Ronan Keating lied. Life isn’t really a rollercoaster, more a series of slow bus rides followed by quick sprints to the next stop. That is, unless you’re Tula ‘Tulisa’ Contostavlos, whose life so far really has ricocheted between dazzling highs and gutting lows.
A quick recap: Camden-born Tulisa scored three platinum albums as part of underrated British hip-hop trio N-Dubz, became a household name when Simon Cowell hired her as an X Factor judge, mentored Little Mix to victory in her first series, reached Number One with her Ibiza-ready solo single ‘Young’, and then, well, saw everything begin to crumble.
In June 2013, a high-profile tabloid sting led to Tulisa being arrested on suspicion of dealing class ‘A’ drugs. Though the case against her collapsed when a judge ruled that Mazher Mahmood (the infamous “fake Sheikh”) had lied to the court at a pre-trial hearing, her reputation, already threatened the previous year when an ex leaked their sex tape, was tainted. The way Tulisa was portrayed in the media often contained more than a hint of sexism and classism. One broadsheet columnist wrote in 2014 that “if Tulisa Contostavlos were middle class, she wouldn’t face such scorn”.
Now, two-and-a-half years after her last single, and almost exactly a year since she won a lengthy legal battle to be recognised as co-writer of the Britney Spears and will.i.am. banger ‘Scream and Shout’, Tulisa is back. The playful, dancehall-flecked ‘Daddy’ is the first in a quickfire run of solo singles designed to return Tulisa to her urban roots. In person, she’s fun, friendly and surprisingly open for someone who could be forgiven for owning a voodoo doll shaped like a newspaper editor. Also surprisingly, she’s a massive fan of The Prodigy who says she was “devastated” to hear about Keith Flint’s death. “I’m just so sad, I couldn’t believe it,” she tells me. “They’re the best live band ever – nothing beats The Prodigy on tour.”
But before that, we talk frankly about her music, reputation and ability to regroup.
What’s made you want to return to your urban music roots?
“I wanted to take it away from the celebrity [thing]. Let’s face it, it’s become too much of that over the last few years with all the hassles and hoo-has I’ve had. I just want to bring it all back to music now. And I want it to be real music that comes from me. I’m not adapting it for what the label or anyone else might want.”
Do you worry – because of the whole celebrity thing – that people sometimes forget you’re actually a singer?
“Of course. A hundred percent. But not any more, not with the body of work I’ve got coming. This is the whole point of what I’m doing now: to remind people. It’s not just one song – we’re releasing three singles, bang bang bang, with stuff dropping in between. And I feel like that at the end of it, people are gonna remember me as a musician again. People can’t underestimate me any more if I prove myself and put my money where my mouth is. And that’s what I plan to do.”
When N-Dubz were breaking through 12 or 13 years ago, some areas of the media were slow to realise just how big the band had become. Do you think the media, and the industry generally, understands urban music better now?
“A hundred percent. As you can see, urban music is everywhere. I don’t know what you’d call the current youth sound. It’s got this slight bashment sound to it, a bit of reggae influence, a bit of hip hop. But I’ve tried to incorporate that into my music. Every radio station I turn on it’s this new sound. It’s a good time for urban music.”
Ten years ago, Big Narstie featured on N-Dubz’ debut album. Now he has his own Channel 4 show.
“I know! And we worked with Skepta and Chipmunk. And Tinie Tempah was on our tour. So yeah, we definitely have to take some credit for paving the way a little bit for urban music. ‘Cause I think, what it was, we broke down the commercial doors. And that enabled other artists to come through and do the same – and they did.”
We’re sitting here today and chatting in the corner of a pretty busy bar and it’s fine, no one’s bothering you. Can you keep under the radar these days, or do you still have paps following you?
“I can keep under the radar, but what I do is make my movements at 5am. For the last two years I’ve had a house in the middle of nowhere – there was literally two miles of just farmland, and then private gates. That was the period that really calmed me down, because they couldn’t find me, they couldn’t get to me, and I really got left alone for a while. And even though I’ve moved [to a different house] since then, no one knew where I was so they couldn’t follow me during the move. I’m hoping during this promo period that no one tries to follow me home! ‘Cause currently, they don’t know where I am. If they did, I wouldn’t be able to keep as low-profile as I do.”
Did you feel like you had to escape to the middle of nowhere?
“Yeah. I was like, do you know what, the further away from central London, the better! It was a good time, I’m glad I did it.”
What kept you going during your lowest points?
“Just self-belief, really. At the end of the day, I knew none of the stuff that happened was down to me. So I knew that moving forward… you know, I just didn’t feel like the worst case scenario was going to happen. I kept my faith, kept strong, kept on and focused on the music.”
It must have been horrific going through it all in public.
“You know what, it’s been a shit time – a really shit time, as people know. But I just feel like I wanna put it to bed now. Because as well as the celebrity side of things, you almost start being known for being ‘that person that this thing happened to’. And you end up having that stigma that you carry with you wherever you go. People remember me, then remember that happening. So, during this time, I wanna make it as much about the music as possible so that people can forget all about that time. I’ve moved on from that – my aim now is to make everyone else move on with me.”
Being successful is the best revenge.
