Episode 118: Estelle, Kym Oliver and Yrsa Daley-Ward on Owning Your Talent
Today I’m super excited to bring you Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Estelle. You probably know Estelle already, but I’m going to introduce her anyway. Estelle is one of the leading voices in Black British R&B. She became infamously known for her chart-topping song ‘American Boy’ featuring Kanye West, but she’s been knocking out huge hits, including ‘1980’, ‘Come Over’ and ‘Free’, to name a few. She’s also the voice of Garnet in the multi award-winning Cartoon Network series Steven Universe. The focus of this interview is to help you explore all of your talents and interests, the difference between apprehension and being scared, and how to use different influences to create unique and distinct work. Let’s go.
Imriel Morgan 1:42
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today, and why?
I always wanted to be me. I just knew that I was going to sing, not sure how. As I got older, it was Iike, ooh, I should learn everything. My mum always said, “Hey, have backup”, as parents do. They’re like, we just don’t want you to… art is art. My dad was a drummer, and you know, she’s operating off of her fears in what she’s saying. And I was always like, there’s no B for me, I’m gonna be this. My B is this. And she was very, you know, into like, study, have something. So I was like, well, I’m going to study around the craft that I want to be in. So I studied journalism. I did a GNVQ course in journalism and whatnot, and so I learned how to do all the things around what I’m doing now. Eventually became a journalist, for two minutes, for a website, which was kind of ahead of its time, but you know, on brand and on target for what my life has become, called Darker than Blue. It was started and run by, and funded by, two black men. It was 1999, and it went for about three, four years. It was really good. It was just highlighting black music across the board. And I think about what we did then and how far ahead we were, considering the Okay Players and all the different websites now that highlight pure black music. We were ahead of the game. They really held it down. So shout out to them. That was the beginning, but I was always singing, the entire time.
Imriel Morgan 3:08
Always in and around music? You grew up with cultural influences of music from Senegal and the Caribbean. How old were you when you discovered hip hop, and how did your parents react as your musical interests in these areas gathered pace?
Oh, I was about seven, I want to say.
Imriel Morgan 3:25
Yeah, I was young. I thought: everything music, for me. Everything music. We grew up in it. That was our thing. But my uncle would come home and he would be breakdancing and my mum would be like, “this dude….” because my uncle was out there. He was a little bit of a bad man. So anything that he brought into the house, it was like, wait a minute! Wait now, hold on now. What’s he…? What is this music he’s bringing in?. You know, what is this thing he’s doing? You know, and he was on good terms with us in general, but the music was going. So my mum liked the ladies first, like Queen Latifah, Monie Love – she was British. She liked the Wee Papa Girl Rappers, and she liked them girls, and she was like, no, they’re like us, they’re from the hood! They’re from, you know, they’re West Indian, they’re African, they know our culture, they’re us. So she didn’t mind that. You know, of course, my father’s behind. He was into like, Big Daddy Kane and all of that, trying to be too grown. But I loved it. I loved it all, and as we got older, my mom started to like it, appreciate it. She was a cool mum, because she was very young. She wasn’t like “no, you will never!”. Until we hit church and then she was kind of like – we do this now. And you know, she would let us do it
Imriel Morgan 4:36
I knew church had to be in there somewhere.
Oh yeah! 12,13 years old up it was like, “No the gospel of Jesus!”. And that was it. And it just got wild for a good few years but, you know, you go to school so that became… we knew all the Jodecis and the whoevers, from that. But you know, also I’m listening to Wham and Duran Duran and all of that too.
Imriel Morgan 5:01
Pop music was such a huge influence in my early Black British life. I’m curious about your experience going over to America. So actually, when you were coming up, you were really really popular here, like you had hits. I was banging out some of them before the call today. But you had so many great songs that were doing so much for Black British music, specifically women in Black British music, right? So then you move to America, and everyone’s proud of you and everything’s picking up pace. ‘American Boy’ is coming out, that’s still sung to this day. I don’t think there’s a soul on earth that doesn’t know the song. So what is the difference, or was there a difference? And was America always on the cards for you?
