Cream of the pop
Bequiffed songstress Spark, 19, has lit up the music world with her ballsy charisma and cocky attitude, but fame wasn’t handed to her on a plate, the BRIT school graduate tells Ailbhe Malone
Spark has just come off stage from performing on the NME Awards tour, and enters her dressing room. Opening the fridge and offering a beer, she apologises in advance about the pong in the room.
"Sorry, this whole place smells of hairspray fumes! I always get called Elvis because of my hair!" It's a mighty quiff, to be sure. But, based on her stage performance and cocky attitude, I mention that Danny Zuko would be a better fit. Delighted, she raises her hand for a high five. "I'm taking that! The Danny Zuko of the East End -- yes, I like that!"
The diminutive 19-year-old is wearing denim hotpants, a leather jacket and high-heeled hiking boots -- along with some hefty gold earrings. Tugging at the earrings, she giggles, "These aren't really gold -- I just got them down the market. They turn bronze after, like, two days, they're so cheap!"
Her sleeves rolled up, her signature heart and key tattoo is clearly visible. Smiling, she explains the background to the ink. "I got the tattoo done the day after I signed my record deal. It represents a lot -- it represents a whole moment in time. It represents one of my lyrics 'locked in my heart'.
"And it's about my manager -- she's my best friend. It's very, very special. I don't know if I'm going to get any more. I'm either going to get loads, or just keep this one. I always think, 'I'm going to be a grandma with this -- do I want it?' But this means a lot to me, and I haven't regretted it for a second."
A graduate of the BRIT School for Performing Arts in south London (past pupils: Amy Winehouse, Katie Melua), Spark -- real name Jess Morgan -- is quick to defend her alma mater from the off. All glottal stops and dropped 'h's, she's a London girl since birth, and spent four hours each day travelling from her home in Walthamstow, east London, to the school in Croydon.
"It wasn't and isn't and never has been any kind of fame academy. It's not a place where you go and just become a pop star. The head of Universal doesn't come in and pick his top five every year. You don't get anything handed to you. I went there at 16, and did additional A Levels in Theatre Studies and English Lit. So I did, like, five A Levels.
"It's not that you just go and sing all day. And to get your qualification, you have to work f**king hard. And I did. So I walked out with a triple distinction.
"I mean, I could have done the exact same course in Walthamstow, and been in a class full of half-assed people who didn't give a f**k. And teachers that want to teach you about African drums, written from a textbook. Or, I could go to BRIT, where you're in a class full of really talented people who want to be there, and have teachers who have been to Africa and learnt to play the drums with proper training."
In fact, it was through a chance performance while at BRIT that Spark found her direction. She launches into an another anecdote without hesitation, barely pausing for breath. "I got asked to sing Wuthering Heights, and I said 'no'. And my class were like, 'please, please try it'. And I went home at the weekend, and I tried it, and it worked. I did the whole thing -- it was a massive success. The reaction that I got made me think 'why am I sitting here with a guitar?' It made me nervous to do that. I wasn't being sick in the toilet before that, but I was like 'argh'. If I was to sit here and play a song for you now on the guitar, I could do that and not feel a single nerve -- I'd feel like I was in my living room. But I wouldn't feel like I was an artist. I don't want to feel like I'm in my living room."
Her charisma and gusto is hard to ignore. Ballsy, confident and gifted with a voice that can swoop from tender ballad to brash dubstep in a flash, she'd be the apple of anyone's eye. It was this charisma that landed her a slot supporting Marina and the Diamonds on her UK tour -- without even a live show of her own to her name.
Spark still seems amazed by her luck. "I had one gig before I went on tour with Marina. It was in Brighton, for about 10 people. I think it was put there to see if I could actually go on tour. The tour was already confirmed before I played the gig -- so that's some faith!"
What's even more amazing is that the day before Spark went on tour was her last day in secondary school. "I had my last performance at BRIT the night before I went on tour. So I tried to go home, but I missed the last train, so I had to stay with my friend Ashley.
"I had to go back to BRIT, and I'd already said my tearful goodbyes, so I was so sad and so happy as well. So I had to go back and be, like, 'I've missed the last train'. So I stayed at his house, and he got up at, like, half five in the morning to drop me at the station. I had to go home, have a shower, get my stuff -- and then go on tour! From 10 people, to 800 people -- it was mad."
The support slot was a success, and two months later in July 2010, Spark released her debut single Shut Out the Moon on indie label Pure Groove. In October, follow-up Revolving came out on another indie label -- the impeccable Neon Gold. Now signed to Warner Bros, she has experienced life on both sides of the major label divide.
She's unsure what the future holds for artists and record labels both, but is optimistic. "I think that we're in a different age of music, where you can have your own studio in your house, and record releasable-quality tracks in your living room if you want to. People have the capability to do that, and the equipment to do so.
"And obviously illegal downloading and all that bullshit. So I can't say that small labels are the way forward -- because so many of them are owned by majors, but I completely respect that. You build yourself up through cool little releases, get yourself known -- and then you have big backing from a major. It's a good method. It's not too full-on; you don't feel like you're getting lost."
Crave is released on March 11
Day & Night