier, fun-for-all-the-family image back in its box and acquire gravitas.
“I’m not a pop act, churning stuff out really quickly. I find the music that arises from that style of working is distracted, not particularly profound,” she says. “I wanted to show my real self on this album. It’s a bit heart-on-sleeve.”
The new album does sound more serious, full of break-ups and failures, as on the swooning Beauty of the End and the new single, Picking Up the Pieces, on which she casts herself as a new girl who can’t match up to the image of a past love. As with Adele’s songs of broken relationships, there may be some public curiosity about the object of Paloma’s affections on 30 Minute Love Affair or the dramatic When You’re Gone, but it won’t be easy to pin down a culprit.
“I’m a serial monogamist. I’ve got through a few long-term relationships but I’m not into naming names as I don’t think it’s fair. I get plenty of, ‘Is that song about me?’ from men but I just tell them to get over themselves.”
Adele is the obvious comparison here – big songs in a big voice with a largely piano-led backdrop and a timeless feel. Faith strays from the well-trodden path here and there, though. I prefer her powerful pipes in disco-diva mode on the pulsing synthpop of Blood, Sweat and Tears, and on the rousing gospel-pop finale, Freedom.
I ask her if Adele’s extraordinary sales figures cast a shadow on every other female singer today, or if she’s an inspiration. The latter, insists Faith. “I’ve known her for a long time. I’m not in touch with her as much now – she’s so successful I can’t get through! But I don’t think anything she does could cast a shadow on me. Everyone used to think Amy Winehouse was casting a shadow on her.
“I don’t feel in competition with anyone,” she continues. “Real talent shines through regardless of how many others there are around you. People love brilliant songs and love great voices. I think there’s room for everyone.”
We should certainly make room for a character like Faith, who can operate both as a serious musician – on Monday she performed her new album at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival with the 48-strong Guy Barker Orchestra – and a vision of pop glamour, surrounded by red silk and flapping macaws on her album sleeve or dripping head to toe in warm wax in her new video.
An occasional actress, she’s been in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and will soon be seen in the BBC’s adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings books “as a common-as-muck cabaret singer” – though she asks that you don’t seek out her 2007 turn as a tracksuited, slow-witted baby thief in Holby Blue.
Film colours her music more than most. On days off you’ll find her at the Dalston Rio or Curzon Soho cinemas, and in the studio, as a songwriter who doesn’t play a musical instrument, she’ll often describe the feel she wants in visual terms. Nellee Hooper, who worked on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Björk’s Debut, was the new album’s main producer. “He was amazing because he responded so well to visual stimuli. I email a lot of pictures, stills from films like Blue Velvet or Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 – very elegant stuff. With 30 Minute Love Affair, I said I wanted it to be like an Eighties road movie. Every song has some sort of film reference, like Streets of Glory, which is a phrase from True Grit.”
She says she related strongly to a scene in My Week with Marilyn, in which Marilyn Monroe spots some fans and says to her companion, “Shall I be her?” – then immediately switches from relaxed mode to a series of pouty poses. “It really rang true to me,” says Faith. “It’s not that one side is pretend and one is real; it’s that there are two bits to you. One is at home and private and kind of vulnerable and exposed. The other one is wearing a suit of armour and getting out there.”
There’s a line in her song Blood, Sweat and Tears: “When I take my mask off, it’s you I want to hold”. But that’s not a scene her public will ever see. She believes that real mystique is impossible in the internet era, but attempts to maintain what she calls “neo-mystique”. She can seem open and earthy, lamenting London house prices and her inability to buy a flat (“It’s virtually impossible for any normal person to get on the property ladder now. The majority of people of my generation feel like they’ll never be able to. And I need at least a two-bedroom, so I can have a bedroom for my clothes”), but then she’s cagey about where she lives now and her current relationship status, other than to say that she’s “never” single.
Perhaps unsurprising, when she’s just found out that a particularly dedicated fan is planning on getting a tattoo of her face on their arm. “My face! That is a bit insane.” I wonder if she’s really ready for the next level of fame that this new album could bring.
“I would like to sell 12 million albums and no one know where I live and no one be interested in what I look like when I’m not on stage. But that’s impossible. You can’t pick and choose. My mum keeps telling me, ‘Be careful what you wish for’.”
Paloma Faith’s Fall to Grace is released on May 28 on RCA; she plays Somerset House , WC2 (0844 847 2461, somerset house.org.uk/music) on July 17 and 18.