One look at 22-year-old Newcastle lass Karen Harding (or her press pictures rather) you'd be forgiven for thinking that she's already a worldwide superstar with five albums under belt. Diva pose down pat, big hair and mysterious stare, all the makings are there. First listen of 'Say Something', her MNEK-produced debut single and again, you'd be forgiven for thinking she's nowhere near her debut single.

But upon meeting her at a popular coffee chain in west London (it's not the one you're thinking of, it's the other one) Karen is considerably dressed down and in something of a relax mode ahead of a studio session later in the day. "I don't really like make-up that much. To me, it's like... a chore! I know I've got to put it on but I just find it a chore!" Karen explains to me as she arrives armed with a trusty bottle of water. We start a lengthy discussion about the differences in a night out in Newcastle compared to a night out in London town as Karen is currently in between the two cities. "I don't know what it's like in London but on Bank Holidays [in Newcastle] people go hard! People start from like 3 or 4pm right through to 3 or 4am. It's messy! It's funny because girls come in wearing make-up for the whole night so they've got twice as much on. They end up looking like orange aliens!" She quickly reassures me that she's not that kind of girl though, preferring to just chill out at home. "I like being a girly girl in terms of shoes, bags and clothes but I also like to relax a lot, take it all off, sit with some shorts on and just chill out. My most girly girl thing is wearing heels; I really like wearing heels over trainers any day. I don't really like wearing trainers. It's just make-up that makes us not a girly girl because I can't be bothered with it. I can't really say that because I've got it on now, that would be really hypocritical."


From The X Factor to MNEK

Karen Harding may seem like she has appeared out of nowhere but this isn't her first brush with fame. Back in 2013 she auditioned for The X Factor, making it to the boot camp stage and the God-awful five-chair challenge. Unfortunately, at the time it wasn't meant to be and following some soul searching and advice from her mother, Harding was set to head off to university until she received a message from a relatively unknown producer on Facebook. "I was going to go to university to study history and my mother really encouraged me to do that. I had already taken a couple of years out previously when I was 16. I was looking to apply through clearing and MNEK messaged me on Facebook saying "This is quite unusual. I'm really ill today and I found your video on YouTube, I think we should work together." And I was like "Well, you could just send us some stuff because I don't really know who you are!" [Laughs] But he said "No, no, come down!" and it was probably the best thing I've ever done because that's how I got noticed. 'Say Something' came from the sessions I did before I got signed, before I was really getting into music. He was one of the first sessions I ever did."

Following that one session with MNEK, talk soon turned to Karen once again before eventually her name and music landed with the bosses at Method Records, home to Friend Within, Disclosure and Sam Smith. "I think people in the industry started talking about me and a couple of labels were interested which was amazing for my confidence. Then Method Records got in touch and wanted to sign me and the rest is history as they say! Since then I've been in sessions up and down." She's very much thankful for that chance meeting with MNEK and constantly expresses nothing but love and admiration for the pop superstar in the making. "It's all sort of down to MNEK really. When O said thank you to him, he's like 'Oh, whatever!' He was the one that found us and it's all down to him. I'm a big fan anyway; didn't realise how much of a fan I was until I started working with him. I think if I didn't know him, I'd be one of those creepy fans that know all of the words to all of his songs. Thank god he's my friend because he understands."

Together, the pair have created a number of tracks, one of which just happens to be Karen's first single 'Say Something'. Quintessentially throwback '90s inspired pop music, at times you might think you're listening to something from a young Whitney Houston or Christina Aguilera. That theme continues with the mysterious, dance heavy video and while she was happy to follow direction from the video director at the respective team, she was keen to ensure there was something of a Karen Harding stamp on the clip.

"The concept was to just have a bit of a mystery vibe around me and to just be really high energy. We got loads of treatments through and the main thing for me as an artist was for people to know that it was my song. There's been so many girls coming out on feature singles, not that it's a bad thing, I just didn't want people to mistake me for featuring on an MNEK track. I want to be Karen Harding. I was very forward about having the video include me, not in a diva way, I just thought it was really important to have me in it so people can see who I am. The video shoot was amazing, I loved it and Carly [Cussen] was great, just really focused. We did it all in one day and the team were amazing, just really fast, not in a quantity over quality way, they maintained a really great focus. It was so exciting."


