Here’s a nice little exclusive for you,” Paloma Faith leans into my voice recorder generously, grinning, “and you’ll like this because it’s about lactation!” We are huddled outside a café on a day that promised sun but delivered rain, and she pulls her jacket around her a bit tighter – on the back, in big letters it reads: IT’S ALL BOLLOCKS.
So, she says, a week ago she put a post on Instagram about her second baby’s aversion to breastfeeding, and minutes later got a call. “‘Don’t bin the milk!’ they said. Six months of milk, I’d been pumping since my baby was born, and a lactation consultant called and told me she’d pick it up, give it to a new mother who couldn’t breastfeed and was beside herself with worry. It was all marked, dated, so I put it in a freezer bag stuffed with ice packs and sent it off.” Does the woman know… “That it’s pop star milk? Nope!”
I first met Paloma 20 years ago. The child of a single mum from Hackney, she was finishing an MA in theatre direction and design, and working in a lingerie shop, and performing in a band, and it was obvious to everyone who came within six feet of her that she was going to be famous. It just wasn’t clear exactly how. She was a dancer then, and remembers one day at rehearsal the choreographer told everyone to go to lunch but asked her to stay. “Paloma,” he said, “you’re not that good, but it’s annoying, because my eye keeps being drawn to you.” She had something. She had something that didn’t quite have a name, a kind of magnetic joy. So, even though she wasn’t the best dancer, he said, he would make her the lead. But she’d have to work every hour she had, so she didn’t embarrass herself.
She took his advice, and never stopped. “We live in an age where mediocrity is celebrated, so I must be really good at it,” she cackles, her cockney accent buttery and familiar, a millennial Barbara Windsor. “I mean, I know loads of really talented people who don’t have careers like mine,” she gestures vaguely – three double platinum albums, Brit awards, a gaggle of top 10s, judge on talent show The Voice, film and telly actor, etc – but the difference is the work she puts in. “I leave parties early to carry on working, I have singing lessons, I have dialect coaching…” Which is why, she realises now, the pandemic was, “well, a bit of a relief”.
“I genuinely think that women in my industry, including me, have been working so hard, they haven’t been able to conceive. I know I couldn’t – I miscarried a lot.” It took six rounds of IVF for her to have her second baby. “And then everyone got pregnant during the lockdown. I think they had a bit more calm in their lives, a bit more time to have sex, a bit less stress. Jessie Ware, the Little Mix girls, Ellie Goulding – is that a coincidence? I doubt it.” It was when she had her first baby (there was much tabloid scandal because she decided not to announce its gender for a few months) that Paloma started talking about the sticky realities of being a working mother. “With birth,” she says, quiet for a second as she sips her tea, “comes a lot of death, doesn’t it? A feeling like you’re on the edge.”
A BBC documentary earlier this year, As I Am, followed her as she attempted to take her then-toddler on a world tour, and wrestled with struggles both specific and universal. “I don’t understand why I can’t have everything,” she tells the filmmaker between scenes about childcare budgets and crippling exhaustion, as her partner, an artist, recoils at her fame, and her management recoils at discussions of a second child. “If anyone can do it, it’s me.” By the end of the film it’s clear, no one can.
The reaction to the documentary was fast and often raw. “One woman stopped me in the street to say thank you, and she was like, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying. I just feel so understood.’” Lily Allen messaged her something similar, and the head of Sony Music called to apologise. “I don’t necessarily expect everyone to get it,” she stresses, “or be constantly understanding. I think that we as women also owe it to ourselves to try to articulate when we’re struggling. I know someone who’s got three kids, and had to homeschool them and work nights during lockdown, and was too scared to say to her boss that she had kids at all. It shouldn’t be this way!” Two things happened to her career when she became a mother. “Publicly, it suffered. When I look back at the trajectory I was on, I can see it went backwards. But actually, financially I did better than ever before. I became more efficient. It was literally making a nest for my little chicks, so I did what I had to do. Things that in the past I’d thought were too commercial, for example.”
She took a part as a series regular in Batman spin-off show Pennyworth, she did a car advert. “When I was growing up my mum worked till six, so every day after school I had an extracurricular activity, and that’s what I’m like now – I always have a side project, just in case my career ends tomorrow.” Her latest project, a line of bedding and wallpaper in maximalist designs, is affordable and quite delicious. “Everything becomes for your children. Even when I try to find my own happiness, it feels like it’s for them. I think working and having kids is particularly hard because there’s the layer of logistics, versus the layer of emotions. Do you get this – that you never feel… just OK?”
