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Jess Glynne: ‘I’ll always hold my hands up when I make a mistake’

As Jess Glynne prepares to launch a new era of music, the singer talks why she's owning up to past indiscretions and starting afresh.

By Nick Levine

Jess Glynne (Picture: Dennis Leupold)

I think in my whole career, I’ve always been quite elusive,” Jess Glynne says as we sit and drink tea in her North London kitchen, a bright basement that backs onto her garden. “And I’ve always kind of hidden a lot behind my music. And I don’t like to share a lot with the world because I’m scared of it.” She lets out a laugh. “But I think in this chapter, it’s important to let people get to know Jess, you know?” Glynne continues, “I feel like this is the album that I want people to hear [and] feel like they can be like, ‘Oh OK, I know who she is.'”

These days, nearly every artist frames an album campaign as “a new era”, but in Glynne’s case, there really has been a sea change. Last year, she parted ways with Atlantic Records, her record label since 2013. She has since signed a new deal with another major, EMI. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter has also swapped her management team for Jay-Z’s globally renowned Roc Nation stable. Though she makes it clear that both splits were amicable, Glynne says the double switch-up was “the best decision” she has ever made.  “That label and that team were incredible for one thing,” she explains, “but I think for where I was [heading] as an artist, it just was not coinciding, it just wasn’t working.”

Glynne’s music has changed a bit, too. Her new chapter begins with ‘Silly Me’, her first single in nearly two-and-a-half years, which she describes as “kind of self-deprecating”.  Co-written with her long time studio partners Knox Brown and Mike Horner, plus Beyoncé collaborator P2J, it’s a soulful bop on which she looks back on past mistakes. ‘Nineteen just a tiny bit older / bed buddy trying to give a cold shoulder / poor baby didn’t mean that much to me’ she sings over a bluesy guitar line. It’s a song that will resonate with anyone who spent their teens and twenties trying to figure out who they really are.

Though ‘Silly Me’ is more of a slow burn than you might expect from a Jess Glynne comeback single, it is no reckless reinvention. She describes her upcoming album as a “pop record” that is “raw, honest and vulnerable”. Other new songs include ‘Promise Me’, a stripped-down and timeless-sounding ballad, and ‘Love Is Not Enough’, a classy slice of neo-disco that would sit comfortably on a Sam Smith album. Another catchy midtempo track, ‘Enough’, has a straightforward self-empowering message: “I’m more than enough.”

‘Silly Me’ is also about self-acceptance. “It’s like, ‘I’ve been through life and I’ve learned, you know?” Glynne says of its reflective lyrics. “I’ve selected the wrong people and I’ve done the wrong jobs. And I’ve been here, and I’ve done that. But I had to do that in order to get to here. And I think everyone needs to be less hard on themselves.” Though Glynne’s allusion here to her past hit ‘Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself’ probably isn’t intentional, she adds later in the interview: “I do find myself saying that [phrase] a lot.” 

Sitting across her kitchen counter from me, Glynne is friendly, fully engaged and happy to address her highs and lows head-on. Her answers to certain questions err on the side of caution, but it would probably feel strange if she suddenly became an over-sharer after years of being, as she put it herself, “quite elusive”. Born and raised a few miles up the road in North London, the daughter of an estate agent father and mother who used to work at a record label, Glynne says she really enjoys “my private life and being normal with friends and family”.

Her career highs are genuinely impressive. After breaking through in 2013 as the vocalist on Clean Bandit’s Grammy-winning banger ‘Rather Be’, a hit so ubiquitous it soundtracked an M&S advert, Glynne never looked back. Her 2015 debut album ‘I Cry When I Laugh’ debuted at number one in the UK and went quadruple platinum; her 2018 follow-up ‘Always in Between’ was another platinum-selling chart-topper. The following year, she supported the Spice Girls on their comeback tour, cementing her own place at the centre of British pop.

