"To me, soul music is not a particular sound. It’s someone who sings from the soul."
Rebecca Ferguson was an X-Factor contestant like no other. With a fragile, painfully unassuming demeanor, the young mother of two nevertheless won over Simon Cowell and the other judges on season 7 of the British TV singing competition by dint of her powerful voice and sophisticated vocal style, becoming the first woman on the show to advance to the runner-up level. That was 2010. Now living in London, Ferguson has a critically acclaimed album, Heaven, that she co-wrote, something few X-Factor winners can say.
The album and Ferguson herself just having made their US debut, the still incredibly humble sensation stopped by MTV Iggy to chat about her a new life as a rising star and her new-found self-confidence.
You sang “A Change is Gonna Come” for your X-Factor audition. Is that a significant song for you?
When I sang “Change is Gonna Come” it was personal at the time. When I sang it at that audition I was getting quite riled up, because that was what I wanted and I believed every word when I was singing it.
I like songs like that. You hear the emotion in Sam Cooke’s version. There’s soul in his voice, you can feel the pain. It’s one of those songs that has got the resonance for people and when I sang it I was thinking of the things that I been through and I was thinking “A change is going to come” and I was singing it to the judges, like, “Come on.”
Is it different if you hear yourself sing it now?
I get emotional if I see that audition, because that isn’t me. I look at that girl in that audition and I just want to give her a hug and I just think “What has happened to you? Why are you like that?”
You’ve said in the past that there was a time in your life when you felt you had lost your self-confidence. It is ever strange to think that in spite of that you never lost your voice?
I knew I could sing. That one thing I did believe in was that I could sing, but then constantly getting rejected it started to get me down. But my voice was always there and my dream and my ambition was always there when I went through bad times.
Did you always practice and write and keep up with your lessons?
I stopped my lessons when I was about … what age? I took lessons since I was little, I used to pay for my own singing lessons and take myself. Just take the bus when I was a kid and go. But I’d been writing music for years, since the smallest age.
So you’ve been touring and performing a lot now. Are you finding an inner diva, or do you find you don’t need to change to take on this new role as a star?
I’ve just grown as a person, accepting my flaws as well. Before I was very insecure and I used to just hide and now I just accept that I’m an imperfect human. It used to bother me that I wasn’t confident on stage and that I wasn’t this big diva that could move and do all these things and now I’m just like that’s how god made me and that’s who I am. Some people won’t like it, but some people will.
How is your family enjoying life in London?
The kids love it. They’ve got a lovely back garden to play with and little animals running around. They’ve got a totally different life really. They’ve got opportunities now that I couldn’t give them before. I’m able to give my family and my friends things that they didn’t have.
Do they like the album?
The kids love it. They love “Mr. Bright Eyes” and “Fairytale.” They sing. Those are the favorites on there.
You co-wrote all the songs on your debut. Is there any one song that’s more personal for you than the others?
“Teach Me How to Be Loved” probably. All the songs are personal but that’s very personal. All the other songs on the album there’s a bit of a message. “Glitter & Gold” there’s a message in it, “Shoulder to Shoulder” there’s a message about destructive relationships. “Teach Me How to Be Loved” is just me talking to someone I want to be in a relationship with but I can’t trust them. That’s probably the most personal. It’s hard to sing sometimes.
Did you grow up listening to the kind of old soul music that influenced Heaven?
Not at a young age. I mainly listened to the radio. I didn’t buy CDs or tapes, I just listened to the radio. I’d just flip through channels. I listened to Whitney Houston, Cher, Kylie Minogue. And then in my teenage years I got really into R&B, Puff Daddy, Tupac. It wasn’t until my late teens that I really got into soul music and then I was like “Ooh, this is good!” You’d always here it at old family parties, like, Gladys Knight and I’d always love it but I didn’t really get to know it and respect it until I was a bit older.
How do you see the soul music tradition in the UK as opposed to the one in the US?
A lot of the US artists are what we grow up listening to, so we’re influenced the same way Americans are by listening to it. But soul music to me is about singing from your heart. There’s lots of people, like Annie Lennox, who do it. You just hear it in her voice when she’s singing. She’s not just making noise, she’s pouring her heart out. To me, soul music is not a particular sound. It’s someone who sings from the soul.
You are signed to both a US and a UK label. What are your hopes or expectations for reaching an American audience?
I just hope that they get what I’m doing and what I’m singing about. Even if just a few people do. I always say your voice is a gift. I didn’t earn it. I was born with it. It’s god-given. The best thing you can do is share it with people.