And beyond the logistics, with motherhood came a change in how she was perceived. “I’ve always been in denial of the emphasis on being sexy, but as soon as I had kids, I didn’t feel like I was sexually appealing any more, and suddenly I was less of a commodity. On social media, people comment things now like, ‘I think she’s hot, but it’s my guilty pleasure.’ What are you guilty about?” she huffs, camply. “Is it bad to fancy someone’s mum?”
When she first signed her record deal at 27, she lied about her age. It was when KT Tunstall was big, and, “Even the left-wing papers would say at 27, she was ‘coming late to music’. I decided I didn’t want that to be the only thing people spoke about, so I said I was 23. I’ve always looked a bit young – I was playing a 14-year-old in St Trinian’s at the time. So, yeah, I lied. And then, someone who obviously had very little else to do went to the public health records and submitted my birth certificate to Wikipedia.” She rolls her eyes. “The thing is, when I did it, I thought it was actually a feminist move!” She thought she’d do a gotcha when she became successful, spin out a wry comment on the media’s obsession with youth. “Eventually they stopped talking about my age in articles, but then I had kids and it’s back. Because now I’m 40, I’m a ‘middle-aged mum’. Instead of a Milf, which, of course, is what I really want to be.” Really? “I mean, I don’t want to sound desperate, Eva, but all I really want right now is for teenage boys to masturbate over my image.” And she cackles drainily.
Once, when she was working in the lingerie shop alone, a vile customer shouted at her. The person trying on underwear in the next changing room held her hand after he left, and asked about her life. She told Paloma she’d be a star. It was Beyoncé, of course. A couple of years later Prince decided to mentor her, insisting she join him to play at a secret gig on a housing estate, and surprising her by pulling a chair up to the side of the stage while she played a festival. Paloma’s showbiz stories are of the finest quality – organic, free-range, corn-fed. My favourite: at an awards ceremony she kept bumping into George Clooney in the loos and eventually asked him why he was in the toilets so regularly. “I told him, “I’ve got cystitis, what’s your excuse?’ And he replied, straight-faced, ‘I’m changing my colostomy bag.’”
Who are her fans today? “They’re multi-generational. My music is quite a family thing I think. They’re middle-everything. Aged, class, England,” she explains. It’s a bit surprising for me to see her audiences, having seen Paloma in her 20s, radical and dirty, performing at fetish club Torture Garden, dancing at burlesque nights, her laugh echoing across Soho at 3am. “Yeah, I suppose it is a bit unusual, but do you know what I think I am to them? Escapism.”
She finds her own kind of escapism today working in film. “There’s a lot more kindness and understanding about birth there, compared with the music world. The film world’s more advanced in terms of helping women work. In music, it feels hard. Though, it’s difficult to know how much pressure is coming from external sources, and how much is coming from me.”
Even before she had children, her attempts to do so impacted her in dark and uncomfortable ways. “When I miscarried on the set of Pennyworth during a fight scene, I remember being so glad to be at work, because I could just concentrate on something else. I didn’t tell anyone, just went off every little while to change my pad.” There was another time, filming The Voice, that she got into a small confrontation with fellow judge Boy George, and ran offset. “It was just some typically bitchy thing, but I couldn’t deal with the conflict – I had a panic attack. I blacked out. And because I was doing IVF at the time I was full of hormones; I had 14 eggs in me. Can you imagine what it feels like to have the equivalent of 14 periods at once? It was pretty intense.” She says even this with a grin.
In September she’ll tour her fifth album, Infinite Things, recorded in her basement during lockdown. Discussing it with Sony’s PR department, they asked what their marketing angle should be, “And I said, ‘Well, I taught myself how to produce, and did all my own vocal engineering, while looking after the kids and doing home schooling, so how about, ‘working mum’? They were like, ‘Hmm, everyone does that, it’s not an interesting angle.’” She snorts. “Everyone does that, right! And we shouldn’t be taking it for granted! We should be celebrating women for it. Who is it uninteresting to? The patriarchy! It’s a threat to their system, isn’t it?” So that’s the angle, despite what the press release says.
Pharrell Williams called Paloma a “perfect contradiction’, the combination of avant garde sensibilities, slick pop and mainstream popularity, the high glamour of her glittering showgirl persona and her daily updates on the pains of breastfeeding, love songs about the difficulties of a long-term relationship, the way she smiles through a story about miscarriage. “I’ve come to realise that when you work and also want a family there’s always conflict, and there’s always sacrifice. You can’t have it all. Me and my boyfriend jokily ask each other, ‘What are you going to have today, a shower or lunch?’” Today, she confirms, she showered. Thank you, I say. The last year has both bruised and boosted her, and as the August wind whips across the patio she sits up, steely now, and serious. “I’m not planning to change what I do,” she says. “But I am planning to change how I do it.”
Paloma Faith kicks off her UK wide tour on 16 September and Paloma Home by Paloma Faith is out now