Sinead Harnett is in two worlds at once at the moment. She has toured the globe singing with Rudimental but is surprised when I mention her Wikipedia page, as she didn’t know she was worthy of having one. She has been making her forthcoming debut solo album in Westlake Studios in LA, where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller, and also in the bedrooms of various friends. It’s a funny status level – the 25-year-old north Londoner is known and successful, but not to the extent that she actually seems to believe it.
“I just didn’t believe that working in music was a possibility,” she tells me over a flu-beating orange and ginger juice in a Crouch End café. She has to now, though. She’s just been prominently placed on MTV’s Brand New for 2015 tips list, for whom she’s playing an Islington concert next week alongside fellow next big things James Bay and Years & Years. Slinky, soulful appearances on two of the most successful homegrown dance albums of recent years – the debuts by Rudimental and Disclosure – have placed her alongside her fellow guest vocalists Sam Smith, John Newman and Ella Eyre as next in line for breakout solo stardom.
She’ll need to acquire a bit more cockiness from somewhere first, though. Having sung for fun from the age of eight, including a university stint as a singing waitress in Bournemouth’s top American diner Starz, she admits that she thought she was good but not actually worthy of a career. “I always felt quite shy about singing,” she says. “It wasn’t encouraged. My mum wanted me to do something academic. Teachers wouldn’t have known because I wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m a singer!’ If there are people behind you as you grow up saying, ‘You’re great, you should do this,’ maybe you would. But I felt shy. I didn’t know if it was something I should do.” So she studied for an acting degree instead. But then Wiley came calling.
Actually, the godfather of grime came tweeting, in the spring of 2011. “Apparently he had tweeted something like, ‘I need a singer. Let me know who’s good.’ My friend sent him a YouTube video of me singing a song of mine called Lights Off. He started tweeting it over and over again, and asked me to come out to Jamaica where he was and write a song. I said I’ve got to graduate first, so he emailed it to me, I wrote the chorus, recorded it at my friend’s house, sent it back. He did his rap, gave it to 1Xtra and it was on the radio before we’d even met.”
The track was Walk Away, a mellow take from Wiley’s 2011 album Chill Out Zone. Harnett brings sophistication and a sense of restrained power to the song, as she does to the better known ones she has sung and co-written: Disclosure’s Boiling and What’s in Your Head, and the Rudimental recordings Home, Hide and Baby. Having toured as one of three guest singers in Rudimental, she remains especially fond of the lively Hackney collective.
“It was only fun and only good vibes, really great energy,” she says of their travels. “They know how to party as well. It felt like a massive, never-ending school trip. I was always so knackered after shows that I didn’t know how they were staying up, but by the time we got to Australia, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna come out,’ and we did have a lot of fun. I remember a 24-hour rave in Melbourne…”
Don’t pigeonhole her as a party-starting queen of the dancefloor though. Despite having supported dance duo Gorgon City recently on tour, she admits that she’s not the world’s biggest clubber herself. “I am such a hermit at the moment,” she says, citing a hectic recording schedule as the reason for a lack of social life. She’s single too, living with friends in Friern Barnet, near where she grew up. “I definitely make the effort to go to events here and there because it’s important not to obsess about my music at home. But also I don’t want to be the girl at all the parties without earning my stripes. First I want to work hard so I feel like I have a reason to be there. Partying is maybe another chapter for me. I really want to get this right first.”
Nevertheless, she’s more than capable of giving the stage some sparkle. I can see why Rudimental would want her out front. Even when visibly under the weather, with her tiny nose stud, leather trousers and cat’s eyes she brings a hefty zap of glamour to the coffee shop.
She credits her exotic looks to being “Thai-rish” – mum is from Thailand, dad’s from Ireland. They split when she was still too young to remember them as a couple, and he lived in Australia for most of her childhood. Such impressive genetics haven’t always been a good thing, however. “In my school days, either I looked more oriental or there was less knowledge then about mixed race people, but I remember people used to shout racist comments in the street.”
It sounds like it was often a lonely childhood, with her mum working a lot and her half-sister, five years older, away at university. “Singing was something that made me feel like I was doing something productive, not just sitting there. I started writing songs from an early age. They were probably awful but it was therapeutic.”
Her solo material so far has slowed things down in contrast to her livelier guest spots. Last summer’s single, No Other Way, is smooth, head-nodding R&B, but she claims it’s “just the surface” next to what she has in store for an album. “There are fun moments on the album, but it is personal,” she says of her new music. Another solo single is promised soon, with the album coming later this year. “Things have been a bit complicated for me and I’ve got things to share.” Listen out for the latest singer to prove that she’s more than just a special guest – Sinead Harnett is talented enough to be the main event.
Sinead Harnett appears at MTV Brand New for 2015, Jan 28-29, Islington Assembly Hall, N1 (mtv.co.uk/brand-new-for-2015)