Five years since she first slunk onto the pop scene with that big red hair and even bigger voice, you might think that Paloma Faith now feels like part of the furniture — albeit an elaborately upholstered designer chaise longue that no one is permitted to sit on.
So it’s surprising that some of her ambitions are only now getting ticked off — a No 1 single and Albert Hall debut among them. All that’s left is a Bond theme, a song that this drama queen with Spanish blood will surely be invited to sing sooner or later. “I’ve been dying for a Bond theme. I couldn’t drop any more hints if I tried. Just put it as the headline if you like: ‘Please give Paloma a Bond theme.’ ” she says to me.
The movie people must have noticed how sought after she is right now. It’s a measure of the demands on her time that in order to interview her I am asked to be outside a Clapham television studio on a Saturday morning to take a taxi with her and various aides across London to her next appointment. When she emerges she’s a vision in smart grey checks and a jaunty pink hat, like a time-travelling Fifties film star surrounded by a bustling entourage of trainer-wearing TV types.
The Fifties reference isn’t just about her look of the day. This former Agent Provocateur sales girl and magician’s assistant has somehow managed to maintain some old-fashioned mystique in this age of the overshare. She won’t tell me where she’s about to head off to on her first two-week break since 2009, other than to admit there will be a beach involved. Good luck finding the name of her steady boyfriend on the internet. She won’t even say where this taxi’s going. Only last year, when a newspaper unearthed marriage and birth certificates, did she admit that she had been married to a New Zealand chef for four years between 2005 and 2009, and that she was actually four years older than she had previously claimed. She’s now 33. I’ll be kicked out of the cab for unchivalrous behaviour if I bring that up.
Nor will she reveal much about the setlist at what is surprisingly her first headline show at the Albert Hall next week. If you had to choose her natural habitat, her ideal fit venue-wise, it would surely be this ornate biscuit barrel, where she’ll have around 70 musicians behind her — the Guy Barker Orchestra and the Urban Voices Collective choir — as one of the more populist bookings of the Proms season. I’ve written before that, though she has one foot in the shiny pop world, she looks most comfortable with one hand resting on a grand piano and accompanied by a backing band that knows its way around a jazz standard or two.
“I’ve heard people are up in arms about some of the more pop people who have been booked,” she says in her Hackney-raised, EastEnders tones. Pet Shop Boys, Laura Mvula and Rufus Wainwright are also on this year’s Proms programme. “I do think it’s good to get younger people in. And I think it’s good to invest money in music. Anyone who comes to those gigs will hear that if you put the money in to get real strings and real musicians to make that huge sound, it does sound better than a computer.”
In other landmarks, Faith just had her first No 1 last month, when her bombastic, fantastic ballad Only Love Can Hurt Like This reached the top spot in Australia. Over here in her homeland, her work has reached No 2, tops, so far. “No one ever celebrates the second-best thing in the world. It’s always best or nothing,” she complains.
And perhaps she has been second best in the past, first to Amy Winehouse’s more tortured voice and then to Adele’s superior sales figures. But in their absence, on this year’s third album, A Perfect Contradiction, she has developed into a unique, wide-ranging singer and songwriter. She does funk with Pharrell on Can’t Rely on You, shimmies in the disco on Mouth to Mouth, and boasts the torch song to end them all on Only Love Can Hurt Like This.
That song is her first real classic, the one that’s destined to be her encore for decades to come. Its rich melody feels instantly familiar and its shift into a higher register halfway through is the very definition of spine-tingling. I feel bad telling her this, however, because it’s one of very few that she didn’t have a hand in writing. It’s by Diane Warren, American queen of the big ballad including Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing and Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart.
She doesn’t mind, really. “It totally feels like the song I should have written. I feel like it’s a song I had inside me but possibly didn’t arti-culate properly. I think a real artist is able to say, ‘Hats off, those are the words I was trying to say.’”
Warren wrote it with her in mind and had to harass her into recording it, which is an indication of Faith’s current pulling power. It was Pharrell Williams who gave her his number, not the other way around. Plan B, Raphael Saadiq and John Legend were also involved with the songwriting. “In the past I have been approached, but I felt the songs were ones I could have written better myself,” she says.
Why was the globally recognised Warren so insistent? “I can only speculate, but I’d imagine it’s because I feel an affinity with the queens of tragedy, all those old singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey. Those were tragic romantic artists and there’s something really wonderful and poignant about that type of songwriting. That’s what Only Love is: it’s a classic song with that tragedy about it.”
Strengthening her case for landing that Bond theme, she has recently struck up a friendship with Dame Shirley. They met in Monaco in March when Faith sang at a climate change gala for Prince Albert II. “She said something to me like, ‘I’ve never heard of you before and you’re wonderful.’ Now we’ve recorded a song together,” she says. “She’s like my favourite biggest living idol. I’m so lucky to have spoken to her. She was even better than I thought.”
Faith is a fan of sticking together with her fellow singers. The last time I saw her she was dancing on the balcony at the Electric Ballroom while Prince played one of his short-notice shows, alongside Lianne La Havas and Laura Mvula. “That’s our little clique!” she explains. “Lianne used to be in my band, a backing singer, and Laura’s on the same label. We really get on — we relate to each other. We help each other in dealing with the consequences of success and notoriety. We’ve got a support network going.”
She does seem to be in a comfortable place right now, with her fame rising internationally at last, while she’s settled in her personal life. She’s been with her boyfriend quite a while now, and she’s bought a house in Hackney. Her contentedness shows in the fun feel and broad scope of her new music. Listen to A Perfect Contradiction back to back with its predecessor, Fall to Grace from 2012, and the earlier album feels very heavy on the tearful slowies.
“I was quite sad and a bit lost, I think,” she says of that period. “Now I’m a bit happier. I made this album while in love and I’m still happy in that relationship. I feel like it really influenced the music. Even though it’s still realistic and I’m still an old cynical bag, it feels hopeful to me.”
At the Albert Hall she’ll have the vast backdrop of musicians to recreate these marvellous new songs in the grand style in which they deserve to be heard. For the singer centre-stage in a no doubt eye-popping outfit, there couldn’t be a more impressive application to be Mr Bond’s newest muse.
Prom 65: Late Night with Paloma Faith is on Sept 5, Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0845 401 5045, royalalberthall.com) and on BBC Four and BBC Radio 3. Faith plays the Eventim Apollo, W6 (0844 249 1000, eventimapollo.com) on Nov 25