Like so many of her countrymen before her, the British pop singer Paloma Faith is determined to conquer America. However, like fewer of them, she arrives on our shores with a ringing endorsement from Satan.
"I was the devil's girlfriend, which is the perfect role for me," Faith explains dryly to Rolling Stone of her most high-profile acting role to date, opposite Tom Waits in Terry Gilliam's 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. For it, the ardent Waits fan spent hours rehearsing lines with him on-set – and, later, shielding him from the clamor of Hollywood. "Tom is quite shy and understated. He was hiding behind me at the premiere, saying" – and this she delivers in an impeccably gravelly impersonation – "'You seem to know what you're doing in these situations.'"
Faith is banking on these media-savvy charms to translate her fame beyond the United Kingdom, where the 26-year-old is a bona fide pop star with two hit records and increasing notoriety. Her recently released second album, Fall to Grace, peaked at Number Two on the charts; its slickly danceable yet confessional pop was produced by the heavy-hitters Nellee Hooper (Madonna, Massive Attack) and Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran) and spawned a hit single in "Picking Up the Pieces," a tortured ballad about loving someone whose heart is still mending from a past relationship. Last month, the Hackney, London native ran with the Olympic torch while clad in stilettos and an artfully deconstructed jumpsuit (to the chagrin of the conservative press); before that, she was asked to perform for the Prime Minister and declined. Her impeccably arranged Fifties style, inspired by the retro-soul throatiness of her voice and her idol Etta James, is emulated in trendy circles, from her platinum-streaked pompadour to the ornate hourglasses dresses and six-inch heels on her wispy frame.
Come fall, the gregarious Faith is planning to release Fall to Grace in the United States – and as she tells Rolling Stone over tea at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "America is a huge priority." She is planning a cross-country headlining tour following the release of lead single "Picking Up the Pieces," and she is eager for the new challenge. "I've succeeded beyond my expectations in the U.K., but every time you climb to the top of the ladder, you see a new ladder. I feel like America is my new ladder."
Faith says her ambition to charm the States came courtesy of none other than Prince, who recruited her for his two-day NPG Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark last summer. It was the first time Faith had performed with international artists, and also the first time she felt the confidence to court a wider audience.
"I saw how much I have to up my game to get to the next stage . . . and Prince is a brilliant teacher for a musical education," she enthuses. "He said that he thought I should watch as much footage of my performances as I could, see what I thought I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. And he said that it was silly to put myself down – but that's a very British thing to do, 'cause I was constantly telling him how rubbish I was."
The singer's onstage showmanship – all brassy banter, glittering costumes and full-tilt belting – belies this very English modesty, the product of her vagabond roots. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in northeast London, Paloma Faith Blomfield trained to become a professional dancer while she also sang in a rockabilly band and did solo cabaret performances. In college, she changed course entirely, earning a master's degree in set design and direction while eking out a living as a magician's assistant, a nude model, a performer in fetish clubs and a lingerie saleswoman.
By age 21, her myriad performances around London had caught the attention of a manager and then Sony Records, who encouraged her to write the original material that would become her 2009 platinum debut Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?, which earned her a BRIT Award nomination for British Female Solo Artist.
"My life's a fairy tale, really, when you read it on paper. It seems fictional," she is quick to admit at the MoMA. "I still feel like a lot of that's been really helpful in my career. It's why it's all homegrown – I write all the songs, but beyond that, do all the visuals . . . It's all collaborative [with a creative team], but everything starts from me, so it seems unusual."
While Faith's profile may rise dramatically in America come fall, her burgeoning fame has not come without its tough lessons. She cites as one such lesson Chaka Khan's set at the NPG Festival, which she was happily watching offstage when the funk queen sent her assistant over Faith with a microphone. "He said, 'Chaka would like you to sing this song,' and it was 'I'm Every Woman,'" Faith recalls with a small groan. "He pushed me onstage in front of 40,000 people and I was like, 'I don't really know the words,' and he's like, 'Nobody says no to Chaka.' I had to ad-lib all over the place . . . [At least] I didn't look like a bad singer, I just looked like a singer who didn't know the song."
Afterward, Faith ran backstage and burst into tears, calling her mother to wail, 'I think they've realized that I'm useless!'" However, Khan was more encouraging. "She put her arm around me and said, 'You can sing, girl, but you really need to learn this song!'"
Faith sighs and gives a good-natured smirk. "That's a lesson in America – before you go play on the bill with the greats, be sure you know at least five of their songs."