One of Us
Anne-Marie Rose Nicholson has the sort of laugh that you’ll want to hear it over and over. It’s a laugh that makes you a bit giddy as you rush to humour her but she’s so affable that it doesn’t take much before she’s cackling like your oldest pal
That’s the remarkable thing about the Essex-born and raised singer. Despite being a multi-platinum selling pop star who can claim one of the biggest songs of the last fiver years as hers (“Rockabye”) she’s wonderfully chilled out. Whereas the allure of some pop stars is their aloofness — a cool detachment that, along with perfectly blow-dried hair, flawless makeup and stunning god looks, makes befriending them seem nigh on impossible and gives them “star quality” — Anne-Marie’s is something altogether more human.
In the same way that Adele can make 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium feel like they’ve popped round for a cuppa, Anne-Marie is warm and approachable. “I always want to be seen as a person and not as a famous pop star,” she tells me. “I don't feel like that and I don't want people to think that about me.”
We meet at her record label in west London and sit at opposing sides of an arrogantly-sized black L-shaped leather sofa that both of us seem unable to get comfortable on. London has been cold, with snow threatening to close the city down at its whim. Anne-Marie, however, seems dressed more for Notting Hill Carnival than the Winter Olympics. Her dusty and almost platinum blonde hair is perfectly straight, partially tucked behind her ears, and she’s wearing one of her now signature crop tops, accompanied by tracksuit bottoms and trainers. She’s buzzing because the night before, a couple got engaged at one of her shows. “They'll always remember that moment. I'm part of their forever,” she gushes. “It's the best feeling. It was really beautiful, I think.”
Anne-Marie, you see, is a bit of a romantic (in her words, she “loves love”). Not that you’d guess it from listening to her long-awaited debut album, Speak Your Mind,. It’s a record that paints the 27 year old as almost comically unlucky in love. Flippant dance-hall war-cry “Ciao Adios” and the biting “Alarm”, both Platinum singles, are upbeat affronts to the singer’s experiences with adultery, while the Tove Lo-esque “Trigger” sounds like a jolly summer bop, but is actually an exasperated break up song that suggests ending a relationship before one of the couple shoots the other. But, she explains, those songs exist because she’s so passionate about romance: “I fall so in love and then I get so hurt.”
She has a legitimate reason to be so blindly romantic; her parents met when they were fourteen years old, and they’ve been happily together ever since. While aware that their romance happens rarely, she couldn’t help believe that she, too, would meet the love of her life young, leading her fully commit with every relationship that came along.
"I didn't even really know that I could sing. You're so young at that age that you're not really conscious of anything yet. I look back and think, right, if I did that now I'd be shitting myself!”
It’s the sort of determination that Anne-Marie also assigns to her career. While at dance school at the age of six, she was taken - without her parents knowledge - to the West End to audition for Les Misérables. Her parents only discovered this excursion when they were called to inform them that she’d won the part. “They sat me down and said, “So you can sing?’” she recalls. “I didn't even really know that I could sing. You're so young at that age that you're not really conscious of anything yet. I look back and think, right, if I did that now I'd be shitting myself.”
Her career in musical theatre lasted until age twelve when, after a stint in Whistle Down the Wind alongside fellow Essex-born singer Jessie J, she stopped to focus her energies on karate. Because Anne-Marie is an international championship-winning karate expert. “I did every sport at school that you could do,” she says. “I loved the competitiveness, I loved the team aspect, I just loved winning.”
At that age, she hadn’t truly realised her aspirations to be a singer, and so sought out extra-curricular sports. She remembers how a leaflet advertising a local karate club came through her family home’s letterbox and how, within a few sessions, it became clear she had a natural ability for it. “I think it was having a background in dance and the fact I was also a bit of an angry child and teenager. It all came together for karate and I just loved it,” she notes. “I loved being really good at something and pushing myself so hard to try and be the best. I love that feeling. I feel like it's a really bad attitude to have, but, for example, if I did tennis I know that I would never be really good at it so I would never do it.” She then gifts me with another one of those cracking laughs.
At seventeen, Anne-Marie pivoted back, realising that the thrill of performing was a buzz that she wanted to pursue. “I got back into wanting to do musical theatre at college,” she says. “I was doing it but at the same time noticing that I just had a different voice. Not in a particularly ‘artisty’ way, but I knew that I knew that my voice was lower.” This lowering in pitch meant that those soaring soprano high notes so beloved in the West End were no longer attainable.
“I didn't like that feeling,” she adds. “I knew that if I went on to music schools, like further education, I wouldn't be the best. So I took a step back. I was singing in talent shows, but not even particularly wanting to be noticed or wanting to be an artist even then. I was doing it because I loved singing.”
