She may not have won last year’s X Factor, but in true runner-up style, it looks like Fleur East is going to have the big career every contestant dreams of. With the release of her debut album, she talks to Conor Behan about her strategy on the show, her love of RuPaul’s weaves, and ambitions to record with Pharrell, among others.
Things move fast when you’re in the pop world, but plenty of patience is required at the same time, and few can attest to that contradiction more than X Factor 2014 alumna, Fleur East.
East made a previous appearance on the talent contest almost a decade ago, as part of a girlband that made it to the first week of live shows. The years that followed found her writing, providing backing vocals, and touring with DJ Fresh, before she decided to give The X Factor, and stardom, another shot.
The gamble paid off. Now, after that ‘Uptown Funk’ performance, and her recent triumphant return to the show with debut single, ‘Sax’, East is unveiling her first album, Love, Sax and Flashbacks, and word on the street is it’s going to be BIG. But don’t expect the slushy balladry and collection of rushed covers that make up the general X Factor contestant’s fare – this is an upbeat, fizzy pop cocktail that truly lives up to East’s pop potential.
I caught up with her Sony Music Ireland’s headquarters, in the middle of a promo whirlwind. She’d been up since very early that morning and yet when my slot to interview her arrived in the evening, her energy hadn’t flagged. East is friendly and warm and totally relaxed. She even had a half-consumed pint of the black stuff on hand, which she’d picked up on a visit to the Guinness Storehouse earlier that day, and was all up for a good old chinwag.
Having said that, she admits that the X Factor juggernaut is gruelling. “It’s probably one of the most exciting and stressful things I’ve ever done in my life,” she says of her season on the show. “It’s almost like you become a machine to cope with it all.”
But for all the machinery, East knew what she wanted from The X Factor. After all, she had nine years in the pop wilderness to figure it out. She set herself up as a direct contrast to the earnest balladeers and guitar welding bores that tend to litter the show year in, year out.
“I always watched every year and I thought, what do I crave? What haven’t I seen? I love Michael Jackson, I love all the people that really perform, and I was like I’m gonna go on that show and I’m gonna change it.”
“I want people to listen to the music and visualise a performance,” she tells me. “That was hard to achieve, but I think we finally found a unique sound and now it’s established and it’s on the album”
East’s X Factor version of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ mega-hit, ‘Uptown Funk’ is one of the show’s biggest songs of the last five years, with over a billion views on YouTube alone. But performing it was a risk at the time, given that it was a tune not known to a wide audience.
“When you’re on a talent show and you’re trying to get votes each week you kind of have to do songs that people know,” East says. “But I loved the song instantly and I loved that it was so high energy and up tempo. I thought to myself instantly, ‘this is the kind of song I would do as an artist’.
East’s cover of the song topped the iTunes chart (it’s included as a bonus track on the album) and as a result Sony released Ronson’s original, setting it’s persistent chart-run in motion.
The pace of East’s album is just as unrelenting. Even the slightly slower moments move with a groove and very particular sense of fun. Lyrically, East jokes about men not living up to her standards throughout, and when I put to her that Love, Sax and Flashbacks is like a musical Tinder profile, she lets out a hearty chuckle.
“I just thought, ‘I want this to be cheeky, I want this to be sassy, I want people to able to sing along with it and have that attitude’. Even with the songs about heartbreak, there’s still a positive twist. It’s all really uplifting.”
One of the album highlights, the shimmering, 80s R’n’B-tinged ‘Breakfast’, features the lyric: ‘There’s nothing left on Netflix and I get restless’.
With that online channel in mind, I ask her about a show she likes to binge-watch. East name-checks a certain gay favourite
“RuPaul’s Drag Race is so good! RuPaul’s weaves are like, seriously… I’m looking at her and I’m like ‘my hair needs to be like this’!
East claps her hands, clearly delighted to be discussing her favourite show. I ask her if the wonderful world of drag is something she’s a fan of in general.
“I never really got into it until I saw the show, and then I was like, ‘there’s a whole world out there that I wasn’t aware of.’
“Now that I’m learning more about the drag culture, it’s like they seem to look up to strong women, like Beyoncé, like Whitney. And if a drag queen is covering my song, it’s like, ‘Wow that’s an honour’.
Speaking of her gig at London’s iconic G-A-Y, she confessed that she channelled her inner RuPaul for the performance. “I got two drag queens on stage with me,” East recounts. “At the end I was like,” she does her best breathy faux American accent, “it’s time to lip-synch for your lives, good luck and don’t fuck it up!”
As her debut album drops, East isn’t shy of admitting her ambitions. “A world tour is the top aim for me,” she says. “I’d love to write with Ed Sheeran. I’d love to write with Emeli Sandé. I’d love to sing with Alicia Keys, I’d love to work with Pharrell… So many people.”
With such a work ethic and single mindedness, it’s easy to imagine Fleur East achieving those goals. One thing is for certain; she’ll be providing lipsynch-worthy hits for drag queens everywhere for some time to come.
‘Love, Sax and Flashbacks’ is out now. The X Factor Live Tour 2016 visits Belfast’s SSE Arena on February 17 and Dublin’s 3Arena on February 19. TICKETS AVAILABLE FROM TICKETMASTER
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