Anita Blay is CocknBullKid (formerly TheCocknBullKid). 25 year-old Blay is a Hackney based singer-songwriter who has been around for a while honing her pulsating pop potential, yet hasn't released an album yet. Moving away from the autobiographical songs that first got her noticed, Blay is now armed with a fresh selection of upbeat poptastic tunes along the lines of those from her friends Marina and the Diamonds.
With days to go before Christmas, Andy Fairclough caught up with the next big thing in the making before things go stratospheric for her in 2011, discussing everything from her long-awaited debut LP Adulthood, working with Peter, Bjorn and John, religion and, of course, The X-Factor...
Hello Anita, lovely to speak to you. Where are you talking to us from?
Hi, I'm in Shoreditch House drinking some mulled wine. It's purely medicinal - I think I'm coming down with something.
There's definitely something going around. I hear you cancelled some support gigs with Kele a few weeks ago, is that all cleared up now?
I lost my voice towards the end of the tour and I came down with something when I got back from Berlin a couple of weeks ago, and now I've got something again. But the voice is pretty much fine now.
Let's talk about your debut album. You've been releasing singles for a couple of years; why has the album taken so long to release?
When I released I'm Not Sorry (performed to critical acclaim on Later With Jools Holland two years ago) and On My Own, I wasn't signed at that point. I've also been travelling and experimenting with different sounds and I always wanted to make a very ambitious sounding record, I didn't just want it to be a 'postcode' album (a point re-emphasised on her press release, referring to her original East London audience). I concertedly wanted to make a big pop album and hopefully I've done that. Also my writing wasn't up to scratch, I don't play any instruments and for the most part it's a guessing game. I'm not technical in any way and in the past year and a half, I've learnt so much in terms of honing my writing. These things take time.
You mention this being more of a pop record than your early singles would point towards. Who are the main influences in the change of sound?
Music-wise I still listen to the same people and hopefully you can hear that (she cites The Knife's Deep Cuts and David Byrne's ability to communicate through music). I wasn't influenced by anything directly, there are little things like Mexico (also the title of a song from the album in which she sings about an experience preventing her from returning to the mid-American country), South America and religion, plus the same people I've always liked: Morrissey, Trevor Horn, or the Buggles, should I say.
I'm not necessarily influenced by just sounds - there are feelings… I wouldn't say the album is strictly conceptional but it's called Adulthood and it's about that in-between period. What was it Britney once said? "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman" or whatever that phrase was. It's all about the middle phase where you are told that things change and you'll become this enlightened being when you're an adult, and you're like 'ok, so this is adulthood'. It's just a wry, sideways look at what adulthood is and what it means, and if anything that shouldn't change, which it hasn't ( she giggles). I feel pretty much the same as I did when I was fifteen in a lot of ways.
You said that one of the influences is religion. I noticed a lot of religious imagery on your website. Is that intentional and completely serious?
Well, I grew in a very Catholic/Pentecostal household, I was baptised and went through all the phases (a term Blay uses heavily throughout the interview) such as Holy Communion and Confirmation, so it was a very Catholic upbringing and then later on then later on my mother got heavily involved in Pentecostal churches.
If anyone knows much about Pentecostal churches they'll know they've very evangelical, they have pastors who are a lot more charismatic [than priests, for example], the services are often 2-3 hours long - it's a massive production. People go to have exorcisms, claim to be addled with some disease and they are cured in front on your very eyes, so I've always been quite fascinated by it as it's what I grew up with. You turn up, you watch it then go home and you believe it.
I've always been quite fascinated in what religion does to people on a personal level and on a bigger scale; people use it for different things. I turned my back on religion, I say this for the benefit of my mother, but with my name 'cocknbullkid' which means to tell a tale or to spin a yarn… it's a look at that.
On an aesthetic level I've always loved the look of the figurines and the little statues of cherubs and the Sacred Heart of Mary. They are all beautiful pieces of work. My room is like a Roman Catholic knick-knack shop… I've got lots of trinkets and things. I genuinely appreciate them in a non-ironic way as that's where I came from I guess.
Where is home for you?
East London, where I've lived all my life, but to Ghanian roots. Ghana is a Christian society, but even if you look at the West Indies and Jamaica, a lot of these countries tend to be Pentecostal but it's mainly concentrated in Africa. It's almost become the New Age off-shoot - I can't think of many Catholic churches that a typical African family would bring up their child in, it would more likely be Pentecostal.
I feel when you step outside of Western society, things like death are celebrated, even in South American they have Day of the Dead, and in that Pentecostal environment it is like a massive party and it's a very festive time.