I think it became… after a while of going back and forth and I would be recording, I had such good relationships, both sides of the pond, my friends were like, “you’re not going to be here much longer. We’re going going to come back but your husband’s not here”. I was like, first of all, mind your business. Second of all, can I get my career going? Worry about a husband? I’m not worried about husband right now. Mind your business. But it was just kind of ominous. It was going to happen because it was such a strong connection and people really appreciate me here in the same way they appreciate me at home. So everyone was like, why not? Why not go and do it from that side out? You can.
Imriel Morgan 6:14
I feel like it was the last period of time where you had to have gone here to do it instead of be like, you know, because it was like a cap. As soon as you hit like your top twenties in the UK, people were literally like, “you’ve done it now. What more do you want?”. I was like: everything! I want a Grammy! I want the things! What do you mean? I’m exhausted, what the hell?! Like I didn’t just come this far to come this far. And a lot of folks are very content with the idea that I was just going to stop and then I was eventually going to go on some show that was for washed up artists and then I was going to be that girl that used to do the thing. And I was just kind of like… that’s not for me!
Imriel Morgan 6:52
What like a Love and Hip Hop?
Yeah, like the day’s version of the Love and Hip Hop, whatever it was, which would have been like maybe Dancing with the Stars or something, you know? And I was just like, Nooo! I have more to do. I have more albums to give and I have more songs to sing. I’m young, I was 27. I was like, how is that washed? Nah, I’ve got things to do. And so I want and did them, pretty much.
Imriel Morgan 7:13
What was it like? So in the US, I guess a lot of Black British talent in general tends to go to the US and just have better, more lucrative careers in general.
I mean, I would say Tiny Tempah’s had a lucrative career. There’s a few people – JME, Skepta and them – they’ve had very lucrative careers. I don’t think the money was the thing for me. It was more about stamping our sound and who we were as people across the world. There’s different versions of Brits and black Brits never really got that shot, that punch, right? Marcia came and she did great work. She punched a few walls out. And Natalie, they came and they punched a good few walls out for us.
Imriel Morgan 7:56
Marcia and Nathalie are Gs.
Yeah, from Floetry. That was kind of the lineage. But before that, it was like Soul II Soul. And like, that was 20 odd years ago, 30 years ago. And they were like, “we’ve never had nothing like you”, and “you really have the star power”. And I was openly embraced. At the same time, it was also a version of me, because most people it was like, that’s the Brits, that’s the black people, that’s her. She’s the black people in the UK. And for some people it was like, oh, this lovely version of what we think black people are in the UK. Cool, you can be that. And I was like, cool, however you want to do it, we’re winning. So let’s go. For me, it was a lot. My family wasn’t with me. They weren’t physically with me. So they would support me, so supportive. You know, every time I’d come home, or they’d come and visit, and over the last 12 years I’ve been here, but they don’t live here, so it’s a different rotation. And most people are used to having your same management team from the first day. I mean, if they live in the UK and they’re not trying to come here, you have to change. So I had to learn management here and how that hustle goes, because it’s all a hustle, there’s a lot of moving parts. Everybody has their end to gain and so I had to learn a lot really quickly on my own, and use common sense and my grounding and my good sense.
Imriel Morgan 9:17
What are you ever scared?
Imriel Morgan 9:19
You were never scared?
No, I’ve never been scared of anything. I can’t say that I’ve been scared. I’ve been apprehensive. I would say that every time I get asked something or thrust into something, I kind of take a breath and survey and be like, I’m still gonna do it, I just want to say to my brain how I’m gonna do it. And that’s the part that I think shocks people because they’re like, she’s this little black girl. She’s not supposed to have all this confidence or common sense. And yet here I was out here like so. You know, with a lot of things and taking the lead on a lot of things and being a boss where people weren’t expecting young black girls, period, to take that much of a lead. And so it was instinct, and it was my mum and watching the strong women in my family and all they’ve been through, and saying to myself, “Oh, yeah, this is easy. It’s light work”.
