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Aspiring Headliner

Anoushka Lucas: This Could Be Good

Emerging jazz singer-songwriter, Anoushka Lucas delves into her debut album release, geeking out over songwriting, and speaking terrible Russian.

Anoushka Lucas is in a cupboard. Sort of. Ducking into the tiny Writer’s Room in the Bush Theatre on her lunch break to speak to Headliner, she explains that she’s managed to squeeze in between a desk and an armchair.

“So, that’s a good visual,” she laughs.

Described as “an exceptional voice and a great songwriter,” by Jamie Cullum, Lucas is known for her singer-songwriting capabilities, influenced by the sounds of Carole King, Zadie Smith, Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday. Acting, however, is something new:

“I’ve never acted before,” she admits, whilst discussing her part in Chiaroscuro, which finished in late 2019. “I have this funny side-career in theatre – it’s not funny,” she corrects herself. “I thought I would come to London, make my music and be somewhere with it quite early on, and actually it has taken a lot longer for me to understand what sound I wanted to make, and how I want to present myself – and also to navigate the industry. It has changed a lot over the last 10 years.”

Lucas has a strong background in musical theatre, composing many original scores, and for a ‘non-actor,’ has made decent cameos in Kenneth Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express as well as Netflix musical, Been So Long, although she says her scenes all got cut.

“Now I’m about to compose the music for a new, big musical, which is funny because I’ve always been so focussed on my own music, that I didn’t notice that I was doing so much theatre work, and now I realise that it has become another part of my career. After tiptoeing around [acting], I said, ‘okay, I think I’m ready to do some proper acting,’– so [Chiaroscuro] was my first proper go at it, which is pretty nerve-wracking, but fun. I like doing things that scare me because I think that keeps me focussed. If I sit back on stuff I find easy, I get kind of bored, and I think what I do isn’t as good.”

I like doing things that scare me because I think that keeps me focussed. Anoushka Lucas

Born and raised in West London to a French-Cameroonian mother and an Anglo-Indian father, Lucas has always had a flair for performing. Having studied at the French Lycee, Lucas excelled in piano, ballet and languages before going on to study Russian and Italian at Oxford University, although she insists that she speaks “terrible Russian”.

On the phone, Lucas speaks quickly and excitably in her clear, well spoken voice, frequently interrupting herself and barely stopping for breath as she goes off on tangents – pausing occasionally to ask me if she’s waffling. Despite her manic schedule, the emerging jazz singer radiates enthusiasm and is at ease – chatting in an unassuming way as if talking to a friend.

Just prior to starting rehearsals, Lucas released her debut album, Dark Soul, produced by Martin Terefe (Jamie Cullum, KT Tunstall, Martha Wainwright). Combining elements of classic soul and jazz, and echoing the likes of Norah Jones or Laura Mvula, Lucas’ voice is at once light and delicate, yet conveys an unmistakable depth and warmth. Her meandering, dreamy style favours the melancholy (although she’s actually got a great sense of humour) – frequently making jokes at her own expense in-between tracks when performing live. Unashamedly autobiographical, Lucas combines an honesty in her music with a sensitive warmth, touching on themes of love, sex and loss.

Her two favourite songs on the album are Falling and title track, Dark Soul. “They’re both miserable,” she laughs, insisting that there are some happier ones on there too. “These are the two songs that I love – although I like the whole album, a lot,” she corrects herself. “I’m very proud of it. My favourite track on the album is Falling because I wrote the entire lyrics for it in about 20 minutes. We were jamming in the studio and messing around with all these different chord structures, and it came to me quite quickly. The reason I really like it is because the song was an expression of something that was true at the time in my personal life, but that I had not expressed to myself or to anyone. While I was writing the song I realised that this was how I felt, and that it was big.

"Sometimes I am more honest in songs than I am as a human. When I listen to it, it feels very vulnerable and very honest, and I really enjoy that. I also really love Dark Soul, and this is partly because of the way that people react to it – which I didn’t expect because it’s not happy. But people really like it! The song is what got me noticed by Jamie Cullum, and I feel really pleased that I can make something that resonates with other people that deeply.”

Lucas has been gigging for over 10 years, but is still surprised to see what songs resonate with audiences.

“People come up to you at the end of the gig and go: ‘God, I really like that song,” – and when you hear that once, twice, three, 10 times, you think…okay there is something in that that is bigger than me. I find all of that increasingly really interesting in terms of trying to understand why some songs land, and some songs don’t. You can watch people perform songs and know that a song has something that another song doesn’t, so I’m getting more and more into geeking out about it as I get older.”

Sometimes I am more honest in songs than I am as a human.

Lucas’ life veers between spending way too much time at home, or no time at all. “I’ve never quite found the right balance. At this point there is no part of London I haven’t lived in. I was listing to my housemates all the places that I’ve lived over the last 10 years, and they said, ‘Wow, you really don’t have an allegiance to one part,’ – and I said, nope!

Her whole family is fervently passionate about music – her parents meeting in the ‘80s while they were both in bands, and encouraging her gift when she showed a natural aptitude towards it.

“I used to go to my dad’s gigs quite often, and I grew up knowing a lot of adult musicians, so that must have seeped into the back of my brain. I had one of those one-octave child Casio keyboards when I was about seven, and started having piano lessons after that. There was so much music in the house all of the time,” she remembers.

