An ex-pop singer turned rock singer-songwriter on a mission, Scarlette’s a true Brit but equally at home across the Atlantic
hen we read the bio for Scarlette Fever, it said her “last ten months have been about solid songwriting, playing live, and working with inspirational musicians” so we were naturally intrigued – the very fact that solid songwriting was at the front of this list, was a good indication of Scarlette’s top priority, and we weren’t wrong.
Scarlette – whose real name is Karen Barrow – was born in suburban Welwyn Garden City, but has been jetting back and forth between the metropolises of London and Los Angeles, collaborating with songwriting heavyweights such as Oliver Leiber (son of Jerry, of Leiber & Stoller fame), Tommy Faragher (who wrote songs for Al Green and Dusty Springfield) and Julian Emery (Lissie, Newton Faulkner). What tips has she learned from these masters, we wonder? No stranger to the charts already, her debut single Crash & Burn spent time on the BBC Radio 2 playlist and reached No.2 on the Billboard Breakout Club Chart in the US, but by her own admission, it’s a music career which has started relatively late and only just starting to flourish.
So with a debut album and recent EP release under her belt, we catch up with Scarlette in the midst of creating her sophomore LP and find out where it all started.
We’ve seen the recent music videos with you singing and playing guitar. Did you start writing music with the guitar?
“Funnily enough I only picked up a guitar when we started playing live. We desperately needed a rhythm guitarist so I had to learn fast. When I was a kid I had in my head that I was singer. I wasn’t interested in learning an instrument – my instrument was my voice. Then, just after my A-levels, I took my gap year and decided to pursue something musically, and I was like, ‘Oh, I really need to be able to play,’ so it wasn’t until I was 18 that I learnt an instrument. That was before I even started to write a song. I was doing a lot of vocals for DJs and producers, I was going for ads in The Stage – I even went to an audition when they were looking for members of Misteeq which is really funny looking back at it now. Alesha Dixon’s from my home town actually.”
So you started out going down the pop singing route?
“Yeah, exactly, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was singing these songs for actual writers, but I started changing them. I thought everything they’d written was rubbish! I realised that, if I wanted to sing a song that I wanted to sing, I was going to do it myself. So I started off getting backing tracks from people – that’s how I started writing.”
[cc_blockquote_right] COME UP WITH A BLOODY DAMN GOOD HOOK AND A TITLE… THAT’S YOUR STAND-OUT PIECE AND WHAT THE SONG IS BUILT AROUND [/cc_blockquote_right] What sort of people were you working with then?
“Mostly pop writers who were looking for someone to write a top line. I still didn’t know enough about music at that stage, so I started doing the melody and lyrics. Even now, that’s still my strength. I’ll come up with chords but I’ll often take that to whoever my songwriting partner is and say ‘The chords aren’t quite right, what do you think?’”
Was there a sudden epiphany when you wanted to be singer-songwriter rather than just being a pop singer?
“Definitely. When I was 21, I had a dance song released called Finish for a producer called Andy Whitmore and I was doing a club PA tour off the back of that. That was when I realised it just wasn’t for me. All those places expected you to mime and it felt like glorified karaoke… in a pair of hot-pants! It was fun, but not right.”
Did you establish any contacts in the music industry from that though?
“To be honest with you, it’s a totally separate world. After that point I spent a good two years just writing and doing little gigs, and I met the label I now work with. Mostly I co-write with my guitarist Chris [Moorhead], but I’ve worked with some amazing people and learn so much from every single person. I’ve been so lucky. Andy Wright and Grant Black really taught me that to come up with a bloody damn good hook and the title. It’s all about the title – that’s your stand-out piece and what the song is built around.”
How do you approach writing lyrics?
“Like most writers, I pick up things that people say in conversation and those are the real gems. They’re not trying to write anything, it’s just what they say. I’m obsessed with words and spend weeks writing lyrics. I like to start a song with some sort of theme. Sometimes I’ll go to writer and say I’ve got an idea and that I want to write about, then we’ll jam around some chords, come up with a little verse-chorus idea, come up with some sort of melody, then I like to take it away. I’ll spend however long I think I need. I think it’s that perfectionist and self-critical thing. I’d be a terrible session writer in that way – I’d completely fall to pieces and I’d need to have to have a bottle of wine and a Valium!”
Are you always striving for perfection when you get in the studio as well?
“I know there’s some differing opinions on this, but with this recent body of work we started the production process at the word go, and written the song with the production in mind. Artistically, the sound and the identity has to come from you, and the production as much a part of writing as the lyrics, chords and melodies. I think it’s paramount that you get the right sound as you write it.”
You seem very driven and like to take ownership of your sound. Is that the case?
“Yeah, every milestone in my career has happened because I’ve been unsatisfied or something hasn’t felt quite right. So I decided I’m going to have to do it myself, aren’t I! Call me a control freak, but I know what I’m after. It’s taken me an awful long time because I came to music so late. It wasn’t until I was 26 or 27 that I thought about the production side of it, but now I know I have to be hands-on with that too, because that’s where the sound comes from.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I USED TO BE OBSESSED WITH WHAT I’D CALL ‘LADIES WITH BIG HAIR AND BIG VOICES’ [/cc_blockquote_right] Your earlier material was very pop, whereas your recent songs like Hour Of Sunshine is more classic American rock. Was that a conscious decision?
“I’ve always had people say that to me. I’m not a music critique, but apparently my melodic scales are naturally country or folk-y. Growing up as a kid I don’t think I really played English music and if I’m honest with you – this is going to sound so sad, but I think it was a girl thing – I was into the power ballads and singers like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. I used to be obsessed with what I’d call ‘ladies with big hair and big voices’ – the divas! At that time, when I was in my teens, it was all about Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, even Bette Midler and people like that. My nan funnily enough got my into Ella Fitzgerald. So I guess, if you think about their songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Motown, it is all American music.”
You’ve been over there a lot haven’t you?
“Yeah, I’ve spent so much time in the US recently – I think I was there four times last year and we’re leaving to go there again. Musically, it’s like finding out I was adopted! It’s like ‘this is where I should’ve been!’ Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Brit through and through, but there’s something about America musically that makes me feel at home there. Really excitingly, we’re over there writing with Oliver Leiber again. We did a little session with him last time we were there, so I’m really excited about that.”
What other plans have you got?
“We’ve got maybe three or four killer tunes that we’ve started, and haven’t quite finished, kicking around, so we’re going to record a couple of them in the States, and do a couple more when we get back. We haven’t quite said ‘This is the album’. I want to finish this body of work off, get a few more tunes written and then really focus on getting out there, hitting the UK in the summer and doing some gigs.”
Interview: Alex Miles
Where’s The Fun? is now available for free download only on her website: www.scarlettefever.co.uk. This is the first taster of her brand new material, set for full release later this year. In the meantime, you can watch the video below…
…and here’s the video for Hour Of Sunshine from her recent Great Expectations EP, too…