Anne-Marie Nicholson turned 30 in April, rounding out a transformative year for the Essex-born star. The previous year had begun inconspicuously, with Anne-Marie excitedly announcing her second album Therapy - then known simply as “AM2”. With a new album came a fresh look: a pink-hued bob that’s since had more longevity than many people’s relationships.
We all know what happened next. As the world ground to a near-halt in early 2020, Anne-Marie was forced to adopt this new way of life, swapping busy schedules and travel for domesticity and Zoom calls. The following winter, she released a moving YouTube documentary about the bullying she experienced in school and the long-term impact this had on her mental health. It’s an emotional but largely uplifting piece, sharing the progress she’s made through therapy as well as insights into her childhood, family life and career.
Midway through June 2021, with a “post-lockdown” summer appearing on the horizon, Anne-Marie opened up with a surprise announcement of her own. In a video posted to her Instagram account, she introduced her first book You Deserve Better, a practical guide to self-care and living your best life. Set for publication at the end of September, the book is borne of her own experiences and shaped by this extended time at home. “I realised in lockdown how amazing books are; how it was giving me a moment to myself, just reading for a little while," she shares. “I feel like I’ve been going through a massive personal journey, for years really, of trying to feel ok with myself and comfortable and love myself. I’ve learnt so much over the past two years, more so than ever before, that I just wanted to put it all in a book.”
While her confessional writing style is woven into her music, You Deserve Better marks her entry into longer-form writing. “I try and talk about it on social media and write songs about it but that’s just a snippet of it, a snippet on a caption of an Instagram post," she explains. "I wanted to delve a little deeper and be really honest with people about self-help and all the things that are involved with trying to love yourself, because it’s fucking hard.” As an artist with five UK Top Ten single and numerous features (including 2016’s collaboration “Rockabye” with Clean Bandit and Sean Paul, which was No.1 for nine consecutive weeks as well as the UK Christmas No.1), you might expect a nonchalant approach from Anne-Marie - but she’s buzzing about it: “It’s really exciting - I never, ever thought that I’d be writing a book and I just can’t wait, I can't wait.” Laughing, she adds: “I’m gonna go in a shop and buy like ten [copies]!”
Following her album announcement, Anne-Marie soon unveiled the details of her upcoming Dysfunctional Tour, which will hit five venues across the UK & Ireland in 2022 and finish with her biggest UK headline date at Wembley Arena. Having spent the last 16 months without it, how does she feel about touring now? “2020 gave me a new perspective on everything in life, but definitely touring”, she says. “Touring was one of my favourite things about this whole career in the first place so not having that was really horrible for me.” As uncomfortable as the experience was, it had unexpected benefits: “It’s weird because not having to be out touring (the only thing you could do as an artist in 2020 was write music) was actually quite good. When you’re on tour and you’re doing promo and you’re busy and you’re on a flight, the studio and writing songs kinda takes a backseat and you fit it in wherever you can - which is mental because that’s what we’re giving to people on the stage.” With the absence of live music and a quieter schedule, Anne-Marie had the opportunity to focus on broader, long-term goals. “Throughout 2020 I was just fully concentrating on making music and figuring out what I wanted to give for the next live show. As well as figuring myself out personally, I was also working out who I wanted to be as an artist. So it was big, it was a big year for me really.”
If you ask a leading athlete, artist or actor about their pre-show/performance rituals, often they’ll describe a set routine they follow to get in the right headspace. These answers can be predictable - Anne-Marie’s is not. Before and after each show, she completes a jigsaw puzzle to focus her mind and reconnect with herself, confessing in her documentary that she can’t leave the venue til it’s finished. The ability to decompress after hours of high-energy performance and screaming crowds is arguably fundamental to maintaining a healthy perspective in such a career. Many musicians have also spoken about the highs they experience when performing, with some becoming disillusioned by the mediocrity of daily offstage life. Anne-Marie isn’t immune to this either, the stark contrasts leading her to perceive this middle ground as ‘boring’. “The past five years of my life I was having those emotional ups and downs, and not really dealing with it that well,” she admits. “Coming into lockdown and feeling numb... I was confused because I’ve never felt that middle ground before. I spoke about that a lot with my therapist. I think a lot of people think being average, being in the middle, is bad but it’s actually the best way to be.”
