Standing Alone: A conversation with Vanessa White
2007. What a time to be alive. The Spice Girls were back together, Girls Aloud were at their best and with that, helped birth The Saturdays, who had been scouted by new Polydor imprint Fascination Records. The youngest of the five girls selected was Somerset-born, east London raised Vanessa White.
Despite being the youngest of the group, White quickly earned a name for herself as the powerhouse lead vocalist, displaying impressive ad libs and runs all throughout the girls' debut album Chasing Lights, their first single (and first in a run of top 10 singles) the Yazoo sampling 'If This Is Love' and across their following four albums, all of which (bar one) landed in the top 10 of the UK album charts between 2008 and 2011 along with 16 top 20 singles.
The Saturdays officially went into hiatus following the release of their Greatest Hits album and accompanying tour after individual opportunities began to appear more frequently. While presenting and acting endeavours opened for some of the other girls, Vanessa quickly returned to her first love and entered the studio on her own for the first time. Since then, she's been quietly crafting and forming what will eventually become her debut album, which is tentatively set for release this year following the release of her debut EP Chapter One next month.
Much of White's earlier sessions were conducted on the down-low. Her first musical offering, the Tumblr-trendy, blog-friendly 'Relationship Goals' - co-written with rising songwriter Dantae The Kid and produced by firm blogosphere favourite (and 405 One To Watch for 2016) Chloe Martini - was quietly placed online back in September along with news that she had signed with Select Models. An originally unplanned black & white visual soon followed, displaying a more grown Vanessa - opening the doors for the second online drop 'Don't Wanna Be Your Lover' produced by Tre Jean-Marie (and a little extra help from pals Ryan Ashley, Brayton Bowman and MNEK). Further stepping into the realm of smooth and sexy R&B, one might think that White has forgotten her pop roots (she's since assured me that there's some more pop records on the horizon).
It's a cool November afternoon in the heart of east London when I sit down with Vanessa at the über trendy Shoreditch House which just happens to be one of her regular haunts ("I'm happy actually, that we're at Shoreditch House because it feels almost like a home away from home and I can just be myself here!"). While sipping on a cocktail, we discuss musical influences, what it's like being a young woman in the music industry, what to expect from Vanessa as a solo artist, and what the future holds for The Saturdays.
So, Vanessa White; the solo artist...
I know, it sounds weird! [Laughs]
How does it feel?
Really good. Obviously, it's really strange at first but to be honest with you, I've been working on it since the beginning of 2015 so it's actually been quite a while. It's kind of strange but I like it. I really like it. I'm happy. Very happy!
Most people, when they're coming out of a band, they have this weird feeling of not having people behind them or beside them. I suppose you haven't really had a chance to do any shows just yet?
No, I haven't done any shows yet so I'll probably feel it then. But at the minute, no. I've just been doing my own thing and it's nice to see the reactions. But it's not like anything that I've been doing has been like... "Oh, this is my first single!" It's not really like that, which is why it was more surprising because it was very relaxed, very chilled and I just wanted to put something out there so that people knew what I was doing. So far, the reaction has been really good, which I'm really quite happy about!
Let's go back a bit. You're from east London; what was it like growing up and trying to make it in music? What was the dream?
I grew up in east London but when I was around 12 or 13, I started going to Sylvia Young [Theatre School] so I had to travel from east to Marylebone every day but I think I used to annoy my neighbours; I would not stop singing every album from Christina Aguilera, Brandy, Whitney, Mariah. Literally every day when I got up in the morning, it was the first thing I did. Now, when I think about it, if my neighbour was doing that to me I would be so annoyed! [Laughs]. I remember being 13 and JoJo first coming out and me being like "Oh my God, she's so amazing; I need to get a deal right now!" When I look back on that I think "You're such an idiot, you're 13 years old!" I literally felt like it was going to be the end of the world if I didn't get signed. It sounds ridiculous and I know it's ridiculous but that's how I felt at that age. I went to school and just kept auditioning and then randomly the Saturdays thing all came together and it was amazing. I'm so grateful for all of that.
