Sharing the movies that parallel her life, singer-songwriter Paloma Faith reveals in her own words what a complex, bruised-from-love, outsider she really is. But she’s not complaining...
With hand outstretched and a big smile on her face, Paloma Faith enters the BBC dressing room, wearing a black vintage dress and white tights, muddied from walking around the corridors without shoes. Despite going make-up-less (she’s about to be spruced up to go on The Graham Norton Show) her skin is flawless, but her blonde-streaked red hair is untamed. Making herself at home on the sofa, the singer, known for penning songs that “romanticise heartache”, tucks her feet beneath her and waves a white iPhone (with diamante disco ball charm) at me. “I’ve made notes,” she says, flashing another huge grin. Keen to talk about how her favourite movies influence her work, Paloma has come prepared.
The 31-year-old fashion chameleon has been on the periphery of National Treasure status for some time. She won’t mind me saying that, in spite of her graft on the gigging circuit and numerous TV appearances, she has been quietly respected by fans and critics, but commercially, success has taken a while. Until now. With sales exceeding a million and her second album Fall To Grace recently being classified double platinum, I won’t belittle her achievements by suggesting that THAT John Lewis advert last September turned around her fortune, but it certainly didn’t do her any harm. Thanks to her cover of INXS’ Never Tear Us Apart, there are few people in the country who wouldn’t recognise that big soulful voice. But in Paloma’s eyes, she’s still got a way to go.
“I feel like I’m a slow climber. I’ve never been The One and I’m still not The One,” she muses. “When my first album came out there was Amy Winehouse, then Adele and now there’s Emile Sandé and I’m just… quietly behind everybody. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate my success, but I’m realistic. I wouldn’t be in the right job if I wasn’t ambitious. Of course I want to be The One! It’s not like I’m an ar**hole for saying it.”
An accomplished dancer, Paloma trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance before doing an MA in theatre direction at Central St Martins. She followed this with stints working as a magician’s assistant, Agent Provocateur shop assistant – which helped define her retro style – and singing in a cabaret band. Spotted and asked to audition for Epic Records, she famously stormed out when she caught the record exec texting mid-performance. Six months later the record company called back and, in 2009, she released her first debut album Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?
There’s so much metaphor in cinema that people overlook. Especially in international films by French and Asian filmmakers.
Four years later and the half- Spanish East-Londoner is now temporarily relocating to New York, and if the overwhelming response to her performance at this year’s Baftas is anything to go by – half of Hollywood made a beeline for her after she performed – she’ll make a dent Stateside too. “I think Christoph Waltz is the most exquisite actor, so I took it upon myself to approach him and Quentin Tarantino,” Paloma tells me. “I’ve since heard that Christoph has been on American TV and sung my praises! But with everybody else – Samuel L Jackson, George Clooney, Chris Tucker, Sarah Jessica Parker – they approached me.”
But it was actress Helena Bonham Carter whose compliments she appreciated most. “I always related to her,” Paloma beams. “She said she thought I looked amazing, and I said: ‘Vice versa. But we are always put next to each other in those “what the hell were they thinking?” columns.’ But I said: ‘As long as I’m next to you, I don’t care.’”
Despite music being her first passion, part of Paloma’s excitement at meeting Hollywood’s best is down to her not-so-secret talent; acting. Having appeared in a handful of films, including St Trinian’s and The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, it’s a wonder Tinsel Town hasn’t lured her away from Britain. But, with a preference for indie movies over blockbusters, Paloma admits she’s waiting for an unlikely part. “What I get all the time is: ‘We’re looking for someone to play a cabaret singer, who’s very glamorous with a good array of hats’, and I keep saying no as it’s typecasting and I’m waiting for something that will challenge me.”
For now, she’s happy to indulge her love of film twice a week from the comfort of the cinema and, there, she mentally stashes references for her own work. “There’s so much metaphor in cinema that people overlook,” says Paloma. “Especially in international films by French and Asian filmmakers.”
“I romanticise everything, I’ll be hanging out my washing and I’ll hear [sings] ‘dah, dah, dah, dahhh’ from a soundtrack. So, I start thinking ‘this shirt represents life…’” she trails off. “It’s great for my song writing because it allows me the freedom to use metaphor. I write quite visually.” Her words have a wistful eloquence that could sound pretentious were it not for those thick Hackney tones. And, as if reading my thoughts, on cue she cracks a joke about “always being a bit of an outsider.” But with her kooky style and outspoken irreverence, it’s her uniqueness that draws us all in.
To Paloma cinema and music are inextricably linked. “Every song on this album is inspired by a film,” she says. “It was very much an influence on my second album because my love of film has developed over years and I was well versed by the time I wrote that album.” And it’s not just an influence on her music; although she’s not currently in a relationship, Paloma says film has helped her deal with heartbreak, taught her to find humour in tough situations and ultimately helped shape the woman she is today. Which means her list of favourite films of all time reveals as much about the woman behind the flamboyant outfits as her music.
Here Paloma explores why she holds these films dear, why they make her tick and how they hold a mirror to her soul...