Since then, she’s embraced this slower pace of life, showcasing her green-fingered side in her documentary as she tastes her first home-grown strawberry. “I’ve been at home and it’s just been really nice. I’ve bought loads of plants and grown vegetables and I’ve been doing jigsaw puzzles and drawing - I’ve been in the middle and I like it here.” Must all good things come to an end? As the world begins to open up again, the change will surely affect all our lives, not least Anne-Marie’s. “Going back to some form of normality is going to be challenging”, she acknowledges. “It’s going to be extreme again, ups and downs - but now that I feel comfortable with the middle ground hopefully I can bring that balance into what’s coming. It’s about taking what you’ve learnt from this past year and putting it into practice.” This time, she’s armed with new tools to manage the demands of those chaotic environments. “[Having] boundaries is a massive part of that, learning to say no and making decisions based on your happiness. My decisions used to be based on other people’s view of who I was and that wasn’t very healthy.”
“Going through lockdown and going to therapy has made me realise that the issue was never that anyone didn’t love me, it was my own brain - so working on that has been really exciting.”
Most importantly, with a new tour announced, has she been approached for any jigsaw collaborations? Laughing, she responds: “I would love for that, I think jigsaws are so sick. I did get a delivery once from a jigsaw company and it was probably one of the best days of my life so we’ll see if that happens in the future!” Perhaps unexpectedly, Anne-Marie also enjoys knitting. “This is the biggest thing I’ve done to date...”, she says, holding up a big cream-coloured knitted blanket. “A blanket, just in time for summer!” Like completing a jigsaw, knitting keeps both the hands and brain busy, helping to focus the mind and - for some people - lessen their anxiety. “I’ve knitted since I was a teenager”, explains Anne-Marie. “With jigsaw puzzles and knitting, I always subconsciously knew that they were very calming for me. I just enjoyed it, I didn’t think of it in a mindfulness way at the time but it’s been great for me.”
Anger; acceptance. Love; heartbreak. Insecurity; confidence. Anne-Marie’s new album explores all of these emotional states and more across its twelve tracks, in just over half an hour. While this might leave your therapist’s head spinning in a 30-minute session, Anne-Marie’s self-aware, unapologetic style makes this feel perfectly consistent. From the track “Breathless”, which tells the experience of being undeniably in love with someone (“Cause now I’m in love, can you believe it / that being in love is just as easy as breathing”), we move straight on to the self-doubting “Unlovable”, which questions “Late at night I wonder is there anybody out there who could love me?”.
While most people have experienced either being head-over-heels or a late-night panic about their lovability, it’s quite a switch in mood. “They're definitely from different points in my life,” she confirms. “But I would say that when I was in love with someone before I still had self-doubt about whether they loved me or not -- so those two feelings can co-exist.” She delves deeper into the reasons behind this, with remarkable openness: “I think being in a relationship has always been really tough for me because I’ve never believed that anyone could love me. I’ve always been not very happy in a relationship, always tried to please someone else to keep them there, always needed someone to say that I’m good enough, to say that everything’s okay.”
Over time, Anne-Marie has learned to manage these feelings, starting with internal work: “Going through lockdown and going to therapy has made me realise that the [issue] was never that anyone didn’t love me, it was my own brain - so working on that has been really exciting. Loving myself now means that whatever relationship I get into, or even whatever friendship I have, it’s gonna be better because I’ve already started loving myself... I don’t need that from someone else anymore.” In addition to its relatability, “Unlovable” also sees her reunite with Rudimental, who she toured with before she became a solo artist. Rudimental first asked Anne-Marie to tour with them after seeing her perform live in 2012, when she was still in college. What was it like to collaborate with them again? “It was so good, actually! I’ve always wanted to have another song with Rudimental, considering they were the ones who really brought me into the industry. I learnt so much from them and had the best time touring with them so it was just brilliant. I love that song, you can definitely hear them in it with the trumpets and piano.”
Title-track “Therapy” is a nod to the idea that romantic love won’t solve all your problems, Anne-Marie delivering the (potentially viral TikTok in-the-making) refrain: “I thought love was the answer to all of my problems and kissing your lips was the key / all these tattoos and dancing, distractions ain’t working for me / so I think that maybe, I just need therapy.” Considering the way romantic love is often presented as a cure-all, does she think this message is particularly important for people to hear? “Yeah, I always used to do stuff that’s very irrational and get tattoos and fall in love really quickly and just always need outside validation to prove that I’m good enough. But actually that wasn’t working and I needed to start with me, that’s the starting point. Honestly, realising that and working on myself has been the best lesson I’ve ever learnt and that’s all people need. If everyone loved themselves, they would all feel much better about themselves and everything around them! That’s what I’m trying to tell people in my book and in that song.”