How is Christmas celebrated in your house - as a big religious celebration?
No. Well my mum lives in Ghana and she was a lot more that way inclined, but my dad is a lot more relaxed and perhaps 'modern' so it's just another day for us… it's funny because my upbringing was so extreme in that sense and now it's a lot more relaxed. These are still things I associate with Christmas but now I take it a lot more easy now I'm an adult, but it was different when I was younger.
You've just been on tour with Kele and Marina and the Diamonds - how did that come about?
Well I've known Marina for a while as we were both coming up at the same time and I used to talk to her on MySpace - if you remember that - before she got signed and I've been a fan of her and what she stood for, so it seemed like the perfect tour to be asked to go on. I really enjoyed it and her fans seemed to respond well - I feel quite lucky and appreciative that I went on that tour. With Kele, the audiences are sort of different because obviously his stuff is a lot more… it's just like a massive rave! He's amazing live - there are lasers and synths - it's a massive party so it was a bit more work trying to get the crowd to warm to me.
Yes, I think your sound and style compliments Marina's perfectly. A little fact for you - I saw you supporting Peter, Bjorn and John in February 2009…
Wow! Well that came about because their singer had dropped out (Blay also performed the female vocal of Young Folks on stage that night) and we have mutual friends so they asked me. That was the first time I was introduced to them. My friend does their lights and they asked him 'we need a singer in London' and he suggested me. So I went down and met them and that sparked the writing sessions that we had later.
PB&J's Peter Morén wrote a couple of songs on your album… did you ask him to write them or did he volunteer his services?
I'll be honest, initially after I'd sang for them at Scala (the gig that Blay supported the band on) Björn had said that he wanted to do something, so I initially went out there [to Sweden] with Bjorn but he was quite busy with the Lykke Li album (Björn Yttling produced both Wounded Rhymes and Lykke Li's first effort, Youth Novels) so he had to fly to New York and because I was there anyway Peter was just like, "oh let's just do something" and so we did. And lo and behold we wrote the title track to the album Adulthood and wrote a couple of others - it was really good fun.
I really enjoyed that part of the album as I've always been quite fascinated by Sweden… just the musical heritage and their take on pop music. Musicians there try things in a different way. Stockholm is the only place I've been to [in Sweden] but it's just a really cool city, kind of like London in terms of its music scene, but it's very clean!
You write for quite of lot of other artists yourself…
That's always been the other string to the bow… I really enjoy writing, I really enjoy finding out how to write and discovering little tricks and things so I… err yeah I've definitely got my eye on writing for a few other people. I've got a project, that I can't say too much about, in the pipeline for 2011… but yes I will always write for others whether it flops or not.
It's not the new X-Factor single for 2011, is it?
Ha ha! Didn't Matt Cardle sing that Biffy Clyro song?
Yes, but you could write the NEXT single!
Yeah that's totally fine [in a totally deadpan voice], just give me a ring and I'll get on with it.
I'll pass that message onto the right people. Did you watch the X-Factor?
Yes! I watch it every year. I've always watched those shows… I've been into them since Pop Idol started...
Who did you want to win?
I really loved Cher, I think she's brilliant. To me she was the only one who had 'the eye of the tiger', if you like. She's a proper little pop star. I think Rebecca… I loved her voice and the way she looked but I don't know if I could… I just think I'd be bored after two songs, but I do think she's got an amazing voice. But I think Cher was the main one for me.
So you could say Cher had the X-Factor?
Yeah totally - I think she'll be huge regardless though. It's always cooler not to win, isn't it?
So true. As 2010 comes to a close, what are your highlights of this important year for you?
I guess finishing the album! It was a long time coming. Definitely getting back to touring again was really really good, I was so excited to be able to play live again. There's been loads of good 'moments'… little things stick out, like the time I managed to finish a [particular] chorus. They're not major highlights I know, but hopefully 2011 will yield a lot more moments and highlights!
I'll give you a call at the same time next year and we'll see if you have any highlights then.
OK yes, let's do that! let's schedule that in - this time next year, same day [in] 2011.
Speaking of 2011, do you have a tour and any festivals scheduled?
I've got some bits and bobs in, I'm doing some NME Tour dates at the start of the year. Festivals I'm definitely looking forward to as I've having played many really for about 2 years. I'll hopefully be playing some European dates too. France have always seemed to enjoy the music I've put out in the past, so hopefully we'll go to France and a few other places in Europe, and hopefully America as well at some point.
Thanks for talking to us, Anita. Enjoy the rest of your day and have a great Christmas!
Thank you! And you have a good one too.