Rebecca Ferguson: "Now I'm Going With The Flow Of Music And I'm Not Trying To Please Anyone"

Being catapulted into the spotlight via reality TV can take its toll on a person, and after 10 years in the biz, X Factor sensation Rebecca Ferguson became disillusioned with music. The Liverpudlian singer explains how Nile Rodgers reignited her love for music and helped her re-find the balance.

Ten years ago, a shy singer from Liverpool forced herself to step onto The X Factor audition stage, putting her fate into the hands of Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Nicole Scherzinger. Eyes down, Rebecca Ferguson’s version of A Change Is Gonna Come may have been hindered slightly by nerves, but what shone through was her unmistakable smoky tone, which Cowell praised as sounding like a true “recording voice”. It was enough to see Ferguson all the way through to runner up of the series, which went on to change the course of her life.

“It's mad! I've changed so much since then,” says Ferguson in her unmistakable Liverpudlian accent. “I feel more settled now. I look at that Rebecca, and I can't relate to it no more. I wasn't that mature, and I was trying to be mature, but really I had a lot of growing to do. When I look at that [audition], I just think I needed to have an injection of self confidence and self love. I'm just not that person anymore.”

Unpretentious and completely unchanged by fame, Ferguson is down to earth and unguarded on the phone, often starting sentences with “to be honest,” regularly poking fun at herself, and laughing heartily. Despite her success and the number of critically-acclaimed albums under her belt, you can’t help but feel that you’re speaking to a woman who still can’t quite believe her luck.

“I was so skinny then!” she laughs, thinking back to her audition. “Do you know what? I've still got the dress hanging up in my wardrobe. I don't think I'd get it on one leg now! But I do look back and I'm proud of it and how far I've come. I'm not gonna lie, it was really scary – but I knew it was one of these opportunities that I needed to just get on with and get over the nerves.”

Admitting that she had “the worst stage fright ever” at the audition, Ferguson was determined to see it through:

“I tried my best but actually I was looking down. As the show went on I started to believe in myself more and more, but it was a process. It's absolutely petrifying getting on that stage, but I literally just told myself: get on there and face it. Because if you don't, you're going to get kicked off the show.”

The X Factor final saw her duet with a vocally intimidating Christina Aguilera on a rendition of Beautiful – probably the only time Aguilera had been introduced so endearingly in a thick, Scouse accent.

“I remember it actually!” she laughs. “At the rehearsals, they were like, ‘Rebecca, sing!’ But I was too busy staring at her like a super-fan. Sometimes you see those duets – which is the right way to duet – but they seem like they're having a sing-off. I just thought, ‘I can't compete; there's no way I'm about to start trying to do this.”

I needed some confidence and self love. I'm just not that person anymore.

Winning The X Factor does not a lasting recording career make, and coming second certainly didn’t put Ferguson at a disadvantage. Her debut album, Heaven was released in December 2011 and sold 128,000 copies in its first week alone, peaking at No.3 in the UK official charts, followed by a further three Top 10 album releases in the space of just five years.

For Ferguson, the first few weeks following her debut launch were exciting times; she travelled all over the UK performing to huge crowds – and the money wasn’t bad either.

“I was making money that I had never, ever seen before in my whole entire life! I went from digging around the side of the couch to look for a pound, to all of a sudden earning money I couldn't have imagined. The first few weeks were fine, but after a while, I couldn't go anywhere. I'd try and go shopping in Liverpool and I'd be mobbed, so if I'm honest, it was an adjustment going from being a normal girl to this sudden fame. Although it was really amazing and exciting,” she adds.

“I was like a deer in the headlights because it was new to me. I couldn't have ever imagined that type of fame or success, so it just took me a little minute to process it. Over time I learned to deal with it and I learned to get a good, balanced life.”

As a child, Ferguson says she was singing “from day one,” and that her family had a hard time keeping her quiet. Her earliest memory is of her family trying to keep her occupied during a family party:

“I was singing away and my auntie Jan gave me a piece of paper to keep me busy,” she remembers. “Most kids would draw little pictures and things, but I drew squiggly lines. My auntie came over and said, ‘Rebecca, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I'm writing a song’. I remember the whole room being like, this is weird... you can't even write! There was just a need to sing from day one.”