Hitting the Studio

Karen's been in the studio with a number of heavy hitters and up-and-coming writers and producers including Anita Blay (Neon Jungle), Tom Aspaul (Kylie Minogue), Mark Feist (Destiny's Child, Mary J Blige) and Brit Pop icon Richard 'Biff' Stannard. "He was pretty amazing, he brought out a side of us that I didn't even know I had!" But perhaps most impressive is recording with the legendary Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. "It's pretty beyond my wildest dreams even thought I don't even realise because you just get put in the session. I look them up on Wikipedia and think "Whoa! I need to be on it in this session!" But then you get there and they're so down to earth, really cool and I'm like "Ok, this is sort of what I've been dreaming about but I don't even realise because they're just really cool. You expect them to have some sort of... light above their head or something... I don't know! [laughs]"

She worked with Darkchild and man of the moment Jimmy Napes who also worked on Mary J Blige's forthcoming studio album The London Sessions. "Jimmy is awesome as well and it's great to have someone to bounce off of so I wasn't too worried about what Rodney was going to say. He was amazing in terms of production, his vibe; he's really inspirational to work with. He was working mostly on the track and I did the topline with Jimmy Napes and he's very good at concepts and lyrics anyway so me and Jimmy were working on that and Rodney would say "Yes, I like that, no I don't like that." It's very much a team effort from everybody and I thought it wasn't going to be just because of this massive person in the room."


Influences

It's almost like going full circle for Karen, who grew up listening to the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Destiny's Child and Toni Braxton; all of whom have worked with Rodney Jerkins at some point in their careers. "It's incomparable but I dream to be as vocally recognised as their voices. I think it's all about the tone and Anita Baker, again I'm so inspired by her voice because it's so different. Toni Braxton... All the big vocalists... I'm just obsessed with!" As a child, her mother played an important part in her musical influences. "I remember my Mum playing cassettes in the car, we had this horrible people carrier thing and it was green and just horrid. She used to play the same tapes all the time; Tina Turner, Lisa Stansfield, Anita Baker, there was a Whitney album in there, Bryan Adams and Sting, things like that. It was a nice mix of pop female vocals I think. The first record I bought, I think was Alicia Keys' first album Songs in A Minor and my Mum was buying stuff like Anastacia, Madison Avenue... Those classic pop artists. Ever since then, all I'll listen to is '80s funk music and Garage music, a lot of R&B like Aaliyah, Brandy, Crag David etc."

She's keen to bring back that old school R&B sound and introduce it to a new generation of music lovers. "I think it's so good and I want younger people to hear what I was listening to. I don't know why I can't listen to modern music; I'm so in love with older music, I just need to listen to it all the time. It's really inspirational in terms of lyrics and melodies."


The Future

For the time being, the focus is 'Say Something' ("Obviously the single is coming soon, it still feels ages away and I just want it out now!") and in the long term an album is very much in the works. Ahead of that, Karen is keen to keep putting music out to get her name out and voice heard. "I'm aiming to get an amazing second single out. Still working on loads of different material, we've got loads of songs; I think it's just a matter of picking one we've already got or getting one from these sessions. Just something that people are going to relate to and relate me to because we don't want to go too far away from 'Say Something' but at the same time not be the same because I'm not a dance artist, I'm a vocalist. I want to get some more music videos out, do some live performances, I think I might have some acoustic videos coming up online pretty soon hopefully and we might have some features coming up soon too, which is really exciting."

Will Karen be remembered like the divas before her? Perhaps. She's definitely got what it takes to be the next British superstar. But for now, she just wants to create good music that people can relate to "The reason why the likes of Mariah and Whitney have been so successful is because they've had amazing songs. I think you can really create a legacy with amazing songs so I just want to be a humble musician. I don't know if I could be one that really pushes the boundaries like say... Madonna does. I might, who knows? I don't if I'm going to be this controversial, crazy singer, not from drinking or drugs but setting some sort of weird standard. Hopefully by then I've just got loads of songs and loads of happiness and loads of success. If there's a legacy there, that's an achievement in itself."

You can visit Karen Harding on Facebook by heading here.