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On the Rise
Debbie

13 December 2022, 11:05

Seeking the definition of real love and embracing vulnerability, Debbie – the first lady of 0207 Def Jam – is crafting a repertoire of truth music.

Debbie Ehirim is almost constantly beaming, radiating the joy and optimism of someone re-energised, in spite of the dreary southeast London day that looms outside her bedroom window.

She’s excitedly anticipating a studio session later following an, albeit brief, period of creative rest. Behind her, a mosaic of hand-written notes and paintings are gathered on the wall — a visual representation of the sentimentality otherwise woven into her songs. “I was starting to… what's that phrase? Where you work to live rather than live to work?” she says, detailing the balance at the epicentre of her practice. “I feel like as a creative you need to live to work, so I just needed to live a little bit.

It’s this adamant refusal to entirely commit to modern hustle culture that is one of a plethora of refreshing facets of Debbie’s character — and an integral aspect to her brand of autobiographical “truth music”, that’s captured the attention of Stormzy (who's latest album This Is What I Mean she appears on) and earned her support slots with Lucky Daye and John Legend in the past year. At 23, she’s recognised that vulnerability is key to her artistic practice — and she’s serious about protecting it.

“I think it was my first year of uni,” she says, recalling her initial realisation that it would be essential to maintain an element of creativity in her life. “I was doing Music Tech in Sixth Form, and then I did Finance at uni. The switch of completely having all creative juices being sucked out, I was like, no, I can't do this.”

Now, with her immense vocal ability and clear artistic vision, a musical career seems a natural path. Still, Debbie’s initial exposure to music was limited, with her religious parents permitting her only to listen to gospel. When she turned 16 she deeply embraced chart music, her playlists capturing the zeitgeist of 2010s teen culture through a rotation of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Jessie J. But the early influences remained, now present within the gospel-inspired harmonies and backing vocals that have subtly defined her releases so far.

Yet it wasn’t until she stumbled upon vocal powerhouses, and other purveyors of “truth music” (something Debbie defines as honesty and vulnerability) Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill and Whitney Houston that something clicked. “I was like, actually, I think I want to make this into a career,” she explains. “But, I never really admitted it, because it's kind of scary to be at uni studying finance and being like, I want to do music, actually.”

She’s excitedly anticipating a studio session later following an, albeit brief, period of creative rest. Behind her, a mosaic of hand-written notes and paintings are gathered on the wall — a visual representation of the sentimentality otherwise woven into her songs. “I was starting to… what's that phrase? Where you work to live rather than live to work?” she says, detailing the balance at the epicentre of her practice. “I feel like as a creative you need to live to work, so I just needed to live a little bit.

Debbie IMG 9389

It’s this adamant refusal to entirely commit to modern hustle culture that is one of a plethora of refreshing facets of Debbie’s character — and an integral aspect to her brand of autobiographical “truth music”, that’s captured the attention of Stormzy (who's latest album This Is What I Mean she appears on) and earned her support slots with Lucky Daye and John Legend in the past year. At 23, she’s recognised that vulnerability is key to her artistic practice — and she’s serious about protecting it.

“I think it was my first year of uni,” she says, recalling her initial realisation that it would be essential to maintain an element of creativity in her life. “I was doing Music Tech in Sixth Form, and then I did Finance at uni. The switch of completely having all creative juices being sucked out, I was like, no, I can't do this.”

Now, with her immense vocal ability and clear artistic vision, a musical career seems a natural path. Still, Debbie’s initial exposure to music was limited, with her religious parents permitting her only to listen to gospel. When she turned 16 she deeply embraced chart music, her playlists capturing the zeitgeist of 2010s teen culture through a rotation of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Jessie J. But the early influences remained, now present within the gospel-inspired harmonies and backing vocals that have subtly defined her releases so far.

Yet it wasn’t until she stumbled upon vocal powerhouses, and other purveyors of “truth music” (something Debbie defines as honesty and vulnerability) Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill and Whitney Houston that something clicked. “I was like, actually, I think I want to make this into a career,” she explains. “But, I never really admitted it, because it's kind of scary to be at uni studying finance and being like, I want to do music, actually.”

Today, as her enthusiastic hand gestures animate each answer and she buzzes in anticipation of creating more music, there’s a sense that Debbie is exactly where she belongs. But it was never a straightforward journey. Instead, years were spent grasping for fleeting moments in the spotlight — leading to a slew of ultimately unsuccessful auditions for musicals. “I was more into the singing aspect,” she laughs as she recounts a failed audition for Wicked. “I kind of forgot that you had to act. When they would say, “Okay, now act!” I was like “huh? I came here for the singing!”

