In her Dalston bedroom, Hamzaa keeps a small white board on which she writes her goals for the year. It has a lot of ticks on it.
“It says ‘500k streams across Apple Music and Spotify’. I passed that a while ago. Another one was ‘Headline show sell out’. I didn’t think I’d sell out my first ever headline show but we did it in two days. ‘EP received well’ – that’s another tick,” she says. “Another one was ‘Lose 20 pounds’ but hey, here we are!”
Not a bad strike rate, anyway. Still just a few days from her 20th birthday, and still without a record deal, things have been moving quickly for the London-born soul singer. Having auditioned for and been accepted onto The Voice, she changed her mind and dropped out before filming began. A connection she made through that process got her a management team last year. Last month she was invited to perform on the same bill as rock giants Muse on the more credible Later… With Jools Holland, at a point when she had only released two songs. Those streaming numbers picked up considerably after that and a bigger London show was announced for January.
“The person who books Jools had heard the song on DJ Target’s show on Radio 1Xtra. We suggested some dates for me to go on next year but they said, ‘No, let’s get it done now,’” she explains, still giddy from the experience. She sang her jazzy, uplifting slowie You with an acoustic guitarist and three backing singers, not just for the beauty of the intimate delivery but because she didn’t yet have her own band. She only met her musicians for the first time earlier this week, ahead of that debut show in St Pancras Old Church this evening.
Not that she’s an inexperienced performer. Having played the piano since the age of five (“My mum bought me my own upright for my 13th birthday. I cried. I don’t think she’s topped that present since.”) she attended classes at Helen O’Grady Drama Academy, City Dance Academy and Stagecoach Performing Arts School as a young child, and was a regular in her teens on Hackney Empire’s Artist Development Programme, a two-week summer project that involves creating a musical from scratch.
“We did a version of The Tempest, something based on Snow White, one about the London riots. We took our Macbeth one to Edinburgh Fringe and I played Lady Macbeth,” she says. “You didn’t want anything you write to be cut, so you had to write good songs. No song I wrote got cut.”
We meet in her favourite Turkish restaurant, yards from the home where she grew up, where she’s remarkably relaxed and open for someone giving their first big interview. She’s got a close peroxide crop, a heavy leather jacket and a plunging top which, by the end of our conversation, she is certain has rice somewhere inside it. I’d been told she’s a fan of the Australian singer Sia, so when I notice the three-letter tattoo below her collarbone I think, wow, she must REALLY like her. It turns out it says “SJA”, the initials of her best friend.
She’s off to see Jess Glynne at the O2 after we finish, for a fun night out with friends but maybe also to take note of what a show in a huge venue looks like. It can’t be too long before her powerful, expressive voice is heard in grander spaces. “It’s crazy how I’ve gone from being in the audience thinking ‘One day, one day,’ and now I’m performing,” she says. “Last year I went to BBC Introducing Live to attend the seminars and get information. Now I’m on stage at the same event.”
Her real first name is Malika. She took the stage name Hamzaa from her stepfather’s surname. She has six half-siblings but grew up as an only child with her mother, a project manager for various HIV charities. Ambitious for her daughter’s eduction, mum helped her to get music and drama scholarships to two different boarding schools, one in West Sussex and one in Surrey, but Hamzaa struggled in the latter. She found the International Baccalaureate “too intense”, then dropped out of A-levels in Business, English and History too. In her post-school career, she may have taken your coat for you in Brixton Academy’s cloakroom.
“My grandma passed away. I had been going through a lot of stuff at the time and my mental health was going in a downward spiral – really bad,” she tells me. Some of the material on her six-song EP, First Signs of Me, refer to her first big break-up. “It hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was so in love. Oh my goodness gracious. But I’m not feeling that right now even though I can still write about it really strongly. I come from a home where I’ve always been able to talk to my mum about things and be open. It wasn’t hard for me to write songs about myself. I’m not scared.”
The first song on the EP, Red, is a startling introduction. It’s a barely there piano ballad that sees her at a very low ebb. “It’s basically me telling the world that I used to be suicidal,” she says. “Before anyone gets to hear anything else from me, I needed them to hear me at my most vulnerable. I want them to know that not everything’s perfect. It’s not about the glitz and the glam. Here is me in raw form. Some of the other songs have me saying, ‘I’ve experienced heartbreak, I’ve had my share of down days, and you will too and you can talk about it. There’s no going back, only forward.’ It’s musical therapy.”
But the standout song is Breathing, a stately soul song resting on a richer musical backdrop. It’s the one she’s most proud of so far. “After I wrote that, in mid-2017, I discovered what I was trying to do, what I was trying to write about, what kind of artist I was going to be. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller, and I knew I wanted to be 100 per cent honest.”
She’s doing exactly that – another tick for the whiteboard. No doubt her list for 2019 is going to look a lot more ambitious.
Hamzaa’s First Signs of Me EP is out now on Renowned.
Nov 23, St Pancras Old Church, NW1. seetickets.com
Jan 30, Omeara, SE1. omearalondon.com