“What’s the crux of the matter?” Lucinda Belle asks herself as we wrap up our afternoon in her regular haunt of Portobello Road’s Electric House club. “It’s that I am an empowered artist these days, waving the flag for lots of artists who are just getting on with it. I’m the eternal optimist, for my sins. I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing.”
That song about getting knocked down but getting back up again could have been written especially for this west London harpist, real name Lucinda Kladovsky, who at 38 has had more highs and lows than the Italian economy. Now, with two prestigious London Jazz Festival concerts at the weekend and a second album due next year that promises an impressive reinvention of her sound, she’s on an upward curve once again.
Probably only she will remember her first big break in her early twenties, as an urban-styled solo act signed to Mercury Records and dropped again before she had released a debut single. Years of teaching music at a school in Hampstead followed, coupled with session work on albums and on tour with everyone from the Pet Shop Boys and Annie Lennox to Jarvis Cocker and Missy Elliott. “I really enjoyed it. I’m quite good at putting on that hat and doing what’s asked of me. I liked being able to hand it over and then walk away.”
Still not quite the stuff dreams are made of, but you might remember spotting her on stage with Robbie Williams at the BBC Electric Proms in 2009 and the Brit Awards last year. That was the break that earned her headlines such as “Laundry girl Lucinda Belle cleans up with £1m record contract”. For this is a soap story with a tabloid-friendly twist: all this time she’s also been running her family cleaning business – Laundamatic on Balham High Road.
“I’ve still got it. I don’t go there every day but I’m around,” she tells me. “I did a service wash there the other day while I was making a video.” One of her new songs is called Washed Up on Love, appropriately enough.
When the papers reported her signing with major label Island Records in March last year, she was supposed to be selling the laundrette. Sensibly she didn’t pin all her hopes on imminent superstardom. Newspapers love the idea of the “million pound record contract”, painting it as an instant riches lottery win, when it actually means the notional amount the company is willing to spend on making and marketing your music – a sum that can vanish all too quickly.
Her eight-strong Lucinda Belle Orchestra, which makes smooth, dinner party-friendly torch songs with a gypsy twist, was meant to follow Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux to crossover jazz ubiquity. But last summer’s debut album, My Voice & 45 Strings, stalled at number 93 and the record deal vanished again. “To cut a long story short it just kind of ran its course with the label and my management company and I thought it was better to get out,” she says. When pushed on what exactly the problems entailed, she offers a firm, “I think we should move on from that.”
And why not? She has. Perched on a banquette with a black flower in her long hair, glitter under her eyes and a painful-looking PVC corset over her blouse (“When you put it on you feel like your organs are being crushed to smithereens, but after three hours you never want to take it off,” apparently) she offers numerous reasons to be cheerful.
Firstly, tonight she’s joining Guy Barker and host Victoria Wood at the opening event of the London Jazz Festival, where guests will pick and perform favourite songs from the past 100 years – she’s doing something from the Fifties. Then she has her own show tomorrow night in the impressive confines of the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, not usually a place for pop musicians. “I’ve got a great booking agent, what can I say? There is a classical element to what we do, though. Being a harpist that can’t be avoided.”
In a glamorous gown, dwarfed by the instrument she has christened Diana, she’s certainly a striking live presence. “I don’t mind those Norah Jones comparisons, but I’m a lot more sassy and vivacious on stage.” She’s been playing harp since the age of six, when it would fill the family Fiesta on the way to practice, “until people carriers were invented and life changed significantly for the better”. She spent time in the National Children’s Orchestra and says she has ambitions to be a classical composer (she’s already started scoring music for film and TV) but it’s the irreverance with which she treats her instrument that makes her so refreshing.
A swinging cover of Lady Gaga’s hit Telephone became popular on YouTube, while Aloe Blacc’s song I Need a Dollar has also become a regular part of her live sets. She’s just released a new EP, Urban Lullabies, featuring four covers that are so radically altered that I tarnish my music critic credentials in front of her by only managing to recognise Smells Like Teen Spirit.
There’s also a sparse, beautiful take on Paolo Nutini’s Candy, John Mayer’s acoustic ballad Stop This Train is stripped down still further, and she sings T.I’s originally rapped lines on Slide Show. She takes over the songs, discretely removing T.I’s line about “gunplay” and even daring to change Kurt Cobain’s pronunciation of “albino” to “al-bean-o”. “If I can’t make a song my own I won’t go near it,” she says. “There’s no point doing a karaoke version.”
These are mostly solo recordings, just harp and her warm, purring voice, in contrast to the broader sound of her album. “I wanted to use the harp in a more intimate way,” she says. There’s also a tiny touch of twangy surf guitar on the Nirvana cover from a newly appointed band member, an indication of the increasingly retro sound she’s been moving towards.
To achieve this she’s been working on songs for her next album at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag Studios in Hackney, a strictly analogue set-up best known as the place The White Stripes’ breakthrough album Elephant was made. “It’s so different, real musicians with good equipment, a nice warm sound. It’s much harder working directly to tape but you get something more pure and authentic.”
She’ll definitely be releasing it next year, she promises, though she hasn’t yet decided whether to keep going it alone or shop around for another record deal. “I’m open to however it happens. Often the politics of the music industry gets in the way of the careeer of an artist. But if you really are an artist down to the soles of your feet you have no choice but to carry on doing what you’re doing. It begins, it middles and it ends with the songs – just good music.” And with that, the eternal optimist waltzes off to another rehearsal.