After accepting her destiny didn’t lie on the creaking stages of West End theatres, Debbie re-focussed, attending a girl band audition arranged by her now manager. “I was like, okay, cool. Not really what I’m trying to do but let’s get into it anyway,” she shrugs. But it didn’t matter, because her audition was enough to convince him to abandon his plans for a girl band in favour of managing her as a solo artist.

Things began to accelerate shortly after, as she signed to 0207 Def Jam — the UK home of the iconic label Def Jam Recordings. Initial meetings were mired in hesitation, with Debbie admitting to being unfazed at the prospect of being backed by an industry heavyweight if it meant the risk of being lost in a label structure. But fears disintegrated once she recognised their vision was rooted in sheer admiration for music. “You could really feel the warmth and the love in just the art, it just felt right,” she explains.

Prior to being signed, it was the Def Jam team that connected her to Stormzy (who Debbie exclusively refers to as “Stormz”, having earned nickname basis), after Alec Boatang, co-founder of 0207 Def Jam, played him her songs. “Creatively we clicked,” Debbie says. “So the ball kept rolling, and then I was just creating songs with him. And then it just happened that it ended up on the album.”

The song in reference is “Firebabe”, track three on Stormzy’s This Is What I Mean, released earlier this month. Debbie’s presence on such a high-profile album conjures a sense of gradually moving into the open from the comfort of anonymity. It’s something she is constantly adjusting to: “I think I'm just starting to get used to the concept that all this music that I'm writing behind the scenes is now actually in the open,” she explains.

“At first it was kind of terrifying, but people popping up in DMs or coming up to me in person saying ‘oh, I really relate to that’, I think has kind of eased the tension a little bit because you know you're not the only one. So it's not that deep because everyone's got their own shit going on, right?”

"I think I'm just starting to get used to the concept that all this music that I'm writing behind the scenes is now actually in the open."

(DEBBIE)

This magnetism stems from her deeply autobiographical, pensive lyricism. It’s particularly prominent on recent single “Real Love”, a scathing commentary on modern love, spurred by a “passionate spiral” that saw her questioning the standards of relationships within a chronically online generation. “I was getting fed up with relationship goals on Instagram and Hinge and Tinder and all of it. And I was just like, ‘this is all so dumb. Why are we even doing this?’”

This frustration triggered an almost academic exploration of love, her journey and doubt embedded into the questioning of the lyrics: “Is this real love / With the ring on my hand? / Is it fit for the gram? /Am I thinner?” Much to Debbie’s initial dismay, it's a song that’s frequently misunderstood: “It's weird because a lot of people have taken that as like, Oh, well. Yeah, he's a keeper. And I was trying to take the piss,” she laughs. “I was trying to say is this what you equate to love? Someone holding your hand? That's enough? It’s kind of just me trying to highlight what's wrong, or what I think is wrong, in couple goal culture.”

Though initially, she struggled to contend with the idea of her words being misconstrued, now she laughs. “It's cool, 'cause it's art. Everyone interprets differently. So I'm intrigued. That's cool. That's not really what I meant. But that's cool."

Besides, the process of writing “Real Love”, instilled a valuable lesson in her: “I've realised that love is just a feeling. To be in love, I think that's the easiest part of the relationship. It's maintaining that love with everything else around it, like self-awareness, insecurities, and past traumas, and making sure that all of that is dealt with within the relationship because all of that kind of shows its ugly face here and there. You as a couple kind of need to overcome all those hurdles, with your love on the side.” She smiles softly before landing on her conclusion: “The love is the easy part. It's everything else that's hard."

This light-hearted sincerity never wavers — the marker of a year punctuated with life lessons which have culminated in the wisdom she delivers so casually in a South London accent. Only in her early twenties, with an already significant amount of accolades stacking up, it would be easy to submit to praise and take the almost fully ticked bucket list for granted.

Debbie press shot

And as this creative break reaches an end, it's something at the forefront of her mind, as she continues to vow to prioritise real life. “I feel like everything that we do is so fast-paced, and you don't really recognise what you're doing because you're just on to the next every time. And for me anyway, living is about living in the moment, and really taking this whole moment in, whether it be rubbish or whether it be amazing,” Debbie explains. “It’s embracing it and acknowledging it. And then moving on, not just every day running, running, running. Slowing down a little bit. That's living for me anyway."

For now, she’s focussing on her artistic growth, and embracing each new opportunity with open arms. But with an abundance of newfound attention, the album question is increasingly popping up: “I’m just pondering the idea,” She grins, but it’s clear she has a vision for where she’s headed next. “I just want to make sure that whatever album I decided to create, it’s all truth music and vulnerability. And it's not trying to be too clever. It's just very literal and very raw… Whatever I create.”

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