“Are you kidding me? No way! My God. That’s amazing. What good news.”
Singer-songwriter Lola Young just learned that she is ranked fourth on BBC Radio 1’s Sound Of 2022, which aims to predict the biggest new stars of the coming year.
She is in good company. In previous years, fourth place has gone to artists like Jorja Smith, Khalid, Sampha and Joy Crookes, who have shaped the sounds of pop and soul in their own mold.
Young’s deep and expressive voice will be familiar to millions of people after she covered Together In Electric Dreams for this year’s John Lewis Christmas commercial.
But the 21-year-old has been on her way to stardom since she wrote her first song, An Ode to Santa Claus, when she was 11 years old.
Before long, she won the Open Mic UK competition and booked a spot at the Brit School, while playing as many gigs as she could in her native South London.
“I’ve done so many [horrible] open mic pub gigs where I played and played with three old men drinking beer and talking about my performance,” she says. “But he had to do that.”
It was at one of those shows that she caught the eye of former Amy Winehouse manager Nick Shymansky, who he loved the sound of her husky and soulful from her, but he was reluctant to accept it.
“He said he was too busy and too hurt by her past experiences,” Young explains. So she introduced him to Nick Huggett, who discovered and signed Adele … before thinking twice.
“Nick S decided he couldn’t miss out on this opportunity, so they ended up managing me together. Now they are like my uncles!”
Signed to Island Records, Young released a guaranteed debut album, Intro, at the age of 18. More recently, the flashy singles Fake and Bad Tattoo have seen her perform on BBC Radio 1 and on Elton John’s Rocket Hour show.
She ended 2021 with a Brits Critics’ Choice Award nomination; and begins 2022 with the backing of the 130 experts who voted for the BBC Sound Of list (the first three to be announced in the next three days).
“It seems like things are getting better and better,” she says beaming. “The bubbling below the surface is really, really starting to bubble!”
We caught up with her about Zoom to find out more about her backstory of hers and what she has in store for the upcoming year.
Have you always wanted to be a musician?
Yes, I think for some people it comes a little later, but I had in mind that I wanted to be in music since I was maybe 10 or 11 years old.
I’ve seen interviews where you said you weren’t a natural singer. How much work did you have to do?
I think in other interviews, maybe they misunderstood me a bit to mean that people thought I couldn’t sing at all. It wasn’t that. He had a voice, he could hold a note, but he didn’t have the technical stuff like vibrato at all.
So, it was more the case that I had to work hard to gain power and strength. As with Beyoncé, I can imagine that she just appeared singing to the heavens. I didn’t have that.
I think she actually cried in perfect pitch when she was born.
What did you like to sing when you were a kid?
The first album that I remember putting out and that I really enjoyed was These Streets by Paolo Nutini. Then growing up I heard a lot about Eminem and Biggie and old school rap; and then finally a lot of David Bowie, Prince. So my inspirations are quite different.
Do you remember the first time you recorded yourself singing?
Yes, I was probably 13 or 14 years old and I went into a studio. Hearing my voice was quite angry, but it confirmed that that’s what I wanted to do.
You entered the Open Mic UK competition around the same time. How was that experience?
When I was a kid, I thought that X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent was the way people exploded. He didn’t really understand the business side of things. So Open Mic UK was something that I thought was going to change my life and it obviously helped a bit, but it wasn’t a game changer.
You won with an original song, right?
Yes, it was called Never Enough and it is a song that will never be released.
Has your writing changed since then?
Much! Now I am very careful with each letter. It cannot be simply throwaway. And if so, we discard it.
I guess when you start out, you are almost posing as your favorite artists. Then as you get older and more experienced, do you put more of yourself in the songs?
That’s true, but I think people sometimes underestimate the real power that a young person has. I have a song that I wrote when I was 13 that I still believe in and that will be on the album.
Is that what I learned from you?
Yes, you know my music!
Why did that song survive when others were scrapped?
It had quite an interesting concept. It was about a close relative and how he was trying to understand our relationship. It’s a bit complex and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, it’s a pretty mature song.
You went to British school after that. Is this what you expected?
Um, no, it wasn’t. There is a tendency for people to assume that the British school is the way to the top, but it is still a school. You still do lessons, you still meet bitchy people, and there is still bullying. Even the director would say, “We are not trying to create famous people. That is not why we are here.”
I’m not saying I expected more than that because it was a really cool experience. It helped me understand my style and where I wanted to go with my music.
You released your first album, Intro, when you were 18 years old.
I was 18 years old, yes.
One of the tracks, Blind Love, is still the most played song on Spotify. Why do you think people love that song, in particular?
Just because it’s a sad, classic love song. It’s about the journey of a relationship and how it ends, but it’s also about trying to come to peace with it. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling.
In Six Feet Under, you sing about being depressed and thinking about death. How does it feel to share dark feelings like the ones in your music?
It is very complex to suffer from mental health, I think. Especially as a person who has gone through life without really thinking about mental health, and then suddenly it hits you. Suddenly, you understand the stigma that surrounds you, because you start to feel ashamed to say certain things or to feel certain things. So I feel very strongly that I have to be very honest in my lyrics. I’m sharing [those feelings] with the world, but I’m also trying to share it with myself.
What do your friends and family think of those songs?
It can be difficult at times, but my family and friends are very understanding. They already know what I’ve been through. So, as scary as it is to talk about the dark side of your mind, the importance of sharing, of honesty, overrides fear.
The Intro album was starting to make waves when you developed cysts on your vocal cords. Have you ever worried about losing your voice?
It was very scary, no doubt, especially since I had a new kind of vocal surgery. But I had the best surgeon and he was fine. I mean, I’m still in recovery. My high record is still cracking, so I may need to get a checkup.
Right when you came out of the hospital, the world crashed. How did you find that?
For me. being inside and being in my own space is quite difficult. I hate it. I can’t be alone AND I also got Covid, not bad, but I did have Covid.
But it was a very tough year for many people. People were very depressed and lost their jobs, you know? So my year was tough, but it wasn’t the worst.
The other thing you did in 2020 was release Woman, which is one of your best songs. And it’s quite political too …
Woman was a process in which I tried to understand how much one can be a feminist without being radical.
I think people don’t really understand what that word [feminist] means. I remember an old man in a van called me like a cat as a teenager when I was going to school and as you get older you start to wonder why the world allows you to believe that this is normal. So in that song, I’m explaining what happens when you feel like you’re less [important] than a man. It was something that made me feel very strong.
The songs they subsequently released, such as Ruin My Make Up and Fake, have a similar sense of strength and challenge. I am interested to know why that is a subject that you have focused on lyrically in the last two years.
I really don’t know why … I think it’s more that I wanted to change my sound. I listened to The Cure a lot and used a lot of vintage sounds and baritone guitars. And I think when the sound changed, the lyrics changed with it. Like Fake, for example, I think the drama goes well with the sound of the record.
It sounds like something out of the Tarantino soundtrack.
Yes, that was the intention!
You ended 2021 singing the John Lewis Christmas commercial. I have always wondered how much information you receive in that process. Can you choose the song?
The advertising company suggested the song. The only change I made was to sing it happily, with a hopeful tone. That was a challenge, because the track movement is quite melancholic, but obviously it’s supposed to be a Christmas song, so it’s not supposed to be too depressing!
Since then, I started listening to your music more and more on the radio and in places like H&M. How is that?
It’s weird, but it’s everything I’ve ever wanted, so obviously that’s really good.
And so on, until 2022. Are you working on a new album?
It is in process! I have some songs that I am happy with, but I don’t know exactly when it will be released. Hopefully by the end of next year.