Imriel Morgan 10:14
Yeah, fair enough. It has been a phenomenal career. I’m actually really curious about your pivot or transition, or where becoming Garnet from Steven Universe. This is actually not on my question sheet, I just want to know, because I feel like that’s just like such a sick pivot. It was so unexpected. I remember just being like, I’m gonna watch Steven Universe. And then I was just like YouTubing some of the songs. And then I heard ‘Here Comes a Thought’, and I was like, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I know this voice! So I’m just really curious as to how, why you said yes, is it something you always envisaged doing? What was the thought process behind jumping into something like voice acting and doing Steven Universe in particular?
When I moved here, a lot of the homes were like, your speaking voice is so particular. You know when you’re talking. You can hear when you’re speaking, you have such a sense of authority. And so I kept saying to my team, “okay, so I want to do voiceover work. Get me a cartoon.” It was selfish, because to me, it was like cartoons and things like that, that’s what I grew up on, but also cartoons, voiceovers. People act and do voiceovers, right? I just wanted my nieces and nephews to hear my voice because I’m not growing up with them. And my sisters were having kids, and I wasn’t, and I was like, well, I just wanted them to know that auntie exists! Okay? They can visit anytime they want, they can stay. And I was just having a whole time in my head about it, so I kept telling my team I want voiceover work and they were half-heartedly looking for it. Because it was like – no, you go act, you go be this pop star singer on this show. And I was just like, go and get me a voiceover job please! And so they did. They came in on some like, “I don’t know the money’s not….”. So I was like, don’t worry about the money. What’s the character? And they told me the character and I was like, well, I can relate. At first the character was pitched like, you know, she’s a big purple space alien. And she takes care of these younger brothers and sisters. That’s the part that had me like, ping! Because I have many… there’s nine of us. I’m the oldest girl.
Imriel Morgan 12:16
Oh, what? Wow!
Six girls, three boys. And I related to it just on a personal level, like that stuff. And as the character grew I would tell people “yeah, I do voiceover on a cartoon”. They’d be like “yeah, alright:. About four years into us having this show up, everybody lost their minds about it. “Oh, my God! Steven Universe! And Estelle! We stan you. How did we not know?!”. And I was like, I posted this. Hey guys, I’ve been talking about it for four years.
Imriel Morgan 12:48
Where have you guys been?
Where have you guys been? But I’m just glad that people get it, understand it, our team Steven Universe understand exactly the point of it. I’m grateful, man. It means something to so many people.
Imriel Morgan 13:02
It does. Yeah. It’s a phenomenal show.
Rebecca is incredible. To me she’s low key a psychic. She sits there and she lets it channel through her, I swear to goodness. She doesn’t write these things out of thin air. She must do a prayer of some sort and get the information because it’s like things were happening in my life that were bang on point with what was going on. Down to the love stories and the points, like how you love, the way you love. I was just like, oh my god, I’m going through this today. And I would be bawling in the sessions in my inside. And then we walk outside and go home and be like, you know, I read this. And I think we need to talk. It was dope. It was a lot.
Imriel Morgan 13:44
It’s a very profound show. I’m very happy to have had it in my life. I’m also really happy that I got to meet Rebecca, to be honest. I was touched. She’s really dope. I’ve always loved ‘1980’, it’s a great celebration of growing up and figuring things out. And of course the importance of family and friends in shaping your life. What advice would you give from your own experiences about the importance of family and community in shaping their future?
If you have the opportunity to have, if you are blessed — and even if you are not blessed to have brothers and sisters — but if you are blessed to have brothers and sisters and mums and dads, or people who care for you or live in spaces where you have that one person, if it’s one person, cherish that person. Cherish these people and make your own world, because I have a strong believe in that – what you want, you can have. You have to believe it and live it in your waking life. You have to act like it’s there. You have to be so convinced of this and it literally appears. So my thing was always, with my brothers and sisters, we were always a gang, we were a team. Whether we liked each other or not, when we walked outside – “you’re not talking to my sister crazy. You’re not coming out your mouth with my brother”. You’re about to fight we’re about to fight you as a team. You know? Cherish the people.