It’s the middle of Pride Month when I speak to Anne-Marie, at a time when those within the LGBTQIA+ community are still fighting to have their love or even humanity accepted by society and recognised in its laws. As she knows all too well, loving yourself isn’t easy - a challenge that compounds when who you love or who you are isn’t accepted by others, including those closest to you. It’s a big question but does she have any advice for people who are struggling to love themselves in this context? “It’s always a really hard one isn’t it, ‘cause so many people are still not on the same wavelength -- parents that don’t understand”, she begins. “But I feel like this is where the Internet is great because no matter who you are I feel like you could find a community online. The Internet is scary in other ways, but… if you don’t feel comfortable in your own circle it’s always good to find people with like-minds online, I think it’s so important to have that. To feel like you belong is such a massive feeling and acceptance can change your life. I’d say that’s the best advice I can give right now: to find your own community.”
Of course, Anne-Marie also uses her music to offer this support to her fans, creating tracks such as the infinitely-singable “Perfect To Me” from her debut album Speak My Mind. On this new record, her recently-released single “Beautiful” is a relatable look at self-image and beauty. The track even features Anne-Marie’s godson and his sister, who close out the track with some adorable vocals. Knowing that she’s a big fan of Christina Aguilera, who wrote her iconic song of the same name in 2002 (one of Anne-Marie’s favourite years), is “Beautiful” a homage to the renowned artist? “I think I’ve got inspiration from Christina Aguilera, from India Arie’s ‘Video’ - just all different women who’ve said stuff in a song that made me feel [good about myself], they make me want to write a song like that. ‘Cause I needed that when I was young; even now whenever I feel like shit I put on India Arie. I never wanna have a piece of work without a song that makes people feel ‘good enough’. That song is hopefully one that people can sing to themselves and feel better afterwards.”
The music and entertainment industries are well-known for being image-conscious environments where there is potentially a lot of pressure to conform to existing beauty standards. With the growth of social media and myriad filters and image-enhancing apps, every day we’re blasted with this unrealistic idea of perfection. Does Anne-Marie feel pressure to be a positive role model for young people, particularly women, in the media and online? Surely that’s hard when you still have your own insecurities? “Yeah it’s definitely hard to be seen to be going through stuff but I actually think it’s the only way I could be an artist, by just being me and showing people when I’ve got spots or when I’m having a bad day. I couldn’t have coped if I was projecting just great days out to people, it would’ve been too hard to cover up.” This was an intentional choice, she discloses: “I always wanted to break that stigma of pop stars being perfect, I didn’t wanna ever come across that way. At the beginning, it was almost easier for me to write a song about something that I’ve been through, so I wrote about breakups and stuff like that. When I started seeing that people were enjoying that song more because it helped them say bye to their ex-boyfriend, I was like ‘OMG’ - I never even thought to myself that that would help someone through something. When I started becoming conscious of that, it made me write specifically to help people. I’m doing this on purpose.”
"When I first got my foot into the industry and I met people, I definitely felt like I had to be or look a certain way, but I think that was my own perception of what I thought I needed to be like."
While she’s comfortable challenging public perceptions of perfection across social media, have there been any expectations from the music industry itself? “I do feel quite lucky to be honest,” she admits. “I feel like I’ve always been quite strong-willed and quite opinionated with who I am and I told people from the start I would never change to fit in any box. So I feel like the people around me just didn’t have a choice!” As Anne-Marie points out, that’s partly due to the strength of her relationship with her label, Asylum/Major Toms. “My label have been with me from the start so they’ve actually watched me grow up and supported me from that time - they didn’t sign me for one hit and then fuck me off, they grew with me and I love that they did that.”
Even so, that didn’t stop her insecurities from getting the best of her at the beginning. “When I first got my foot into the industry and I met people, I definitely felt like I had to be or look a certain way, but I think that was my own perception of what I thought I needed to be like. It was me wearing red lipstick and black, massive eyeliner, just stuff like that.” Heartwarmingly, being true to herself actually had the most positive impact on her career. “The more and more I was myself and I’d let out little comments or Essex accent, people would be warming to me. So I was just very aware that people were liking who I was and it made me comfortable with being myself to everyone. To be honest I do think that’s luck, I do feel like other people would have a different experience to that.”