How old were you when you joined the group?
I was only 17! I got signed at 17 and I thought that was late! [Laughs].
Doing your own thing your own way now, have you found it to be a really big difference to the way you used to work with the band? I know certain producers - Xenomania for example - have a very strict structure in the way they work. How does it feel going from that to doing things at your own pace and in your own way?
When I first started going into the studio on my own, I was so nervous all the time; it used to scare me all the time and I don't really know why. I think it's the whole... going into the studio, meeting people that you've haven't met before, opening up to them and having to work with them on that personal level. That was what I was scared of but now I'm used to it, just bearing my soul to anyone [Laughs]. It was different [writing with the Saturdays] because we'd never write as five, we'd write as two or three of us when we had creative input on whatever songs we did, so it's definitely different. It's nice because we were all different anyway, we all had to adjust to what the sound was. We had our sound but now it's nice to do something for me.
Was it ever hard to do the songs you wrote in The Saturdays? Obviously, there's at least four other opinions that have to come into play along with whatever the producers decides to input and maybe other writers etc. Did you ever have to take yourself out of the situations you were writing about?
Well, yes because it's not just about you, it was five of us and it was about all of us being happy and everything working for each individual and as a group. It is nice now and I'm not dissing them. I had the best time and anyone will say that. I think it's nice to do something and not have to think too much about anyone else.
And with the rest of the girls all doing their own things in their respective channels, they're also able to express what they have and what they couldn't do in the band...
Exactly! Totally, and everyone's happy. We haven't said that we're never going to get back together, we just think that eight years is a long time for anyone. I think we're allowed to have some sort of a break! It's so funny because people find it so hard to believe that we're on a break and that there will be a time that we get back together... we just don't know when [Laughs].
I always remember Emma Bunton saying she'd always believed the Spice Girls never truly broke up and that they'd come together every few years then break up and come together again etc. I suppose there's no real rule book to this...
But why can't you do that? This is the thing! There's no rule that says that we have to break up, just because we're not working for a year why does that mean it's the end? Just keep the door open. I think that's OK to do...
What was the first thing you did when you decided to take a break from the band?
I went on holiday, had a great holiday, came back and thought "Right, what am I going to do now?!" I've always had in the back of my mind that this was what I want to do. For me, I felt like... realistically, I'm not going to be a presenter, I'm not going to be something else because I'm shit at all of those things [Laughs]. I would be awful. This is the only thing I want to do and I really enjoy so to me there was nothing else. I was always going to stick to music and everyone knew that so I just threw myself in. I got back home and I was like, "right, let's just start!" I put myself in the studio and I started to write, started to see what I liked, what I didn't like and what my thing is. It takes time to find that and it took me a while.
So there were no aspirations to do any acting or anything like that...?
I love acting, I love doing stuff like that but I go with what my first love is and that's music. If stuff like that comes along, that's just an added bonus!
And now, you're working towards your solo album. Who else have you been working with? Do you have an idea of the sound of it?
You'll probably have heard it from 'Relationship Goals' and 'Don't Wanna Be Your Lover'. I'm keeping in that vein. There will be some more pop-ier stuff because I love that whole pop-y vibe. But from those two songs, I think you can tell where I'm heading. I've taken a lot of influence from Janet [Jackson]'s stuff and some of my friends' stuff; not on purpose, it's just that's what I've been listening to... it's coming together.
So it's more of a reflection of you right now...
Yes, exactly! I like that.
I think for most people, it's probably something they wouldn't have expected you (or a Saturday) to do. Was it an intentional move to "shock" people like that?
No, actually. Not at all! To be honest, I just want to be happy and I just want to make music that I've always wanted to make. There wasn't a conscious decision like, "oh, I need to go down this route!" I had no idea that I'd have got this reaction in the first place but I love R&B music, it's what I'd been listening to throughout the band, before the band... it's just what I like!