I don’t want you to sit in trauma if you’re in any bad situation, just go through it because Estelle said “cherish the people”. Do what makes sense. Find somebody, call somebody.
I started cooking when I was like seven, right? I always laugh about this. My mum would make me stand in the kitchen and peel onions, and I hated them because I had to peel with my nails. I also used to bite my nails. I think she did it as a deterrent to make me stop biting my nails. I was welcome to do specific things in my life because my family’s home it was okay, in their actions first of all, set me up. I’m teaching my friends now who are grown and don’t really know certain things, to cook, or certain things. How to do it. And they’ll come in the kitchen and learn how to cook from me. And it’s almost like passing down that energy, that family energy.
You know, everything I wrote about in ‘1980’ was about family. My entire family was in that video. I have nieces, I see my little sister and she’s grown now, she has four kids. It’s wild to see her as a child. She’s now a whole entire adult, and has kids. Things have changed and things have moved. But the thing that keeps me grounded is knowing that like, look, there are people around me, there are things around me that will change, will evolve. But we have a bond. So I say again: if you’re blessed to have someone around you, that you love, or that you can see, and not even romantically, but that you love as a friend because it’s not just a romantic love thing.
Imriel Morgan 16:14
Cherish them, treat them properly, give love to them, and they’ll give it back to you and create a bond. That’s how we grow as humans. That’s all we’ve got. This is literally all we have on this planet.
Imriel Morgan 16:25
It’s true. Given the current climate as well, I think more and more people are coming to not only understand that, but also really appreciate the impact and the power that having a support network, not just family, but friends and people that you spend time.
Your friends are the family you choose.
Yeah, exactly. I completely agree.
If that relates to you as family, that’s fine. You know, if the homies are the only ones you can trust, or your friend from school — him, her, whatever, they — man, go with it. Just if they understand you in a way, then that’s fine.
Imriel Morgan 16:58
It’s important. It’s important to stay close.
We are important to each other.
Imriel Morgan 17:03
We’ll return to Estelle in just a minute. I had to interrupt this message to introduce you to the baddest babygirl in the game. This is someone I regularly look up to and I am constantly inspired by and in awe of. Listen to every single word that she has to say.
Kym Oliver 17:20
Hi, I’m Kym Oliver, one half of the dynamic duo The Triple Cripples. I’m… How would I describe myself? A black, statuesque, disabled African and Caribbean wheelchair-using goddess with a legion of ancestors on my side. So the other creator of The Triple Cripples is Jumoke Abdullahi, the wonderful Naija babygirl, who is a fundamental part of this creation. Obviously, it’s a 50/50 thing, but without Jumoke, so much of Triple Cripples wouldn’t make sense. It is both our perspectives combined that makes The Triple Cripples. And really, we created it because there’s a lack of representation — and not that representation is the be all and end all — but that representation is a key part towards the path of radicalising and changing the world, right?
We disabled black women, non-binary people, disabled black femmes, we don’t exist, for the most part, in the media landscape. Jumoke calls it a lacuna that exists within the media landscape. And it’s true. And what does that mean? It affects our outcomes, it affects our understanding of self, it affects the way in which we envision what society could look like. It affects our health care, our social interactions, our relationships. It affects even how we move through the world physically, in our physical bodies, right? And so it is imperative that we have fair and adequate representation so that you’re making sure that people who are the most marginalised, who are the most disadvantaged, and you make the world one in which they can thrive. Guess what? Everybody thrives!
We should be trying to envision a society in which everyone has equity, in which there is equity, not where there are haves and have-nots. That is old, it’s played out. We are trying to have revolutionary thought and actually our existence, Jumoke and I, our existence itself, is challenging, it’s revolutionary, because we are that which should not be seen and so we are a protest, a living protest by being seen. So our tool is the media and ourselves. And a book that has really kind of anchored my thoughts and my perspectives is by the wonderful, and slightly controversial in some senses, bell hooks, called Ain’t I a Woman? And it just really contextualises the experience of especially black women, black African women who were displaced, were abducted and removed from Africa and brought over to the Caribbean, South America, to England, to Europe, to North America. It contextualises our experience, it contextualises our interaction with self and our communities, including those we refer to as men.