When lockdown first entered the public consciousness last year, it dramatically changed the way many people lived their lives. This was true even for successful artists like Anne-Marie, whose ‘work from home’ equivalent involved recording the entirety of her new album in her house. Having experienced this format, would she record from home in future or is it missing that studio vibe? “Writing songs with people in person is definitely better, because Zoom writing sessions are not great…” she half-winces, half-laughs. “So I wouldn’t write at home anymore [post-lockdown], I’d definitely write with people in real-life. Recording music? Well first of all I always record with one guy, called Cameron, and we always dim the lights and have fairy lights on so it feels more cosy. Obviously since not being able to [go in the studio] I’ve been recording at home, I’ve got fairy lights and I’m in my living room and he’s been controlling my computer from his house. Thank God for technology! I’ve felt really comfortable [recording] at home so I definitely feel like I’m gonna carry on doing that now.”
Therapy being her sophomore album, Anne-Marie has been able to avoid some of the difficulties she experienced with her debut. When she first started performing Speak My Mind in a live setting, tracks that worked brilliantly as a recording now weren’t translating well onstage. “I think the problem was that I’d come from a band like Rudimental who wrote all their music whilst playing their instruments live”, she explains, “so they knew it was gonna translate live anyway. Then I was doing my own shows [as a solo artist] and thinking ‘well this is far too slow’ or ‘no one can really dance to this tempo’ and I couldn’t really figure out what went wrong.” She took a more holistic approach with the writing process for Therapy. “After the whole touring experience the first time around, I told myself this needs to feel good in the room already [before it makes the album]; are people moving, are people tapping their feet?”
In May 2021 Anne-Marie released her third single from Therapy, featuring Niall Horan. “Our Song” subsequently climbed to No.13 in the UK charts, boasting a gorgeous music video where the pair act out a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style jewellery heist. Besides “Our Song”, what tracks is she most looking forward to performing live? “It’s hard, I would say all of them because I wanna try and make the live show a proper experience?” As a child she starred in a number of West End musicals, including Les Misérables, and performed alongside Jessie J in Whistle Down the Wind as a pre-teen. These formative experiences in musical theatre have influenced her live shows to this day: “Growing up in musical theatre, it’s a lot about set design and what’s going on behind in the background and I’m really tryna bring that into my own show, for the next tour. I’m trying to make it exciting to watch so hopefully every song will be really enjoyable to perform and for people to watch.” That said, even with the most advanced technology it’s not an Anne-Marie show without a cheeky revenge song. “I always get excited about singing revenge. I will probably love to sing [the track] ‘x2’ because I just love getting a bit angry!”
Depending on what you subscribe to, either massive success or living well is the best form of revenge. Arguably Anne-Marie is doing both. Over the past year she’s started therapy, made a documentary, completed her first book, finished her second album, and featured in a number of high-profile UK TV shows. From appearing on Celebrity Gogglebox with Sir Tom Jones to taking part in The Great British Bake Off for Stand Up 2 Cancer, she’s become a regular presence on our screens. Perhaps most significantly, in 2021 she joined the tenth series of The Voice as a judge alongside Will.I.Am, Tom Jones and Olly Murs, with her chosen artist winning the competition. Following her success on The Voice, would Anne-Marie be open to a future in artist development or setting up her own record label? “Maybe, I do feel like it’s definitely harder than it looks, it’s not as easy as just signing someone and them being successful. I loved that [experience] so much and there are so many talented people out there that I would love to be involved in their journeys - The Voice is a big part of that I guess. For now I’m probably just thinking about me, later on I can think about that!”
When Anne-Marie’s own singles aren’t on radio rotation, she’s likely to still hit their playlists as a feature on another artist’s track. She’s a prolific collaborator, working with a range of artists across genres, from rap (Doja Cat, KSI, Mostack), to pop (Lauv, James Arthur, Niall Horan) and electronic music (Marshmello, Snakehips, Clean Bandit), among others. “I love collaborating as you can see, I just can’t stop really! It needs to be a natural thing, to meet someone and then we go ‘shall we just go studio?’ It needs to be that conversation.” Who’s on her bucket list of future collaborators? “I’d love to write a song with Alannis Morrisette, I'd love to perform with P!nk, I’d love to just kiss Eminem on the cheek - just that, that would be fine, not even doing a song with him.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t always feel confident in her voice, despite her incredible talent and unique tone. “It’s been an amazing experience with all of those collaborations, and it’s funny because I always thought that my voice wasn’t very recognisable, I always felt my voice was a little... normal? Boring? It’s weird and amazing to have that affirmation from other people.” With a whole new album of Anne-Marie’s music to enjoy, would it be greedy to ask for more? “Definitely more collaborations to come, always, forever!”