South London spoken word rapper Corynne Elliot a.k.a. Speech Debelle has just returned from a four-year hiatus with lead single “The Work” from her upcoming third album, Tantil Before I Breathe. Growing up in a middle-class Jamaican neighborhood in Crystal Palace, Debelle started writing poetry aged eight and began rapping by 13. At the age of 16 she discovered her penchant for song writing; it gave her an emotional outlet and made her popular at school. She grew up inspired by artists like Michael Jackson, Blackstreet, Mary J. Blige, TLC and reggae music. Over the years she has been an avid activist for causes like anti-gentrification, homelessness, political apathy, climate change, gender equality, racism and diversity.
“The Work” features Baby Sol, who laces her soulful vocals over the melodic instrumental and Debelle’s introspective bars. Produced by Nick Trepka, the track talks about “having some sort of awakening” that prompts you to use your inner strength to evolve from trying times. Debelle comments on her own mental breakdown as inspiration for the song: “I realized I had to be broken for the light to come in and that process is blossoming to me, a form of expansion. This song is about waking up and being grateful for the opportunity to f**k some more things up, cry and then laugh.” It was co-written by Neil Cowley, who has previously penned tracks for the likes of Adele and Emeli Sande.
Her third studio album title, Tantil Before I Breathe, was a personal note-to-self about her issues with anxiety and was initially going to be named Full Circle, as a testament to the emotional and personal progress she has made since her debut in 2009. The album covers deeply intimate topics, including a song about the time she hit her ex-girlfriend in a domestic violence incident. It marks a new phase of creative control for the Mercury Music Prize winning artist and a renewed vigor for music: “I don’t have to debate about why my vision is the right way to go any more.”
Her career has certainly been a roller coaster ride so far. Within months of her first live show, she released her debut album Speech Therapy in 2009. The LP mixed jazz beats, acoustic instrumentals and delicate, but powerful, spoken word rhymes. It introduced the world to her confessional style of rap, which covered topics ranging from her absent father to her previous homelessness. Her track “Spinnin” was re-worked by popular UK artists and used as one of the official anthems for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
In the same year, her sophomore album Freedom of Speech received critical acclaim and showcased her passion for politics, despite low album sales. She left the business for a while to focus on other interests like travel, cooking and art. This break from music also gave her the space to stop drinking and overcome her masked problems with stage fright, anxiety and panic attacks.
First of all, welcome back! How much has recording Tantil Before I Breathe helped you to overcome your personal demons and anxiety?
Thank you. I wish it did, but to be honest, I don’t get that many breakthroughs in my song writing. The songs that have had the most emotive affect on people, I struggled to remember writing. It seems to happen to me, the words. It’s listening to other artist’s music that helps me.
Writing in general has given me clarity. I’m constantly filling up notebooks; just the act of putting pen to paper to let something out. No pressure, no one will hear it. [It’s] not even a song; just me and my thoughts. My anxiety lives in my chest. When it wakes, I do my breathing exercises and calm my mind and keep it moving. Having a little extra fuel in the fire can create a powerful energy.
Your music has a conscious, spoken word to vibe to it. In this new climate of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and George The Poet becoming more mainstream, how important do you feel that poetry is to this new generation?
There seems to be a shift in the collective consciousness; a shift towards inner love, revolt, clarity and peace. Poetry is vulnerable, powerful and earnest. There’s nothing to fall back on, but your voice and your words. It’s the truest version of what Scarface says: “all I got in this life is my word and balls.” Art is a reflection of life or even a future projection of life. Whatever the case, as the people change, the musical climate changes. Kendrick is representation of a change I’m grateful for.
What can we expect from the new album?
Songs about breakthroughs, break ups, black magic and whiskey.
Your new track “The Work” covers themes of rebirth and self-discovery. What is the most important life lesson that you have learned so far in your journey? Have you got any advice for fans going through hard times?
Man, everything I have unpacked has taken me to the same place every time. Love yourself. Through that all else can start to follow. It’s the one thing we’re constantly told not to do or kept distracted from doing. It’s the one thing that has saved my life. When I say saved my life, I mean gave my life back to me.
It’s so nuanced this act of self-love. How perfectly symmetrical your face is, or how the money you have plays no part in your self-worth. The most beautiful woman in the world can be in an abusive relationship.
You have to be willing to go so deep to some scary places. How did what my grandparents experienced affect me? What did my father not teach me? What are the patterns that have kept me in a cycle? Why do I keep having the same experiences with certain people? What are they teaching me about the beliefs I have about myself that do not serve me?
My advice is, save your life. Start today if you can.
In 2013 you appeared on the UK’s Celebrity Masterchef. Is cooking still something you’re passionate about? Can we expect a cookbook any time soon?
I’m just finishing up my cookbook now. There’s something absolute about writing a recipe that you don’t have in song writing. You can’t leave room for interpretation. It’s about constant re-writing and fact checking. With a song, there is no end. For the book, I’ve taken tracks from each of my three albums and written a piece on that time. Any stories on the making of the song and what I was experiencing around that time. From that, I picked a dish that represented that mood and gave you the recipe. It’s essentially a book with recipes.
My career skyrocketed very quickly. I went from working a 9-5 to headline tours in six months. I have a lot of stories. When everything around you changes within months, you don’t get a chance to stop and take stock of it all. Now I have balance, I can look back like “I remember the time I called my label head a slave master” and laugh. I was doing the most.
What’s next for Speech Debelle in the remainder of 2016?
Now the first single “The Work” is out, it’s about working this as much as I can. I’ve got some great singles to drop over the next few months as well. The album is scheduled for release in September. The cookbook, like the album, will be a self-release and comes out at the same time.