There are some things in there, like every book, that you might disagree with, especially when it comes to ‘black-on-black violence’, which we have debunked. Right? That is a book that I would recommend for everyone to read. If you say you’re a feminist, if you say you’re an abolitionist, if you say that you’re pro-black, if you say that you’re pro-woman, if you say that you’re pro-planet, if you say that you’re pro anything, that is positive, that is good, that is wonderful, it is important that you read that book. It’s also on Audible, I think so you can even listen to the audiobook. Regardless of anything that’s going on and wherever you are, make sure that you are living and becoming and learning to be the best version of yourself, not just for yourself, but for the planet, and everyone on it.
Imriel Morgan 21:14
If you do nothing else today, I encourage you to follow The Triple Cripples on Twitter and Instagram @triplecripples. They are literally doing the work and your support is necessary. I’m so serious. They are absolutely phenomenal humans. So do go and follow them right now. I mean it – right now! Okay, great. Now, back Estelle.
Imriel Morgan 21:37
What is your usual approach to when you make music? Or do you have any specific practices that are unique to yourself?
I sit with words, or I should say… I like words a lot. I really like words, right?
Imriel Morgan 21:51
Like the kind of person that reads a dictionary every day?
No! That’s wild.
There are people that do that.
I know. I’ve come across them. And I’m just like, I’m not sure why you’re doing this. I don’t understand it, but whatever works for you, floats your boat, have a good time. More in the sense of like, I love finding out when someone uses any word around me, I will be in my phone, thesaurusing the shit out of it, excuse my language. What does this mean? Or putting it in context. There’s not many words I don’t know, in general, but every so often, there’ll be one word, I’m just like, yes! I like the idea of having many different ways of saying something. So there’s a lot of words and sounds always floating around in my head, right?
So the first part is the words, I always end up writing and of late, my process has been: a word will pop in or a melody or two lines will pop in, and I’ll write the melody and the lines, right? And then I’ll hear a beat or I’ll hear something or just start singing something and adapt it to the words, singing the melody and adapt the words, change the words around. My boyfriend laughs at me, he’s always like, “what? you’re just gonna make up the words to this song to mean something else?”. Yeah, I’m a jukebox, this is what I do. At this point I’m a jukebox. You have to get used to it. I respond to him singing the words back to him and the melody he’s never heard. And he’d be like, “what? Okay, sure”. And so that’s my process. I come up with words and melodies, and I will sing them into my phone. It’d be two lines, it could be a line. And then when I go to the studio, I go on purpose. Like I go in and I’m like, I wanted to sing this kind of song, this kind of beat, inspired by this. And this is what I’m singing about. Gone are the days when I’m just like, I come whatever pops up. It doesn’t work for me.
Imriel Morgan 23:39
Yeah. You need purpose and intention.
Purpose and intention is my thing and it’s worked so well, especially these last few years of recording. The genres for me have been… oh my days, I stay open to everything. I listen to everything. It’d be from Ethiopian music in the 80s…
Imriel Morgan 23:59
That is very specific Estelle!
It was so poppin’, I’m trying to tell you! They was so jamming, they were on a vibe, I’m trying to tell you! 70s and 80s Sudanese music, 70s and 80s Ethiopian. It was lit. All the way over to like opera or jazz, and obviously hip hop of all kinds, R&B of all kinds, pop music of all kinds. I listen to people who yodel in their records and be like, Yo, this is…
Imriel Morgan 24:25
Right! Your reaction to me is the same I have, but I listen to it. You know, like this wild. What was the plan here? Why would you think about yodelling?
Imriel Morgan 24:36
But it sounds good, so I guess we yodelling! It’s fun.
Imriel Morgan 24:43
Fair enough. Yeah.
