There’s a reason that Speech Debelle’s debut album is called “Speech Therapy” and that’s because she speaks straight from the heart, with complete intimacy, as if only addressing one person. As if she expects the record never to be heard.
Perhaps in some way, that’s not an unreasonable assumption. The 26 year old South Londoner has been through the mill both before and since she started working on this set of recordings. The oldest song on here is called “Finish This Album”. It was the tune she first played when she visited Big Dada at the start of 2005. Its theme is that she has to hold it together, look after herself and try to get the record done, as if the act of finishing will somehow liberate her from the problems in her life. It’s both intimate and epic, moving back and forth between the personal and political, the mundane and the spiritual. It’s a journey acoss London and a journey across her life thus far. Speech is both young and old beyond her years. At the age of twenty six her fragile voice can make her sound like a teenager, but she’s packed in enough experience to last most people forever.
But now, finally, everything has come together and the record is here. “Speech Therapy” is a statement of intent. Speech doesn’t need to shout to make that clear. This is a record which sounds like no hip hop..........
Speech was at Big Dada one day when she was introduced to Wayne Lotek. As well as his own Lotek Hi-Fi project, Wayne has produced for Roots Manuva since “Brand New Second Hand”. Now he was living with a girl out in Melbourne and over for a month or so to visit his family. The two of them hit it off and decided to put down a track. The result was “Searching.” Acoustic guitar played by Wayne’s brother, the brushed drums syncopating her flow, it created the perfect atmosphere for Speech’s reflections on hostel life (which she experienced between 19 and 23 years of age) and the hustles involved in getting by.
It was pretty clear what had to be done. In November 2007 (the year she was officially signed), Speech flew out to Australia and there, with a bunch of live musicians Wayne knew locally, plus the additional producer Plutonic Lab (responsible for the clarinet-fanfares of single “The Key” as well as the widescreen drama of “Better Days”) laid down most of what would become “Speech Therapy”. She used the opportunity to pour out all kinds of emotions, to dwell on bad memories and fears, as well as funny incidents and sharp observations. “Daddy’s Little Girl” is a scathing attack on an absent father held together by organ and dub bass. “Working Weak” is a funny tale of office life in London. “Bad Boy” looks unflinchingly but also non-judgementally at the attitudes and outlooks of the yout’s Speech grew up knowing. “Wheels In Motion” takes a sociologist’s eye to life in London and beyond. “Buddy Love” is a funny, bouncing look at what happens when you start shagging your mate. The combination of microscopic detail with Big Picture pronouncement, dryly funny jokes with real soul-searching, is what makes Speech’s worldview so compelling.
On returning to London, while Lotek worked on editing down and mixing the sessions, Speech continued to make connections. Roots Manuva agreed to write and sing a beautifully melancholy chorus for “Wheels In Motion”. Micachu came through and matched him on “Better Days”. Mike Lindsay from Tunng heard some of the demos for the tracks and wanted to get involved. Over a number of sessions he and Speech came up with the sunny avant-pop of “Spinnin’” and the airy wistfulness of “Live & Learn”. Her old friend and sometime guitarist in her band, Dread Keys, fashioned an acoustic slow burner which was perfect for the break-up lyrics of “Go Then, Bye,” where Speech, like the greatest of soul divas, blazes half hurt and half defiant: “So take your X-Box and go ‘long”.
Since the release of “Speech Therapy,” slow burn has turned into forest fire, with a storm of critical acclaim culminating in her nomination for the internationally renowned Mercury Music Prize. In the last few weeks she has featured three times on the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, had her photo on the front page of The Independent, been interviewed for major features in the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times, appeared on BBC1’s breakfast telly couch and ensured that her rise from hostel dwelling and bad deeds to articulate, honest and abrupt pop star has become the biggest story of the Mercury season.
Amid all the hype, it’s worth going back to the record and in particular the very last track, the title track as it happens. It’s this, perhaps, which sums up what Speech is all about better than anything else she has written, sums up why the reaction to her music has been so strong, so heartfelt: “I’ve made some mistakes in this life I’m not proud of, see?/ But I hope that doesn’t mean now I’m trying it will be harder for me/ I’ve been hurt and it’s not an excuse but it’s a reason/ It’s like some things happen in life for a lifetime or a season/ And I’m just now learning how this world really works/ It’s a law that says you get back what you put forth.” Speech Debelle is putting forth everything – her thoughts, beliefs, mistakes, love, anguish, humour. Now she’s beginning to get it back.
“If you ask us, Speech has got the best shot of them all at taking home the award in September” - Time Out
“Like Elbow’s Guy Garvey, like Aidan Moffat, Kele Okereke, Alex Turner, Jamie T, Emmy The Great, Roots Manuva and Jarvis Cocker, she can make something arresting out of everyday words, where so many others merely shuffle them into cliché.” – The Sunday Times
“The inclsuion of Speech Debelle’s debut album in this week’s Mercury Prize nominations confirms the arrival of a great new British talent.” – The Daily Mirror
“Though the opening odds are long it will become a front runner in the days leading up to the Awards” – The Times
“Debelle’s troubled back story and glowing comparisons with Lauryn Hill make her the most intriguing candidate” – The Independent
“Is she a Mercury winner? Very possibly. My tenner’s heading her way at William Hill anyway” – Evening Standard
“That’s great isn’t it? All the bookies are getting themselves in a twist and a spin over the Mercury Music Prize. Florence and the Machine are frontrunners at the moment, obviously, but Speech Debelle could climb that, I think… just a prediction.” – Zane Lowe, Radio 1, 28.07.09
“Personally I’m putting a quiet pound on Speech Debelle.” – The Guardian