“My mum only just about knew who Michael Jackson was,” shares RnB singer Debbie backstage at All Points East. “My parents weren’t just religious; they were very not of this world.” It’s a startling revelation, for sure, but delivered so matter-of-factly that it somehow seems even more incomprehensible hearing it first-hand in the flesh.
We are speaking on Stormzy’s curated ‘This Is What We Mean Day’. Later, the 23-year-old will join the rap superstar as he tears up the stage amid the sort of the torrential downpour that you’d associate with an Old Testament Bible story or a documentary looking at high-season precipitation in the Amazon rainforest. It will nevertheless be a triumphant set, with Debbie reprising her soulful contributions to ‘Firebabe’ and ‘Give It To The Water’ from Stormzy’s acclaimed third album, This Is What I Mean.
Right now, however, the sun is winning the war as we nestle into two cushioned wicker chairs and discuss the singer’s unusual upbringing. Debbie is warm and friendly, composed and collected, having not long delivered an enchanting main stage set of her own. And, contrary to the impression she’s just given, her roots were not in some far-flung Idaho excommunicated from pop culture. She and her sister were raised in south-east London; their dad, a reverend, their mother, a pastor and a teacher.
“Anything to do with pop or music culture, they knew nothing about… they lived under a rock [when it came to that],” she continues, confirming that neither parent had any interest in music whatsoever. The sole exception was gospel. Debbie recalls one rare day when her mother drove both daughters to a Christian CD shop, allowing them to “pick one CD each”. “I picked Mary Mary and my sister picked Kirk Franklin,” she remembers fondly. “And we just listened to those two CDs back-to-back-to-back!”
Such a strict childhood meant that even the most venerable stars remained unknown until her late teens. Radio was a vital lifeline, plugging in her knowledge gaps, so too the time spent with her friends when she “snuck out”. Then there was school: “Sixth form is when I really started to connect to music,” she recalls, citing Aretha Franklin as the first to make an impression. “She was the first person I became obsessed with. I remember going into school and saying, ‘Has anyone heard of Aretha Franklin?’ And everyone was like, ‘Er, yes!’.” She shakes her head, smiling at the memory. “Whitney [Houston] came next, while I didn’t even discover Lauryn Hill until I was 19.”
Debbie started writing songs during this fertile period of musical discovery. The lyrics tumbled out of her. Several documented conflict that she’d witnessed at home, whilst others worked through growing pains and the angst of a young adult making sense of the world. “I kind of just close my eyes and let it flow,” she says of a writing process that continues to this day. “I don’t really know what happens when I do it. I think because I’ve got ADHD, I’m just like [mimics constant whirring], and it just comes out on paper!”
During the pandemic, Debbie attracted the attention of London record label, 0207 Def Jam. Her debut single, ‘Is This Real Love?’, set out the singer’s stall. It was a dose of retro-glazed RnB, oven-baked in heartache and hard times, backed by acoustic guitars and the sort of staccato arpeggios that TLC fans will fondly recall. Subsequent singles, such as ‘Stay’ and ‘Cousin’s Car’, have followed a similar course.
To her surprise, word caught Debbie’s ear that Stormzy was an admirer of her music: “We had a mutual A&R guy, Alec, who played Stormz some of my music, and [I was told] he loved it. And so, he asked if I’d come in for a session. That became our first meeting and the start of our journey.”
Asked whether she had felt nervous when this opportunity arose, her eyes light up. “Oh, my God, yeah!” she exclaims. “Obviously, my ambitions were big when I was writing these songs, but never quite that big! So, when they said, ‘Stormzy wants to do a session [with you]: be ready, tonight’, I was, like, ‘errr, okay!’ she enthuses. “But it went really well. He was lovely.” In that first session, they wrote ‘Give it to the Water’ together, which closes out This Is What I Mean. It’s a relationship that has more miles in it, that’s for sure.
Nevertheless, for all the fortuity that’s landed on Debbie’s lap of late, she’s not had it easy. She may be tender of years, but both parents have not long passed away. And, for all the frustrations of her childhood, she takes comfort in knowing that her mother had given a blessing-of-sorts shortly before she passed: “My mum kind of knew [about my career] before she passed away, and she was quite happy about it,” she says.
She has also had to deal with romantic pain and insecurities. The latter is the focus of upcoming single ‘I’m Different’. While she prides herself on personal songs (“I feel like what makes my music special is the storytelling and the vulnerabilities,” she says), this was exceptionally hard. “I went home and cried like a baby [after I recorded that],” she says, wincing slightly at the memory.
The song came following a “break” with songwriting – something she likes to do from time to time. “I like to take breaks from songwriting, because you can’t write unless you’ve got something to say, and you’ve got to live to write,” she says. Having done a “bit of living”, as she calls it, Debbie confronted some awkward home truths: “I realised I am very insecure.”
“At first, I didn’t want to write about [my insecurities] because it’s a bit embarrassing to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this about myself, and I don’t like that about myself’ – especially in front of two grown men (her producers). I really didn’t want to. But then I told myself I just needed to do it, and so I did. It was quite emotional,” she says, relief palpable even now. “When I listen to that song, it reminds me of the mindset I need to have to keep myself above the water.”
Debbie’s head may struggle to keep above the water at times, but her radiant RnB provides soul-soothing succour for listeners sharing her pain, clamouring for an empathetic voice. And as for her future? “I feel like our jobs become our lives – especially in London. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to prioritise happiness and contentment within myself and the people around me. That will come first and whatever happens will happen around that.”
A wise head upon young shoulders, Debbie’s going her own way and she’s doing just fine.