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Knockin' on Heaven's door
Adele and I have something in common. I may not have Brit Awards coming out of my ears, I’ve never been a Vogue cover girl, and I definitely don’t have any albums that have gone platinum 14 times, but we do have one single thing that ties us together: we both backed Rebecca Ferguson all the way to the end in the The X Factor.
It’s easy to see what made Adele pick up the phone more than 80 times for the Liverpudlian songstress over nice but dull Matt Cardle in 2010’s final. Her performances on the show wowed judges and audience alike with their understated soul, and have more than a bit of the Adele style.It seems the admiration is mutual. ‘She’s someone that I think is just amazing,’ Ferguson says of the ‘Someone Like You’ singer. ‘I think she’s real. I like Adele because she’s a real person and she’s so honest, and we all connect to her because she’s so honest about what she’s going through and she doesn’t hide it.
‘Not only is she a performer but you feel like you know her. I think that’s why so many people have bought her album because she’s talked about things that we’ve all been through and not lied about it. She’s not tried to play the “I’m dead strong” and “I’m fine” thing that some songs have – she’s just raw and honest and I like that about Adele.’
That sort of openness is something Ferguson recognises in her own record. ‘I think I’ve been honest in my album,’ she tells me. ‘I think I’ve tried to be as honest as possible, I haven’t held back anything really.’It’s certainly clear that for all her dulcet tones and sweet manner, Ferguson knew what she wanted her new album Heaven to sound like and would not allow her own identity to be obscured by the vision her record company had for her.
When she first entered the studio, she found pre-written songs waiting for her and had to fight to persuade her bosses that she could write as well as sing.‘At first they weren’t sure, they didn’t know whether I could write. So I went into a lot of sessions and a lot of it was just feeling it out really and sometimes I’d turn up and the songs had already been mostly written, but then in the end, you know, I started getting properly involved in the writing and it was getting back to everyone that I could write and then everyone just pretty much let me write which was brilliant.’
The result is an album which Ferguson describes as ‘at least 90%’ about her own life. ‘The other 10% is probably friends around me, family members and just things that you see, you know, growing up and going through life. I was thinking about a few people when I wrote certain songs.’ Unlike other X Factor alumni, Ferguson has the distinction of a critically-lauded album. Heaven was described by reviewers as ‘mature’ and ‘fresh’, hardly adjectives that could rightly be applied to her fellow finalists, One Direction. But her response to such praise is typically humble: she will only concede that the critical reception her tracks have received was ‘quite good’.
Ferguson also distinguishes herself from her fellow former contestants by refusing to slate the show that gave her her big break. While Matt Cardle claimed that The X Factor ‘battered’ his musical integrity, Ferguson remains positive about the viability of the talent show format.‘I just think that all of those shows just give people an opportunity and it’s what you do with it really. It’s a great platform and it’s not easy, you know, it’s a hard thing to go through because there is a lot of pressure. But I think it just gives you such a platform and I feel really lucky.’
And although she tells me she would like to think she could have gone on to achieve similar success without the SyCo brand, she does not shy away from acknowledging the head start The X Factor gave her. ‘It helped me so much in every way – character-building, as a performer, in my confidence. I think that was the best route for me.’Looking at recent patterns of success, with runners up like Olly Murs and Cher Lloyd all achieving greater things than winners like Joe McElderry and Matt Cardle, it’s certainly possible to argue that Ferguson was in the best possible position coming second, allowing her time to develop her album rather than being launched straight into the race for Christmas number one. She admits that not winning the show might have been a blessing in disguise for her, but emphasises that the same is not true of all former competitors.
‘I think Leona’s an example of someone who won and I think that was the best thing for her, I think it was amazing. But I think for me it was best [not to win], it just gave me more time and I think I needed that, I definitely needed that after the show. So for me it was the best thing but I don’t think it’s the best thing for everyone.’The time out also gave Ferguson a chance to gain confidence in her own style and lose some of the anxiety that was initially her defining feature. Nonetheless, she admits that she will ‘always’ be a nervous performer.‘I feel very vulnerable and exposed when I’m performing and that’s just the type of person I am,’ she explains. ‘I’ve learnt to deal with it and accept it. And I’ve learnt to accept that it’s not a hindrance and sometimes it’s an advantage and that’s just the way I am.’
That’s not the only thing that’s changed. Life has done an about-turn for the former legal secretary in the past 18 months and her gratitude for the new start is palpable. ‘I feel really blessed,’ she gushes. ‘I can’t believe where I was just over a year ago and where I am now. I think I’ve been really, really lucky.’Looking forward, it’s clear Ferguson has high hopes for future successes. She talks of conquering America, albeit claiming she’s ‘quite relaxed about it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but I would love to. I think that’s everyone’s dream who sings really – you want to do well at home but you also want to do well in other places – and I’d love it to travel to other places and for them to enjoy it.’
And it doesn’t stop at music. She tells me she would ‘love to get involved in fashion’ and reveals a lesser known predilection for writing. ‘I write books as well, I write children’s books, so I’d like to get into that. But at the minute I’m just focusing on music.’Of course, music’s not the only love in her life. The fact that Ferguson was a mum twice before she hit 20 makes her success all the more admirable. And for all her aspirations, one thing is for sure: she’ll always put family first.
By the end of our conversation it seems perfectly logical that the first thing she said to me was about her mum (apparently we share the same surname). She speaks about the importance she attaches to seeing her kids as much as she possibly can and confides that she talks to her mum almost every day. Although her base is now London, she’s ‘always up and down’ to her hometown Liverpool to see her family. Whether writing books, singing or designing her own fashion range, you get the feeling she’ll always be, as she puts it, ‘a proper home girl’.