The X Factor runner-up who went on to co-write her record-breaking debut and another three albums, tells her songwriting story
Working class Liverpudlian girl Rebecca Ferguson came to prominence in 2010 when she became the runner-up of the seventh series of The X Factor. She lost out to the eventual winner that year, Matt Cardle, but ultimately went on to greater success as a recording artist. Rebecca’s debut album, Heaven, was a critical and commercial success selling 128,000 copies in its first week and peaked at No 3 in the UK Official Charts, making her the fastest-selling debut solo artist of the decade (2007-2017).
Rebecca went on to release a successful sophomore effort, Freedom, followed by her third studio album Lady Sings The Blues covering a number of jazz classics made famous by Billie Holiday.
Now a mature 30-year-old soul singer, the once shy and insecure artist released her fourth album Superwoman last year and is continuing to flourish as a confident songwriter. What a perfect time to reflect on Rebecca’s incredible story so far…
Let’s go way back before The X Factor and tell us about your first musical experiences.
“One of my earliest memories is trying to write a song, and that was before I could even write – I was about three. I was a baby! I remember my aunty trying to keep me quiet at a family do – she gave me a piece of paper and I just started doing squiggles. She said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m writing a song.’ So I always musical, but I actually started writing poetry in school and then, as kids do, I was making rhymes up in the playground. It didn’t develop properly until my teen years, when I started writing proper songs.”
Back then, did you see singing and songwriting as two separate paths, or did you think of it together?
“I think it was always together for me, I felt that my singing was attached to my writing. I’d spend most of my days, as a teenager, writing and listening to music. I was one of those introverted kids really: I’d be up listening to the radio and I’d flick through stations, constantly, and have books of writing – I’d be writing different melodies and lyrics.”
Who were your influences at that point?
“For me, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh isn’t that a great songwriter’, I wasn’t in that place as a teenager, I was just thinking, ‘Oh this is a great song’. But the people I was listening to started with Whitney Houston, and then as I got older it was Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill, The Corrs, The Cranberries – I was a big fan of them. A lot people had album collections, but we didn’t have much money so radio was my go-to thing.”
Just before you entered The X Factor, what were you doing? Were you performing live or working with producers already?
“I’d been writing for years. I’d written two thousand songs. I’d got on radio – not signed, but I was doing well. I’d get into studios with producers and write songs with them. I was always trying to audition and sending demos off to record labels. I’d come down on the coach to London, trying to mix with people, because I was aware that you had to be proactive. So The X Factor, to me, was just another way… I think people judge it because they think [contestants] just go, ‘I’m going to go on this show and be famous,’ but a lot of people have worked hard for years and, in the current climate we’re in, it’s very hard to get a label to invest in you if you haven’t got a big following. But for a single mum with kids, you haven’t got time to go jamming in the studio and playing in clubs every night, trying to build up a following. So I think people pre-judge you a lot when you go in these shows. But no, I was trying and I was doing everything a normal musician does, but luckily The X Factor was the one that gave me the platform.”
What happened immediately after the show? Did you get the opportunity to start writing your own material or was it assumed that you were just a singer who couldn’t do that?
“The first thing I did was start to go into studios with people and yes, like you said, they’d automatically assume I couldn’t write. So they’d take over the session and I remember stopping people to say, ‘Look, I can write y’know.’ And then once they could see I could write, it was fine. They’d apologise and say, ‘It’s just normally people just come in and we have to write for them.’
“Then producers would take more of a back seat, which was good. So with Heaven, me and Eg White wrote most of the album together, but he really championed me and allowed me to be free – we both complemented one another. I think he found it refreshing because he doesn’t watch those shows. There were loads of amazing writers on that album, but a lot of it was me being able to be free to create my own music.”
Did you have a vision for the album or was it just a case of writing a collection of songs?
“I’d just go in and write exactly what I felt that day. I wasn’t that developed as an artist to be thinking about the concept; I was just, ‘I’ve had a bad day today so I’m going to write about it.’ Whatever was in my heart, that was what I’d write about that day.”
It may be different now, but were you going into those early sessions with any preconceived ideas – bits of lyrics, melodies and song titles – or did you prefer to start with a blank sheet and see where it took you?
“Sometimes I write melodies and often record it on my phone, but a lot of it was written in the studio on the day. I was very emotional with that album, so I was a bit all over the place – for whatever reason, I write better music when I’m all over the place!”
Were you going through a tough time personally, or was it a result of coming down off the rollercoaster ride that was The X Factor?