A lot of people don’t know that Ferguson is a qualified legal secretary, although she can’t hide the fact that she’s relieved she made it as a singer:

“I used to sit there when I was studying saying, 'please God, don't let this be my life!'” she laughs. “I was actually quite good – I got a distinction, but you wouldn't think it now if you got an email off me. My spelling is terrible! It's actually a sound job that makes good money, but I'm too much of a creative for it. I always wanted to sing.”

I’m very honest with my lyrics and how I am with people.

Ferguson has now settled into a comfortable lockdown routine of looking after her three children and doing some gardening and DIY:

“I've got into a bit of a routine of staying in and now I don't know how to get me out! I'll have a Mrs. Hinch page next I think,” she jokes. “I’d done two months of touring just before lockdown, so I was actually due a break. I do miss singing; I'm thinking, ‘will I even be able to sing at the end of lockdown?’”

TV interviews have been replaced with Skype or Zoom calls, and Ferguson is adjusting to working from home along with everyone else:

“I keep having visions of the Amazon man knocking on the door mid Holly and Phil asking me questions, so I was trying to keep one eye on the window. Or what if my little girl storms in while I'm on Sky News or something like that man that had it happen to him?!”

Shopping on Amazon aside, the lockdown period has also seen Ferguson take more of an interest in astronomy, using a telescope she bought for her son to examine the skies. She suddenly remembers a prank her son played on her a few months ago:

“We took pictures of the moon and all these things, and one of Saturn. I posted it on Instagram (the day after April fool's) – I was so proud of this image, like ‘Oh my God, look what we've managed to capture’. Anyway, all of a sudden I was getting this abuse online saying, ‘you're lying, that's a NASA picture’. So I'm arguing back to them saying, ‘No my son wouldn't lie,’ and I'm proper having it with people – adamant that we took the picture.

"They were laughing at me saying, ‘Rebecca have you got NASA’s Hubble in your backyard?’ I nearly fell out with a fan over it, and the next day my son said, ‘Oh sorry mum, that was an April fool's’. It's the first picture that comes up on Google when you type in Saturn!” she giggles.

Some of Ferguson’s best-loved songs draw from everyday scenarios, echoing her sentiments about the importance of love and family – “No money, no house, no car, can beat love,” she sings on debut single, Nothing's Real but Love.

“Most of the music that I write is really heartfelt,” she agrees. “I’m very honest with my lyrics and how I am with people. I like to make music that makes people reflect on what I think is important in life.”

Her last album, Superwoman was released in 2016, and aside from the odd feature, Ferguson has mostly stepped back from the music industry – fully focussing on raising her family.

Now, she is ready to get back in the studio to work on her next album, and recently released new single, Nothing Left But Family – recorded at Abbey Road Studios with their chief creative advisor and legendary hit-maker, Nile Rodgers, who co-wrote, produced and features on the track.

The song also saw her collaborate with prolific hitmakers EG White, (co-writer of Nothing’s Real But Love, Adele’s Chasing Pavements and Duffy’s Warwick Avenue), and Jonny Coffer (the man who helped craft Beyoncé’s Freedom, Panic At The Disco’s High Hopes, and Naught Boy’s La La La).

“I had been wanting to work with Nile for a long time, and I got to meet him because I had a meeting in Abbey Road. He called me into the studio and said, ‘Rebecca, come in and listen to this!’ He was making this really lovely song about bringing people together – it was really positive, and I gave my input. He must have liked the melody or whatever I sang and said, ‘Oh, can you go in the studio and sing it in for me?’ So I went from having a meeting that day, to recording with Nile. I was so excited; I was messaging my brother and my friends in the booth saying, ‘Oh my god, I'm recording with Nile!’”

Rodgers was so impressed that he asked if he could record and executive produce Ferguson’s next album, which she is happy to report that she will be working on as soon as it is safe to return to the studio.