It was during this time, a chance meeting with a songwriter led to studio sessions at Elton John’s Rocket Studios. She was subsequently picked up by John’s management company Rocket Music, and in 2013 released her first demo “Summer Girl”, a carefree electro-pop song that’s since evaporated from the internet.
The next few years saw the singer work with Magnetic Man, Gorgon City and, most notably, Rudimental, with whom she also spent two years touring. Through the latter’s label, the Atlantic-imprint Major Tom’s, she released her debut EP in 2015, the aptly-named Karate, whose title track is a criminally overlooked magnetic and understated slice of chilling R&B-pop.
Other artists who launched around when Anne-Marie did — Dua Lipa, Zara Larsson (in the UK at least), Rae Morris and even Shura — were all fairly quick to release albums to accompany their hype. But Anne-Marie, the artist among that crop who had notched up the most hits didn’t seem - on the surface at least - to be that fussed. As a pop fan, I'm intrigued by this seeming ambivalence. In an era where the commercial relevance of the album is doubtable, could she be the first ever singles-only pop artist?
“That sounds really good; I should have said that” she cackles. “But no, it just happened that way. I probably didn't have the right music for an album. I had been writing and I had loads of songs, but none of them really matched. Every session I was going into I was writing a different genre. It was like, who the hell am I? After [writing the Karate EP] I didn't have anything. It weren't like I was ready with an album to come out. It was kind of frustrating because I did want to just put everything I was working on out as soon as I wrote it, as you do. “
In her mind, touring with Rudimental meant that there wasn’t really time to focus creatively on an album. “Rockabye”, too, was a storm of appearances, performances and promo. Still, it’s a trajectory that Anne-Marie wouldn’t now change. “It’s why I am like I am today,” she says. “Also, my writing has got better. I've managed to select a group of songs [for the album] that really say what I want to say and I know I won't regret saying it. If you say the wrong thing or you have a song where you're not sure about the chorus, you'd feel like, fuck's sake, I should have just waited. So even though I do get frustrated and I am really impatient, I just feel like everything happens when it's supposed to happen. I really trust in the universe when it comes to that.”
“I'm very self-critical and I have a lot of issues. I don't think that people like me. It's just a thing that I've had all my life."
This leads us nicely back to the her debut album, the long-awaited-but-totally-worth-it Speak Your Mind. It’s dynamic warts-and-all pop with razor sharp wit, pathos, insecurity and fortitude that, over sixteen tracks, also conjointly provides an acutely distilled excavation and exhibition of who Anne-Marie is. Not only does Anne-Marie put her cheating ex-partners on blast, but she’s wryly self-condemning, too, unafraid to cast herself as the villain.
“I'm very self-critical and I have a lot of issues,” she admits. “I don't think that people like me. It's just a thing that I've had all my life.” It’s a trait she attributes to why she was so accepting of bad relationships. “The worse one happened when I was eighteen,” she continues. “I just tried so hard to make that work, even after I knew that he'd cheated on me. I was like, 'It's okay, we can keep going. We can keep going.' He cheated on me again and I was like, 'We can keep going.' He cheated me on again and we'd keep going. I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and then I just fully broke. Obviously that helps me become who I am today, but at the time you're like, 'Fucking hell, what is wrong with me? There must be something wrong with me. What am I doing to make this person treat me like this?'”
The songs on Speak your Mind are anything but self-pitying. Instead, they bark —they’re the musical equivalent of the middle finger. On the skittish “Bad Girlfriend”, Anne-Marie is comically brazen and harsh about her capabilities in relationships as she sings: “I do some shit you can't forgive/And you better get used to it.” “Whenever boys cheated on me, I cheated on them,” she explains of the song. “Now, obviously, I'd be very different; I've learned how to deal with that. But when I was younger, I definitely was that kind of person. I just wanted them to hurt as much as I hurt.”
Meanwhile, the best kiss-off comes on album opener and highlight “Cry”, a moody slap and snarling tooth-baring song that she describes as her favourite. “I feel like ‘Cry’ was when I channelled exactly who I was at that moment. I didn't care what genre I was making or what anyone would think about it. It was completely me. I feel so at home when I'm singing that song.”
Even when the album veers softer on the delicate “Then” - as close as the record gets to a ballad - Anne-Marie pours her romantic trauma into something constructive, eschewing pity but embracing the necessity of sadness. It’s a walk-away anthem, emboldened but melancholic, and achingly vulnerable. “Because I want to be so descriptive, I really try and get myself back into that place,” she says of the writing process. “That's hard to do. I just think it's really important to write songs like that. People are experiencing that and I want them to...” She trails off and takes a breath. “I remember people used to say to me all the time, 'You're too good for him.' But I wasn't until I had that feeling in myself that I believed it. So if the music connects with them more than what people are saying to them then I’ve helped.”
