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Straight from the heart: Debbie on being one of the UK’s hottest soul talents and why music is her mouthpiece

London soul singer Debbie talks collaborating with Wretch 32 and Stormzy and how music is her mouthpiece

By Nick Reilly

(Picture: Press)

For singer Debbie — real name Debbie Ehirim — music has always been the ultimate release. “My own music is my truth and it allows me to express myself so unapologetically,” she says. “If I had to describe myself, it would be as an artist that is genuinely just here for the music. I don’t really focus on anything outside of that. Whatever I put out, that’s what is on my mind.” 

As “a lover of singing” and music in general, Debbie grew up on a diet of gospel music and song. Artists such as Lauryn Hill allowed the artist to finally discover her calling, leading her to become one of the UK’s hottest musical prospects.

With collaborations with Stormzy under her belt and nods of approval from John Legend and Mahalia, 2023 looks to be hers for the taking. Here, Debbie opens up about her journey. 

How’s your year been so far?

There’s a cool buzz with me and my team because we’re working on the next steps, so that’s exciting — to decide whether I want to do an EP or if I want to put two or three songs out there.

The last we heard from you was the remix of ‘Is This Real Love?’. Is that an interpolation of J Hus’ ‘Did You See’ on there?

It is! I already wrote the song, but after speaking with my label Def Jam, they had the idea of throwing some UK culture in there. I’d been working with Wretch 32 as well, who helped give me a springboard and different ideas of how we can add that UK flavour. Together, we came up with that. 

What’s it been like working with Wretch 32? He’s such a stalwart of British rap.

He’s just so down to earth and so lovely. He feels like an uncle, you can go to him about pretty much anything and he’ll have really good advice. I’m glad he’s been a part of this journey.

You’re signed to 0207 Def Jam, the UK arm of an iconic name. It’s barely three years old — what’s it like being part of such an exciting label?

Even though they’re a major label, they allow you to feel very much like it’s an independent. I’ve never felt any pressure and they’ve always made it really vocal that’s the case. It feels like everything is happening in its own time and we’re in it for the long run. That’s a comforting thing. 

Debbie (Picture: Press)

Where does your love of music come from?

It stemmed from singing and I would say that’s been my escape for a very long time. When I was younger, I would genuinely just close my eyes and sit in a spot and sing for hours. I had a very limited amount of music I was able to listen to and it was mainly gospel, but occasionally I’d hear people playing Adele songs, so I’d cover those too. It was really whatever I could get my hands on.

What’s your song-writing process been like? Your lyrics seem intensely personal.

My method is to try not to overthink and just to get lost in it. You know sometimes when you vent, and you don’t actually realise what was inside or how you’re feeling? But once you finish venting, you suddenly realise how much you needed it. That’s what writing is like for me.

One of your biggest break-out moments came when ‘Cherry Wine’ arrived last year. What’s the story behind that song?

That was a space I was in at the time where I was being invited to a lot of events and sometimes I find I’m a bit of a sheep. I found when I left those events, I felt low and really drained. ‘Cherry Wine’ was me wanting to talk about how I’m not really built for all of this. I’m very awkward and sometimes I need a bit of a drink to get me through! I liked that people were able to see the vulnerability in it. 

Aside from your own music, last year saw you collab with Stormzy on ‘Firebabe’. What was it like recording with him? 

I went to his album camp at Osea Island in Essex. You know, sometimes in London you find that the session world is very repetitive, and it can be super fast-paced. But it was just nice to feel like you’re basically on holiday. Working with him was just a wholesome, lovely and loving experience.

Were you friends beforehand?

We’d been connected by his A&R who is now the head of Def Jam, and once he heard some of my tracks he wanted to work together. We’ve been writing music and it’s just been nice that he’s enjoyed the music. 

Debbie (Picture: Press)

Bearing in mind everything he’s achieved, has he given you any tips for navigating your career?

He’s given brilliant advice about how to own your own craft and also, like, the understanding of the gift I have and that we as artists are vessels. We’ve been given a gift and our job is to give that out to the world as unfiltered as possible. He just gasses me, and it gives me a lot of confidence and encouragement in what I’m doing. 

Even when we’re recording, he gives me room to become a little bit introverted in order to connect to what I’m doing. He gives space to allow that. 

You say you’re introverted. Music must be a brilliant release for that. 

Oh yeah, 100 per cent. Sometimes I’ve told people how I feel about them through music. I tend to express myself through music because I can say everything I need to through it. 

At what point did you realise you wanted to make a career of it? 

I’ve always realised that it’s been my escape, but it was when I realised just how relieved songwriting could make me feel. Then in my first year of uni, I was studying business, I met my manager and he put me into sessions. That was the first time I’d utilised my songwriting in an actual professional sense.

Debbie (Picture: Press)

Have you managed to take stock of the journey so far? 

I’m just learning to be present and also be reflective when there’s not a lot going on. Sometimes you get a couple of days to just chill and I try to make it a thing to reflect, and actually give myself a pat on the back because you kind of forget to do that.

You’re a big Lauryn Hill fan too? 

I love her! I’d always known her because of the movie Sister Act, bearing in mind I wasn’t allowed to listen to music that wasn’t gospel, so that’s literally all I knew until I was about 16 and I didn’t know she was an artist outside of that. It was someone from Def Jam who told me to listen to Miseducation and I just got consumed by that album. It’s timeless, and inspirational for me how [she] was able to tackle real topics but do it in such a seamless, classy, musical way. I learned a lot from her album. I watch some of her seminars and her lectures and she has such an interesting philosophy on life in general.

What’s next for you?

At the moment, I’m working on music, but I think the next release needs to feel really big and a bit more purposeful. I pride myself in being able to go between genres too and to be true to whatever genre I’m listening to. I would love to share that in my music.

Taken from issue 11 of Rolling Stone UK, out May 11. Buy your copy here.