Eliza Doolittle’s new single, Big When I Was Little, is so sunny it should come with a free bottle of Factor 50. The Camden girl in the short shorts has been dispensing musical sunshine since her first hit Pack Up won her fans in 2010 and — less appealingly for her — the title of “the New Lily Allen” because of its chirpy London sound.
After three low-key years of touring and writing, she’s back with a set of shiny, impressive new songs that should enable her to slip from the shadow of her rival at last.
“I didn’t want to be in everyone’s faces, going to parties the whole time. I wanted to stay in hibernation and come back with a bang if possible,” the 25-year-old, who’s really called Eliza Caird, tells me. Sprawled over a sofa in her trademark hotpants and trainers on the warmest day in years, she’s returning at the right time. “Summer is probably my favourite time of year and I’m still a positive person, as much as new experiences have taken me on a different path.“
Ah, yes. Doolittle has lived a little since she first landed a manager and publishing deal at 16, coming from a family of theatrical prominence. Her mother is the stage actress Frances Ruffelle, her father Royal Shakespeare Company director John Caird, and her grandmother is Sylvia Young of theatre school fame (although Doolittle didn’t attend herself). “No one’s said it’s been easy for me to my face but I did worry that people would think that. I never wanted to use it to my advantage, even by talking about it, and I never did,” she says.
She spent six months when she was eight playing Young Cosette in Les Misérables in the West End alongside her mother, who was an original Tony Award-winning cast member. Now Eliza’s found her own way to be miserable, with some of her new songs focusing on the end of a relationship.
“It’s a journey from before I was with someone to when I was with them and then afterwards,” she says of her second album, still being finished and due in October, including new songs such as No Man Can and I’m in Love With You (In Your Hands). She doesn’t specify whether she’s talking about tattooed American guitarist Benji Madden of punk band Good Charlotte, whom she dated between 2011 and 2012.
“The songs that came from the break-up definitely fuelled things in me. I was writing constantly, just getting it out of my system. It’s not a break-up album, though. Maybe the break-up triggered it but it’s really about discovering things about myself I didn’t know before.”
There’s a new soulfulness on some of these tracks, such as Waste of Time and Let it Rain, with its stirring strings and gospel feel. “I think I held back on the last record,” she says. “I hope I’m not oversinging now but I’m definitely singing my heart out.”
She’s not alone in singing ballads about herself, of course. Adele’s 21 and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black were famously inspired in part by doomed relationships. But there’s enough of Doolittle’s sparky personality in the new material to avoid accusations of following the crowd this time.
Even Lily Allen remarked on the similarity of Doolittle’s first album cover to her own and with her video at the time. The pair shared a record label and publicist at that point, reinforcing the impression that Doolittle had been plucked from the subs’ bench while Allen was away having her first baby and opening her clothes shop. The public didn’t mind, though. Within six months Doolittle’s self-titled album had gone platinum.
“You just have to be yourself and not really think about it,” says Doolittle today. She’s sharp and well-spoken, with a serious take on her music that makes it clear that this isn’t mere pop to her. Tall and skinny, with heart-shaped face and corkscrew hair, if she could be confused with anyone now it’s a young Minnie Driver. “If you’ve got your own stamp on it, you’ll be fine,” she says firmly.
Today she’s found her own route into the charts. She first sneaked back into the top 10 in May as the guest singer on hip dance duo Disclosure’s energetic single, You & Me, a shot in the arm for the credibility of someone all too familiar with tweeness. Disclosure’s Howard Lawrence said: “I pitched it to Guy [Lawrence, his brother and musical partner] and to my management and they were like ‘What? Why?’ and then we did the song and they all kind of fell on their swords a bit.”
“It was unexpected,” agrees Doolittle, who has another cool collaboration in the works with singer Sam Smith. It all helps to present her as a young artist who is growing up and getting better. “On my last record I hadn’t experienced much of anything really. It was quite a light album, very feelgood.”
Delays caused on high by her label, Parlophone, being sold to Warner may have helped keep her out of the limelight but gave her more time to perfect a deeper sound. “I was always a control freak and still am. Small things are important to me.” Various co-writers helped with direction in London and LA but she stresses her central role: “That recognition is important to me.”
In concert, of course, she’s the star. Those who catch her live will get the clearest evidence of what a powerful singer she is. She supported Lionel Richie and J-Lo in Hyde Park a fortnight ago and this week plays her first London show in a while.
A tour will follow in the autumn, as will the album that aims to show she’s built to last as a performer. “I’ve got a new band. It has to be really amazing this time around.” To judge from her confidence, it will be.