And then I want to go down a rabbit hole and be like, where did they get that melody from? Because I know I heard that somewhere. How am I gonna find a yodel song that they found it from? So I stay open to all the genres and I literally had just finished a panel the other day talking to… there’s an anthology series coming up called Small Axe by Steve McQueen. And he’s taken instances of British life in the early eighties, I guess, and he’s putting them on screen. They’re like hour-long, two hours, I think. And it’s coming on BBC, but they do a whole episode called Lovers Rock. And I made my album called Lovers Rock. And I was just like, this is everything. Oh, my days!’ I see my mom and my Auntie’s, and my dad and his brother and all of them in this film.
I had a whole time, because I was born in 1980. Lovers rock was made in like 1978, ’77. And it spanned the entire eighties. And so that’s my life. I remember the basement parties, the Blues parties, and we had a few. And my stepdad was a DJ, so him and his friend Martin used to… it’s all kinds of like… memories. So all of that’s in me, and this is what I say with the music, you know, you said, “I was in the pub”, and I’m just like, “so was I”. We were all, everything across the board. And that’s what made genres like Lovers Rock so distinctly British, and that’s why I can do it.
Imriel Morgan 26:04
That’s true. My dad is a Rasta, and he loves him some Lovers Rock. My God! every time we went to his house on the weekend…
Janet Kay, Louisa Mark…
All of it, yeah…
Imriel Morgan 26:16
I was actually busting some Bitty McClean in my house the other day, like what is happening to me? Because I used to beg my dad to shut it off.
You become your parent. Just give in to it. It is what it is.
Imriel Morgan 26:25
No, I have to lean in. I have to! He even took us out one night. We were like under the age of 18, for sure, and he’s like, “Bitty McLean is in town. Come, we’re going. We’re all going. I’m taking you!”, and we’re like, “Okay….”.
That’s the game!
It’s really like that. Thank you so much. This is awesome. I’m just super excited to have met you. To also get to speak to you, and just to hear your great wisdom. Thank
Thank you. This is an incredible podcast. Thank you.
Imriel Morgan 26:55
Do you know how hard it was for me to stay cool? Estelle is iconic to me. So to sit down and talk to her about music that literally was the soundtrack to my teenage years is so wild. She is everything! You can catch Estelle on Twitter and Instagram @EstelleDarlings. She also hosts the Estelle Show on Apple Music, so check it out. Before we wrap up, I’ve brought back Yrsa Daley-Ward, the author of Bone and The Terrible. Yrsa’s advice is food for thought, especially right now. Take it away, Yrsa.
Yrsa Daley-Ward 27:32
The worst advice and the best advice have been almost the same advice. And I’ll tell you how it broke down. The worst advice was to keep pushing, keep pushing, work hard, work hard, work hard. It actually was, because what you can do is you can repel the goal, by trying to force things. If money is what you want, it could be like – I want money, I don’t have money, how can I get money?, and it becomes something that starts to move away from you, because you’re always actually focused on the lack. I used to be an actor, and I used to chase it so much. I used to send my headshot everywhere, do everything, you know, and then get I’d into the audition, do the audition, okay, and I’d always get into the last few people but would never get it. And I was like, why? Is it because I want it so much?
So that was bad advice, because when the goal isn’t isn’t specific, and it’s too much, there’s too much resistance. And almost non believing that you can really get it, you’re gonna repel it. Now, on the flip side of that, working diligently rather than hard, is really good advice. So even if you just do an hour a day of writing, it’s better than like trying to… going, “I should be doing six hours, but I’m not”, and then you actually sit there but nothing comes. Just doing less, but just checking in with it and enjoying it. So consistency has been my best advice. The consistency is key. But just working hard for the sake of working hard, is not working smart as they say.
Imriel Morgan 29:00
That’s a wrap. Thank you so much for listening to the end. I hope this half hour has been a calming and joyful part of your day. I’d like to encourage you to think about one person who needs a little joy and calm and share this episode with them right now. If you want extended interviews, then please do screenshot the episode you’re listening to right now and share it to your Instagram stories and tag @contentisqueenhq. Until next time, bye.