Discovery: Lulu James

Published April 8, 2013

ABOVE: LULU JAMES

“I always wanted to be a forensic scientist,” scoffs Lulu James in the silkiest of Tanzanian accents. “I just didn’t have the brains to do it, so I had to fall back on music.” Whether onstage, off, or merely behind the camera, James commands the room with her thunderous, unmistakable voice. As far as weapons go, it’s a formidable asset, and one that has served her well—leading the rising songstress from birthday parties and open mics to, eventually, a record deal and a studio.

“Closer,” James’ latest offering, is a raucous, shimmering love letter to the funked out sensual balladry of the 1990s—filtering the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey through a lens that is uniquely 2013, kissed with sparse, minimal dub and watery textures. James may have abandoned her dreams of becoming a forensic scientist, but as an artist, she offers her own striking brand of musical alchemy.

In conversation, James is ecstatic, proud, and gleefully sassy (“Totally mint,” in her own words), and seems poised as a performer on the cusp of her first big break. It may or may not have been a chilly March afternoon in Newcastle, England, when we spoke to James—we’ll have to take her word for it, since our Skype connection wasn’t strong enough to transmit visuals across the Atlantic. “We’ll do it this way,” she declared, in between fits of laughter. “I’ve got no makeup on!”

AGE: 21, soon to be 22

HOMETOWN: Arusha, Tanzania

LOCATION AT TIME OF INTERVIEW: In my management’s office. There’s loads of pictures of me.

21ST-CENTURY SOUL: It’s very good music only I make. [laughs] I’m joking!

FIRST SONG: “Brown Skin.” India.Arie. I can definitely sing it much better than I can play it.

EASTER SUNDAY IN TANZANIA: In Tanzania, you spend Easter Sunday at church. There’s not Easter eggs. And you celebrate the day with a massive family meal. It’s just a massive celebration. You’d always have that psycho auntie chasing you around with a chicken head or something like that.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: The biggest moment was when I met my manager, and he put me on New Year’s Eve in one of his clubs. I performed for about 15 minutes and decided that was completely what I wanted to do. I was like, “Oh my god, they think I’m like, Beyoncé or something.” [laughs] The buzz from it—everyone was in such good spirits. There were fireworks going off behind me.

TIG FOR TAG: I have a big sitting room, and I run around and play tig with my partner and my friends and stuff like that. It’s when you chase somebody; you go, “Tig!,” and they have to “tig” you back. Do you say “tag,” is it? Is it how you call soccer football? Or you call football soccer, but it’s not really soccer, it’s football, and stuff like that?

WORDS WITH FRIENDS: “You daft cunt.” [laughs] Between our group, Team Lulu, that’s the line you use for anything. Good or bad. Don’t go around saying that, mind—if you come to Newcastle, don’t call anybody that, ’cause I’m sure you pretty much won’t be making it back to America.

COMFORT BEFORE COUTURE : I’m always in a onesie, man. [laughs] I’m far from dressed up. I should never get popped, because I reckon I’d knock somebody out if they tried to take a picture of me without my permission.

GRANDMOTHER KNOWS BEST: I was very angry as a teenager. My grandmother came to see me one day, and she was like, “Look, there’s no point in being angry. Just learn to forgive, and move on.” I think when you’ve got anger in you, you’re just attacking yourself. It’s only yourself that you’re holding back. I had to learn to overcome that.

CREEPY CRAWLIES: I don’t like butterflies. It’s not like I’m terrified of them, it just freaks me out a little bit if I see one. [laughs] Anything that crawls scares me.

FAMILY JEWELS: Where I’m from, my ancestors, we’re from the Masai tribe, originally. Therefore, I wanted to have something that symbolized the Masai tribe. I know they wear a lot of beaded jewels around their necks, and they have massive holes in their ears. The thing that I was trying to represent is like a brand—they get branded on the face, without something hot, I’d imagine—they have it along the cheekbones. That’s where I got that from. So I thought we’d put jewels there to represent that, instead of actually cutting holes in my face. [pauses] And they jump really high, chase lions.

NO DOUBT: I think I started getting unsure of myself—because you hear about singers, and you just compare yourself to them. So you’re always like, “God, I’m not as good as this person…” and you’re always doubting yourself. I compared myself to them, and was a little bit scared to get up sometimes at the open mic nights. But, every single time I sang I turned heads, so I knew there was something special in what I did.

SKI BAWL: It was actually snowboarding that I did—I kept on calling it “skiing.” There were loads of four-year-olds, going past me, like peeeewww, that fast, and I was just like, “I am not sitting on my board embarrassing myself more than I already have.” I walked halfway—I could have went to Italy and back—and pretended I snowboarded all the way down. [laughs] Everybody was really impressed with that.

THE SECRET TO WINNING AT POKER: Being a girl. Every single time I go to a poker table, guys instantly just look, and go, “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, right.” So I sit there, and I play on that, and then the next thing I know—I’m raking in their chips. They are just going, “Wow!” They can’t give me shit. Does it look like I’d take shit?! [laughs] Really? Nah. I don’t.

SHINE A LIGHT: What may be challenging to you may not be challenging to me. I think the reason why I speak about the dark bits is because I’ve overcome it, so I feel like I’m shining a light for the people who are maybe going through a bad phase in their lives, and them a bit of hope.

THE FUTURE: Performing at the Grammys with Grace Jones, doing an American tour. I’ll come and see you!

LULU JAMES’ DEBUT ALBUM IS DUE OUT THIS SUMMER. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.