Chloe Martini features on and produced 'Relationship Goals' while Tre Jean-Marie worked on 'Don't Wanna Be Your Lover'. How did you come to meet with them? Did you know them before working with them?
I knew Tre because I'd worked with him before but he's actually under the same management team as I am so I've spent so much time with Tre over the last year, he's like my brother now! He's a really good friend of mine now and we just really love working together. He's a great guy and musically, it just works. With Chloe Martini, I knew she was sick because I'd been listening to her SoundCloud. I said, "I have to work with this girl, she's next level!" It was kind of hard to track her down but it happened and it worked well. I think we did the session for 'Relationship Goals' the day after Wireless [Festival] and I was so hungover, it was a Sunday and I was like "I don't ever do sessions on a Sunday, for God's sake!" [Laughs] But it was one of the best things I did. It was me, (co-writer) Dantae [The Kid] and Chloe. It was great!
Chloe seems to have this almost... illusive aura about her, which I find really interesting...
She's got her own thing going on when she does her gigs, she's everywhere doing that. I just love that she's a female.
Are you hoping to bring forward more females through with you?
I'll be honest - I'm not going to sit here and be like "Yes!" For me, it's whoever I get on with and whatever I gravitate to; that's what it's about for me but also what's great is, it's always just a bonus when you work with someone who you actually get on with and make a friendship with, that's just a bonus at the end, but the music is first.
Can you mention who else you're working with? Are you allowed to?
[Laughs] I'm working with... Iain James, this guy called Thomas Eriksen and actually, as a group, we used to work with his brother David Erikson; he did a lot of the early Saturdays stuff so I remember meeting him when I was 17 in Norway. There's a few people I'm working with and more to come...
Do you have an idea of when you'd like the album out?
I'd say summer hopefully!
While part of The Saturdays, you'd worked with Rodney 'Darkchild' Jerkins and a number of US producers. It's a bit of a weird question now since so many US producers are looking to the UK for their influences but do you have any plans to record there?
I think I am going to do a trip there at some point next year but that's why I didn't go for the whole of this year. There's a sound here that's just incredible and I'm really enjoying it. But I think I will go just to be in LA and be in the sun [Laughs].
Have you had any thoughts about your first shows yet? Do you have an idea on how you'd want them to look, what kind of vibe you'd like etc?
Yes! I'm thinking about putting on a show. I feel like for my first show it should be special; not big, intimate. I'm still working on tracks at the moment so once I've got enough to do a show, one million percent I will do a show.
Charli XCX's recent documentary about women in the music industry touched on a number of topics including what it's like as a woman when it comes to meeting with record labels, executives and all the other male dominated positions. Have you faced any issues since going solo or even as part of the band?
I've said to everyone on my team already and they know this, I'm like "so, we know what I'm about, I know what I want to do, I have the music I want to do." So when I go to labels now it's like, "ok, so this is it, you can't change any of it, you can have it or you can leave it; that's it!" I'm in control and that's what I like. I've done the whole "them having their ideas" and I'm not going to shut down anyone's ideas. I'm so open to ideas but don't try to change what I am because I know.
I was going to ask whether you were going to go back down the major label route or not?
At this stage, I really don't know. I'm still meeting lots of people and it's a really fun process but we'll see. I just need to make sure I don't make any rash decisions; it's got to be right for me.
What's on your playlists at the moment? What are you listening to and looking forward to in 2016?
I can't stop listening to Bryson Tiller! I'm obsessed! Kehlani is like my favourite right now, Tinashe, NAO - she's amazing!
Vanessa will release her debut EP Chapter One on February 19. 'Relationship Goals', 'Don't Wanna Be Your Lover' and latest track 'Nostalgia' are available now on iTunes and all good digital platforms. Check out the video for 'Nostalgia' below.
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