Jess Glynne may just be the biggest star of 2015 you’ve never heard of. Correction: if you’ve turned on a TV or radio over the past 12 months you’ve probably heard her music, but chances are, if you bumped into her on the street, you wouldn’t recognise her.
This is because, despite notching up three number-one singles this year (in addition to two in 2014) and a chart-topping debut album, Glynne keeps a low profile. This makes her something of a rarity in the world of 20-something pop stars, where artists spend as much time sharing pictures of their famous friends and most recent meals as they do their music.
“I wouldn’t hang out with someone [famous] just to get in the paper,” explains Glynne in a husky north London accent. “That’s not me. I hang out with my school mates. I’m quite easygoing and I don’t follow a trend. I just do me.”
Success crept up on 26-year-old Glynne, who will take to the stage at this week’s BBC Music Awards. Growing up in Muswell Hill, north London, with her estate agent father and a mother who once worked for Atlantic records, she shut herself in her bedroom listening to – and then imitating – Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey. Teenage attempts to break into the music industry, including a brush with The X Factor (more of which later) were fruitless, and after leaving school Glynne drifted between jobs.
After a “party year” where she has previously hinted that she drank too much, Glynne refocused and enrolled at the British Academy of New Music in east London.
She started recording demos and soon her raw, throaty tones caught the attention of music industry bigwigs. By August 2013 she had a record contract, and a few months later began appearing on smash-hit dance tracks, most notably Rather Be by electronic quartet Clean Bandit. As well as being one of the biggest selling singles of 2014, the song was crowned Best Dance Recording at the Grammys in February and, closer to home, provided the staccato soundtrack to an M&S “food porn” advert.
This year, Glynne established herself as a solo artist with her debut album, I Cry When I Laugh, which went straight to number one. How did it feel to be centre stage after so long as a “featured” artist on other people’s tracks?
“I was always a solo artist. I got signed for being me and doing my stuff. The features just came along with it.”
Does she enjoy the limelight? “I’m probably one of the least confident people you’ll meet. This industry definitely makes you feel insecure. Being looked at all the time, you’re just conscious of yourself. I don’t appreciate that. Sometimes you don’t want to feel like you’re being judged, you’re being watched.”
So what’s her strategy for coping with criticism? “I have to be confident in doing me,” she says, as if repeating a mantra. “If I don’t believe in what I’m doing, I don’t think anyone else will. As a woman I feel it’s genuinely harder [in this industry] and I feel you need to stand for something otherwise you get lost. Women get judged more easily. A girl can make a fuss and she’s a diva but a guy does the same and he’s ‘tough’. There’s a complete double standard. It’s easier for a girl to get suppressed in saying things than it is for a guy. That’s why I’m adamant that I won’t not speak my mind for fear of being judged.”
So far she’s proved a woman of her word. In the run-up to her album release this summer Glynne revealed that the majority of the tracks were inspired by her heartbreak following a failed relationship with a woman. This wasn’t an attempt to sell records or fill column inches. It was her speaking frankly – Jess being Jess.
“The album has a story from a time in my life. The next album will be the same. I don’t know if you have to go through something traumatic [to write songs] but for me I went through something pretty difficult that made me look at life differently. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something tragic that inspires me. It could be something great.”
Things could have turned out very differently for Glynne. Aged 15 she met with X Factor producers (scouts often approach up-and-coming singers to audition) but decided against it. “It wasn’t for me. It was definitely the right decision.”
Does she feel more credible for having eschewed the talent-show circuit? “I guess I didn’t get handed my fans, I didn’t get handed a platform in front of millions of people. I had to build from the bottom. In that way I feel a little bit more credible.”
Despite this, she recently appeared on the show as a “guest judge,” helping Cheryl Fernandez-Versini whittle down her acts. “I was keen to see how they help artists get to where they want to be. It’s amazing that these people are getting the opportunity of a lifetime… but I have to say that some of it is pretty cruel in the audition stages – completely messing with people’s lives and their minds. I don’t like that. We’re all people with feelings. Yes, it’s a show that can help people but it’s not the be-all and end-all of the music industry.”
You get the impression that Glynne wouldn’t know how to mince her words if she tried.
Jess Glynne will be at the BBC Music Awards on Radio 1 today (Thursday 10th December) at 4.00pm, and on BBC1 and Radio 2 at 8.00pm