“My dad can’t really be in a room without there being Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles or Cream playing at maximum volume, and my mum is the same about Prince and Lauryn Hill, so music just seemed as natural as being alive. When I was 14 I started writing songs, but I didn’t really think anything of it. I always think it’s funny when people ask me when it was that I decided that this is what I wanted to do as a career – because I didn’t!

“I think also to be really honest, my parents were jobbing musicians and it had been hard, and my mum was very proud of my sisters and I being academically successful. When you get into somewhere like Oxford, it’s not something you can really turn down without a good reason. I think I also went so that I didn’t launch myself into music with no plan B, although it turns out I never wanted to use the plan B.”

Looking back at it now as a “weird decision,” Lucas opted for a degree in Russian and Italian, moving to Russia for a year at the age of 19. “As you do,” she quips.

“It was very odd. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, actually. Weirdly, while I’ve been in rehearsals for this play, it’s woken up all this stuff I experienced in Russia 10 years ago, and I suddenly thought: ‘That’s so odd that I lived in Russia for a year when I was 19!’ But, the point of that was I went to Oxford and did Russian and Italian, and while I was there I joined a choir and was performing at loads of open mic nights. I realised that I didn’t want to do anything that wasn't musical. Then I came back to London and started, quite naively, and tried to get myself out there and be a singer-songwriter.

"I thought I’d be signed within a year and be on Jools Holland within two, and it didn’t quite turn out that way, but I found the London music scene, and I haven’t really looked back. I haven’t spoken Russian for 10 years so it’s all gone, but the French and the Italian are still there. I worked really hard at my degree and now I’m doing music; maybe I’ll release an album in Russian in five years [laughs].”

In terms of her songwriting process, Lucas’ methods have changed over time:

“When I was writing as a teenager, I grew up in quite a small flat and I shared a bedroom. I found that if I went into the living room, went to the piano, and closed the door, they just left me alone! [Songwriting] has always been a place of comfort and solace. I used to be very driven by feelings – I have a lot of feelings – and I would get an idea about a feeling that I would want to express – sit at the piano, bash out some chords, and find some words. Once you’ve got two or three lines you can kind of run into the storytelling.”

I found the London music scene, and I haven’t really looked back.

Meeting a playwright at 22, Lucas was introduced to the world of writing for musicals: “What I discovered through that is it’s a different thing to have a deadline where you can’t wait for inspiration, so then I tried to learn more about the craft: how do you build a song in a genre? Another thing is I’ve started writing away from my instruments, because I think when you play an instrument and you know that instrument inside out, you kind of get locked into it, so the piano is leading a song, instead of the song.”

First coming to Headliner’s attention at unpretentious music venue, The Duke Of Cumberland in seaside town, Whitstable, Lucas enthuses about playing smaller gigs in pubs: “That is legitimately my favourite gig of all gigs. It’s just outside of London so it’s a nice excuse to get out, see the sea and have some nice food. I always have such a nice time. I know the audience can be a bit [pauses] never know quite what you’re going to get, but I kind of love that [laughs].”

Recently singing to Primary Talent International, Lucas looks forward to the opportunities this will bring: “I just thought I would stand here with my piano and guitar and everything would pan out, but no – it matters who is managing the books, who shot the album cover, who is booking gigs, and who is telling the world about you. I’ve been quite careful, because I’ve made a lot of mistakes. This will lead to bigger and better gigs and better support slots, so more people who wouldn’t have necessarily seen me, will see me. It’s incremental. And I really, really love gigging. It's probably my favourite thing in the whole of my life.

"To be able to play venues with the best sound systems, sound engineers, and have loyal crowds of people who want to hear you in that space! It is so different to when you start out playing in the back room of a pub where no-one is listening to you. It’s exciting that it might lead to gigs that are even more enjoyable.”

One such prominent slot saw Lucas open for the British Summer Time Festival in London’s Hyde Park, supporting none other than Celine Dion.

“When you support people that are really established, the quality of what you can deliver goes up because the sound is better, and the stage is better – everyone doing their job is so good at their job, so you only have to do your job. In smaller spaces you have to sort the kit, make sure the band are paid, work around a faulty microphone – so those gigs have been amazing. It is definitely how I would like to spend my time!”

Lucas has a terrible confession: she did not watch Dion perform: “I had a wedding that I had to leave for, so I had to miss Celine, for which I feel tremendous regret. I could see that it was going to be a pretty good party, and I had a moment where I could stay or I could go, but I decided to be a good friend [laughs]. The wedding was very good – but I was sad to miss Celine because she is one of the greatest of all time. It’s Celine: she’s a queen!”

Lucas’ sound could easily become a Radio 2 favourite, with Dark Soul being played on Jamie Cullam and Steve Wright’s shows of late.

“I’m delighted that people want to play it on their radio shows – they are welcome to. This album has been four years in the making, and I’ve released it independently with the help of my fantastic manager. There has been a lot of stress around getting the release right, and so it’s kind of amazing that it’s out, and that I’ve completed this project. It feels like now it’s starting to have its own life independently from me.”

With half of her hour’s break taken up, it’s time for Lucas to leave the cupboard to grab a sandwich before plunging back into rehearsals: “I'm fucking starving – pardon my French!”

Read the article in Headliner Magazine, here.

Words: Alice Gustafson