Delving deep and sharing the narrative of her life can sometimes make performing the songs a struggle. “If you see me live, I completely go through this rollercoaster on stage,” she giggles. “As soon as the song starts, I feel how I felt at the time it happened. don't know how to stop that, which I think is a good thing because then it just becomes someone singing a song on stage. I want people to have the same journey as me. So as soon as the song starts I'm like, BAM into that, what a fucking arsehole!”
That’s not the only difficulty with performing. Anne-Marie recently discovered that she’s an empath, a psychologically-acknowledged condition where an individual absorbs the situations and emotions around them to the extreme and will often mistake those feelings for their own. For a period she thought she had bipolar disorder or SAD because of how overcome and affected by emotions she gets. “I completely feel everyone else's feelings and major things that happen around the world,” she says, describing her condition. “I feel the sad images that I see online. It just completely takes everything out of me. It’s a great thing to have a songwriter, I think, but really hard to have as a human.”
She explores this on the song “Machine”, a wishful and resonate track about wanting to shut out her external world. “If I was a machine / I'd never have to worry / I know that I could always press delete,” she sings. “Wouldn't have a heart / So you couldn't break it / No such thing as time / So you couldn't waste it/That would be the dream/The world could never bother me.” Life, of course, is more complicated than that. “It’s really hard,” she shares, “and I don't know how to manage it yet. But because it's a recent discovery, I'm going to try and talk to people.”
"I've never felt the need to tell anyone that I'm bisexual. I don't feel like I am. I just feel like I'm attracted to who I like. I honestly feel like everyone is like that.”
What Speak Your Mind does so profoundly is celebrate candour and the beauty of life’s blemishes. Anne-Marie’s foibles aren’t weaknesses or quirks, but assets to be respected and approached reverentially. Unlike the often anodyne “self-help” banger that proliferated in the late noughties thanks to artists like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, her approach is softer. On “Breathing Fire” she acknowledges life’s ebb and flow, luxuriating in and celebrating its uncertain ride. “Perfect” is a confessional rebuke to flawlessness that praises body-confidence, indulging in “leftover mac and cheese”, being an outsider and gender-less romance.
“I've never ever just been attracted to men. I've never just been attracted to women,” she says, adding that the whole point of “Perfect” was to normalise and honour perceived difference. I point out that, despite progressions in LGBTQ narratives in the media, there’s bound to be a some people who will be quick to label her. “I've never felt the need to tell anyone that I'm bisexual,” she jumps in. “I don't feel like I am. I just feel like I'm attracted to who I like. I honestly feel like everyone is like that.”
In 2018, pop’s position as a political playing field has only grown, and Anne-Marie’s unapologetic nature does venture into this territory. She’s been vocal in criticising the Conservative Party and Donald Trump, and last December she shared a sharp, stripped back song called “Dear Mrs Prime Minister” on Twitter in which she asks Theresa May: “We're not one bit similar / So how're you supposed to know a thing about us?" Nevertheless, she’s cautious about how she speaks out publicly. “I really never used to give a shit about what I tweeted and what I used to say. I think it did cause a bit of trouble. When I was younger, I never really understood that people had different opinions and that my opinion wasn't considered right to other people. So I used to get stressed if someone asked me to not talk about politics.”
Continuing, she adds, “But then you have a line. I will speak about anything; I have no wall and there's not a thing I'm scared to talk about. But I know that there's a limit. My opinion is just that, an opinion. So if I tweet about who I support in politics, I'm not going to convince others to support who I do. That's what I want in my head, but it's just going to piss people off. But when it comes to things like racism, sexism and homophobia — stuff that I feel really strongly about — I'm going say something.”
Ultimately she only has one goal - and that’s to make people feel good. “I feel really rewarded when other people are happy, no matter how I feel,” she beams. “I could be putting out a really positive message out one day even though I'm really feeling like shit. I don't care, as long as I can make other people feel good that's all I'm here for. And I don't think there's any limit to that.”
We’re interrupted by Anne-Marie’s publicist; it’s time to round things up. Glancing at my notes, I realise that I’ve asked only about half of the questions I wanted to and we’ve still been talking for nearly an hour. I tell her and she beams at me, her face cracking before she gives out the biggest hoot of laughter so far. “I'm like that,” she reassures me once she’s stopped. “I chat shit.” That’s the remarkable thing about Anne-Marie. She really is just one of us.