1. 2046, Wong Kar Wai (2004)
"2046 is my favourite Wong Kar Wai film. It’s so important to me that if I met someone – and I’ve done this – and he said, ‘I don’t really like it’, I wouldn’t see him again. Set in China in the Sixties, it’s the sequel to In The Mood For Love, which is about two people who are absolutely right for each other, but, because they are both with other people, it never happens and he gets hurt. That rang true to me. I have had it quite a few times. There are a couple of people that I continually come back to and I’ve been in trouble for communicating inappropriately with. But nothing’s ever happened. I don’t know why, I guess they’re always in relationships or I am. So 2046 is a reflection of the type of love you’re capable of having once damaged – and that’s a different type of love. I relate to it because I worry, over time and through one relationship to the next, I leave a piece of myself with everyone I break up with and it makes my love impure. That’s the sentiment of my songs Let Your Love Walk In and When You’re Gone. But, while the subject matter of 2046 is amazing, it also looks astonishing. It’s the world in which I wished I lived. Its saturated colour, cinematography, tension, music and pace combined are almost hypnotic. To me it’s the most perfect film ever made. And, oh my God, the clothes are amazing – I’ve actually had the dress that’s in it made in different fabrics."
2. Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986)
"Now, the [mystery] plot here is almost unimportant but there’s a scene in this film where Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini, is in the jazz club singing Blue Velvet and my whole campaign for the Fall To Grace album is based around it. Let Me Down Easy, (a Betty Lavette cover) is a song that I especially give a performance reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini. Her singing that song is a vivid childhood memory and when it first came out I was only little but I remember my mum watching it and I was sat on the sofa thinking ‘what the hell is this?’ I idolised her in that scene for her look, her voice and her presence as much as I idolised Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. From a very young age, these characters have inspired me to be the persona I am. To this day, before I walk on stage I think I’m Isabella Rossellini. I feel her atmosphere and energy in myself. It’s a stylistic thing with David Lynch, his surreal films are filled with suspense and I like feeling uncomfortable. You feel slightly displaced. All his films – Mullholland Drive, Twin Peaks etc – are quite difficult to follow but you can isolate scenes and find significance in a small bit. When I’m writing and performing it’s all about atmosphere. I like the suspense and that’s what you get with him."
3. Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)
"I’m drawn to how slick this film is. It is a violent crime drama but I’m not squeamish. I have a nostalgic memory of being in the car as a kid and the feeling of moving with music on is what the Drive soundtrack is like. 30 Minute Love Affair was inspired by the feel of the film. It’s about a whole relationship that’s in 30 minutes. I wanted it to sound like travel – like it was moving through time because it was such a short time. When I was 14 I met a busker and only spent 30 minutes with him. I thought I was in love with him so I said, ‘Are you going to be here the next day?’ And he said, ‘I’m here every day, you can always come and see me.’ And I went back and he was never there again so he took my heart in 30 minutes. That set me up for future relationships. It was a trust thing. He said he’d be there and he wasn’t."
4. Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton (1990)
"With all my music, I love to inject an element of dreaming. I’m a fantasist and I like to make my life like a dream, all the people around me do the same. All my friends do unusual things – like, say, on one of my friend’s birthday I sent an Elvis impersonating gorilla to his office and my friend bought me a real live dove. There is something about making dreams possible that really attracts me. Tim Burton transports me to a place where I feel everything is possible. Some people might think ‘she’s a nutter if she thinks Edward Scissorhands is real’ but I think if you take away the literal nature of the work, there is something naïve and beautiful about him and I can see why she [Kim] would fall in love with a man-made person with scissors for hands. If I met Edward Scissorhands I would fall in love with him and probably so would a lot of other women because it is Johnny Depp."
5. Casablanca, Michael Curtiz (1942)
"There is a tragic romance to Casablanca and there is a tragic romance to everything I do. I actually texted someone today saying that I feel so full of love and I don’t know where to direct it! I am a terrible romantic, but I never fear falling in love or having a relationship, I don’t believe in living life in fear. I try not to be in relationships, in fact, I’m trying not to be in one at the moment, but I do have a penchant for being in them. I tend to go in feet first and sometimes get disappointed or disillusioned. Films like this speak to me because, like the main characters, all my love so far has been impossible. I rush along and often think I’m in love but I wake up three months later and think, ‘oh sh*t, I’m not’. Sometimes I’m just in love with the idea of it. The strings in my song Picking Up The Pieces are a nod to Casablanca and those Forties films where bits of recognisable soundtrack keep coming back. If you hear a bit of it you go, ‘Oh… Casablanca’. That’s what they did with noir films so the music is instantly recognisable and associated with the film."
6. Tie me up! Tie me down!, Pedro Almodóvar ( 1990)
"This is a dark comedy about a guy recently released from a psychiatric ward who kidnaps a porn actress. I think Pedro Almodóvar’s films appeal to me because I’m half Spanish and there are a lot of things in my personality that don’t relate to my English heritage. I didn’t grow up with my Spanish father [he left when Paloma was a child] but my mum always says I get carried away and I’m a drama queen. When I watch his films it reminds me why I’m the way I am. It’s a Latin thing. I watch and think ‘well I’m not that psychotic – I haven’t held a gun but I’ve been like ‘raaaaaah!’ and I can totally relate to that character. I find neurotic people endearing. His films find humour in dark situations and I’m like that. We make something funny that’s actually really serious – it’s absurd. But it’s as a coping mechanism. It’s a great way to explore serious issues. I actually did cry a few times on stage and I felt embarrassed. So, when this record first came out, I said I wasn’t going to be funny anymore but I needed to be otherwise I’d have been blubbering. I’ll sing a sad song like When You’re Gone and when it ends I’ll say: ‘Well, it didn’t last long, but never mind,’ so everyone laughs."
Paloma Faith’s album Fall To Grace is out now. She is currently supporting War Child, in association with American Express Platinum Cashback and will perform at the O2 Arena on 7 June
Additional images: Rex Features