It’s just one prestigious evening after another for Caro Emerald. As she prepares to take to the stage with the Metropole Orchestra at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, a rare pop visitor to the Dutch equivalent of the Royal Opera House, it falls to me to inform her that next year she’s going to be playing at the O2 Arena.
“I knew we were doing an arena tour, but I don’t think I realised that. The O2, seriously? How big is it? I’m pretty sure that’s not possible,” she splutters, a forkful of salad hovering halfway to her mouth and forgotten. Tickets go on sale today so she’d better get used to the idea.
I don’t think this is false modesty. The extent of Emerald’s success has been a huge surprise, not least to the 32-year-old former wedding singer — born Caroline van der Leeuw in Amsterdam. In the Netherlands she’s a sensation, her debut album from 2010, Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor, enjoying a longer run at number one than any release ever — 30 weeks, one more than Thriller.
Over here she’s no slouch either. In August 2011 that album quietly joined a UK top 10 featuring an unprecedented seven solo women. She was somewhat lost beside Adele, Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, but went on to go platinum and she’s since played the Albert Hall. A follow-up album, The Shocking Miss Emerald, went to number one in May this year.
“Since the beginning in the UK I’ve been feeling ‘wow!’,” she tells me. “I’m in the country with what feels to me like the highest quality music in the world.”
We’ve fallen for a sound that is vibrantly retro, mixing Andrews Sisters harmonies with Mississippi steamboat horns, but also subtly modern. On stage she has both a horn section and a DJ who scratches vinyl and adds electronic beats. “With my music you can go way left or way right. You can go completely electronic or completely acoustic. I try to choose the perfect middle.”
When I watch her at the Concertgebouw the music is as polished and classy as it can get. Tip-toeing down a long staircase with her full figure, sparkling Jimmy Choos and trilby hat, Emerald is brave to perform in a room decorated all around with the names of composers including Mahler, Strauss and Ravel, before an elderly audience that only stands up when she suggests that it might be a good idea right at the end.
Her co-producer David Schreurs, who writes the lion’s share of her songs with lyricist Vincent Degiorgio, is sitting beside me and seems profoundly disappointed by the dominance of strings over beats. Her grandmother, a tiny 85-year-old in a loud jumper who is watching her live for the first time, loves it.
She plays new songs, including the tango-influenced Tangled Up, co-written with Robbie Williams’s frequent collaborator Guy Chambers, and the dramatic I Belong to You, which recalls Garbage’s Bond theme for The World Is Not Enough. Then there are the clubby beats and glockenspiel of Back It Up, the song that started it all in 2009. She sang a guide vocal for her producers while they tried to sell it to a big act. When nobody took the bait, she was eventually allowed to release it herself.
It’s this sense of being the back-up choice that could easily sow doubts. They’re now going away, she says. “At first I felt like I’d got really lucky to be on this ride. This could have happened to anybody — it’s such great music. But we’re still at this level, so I now realise there must be something special that I do. It’s not just the songs, it must be me as well.”
All the same, she seems to be less involved in the creative process than many stars. She plays down her co-writing credit on five of the new album’s 14 songs as “vocal arrangements”. While the strings were being recorded in Abbey Road’s hallowed Studio Two, she was away on tour. But the writers see her, or at least the vintage vamp she appears to be in her photographs, as a heavily lipsticked muse. Amid the clarinet and piano of the song Paris, she’s a cold-hearted model. On the jaunty Liquid Lunch she’s a Twenties flapper, claiming of the song’s boozy outing “it must have been a doozy”.
Emerald insists all this nostalgia is just for fun. She doesn’t really wish she was in a Boardwalk Empire speakeasy. “I wouldn’t want to be alive in that period. What’s fun about the music is it’s not now. You can’t be nostalgic if you’re living in it.”
On the album sleeve she poses by the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge. On Excuse My French she sings about Errol Flynn and Houdini. It’s pure escapism, and close to novelty pastiche, but swinging fun regardless.
“I get asked a lot if I create a character for the music, but I don’t feel like I do,” she says. “Beyoncé had an album called I Am… Sasha Fierce, which suggests that she’s playing a role. She’s not. She’s saying, ‘There’s something inside of me that I only take out for the stage’. I feel the same way. On stage I get to be a diva, I get to be arrogant, I get to be bossy. I get to be the leader, and I don’t feel like the leader off stage.”
Backstage after the show there are no diva freakouts or fan invasions but a quiet chat with Emerald’s grandmother and mother who, hailing from Aruba in the Dutch Antilles, can claim credit for the singer’s striking looks. “It was almost like playing for the Queen,” says Emerald of her unlikely appearance in Amsterdam’s classical music hub.
Now she has to get used to the idea of another unexpected show — in the most popular venue in the world. “If we’re playing the O2 we’ll really have to create a big production. That’s gonna be a challenge. I don’t want anything close to a circus — spectacle’s not meant for me. I like the dresses though…”
And Holland’s biggest star picks up her Jimmy Choos and walks barefoot to her next great moment.