Jess Glynne (Picture: Dennis Leupold)

Along the way, Glynne has racked up seven UK number one singles, more than any other British female solo artist. She achieved four of these as a featured artist on collaborations with Clean Bandit (‘Rather Be’), Tinie Tempah (‘Not Letting Go’), Rudimental (‘These Days’) and house producer Route 94 (‘My Love’), a reflection of the hyper-collaborative pop landscape she came up in. She also co-wrote five of them, including the solo smashes ‘Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself’,  ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘I’ll Be There’. “When I look at me in the mirror, and I hear that [accolade], I’m like, ‘Oh, they’re two people,'” Glynne says today. “But I think that’s always how I look at myself: like, there’s Jess onstage and in her career, and then there’s Jess at home.”

Perhaps inevitably given that Glynne is a millennial pop star, the lows have largely been played out online. In June 2019, Isle of Wight festival boss John Giddings said the singer would “never be booked again” after she cancelled her set minutes before she was due on stage. When her name appeared on the same festival’s lineup less than a year later, the Twitter memes, including one featuring British ‘hun’ icon Charity Shop Sue, flowed freely. Today, Glynne says of her eleventh hour withdrawal in 2018: “The situation with Isle of Wight was a combination of things. The doctor told me my vocal cord had haemorrhaged and if I want to continue singing, I need to immediately go on vocal rest. I was really run down. I had just been on tour with Spice Girls and my body gave up on me that day. I hate cancelling shows and letting people down but in that situation, I had no choice.” 

Around a week after 2019’s Isle of Wight controversy, Glynne announced she was pulling out of several other festivals on the advice of her throat surgeon. In the same statement, she addressed tabloid reports that she spent the night before her nixed Isle of Wight gig allegedly “partying with the Spice Girls”. “It is true that I went out and celebrated the end of the Spice tour,” she said at the time. “That was a massive high for me and I wanted to mark it with the women who’d become friends and mentors to me. But I had also been suffering on and off for weeks with anxiety about my voice.”

Then in September 2020, Twitter had another field day when Glynne used her Instagram feed to accuse Sexy Fish, a super-fancy London restaurant, of “pure discrimination”. Underneath a photo of herself wearing a tracksuit, she wrote: “Dear @sexyfishlondon I turned up to your restaurant looking like this and you looked me and my friend up and down and said ‘No you can’t come in’ and your restaurant was EMPTY.'” 

Many of her followers pointed out that there are far worse forms of “discrimination” than being turned away from a posh restaurant – one that doesn’t allow “any sportswear” – because you rocked up in a tracksuit. Glynne later said “I wish I never posted [that]” and admitted that discrimination was the “wrong word” to have chosen. “Accountability is important,” she says today. “And you know, I’ll always hold my hands up when I make a mistake or say the wrong thing.”

Glynne definitely had to do this in March 2021 when she used a transphobic slur on Mo Gilligan’s podcast. She was widely criticised not just for saying the outdated term, but also for the misjudged anecdote it featured in, which hinged on taking a “bad man” to a trans strip club and sharing his seemingly surprised reaction. After the clip blew up on social media, Glynne woke up to messages from “all my queer friends” including Glyn Fussell, co-founder of the popular LGBTQ+ club night Sink the Pink. That day, Fussell helped her to take a first step towards making amends.

“When that happened, I think I was terrified, and I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Glynne says today. “And I think I took a minute to be like, ‘OK, let me like, scream and cry and freak out.'” Glynne says she managed to calm down after speaking to Fussell and telling him: “I can’t make an apology without understanding what I’m saying.” Fussell then arranged for Glynne to have an in-depth conversation with him and Danielle St James, the founder of Not A Phase, a charity that supports trans+ adults. “The three of us sat on that Zoom for hours… three hours, maybe,” Glynne recalls. “And we just talked about the whole meaning behind that word and the reason why it’s a slur, and what goes on in the queer community and in the trans world. And I sat there and I was like, ‘Whoa. OK. Right, absorb, take a moment.'”