“I was struggling relationship-wise and I had the new-found fame, that was all very unusual, so I was just in a strange place in my life. As well as that, I was young and didn’t really know what life was about – I think I was 23 years old when I made that album. So I’d often go in the studio very emotional and Eg would try to pick me up. Most of the sessions would involve half a day chatting and half a day singing, so we’d talk about problems and then we’d write. I liked those sessions, but they don’t happen anymore because everyone’s: bish, bash, bosh, get in and write a hit and then get out! But I think the best albums come from just talking about life and then writing it down.”
How long did that album take to write?
“It was over the space of a year. I was the kind of the forgotten X Factor artist within the team, because you had One Direction flying off the shelves and Matt [Cardle] was the priority because he was the winner, so me and Eg used to get left alone really. Usually there would be a heavy influence from the label, checking if you were doing a good job, but I was just turning up to my sessions and getting on with it. But then we sent over a few of the songs and I think they were quite shocked by what we’d delivered. Then it kind of all happened really quickly, once they realised we’d delivered a good album – everyone jumped on it and it snowballed from there.”
We read somewhere that you wanted to record with Aretha Franklin on that album. Is that true and did you get anywhere?
“No, I definitely didn’t with Heaven – I wanted that to be about me as an artist. I was adamant that there wouldn’t be any song on there that I hadn’t written, and I didn’t want any featured artists on that album. For that time, considering that I’d just come off The X Factor, I was quite strong-headed. Because people were saying, ‘Rebecca would sound lovely on my song,’ and you’d think that I’d have to play the game, but I was like, ‘No, that album is all about me and me as a songwriter.’ I said, ‘The minute I put one song on my album that’s been written by someone else, because people who are negative about The X Factor will use that.’ So I wanted to make sure the whole album was written by me, so I established myself as songwriter.”
That’s a very mature stance to take at that time.
“Well, I just had a belief that everything you do in your life you have to do with integrity. A lot of the people who are with you today might not be with you tomorrow and might not be with you in 10 years, but Rebecca Ferguson will be. So I always knew that I might be with the same record company in 10 years, I might not be with this management in five years, but me as a brand will always have to be. So I didn’t make decisions based on what anybody told me. If you start trying to people-please you’ll never get anywhere, because they won’t always be there for you and I recognised that from day one.”
How about your approach with the latest album, Superwoman – how did that differ from your previous records?
“Well, with Lady Sings The Blues I started to work with some really amazing jazz musicians and they’re perfectionists. As well as that, I started to listen to music by Gershwin, and I started to question why Blue Moon has been around for years? Why are these standards still being recorded, release and selling 50, 60 or some 100 years past their time? I started to dissect the songs and think about what makes it a good song, and it’s always a simple melody. So I started to approach songwriting in a more mature way. Before I’d get carried away with my songwriting and just write what I feel, but with Superwoman I started to go, ‘No, this melody isn’t strong enough and I’d scrap it.’ I wanted every song – whether you liked the album or not – to at least have a strong melody.”
Did you choose your collaborators in a different way this time?
“Well, [the producer] Troy Miller was one of the key figures on the album and he’d done my last album. We’ve just got a good relationship, we get on really well and when I’m relaxed, I feel comfortable, I can open up more and I don’t feel ashamed to say how I feel. Then there’s Eg again, and me and Jonny Lattimer write really – we’ve been writing together for years – so I had them back on board. Negin Djafari was somebody who was new to me but I really rate as a write. I normally struggle because I have to be the strongest topliner in the room, but the people on this album challenged me because she’s so strong. I’m quite funny about who I write with, because normally I only like to have two people in the room – me and the producer. When she came in she wasn’t supposed to be there, but she was amazing.”
Do you play any instruments when you’re songwriting?
“No, if I have an idea I have to sing it. So with the producer, if I want them to play a guitar melody I’ll sing it to them. For that reason I never get credited for it, but I do help to produce all the albums.”
What advice would give to a talent show contestant faced with the challenges of the music industry now?
“Trust your gut instincts with everything – every decision you make as an artist has to come from you. Take advice because there are a lot of experienced people around you, but ultimately artistry is an expression of what you do and your talent. You’ll be surprised how great ideas come when you free yourself from being afraid – I think a lot of people come from talent competitions and they’re afraid that they’ll get dropped, or they’ll say the wrong thing, so they make decisions based on fear. As an artist I think you’ve got to make decisions with confidence.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Rebecca Ferguson’s latest album Superwoman is out now. To find out more, go to: rebeccaofficial.com