All of a sudden I'm with Nile and I just got this spark back.

Best known as being the co-founder of Chic, Rodgers is of course also a prolific producer, working with artists including David Bowie, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Mick Jagger and Diana Ross. Ferguson was nervous and old self confidence issues resurfaced, but she was not going to let this opportunity pass her by:

“I was really nervous because of those big names that you hear,” she admits. “I needed to get a bit of self confidence. I felt inferior, if I'm honest. But he is one of those people that just really puts you at ease. I've found it a real compliment that he wanted to work with me and that he had that belief in me.”

Ferguson says that as well as finding Nile “lovely,” above all else, he is humble:

“I think that most of the people that are really successful tend to be the most humble. I've worked with Lionel Richie and Andrea Bocelli and they are completely humble, and Nile falls in that category.”

Nothing Left But Family saw Ferguson draw inspiration from everyday events, whether it’s picking up Corn Flakes from the floor, forgetting to set her alarm, or getting stuck in traffic on the school run.

“To be honest, on the day I wrote this song, I was feeling a little bit…” she trails off. “The kids were obviously having me up the wall and stressing me out,” she laughs.

“I was sorting the family out, and it was that feeling of never being enough, you know? You do everything, but it feels like it’s never enough: you try to be a perfect mum, a perfect girlfriend. When you say the lyrics are relatable, it's probably because as I was writing it, I was honestly saying that I woke up in a storm; I'm sure I set the alarm. When Nile heard it, he said, ‘Right, we need some soul on it now!’ – and he injected his lovely guitars and his lovely production on it.”

In terms of the production process, Ferguson says that she has never had a song go back and forth as many times before.

“There must have been about 60 emails and 60 different mixes. It was a real process. We fine-tuned it to be honest. It was something that took a lot of loving care.”

Abbey Road is one of the best studios you'll ever walk into.

Despite recording at Abbey Road numerous times before, the iconic London studio never ceases to amaze Ferguson:

“It’s one of the best studios you'll ever walk into,” she enthuses. “It's just the way it's built; it's so classy. It’s just got a feel about it. A lot of the pianos are the ones The Beatles used to play on, and Paul McCartney has still got a lot of instruments there, so it does have a bit of a magical feel. Every time I've gone and recorded there, we always come up with something productive. I don't know if it's all the history behind it for musicians when they go in there, but for whatever reason, you always feel happy with the song.”

Rodgers was so pleased with what he’s calling “a monster track” that he played it to friends in the studio, who burst into tears upon listening to it.

“I wasn't there when he did that but he messaged me and said he’d just played it to his friends, and he said they were crying! I thought, well, that's either a good sign or a bad sign, but I think it was a good sign!”

Back To The Music

The fast paced nature of a reality TV jumpstart saw Ferguson become disillusioned with the industry, and she credits Rodgers with helping her ignite that love for music again.

“Sometimes the creation of music is about hitting a target: ‘you need to get the album out at this time,’ and so you get one out, and then you need another album out. So it's just nice to be around people that yes – they make albums – but they're making music purely for fun. They could stay in the studio until one o'clock in the morning and the music might never be a hit, but they just thoroughly enjoy creating that music. It was a lightbulb moment.”

The way Rodgers speaks about music and the excitement he still has for it changed the way Ferguson looks at crafting songs, and her approach to work:

“I had lost that excitement because I had about two days off in nine years, and so all of a sudden I'm with Nile and I just got this spark back. It reminded me of what music was about. He brought that joy in music back for me and reminded me about keeping it real and keeping it about the people that are listening to it, and not the business – because sometimes the business can take over. So now when I'm creating music, it's just about the people and who’s going to listen to it. I'm not thinking ‘I need to hit this target’. I'm just like: this is a song. I like it. If you like it, great. If not, I enjoyed making it.”

Not that she wants to make music that isn’t good, or that people won’t enjoy:

“It's just now I'm going with the flow of music and I'm not trying to please anyone,” she clarifies. “The music is made with love, and I'm much happier as well. I think when you're happy you make good music. Well, sometimes if you're sad you can too,” she laughs.