Because she spoke at length with Fussell and St James, who helped Glynne to compose the apology she subsequently posted on Instagram , the singer concedes that it looked as though she “took forever” to respond. “But I don’t believe in something bad happening and [just] going ‘Oh sorry, I made a mistake,'” Glynne says. “Especially with something that deep, you know, and [relating to] a community that I’m very close to and who I love deeply. And so that was probably what was so upsetting. I think that was the hardest thing.” Glynne has spoken in the past about not wanting to put a label on her own sexuality. “I don’t like to put myself in a box in anything in my life,” she told Attitude magazine in 2018.

In the wake of the trans slur incident, Glynne made a decision to “retract from social media” to protect herself from constant negative comments. “I reached the point where I was like, ‘This isn’t why I do music. This isn’t the reason why I write songs,'” she says. She didn’t return to Instagram until last November when she posted an arty black and white video of herself with the caption: “See you next year.”

More recently, she has shown a more playful side on the platform. A video shared last week features a series of comments aimed at the singer by online trolls. They range from “Stop making music please” to “Not saying I’m better than Jess Glynne but I got into Sexy Fish”. Another comment pokes fun at complaints that budget airline Jet2 has “slowly tortured” passengers by playing her hit ’Hold My Hand’ “on repeat” before take-off.

Glynne’s accompanying caption reads: “Do you have anything else to say?” Given that Brits especially love a pop star who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, more posts in this vein would surely be a savvy move.  Today, Glynne says she has “a new take” on social media, though she also admits with a laugh: “I am a bit scared of it, coming back. I’m sure there’s gonna be a million, you know, trolls and nasty things come up. There’s gonna be hopefully a million nice things [too]. But I’m just like, ‘Whatever it is, I can take it.'”

Glynne also says the fallout from the transphobic slur incident made her realise “how important it is for people to [get to] know [more] about me on this album”. Later in the interview, she acknowledges that guarding her privacy may unwittingly have earned her a reputation for being aloof.  “They’re like, ‘Oh, she’s fine. She’s just over there turning her nose up at everyone.’ I think that’s what people think,” she says. Why do they think that? “It’s like, people think that you think you’re above everyone,” Glynne replies. “And that’s so not the case. No way. Ever. Like, I’m the total opposite. But people don’t know that about me. They don’t hang out with me, so you can’t blame them.” For this reason, Glynne adds pointedly, “this time around I’m doing things differently.”

This means sharing more of her personal and creative journey than she might have done in the past.  In 2021, Glynne lost a close friend “in a really tragic way”, a seismic shock that made her question everything. “Life changes when something like that happens to you,” she says. “I was going through a real moment of like, ‘OK, what do I want out of life? What’s gonna make me happy? What is important?” In time, she realised she needed to overhaul her career by changing the people around her – that way, she would also be able to recalibrate her sound with fresh ears supporting her. “We’re all creatures of habit, right?” she says. “And I think at that point, I was like, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it.'”

So, while shopping for a new label and management team, she spent much of last year in LA working on her upcoming album with a palette of top-tier producers including Greg Kurstin (Adele), Malay (Frank Ocean) and BOOTS (Beyoncé). Inspired by Joni Mitchell and Amy Winehouse – a fellow North London girl who made it big – Glynne focused on telling authentic stories drawn from her own life.  “At this point, it’s like, ‘I am a woman and I want to be sexy and I want to be fun,” she says. “And I want to be honest and I want to be vulnerable [in my music]. And I can do all those things. Because I’ve done all of those [things].”

If ‘Silly Me’ is the album’s first chapter, it opens the story on a warm and eminently relatable note. “Oooh silly silly me, ooh how stupid could I be,” she sings, gently chastising herself in a quintessentially British-sounding way. “I think the story is that I’m human and I’ve lived,” Glynne says. “I’ve done good things; I’ve done stupid things. And I can literally look back and go, ‘I have learned from everything that I’ve done, you know?’ But I can also laugh at myself. I think that’s super-important.”

Jess Glynne’s new single ’Silly Me’ is out on 28 April via EMI