“Exactly. By proving myself, what can people say about me any more? And I think my new material is gonna do that.”
Do you worry it might be difficult to work your clubby early solo singles, like ‘Young’, into a live set with you new material?
“Nah. Like every artist does, you just think about how you build your set and make sure you give people the hits. But I really wanna go back to playing with live bands again, because that was what I always used to do, what N-Dubz used to do, and it just feels right for me. I’ve played around a bit, and done the heavy dance thing, but overall my energy is more of a rock star. Just give me a microphone and a double JD and coke and let me rock out on stage! That’s what I’m good at, you know?”
I saw you giving a performance at G-A-Y a few years ago that was very pop. I think you were carried on stage by shirtless male dancers to Madonna’s ‘Vogue’.
“I think [around] then I went through a playful phase. I was like, ‘This is what everyone thinks of me, so I’m going to play the game a bit and just have fun.’ I was kind of taking the piss out of myself during that process, and it worked at the time. I’ve definitely been on a journey, but I’m happy with the way things have panned out.”
What do you want people to think now when they hear the name Tulisa?
“Bangers! And not these [points to her chest]… hahaha! Sorry, I mean a smash song. But yeah, that’s what I want them to think about: the latest record I’ve got out, that they love. And not, ‘oh God, poor girl, after what she’s gone through’.”
What makes a track a Tulisa track – and not something you’re writing for another artist?
“When you’re a singer, you can come across as quite generic. But back in the old days, when I did something like [N-Dubz hit] ‘Girls’, I always had more of a rappy-singing swag. I was putting my stamp on it; I had a style. And I stopped doing that for a long while. What I’m doing with my new material is bringing it back – bringing back that slight rappy edge. When I was releasing pop songs, I lost that swag. It was a conscious decision: I was trying to play the pop game, and I wanted to be as far away from urban as possible, because of the reputation I’d gained after all the… all the shit. So I was kind of trying to dress up in suits every day and play the prim and proper princess, which wasn’t me at all. But I just wanted everything to calm down and fade out before I started rocking out in my hoodies and bomber jackets again and letting people know what I was about.”
So it was almost like trying to play a role?
“Yeah… and I did, to an extent. But I’ve learned so much from it, it was a learning curve and a process. And I never completely pretended to be something I’m not. It’s always versions of yourself. But yeah, I’ve been a few versions of myself, and moving forward I’m going to be the truest.”
Do you think that’s the only way you could have done things at that time?
“Yeah. Maybe subconciously. That’s probably why I’m feeling more confident now. I’ve balanced out my fiery nature. Because I feel like I lost it for a while – I lost my fire almost. And now I’m kind of balancing all the lessons I’ve learned, and the much nicer, wiser person I’ve become, but at the same time, not losing that flame, you know? Because I’m a fighter and that should come across in the music. My new music is a lot more feisty and I’m not afraid to say it how it is now.”
I guess being part of a family show like The X Factor affected the way you presented yourself, too.
“Yeah. Everything changed. If it hadn’t been for X Factor, I don’t think ‘Young’ would have been my first [solo] single. On a family show, you have to keep up appearances, and fit into a mould. I definitely adapted myself a lot and played a version of myself for a long time. And this is why I’m so excited about moving forward: there’s gonna be none of that now. This is the Tulisa that would have come out as a solo artist straight off of N-Dubz. Take X-Factor out of the equation and this is the kind of artist I would always be.”
Presumably you’ve been offered a lot of reality TV jobs in the last few years?
“Yeah. And [the answer is] always ‘no no no’. And ‘no no no’ again. And that’s it.”
“Because I always had the bigger picture, of getting things to this point, where I can change people’s musical perceptions of me. When have you ever seen a really credible music artist that’s done a big reality show and managed to be successful afterwards as a credible artist? I wanna get away from that: I never wanted to be a celebrity anyway, and you know, X Factor was still a music-based job. I got to create and help Little Mix during that process! The celebrity thing that came with that, I never asked for it. Obviously there were perks that came with it, so I wasn’t complaining at the time – it gave me a lot of success, and it got me the name, so to speak, that I have now. But I really just wanna turn away from that right now. I want it to feel like it used to feel when I was in N-Dubz.”
I have to ask this: if ‘Scream and Shout’ comes on when you’re out, can you enjoy it now?
“Ha! I may be enjoying it a lot more, going forward… you never know, you might even here it in a couple of performances. It is my song, after all. I don’t have to not enjoy it any more!”
Was there a time when you couldn’t enjoy it?
“Yeah, there was. But that was because I hadn’t sorted out the legal case. But now it’s sorted, everyone knows that I was a part of the song. So I don’t feel like I’m sat there thinking ‘everyone’s fucking dancing to this song and they don’t even know that I wrote it’. Now when it comes on, people are like, ‘T! It’s your song!'”
That must feel like a real vindication.
“A hundred percent. Because it took years to get it sorted. It was pretty frustrating but I’m happy with it all now. That’s why I might possibly drop it in the set for a couple of shows. Why not? You know, I like to be a bit cheeky with things, and that would be a bit cheeky. But I own X percentage of the song, so you can’t do me for singing it!”
‘Daddy’ by Tulisa is out now.