Estelle: Coming To America

Mar 2, 2012
Originally published on March 3, 2012 10:48 am

Estelle Swaray is a Londoner. But for the past few years, the British singer best known for the song "American Boy" (her 2008 Grammy-winning hit with Kanye West) has called the U.S. home. It was a particular American boy, she says, who convinced her to make the move.

"I worked with John Legend on my first record and he said, 'Come to America and I'll sign you,'" Estelle says. "I said, 'Are you sure? Because I'm a handful. I've got a lot of things to say, and you're not going to be able to put me in a cookie cutter. It's not going to work.' He said, 'I know. I'm clear about this. Come on.'"

In this interview, Estelle tells NPR's Scott Simon about her latest album, All of Me, as well as her love of heavy bass and how she first made contact with Legend and West in a Los Angeles diner.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Estelle Swaray is a Londoner but for the past few years she's called the USA home. Huh, I wonder if American boys have anything to do with that.


ESTELLE SWARAY: (Singing) Walking that walk, talk that big talk. I'm liking this American boy, American boy. Take me a trip, I'd like to go some day...

SIMON: That's "American Boy," Estelle Swaray's 2008 Grammy-winning hit with Kanye West. That song's featured on her album "Shine." And since then, boy, has she, with her silky vocals, smooth raps and punchy lyrics. Estelle Swaray's latest album is called "All of Me," and she joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

SWARAY: Oh, thanks for having me. How are you?

SIMON: Fine, thanks.


SIMON: So, you're over here for the guys?


SWARAY: I wish I could say yes. Oh, no. I signed my record deal in 2007 and I moved over here to work on the album for "Shine" and I've been here ever since.

SIMON: Can we talk a bit about your background? Born in London, as we noted. Your mother is from Senegal, your father from Grenada. Do we hear much of that in your music?

SWARAY: Absolutely. My dad grew up in West Indies and my mom, they love reggae music and African music and it all squishes together in my approach. I think with the music and the instruments I use, I'm a big fan of bass lines and drums. You know, so, like, a lot of my music is bass heavy or drum heavy.


SWARAY: Unless with the acoustic art, it's more of the feeling that the grits have arrived.


SWARAY: (Singing) They said that all I had to do was rap, rap, what rapping gives. Go ahead and get my butt back to back again, back to the future, back to all that again. Now you know yourself. Oh yeah, all of that again.

SIMON: Was there a point when you were young, Estelle, that you heard a song, you heard a singer and you said to yourself...

SWARAY: This is it. Yeah, when I was three I remember seeing Bob Marley on TV. And I just remember this guy being on stage shaking his head and losing it, being in the spirit. And I remember just staring at this guy like, what's he doing, you know? And that's kind of like my first musical memory, my first version of this is what I wanted to do, I think. I like ran away from it for a while and it finally came back to me.


SIMON: Let's listen to a song from this new album. This is a song called "Wonderful Life."


SWARAY: (Singing) What makes my day slow down, watching the rain and now I'm not on time. I'm about to lay down and cry, walked on the other line. Had a fight with my man, 'cause he swears I'm lying to him constantly, causing drama like you won't believe. Just one day I wanna wake up...

SIMON: A lot of these songs are about heartbreak.

SWARAY: And how to get over it. I write about my life, and my life is by no means nice and happy as "American Boy" seems. It's been a lot of ups, a lot of downs, a lot of hurts, a lot of pain, a lot of happy times. And the thing that kind of holds me together was I always found a way over it. So when I write, I write with that perspective of like it might not be good today but it's going to be better tomorrow. That's what "Wonderful Life" was about.


SWARAY: (Singing) It's a wonderful life. It's not that I've never cared, but my position here is just all right. And then they tell me I lost my job, but I won't give up. It just hasn't been my day at all, but I'm about to get this manicure...

SIMON: Now, I've got to ask: Madonna, Gwen Stefani - they're Americans who've gone to London. So, why have you gone to the other - yeah.

SWARAY: Well, because I kind of hit a glass ceiling at home. No one quite got where I was coming from. So, I've been friends with John Legend and Kanye West for a while and I've worked with John Legend on my first record. And he was like, look, come to America. I've got you. He said I'll sign you. I was like are you sure? Because (unintelligible). You know, I have things to say and you're not going to be able to put me in a cookie cutter. It's not going to work. He was like I know. I'm clear about this. Come on. So, he did and he stuck with it and here we go.

SIMON: Let's listen to another song if we can from your new CD. This one is "Speak Ya Mind."


SWARAY: (Singing) I'm nice in my skin, I love every (unintelligible). I've got the body God gave me, don't want another. Well, well, I'm woman. It don't matter (unintelligible) what you really, really want is a lady that's paid, paid on (unintelligible), you think you look good, girl. But you (unintelligible) miss me. Some of y'all (unintelligible), shade, shade, shade in a minute, won't you tell me. And this is not an attractive day. I just wanted to do better than what they're doing with their men. I just wanted to admire (unintelligible). I just wanted to pull out the miseducation again. It's a crucial attack and we're here to make it. I've got to tell the truth, not face it. All you have to do is keep in mind and let him know...

SIMON: Well, I think it speaks for itself, but tell us what you're trying to put across here.

SWARAY: So, as I'm traveling, as I'm coming around, it just started getting my angry with (unintelligible), just a general lack of wanting to do for themselves as the younger generation of women are having. I was raised on, like, Queen Latifah. I was raised on Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone. I was raised on Mary J. Blige. I was raised on strong women that have a point of view that made you feel empowered. And as I'm traveling in the States and the world, there's like a stream of women that were coming up that are, like, oh yes, I'll just roll with it - "Football Wives," "Basketball Wives," all these different wives on TV - and you're like are you just content being someone's wife? And it frustrates me 'cause I'm not that way. I can't cosign that message. It's entertaining but it's not real life. And these young girls don't know the difference between speaking your mind and putting more value in being educated and being about something than what you look like and what shoes you have today. That's where this comes from.


SWARAY: (Singing) All you got to do is speak ya mind and let him know. Let him know. Now that's happen if we got over it and fix it. No matter what the (unintelligible) they got to respect that...

SIMON: Did it ever occur to you that there's somewhere in this world and the United States and the U.K. there's a three-year-old kid who's listening to you, maybe seeing one of your videos?

SWARAY: If that is true and if that is real, I just - I don't even know what to say or do about that. I just hope that I'm doing the right thing. I couldn't be happy with my existence knowing that, you know, I sang this child and it was dishonest. It was from a mean place and this kid saw me do that, and it influenced their entire life. No way. You know, so, I hope I'm doing the right thing.


SIMON: Estelle, thanks so much.

SWARAY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Estelle, in our studio. Her new album, "All of Me," is out now. And you can hear more music from Estelle by going to our website,


SWARAY: (Singing) Well, I wear my coat like this because I can. I wear my hair like this because I can. And I walk around like this because I can. And I do my thing like this, it's who I am. And if you listen to me...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.