Laura White turned down record companies to focus on her art after her time on X Factor. Here she talks to Andrew Darley about her EP What My Mother Taught Me, and the decision to release it independently.
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Sometimes we are faced with decisions that may make life difficult but will reward us in the long term. When Laura White was voted off from the X Factor in 2008, she may have been uncertain about her future, but there was no doubt about the artist she wanted to become. While record deals were being pushed in front of her after her departure from the show, White declined every one of them to focus on crafting her sound and choosing one that was right for her. Whilst getting her own songs together, she wrote for other popstars, including Adele, Beyoncé and Rita Ora. Five years on from her X Factor experience and writing for others, she is ready to release her own material and step onto the stage once again. What My Mother Taught Me is a four-song EP showcasing the singer-songwriter’s soulful voice and love of pop, Motown and jazz music. Polari wanted to know more about her brave decision to create independently.
What My Mother Taught Me is the title of your debut EP. What does it mean to you?
The EP consists of four songs about heartbreak, falling in love with someone, things you go through with your best friends and pretty much everything I’ve been through in my life. I’ve always felt that my Mum has taught me everything I know about what I’ve gone through in life so I named it after that.
Most people may know you from your time in X Factor in 2008. Since then you have turned down numerous record deals and offers following the show. Did you have a very clear idea of the artist you wanted to become and the music you wanted to make?
Completely! At the time, it was really difficult making these really big decisions. I didn’t want to just sign the wrong deal for myself. I didn’t want to sign a jazz deal and become a straight jazz singer or a really commercial deal because that wasn’t me either. I think because I’ve always written songs and made music myself, that gave me a clear idea of the artist that I am. It was so important for me to stay true to myself.
In my mind, a big record deal like that would have been an easier option but also quite daunting. Were you concerned that a major record deal would limit your creative choices?
If I’m honest, I was worried about that. I think if you sign something straight after doing a show like the X Factor then you don’t have as much creative control as you would hope for. Now I’ve written so many songs for myself and others I think people understand me more as an artist. After coming off a show like that it’s really hard to have your own say.
Did you face any difficulties doing it your own way and going against the grain of the show?
Being an independent artist takes so much drive and belief. I put all my own money into the music, signed the right deal for me and I’ve written all my own songs. I’m hands-on as an artist, which is what I wanted. I think it takes a strong person to work independently because even getting out to the fans and performing can be a struggle.
Can you tell me more about the writing process of the EP and how these songs came about? How long were these songs in the making?
I’ve been writing songs since I was fifteen and the last four years have been much more about me being a singer and writer. I’ve written a number 1 and have written for Adele and other people like Beyoncé and Eliza Doolittle. But the EP was written in the last year when I wrote ‘Rush Hour’ and ‘To Be Loved’ and I feel it’s my best writing as I’m developing all the time.
There is a definite Motown influence in your music with the brass sections and soulful quality to your voice. Was that something you grew up around?
I was brought up listening to Motown and jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and my biggest influence is Aretha Franklin. Even the way I sing or go to write a note I think about Aretha. But I also love Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder. I love Joni Mitchell’s writing. Even someone like Kate Nash, because her lyrics are so honest and she wears her heart on her sleeve. I love those musicians as writers.
Would you say you pay close attention to your own lyrics, then?
I write all the lyrics in all my music and the melodies. Every single lyric I’ve written is true to me. ‘To Be Loved’, for example, is about one of my best friends who was going through a really bad time. He seemed so angry with me for so many things and he couldn’t express himself so we went through a really difficult time. I was really honest about our relationship in that song.
One of my favourites is the ‘Jimi Hendrix’ song. It’s really catchy! I read online that Jimi’s own family got in touch to say they loved the song. How did that feel?
They did! I wrote that song because Hendrix is one of my biggest inspirations and he’s absolutely incredible. I met a guy who was in love with music, a little bit wild, very creative and reminded me of Jimi Hendrix. Two weeks ago, Jimi’s family got in touch to say they love the song. There’s been talk about going over to New York and playing the song there so it’s had an amazing reception. I wrote that song in about fifteen minutes and for it to cross the world has been fantastic.
And they say that best songs are the ones that come the easiest and quickest.
I really believe that. They do. I always go to the studio with different concepts and ideas and then so many songs just come to me so quick. They almost write themselves.
Reviews of the EP have drawn comparisons to Amy Winehouse. Do comparisons like this flatter you or would you prefer to be seen in your own light?
Everyone always mentions Amy. She was just incredible. I think people make comparisons because of my sound and very honest lyrics. She loved jazz like me and for a time, I had really long dark hair too. Amy was quite a vulnerable person and used her music to be honest about it. If people can hear her in my music that is fine with me because she was an amazing artist.
You have been touring at the moment. How have the shows been so far?
The gigs have been amazing. We played and sold out Ronnie Scott’s recently, which I’ve dreamed of playing all my life. And we sold out in Manchester too. I’m considering playing a lot more shows and putting together a small tour. I just want to play as many venues as I can and get my music out there live. It’s the most enjoyable part of what I do.
That is something I also wanted to ask you about. You’re obviously really into songwriting and crafting the songs… would you say you prefer the studio to the stage?
I love both. I adore the creativity of writing a song and I write them every day, no matter where I am. But I think when I’m on stage is when I am most at ease with myself and where I feel most comfortable.
You’ve written songs for people like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. Do you approach song-writing differently when you’re writing for other people compared to your own songs?
Definitely. I’ve written a lot of songs with a production team called The Monarch. I do find when I’m writing songs for other people, I feel I can’t be as true as an artist; the experience isn’t as real in a way. The songs I’ve gotten the biggest cuts from are the ones that have been true to me and ones that I’ve wanted to do as a writer. I write them about my own life and then I give them to someone else.
Obviously I want to focus on this EP and where you are at right now in your career. But I’m curious about how you look back and view your time on the X Factor? Or even thoughts what the show has become today?
Before I entered the show, I had done six years of music and I was gigging and doing festivals. I was in Mark Ronson’s band and I was very much a working musician for years. So when I got onto the show I really had a clear idea of who I was as musician and what I wanted to do creatively. I didn’t agree with some of the styling choices but all the music and song choices were what I wanted to do. For anyone considering going on the X Faxtor they should know that there is a big creative team behind it and they will try and mould you very quickly.
I think the show now is very much television-orientated, which is sad because it has a lot of potential and can be a massive platform for musicians. I feel it should be much more music based. People now say it’s predictable who is going to be voted off and it’s more about what happens behind the stage and in the papers. When I was voted out there was quite a storm over the voting and judges’ choice. People have said to me that I was just used as an artist to make the headlines. I guess it is what they wanted for television and viewers. As an artist I feel I’m past that and I’m out there now.
Are you working on a full-length album?
Yeah, so what I’m doing is this EP and another one after it. I want to get as much of my writing as I can out there. Then I will start working on a full album. I just wanted to build up a collection of songs first.
My final question is…. What can Laura White teach us?
I think my message is to always be true to everything you do. I think I’m very honest and I really care about my fans and hearing people’s stories. I’m not about glossing everything up or about fancy, designer clothes. I’m not about doing things big like other singers. When people see me perform, I want them to be able to relate to me. I hope it allows them to be honest in their own lives.
What My Mother Taught Me is out now.