Exclusive: Jessica Agombar on growing up in Bow, and carving her own lane in pop
In the week her new Roll Deep collaboration was released, we find out why Jess isn't your average pop singer...
Jessica Agombar raised eyebrows earlier this summer when her official debut single ‘Bam Bam’ was unveiled sampling the Roll Deep classic ‘When I’m ‘Ere’. Grime is not a genre you’d conventionally see influencing a singer, but as we learned from our recent chat with Jessica, who was raised in Bow – the birthplace of grime – it’s always been a part of her fabric.
“Growing up, I came home from school and did my homework. I wasn’t allowed out, so I just listened to pirate radio stations and music. Now, it is still something I follow but I love going back and listening to Boy In Da Corner because it still sounds current.”
Jessica also name-checks Ghetts and Wiley when we talk about grime, and they stand alongside the likes of Sean Paul and singers from Britney Spears to Lauryn Hill among her favourite artists, creating quite the musical melting pot. “I put all of my influences from my family and the culture I’ve been brought up in, East London, grime and dancehall all into my commercial pop music,” she told us. Commercial pop music is something Jessica Agombar (she pronounces ‘Aggom-barr’) has already experienced relative success with, having reached the UK top ten singles in early 2011 as part of the girl group Parade – she was signed into the group after her solo songs were spotted online – but it wasn’t necessarily in the way she’d like to have done it, or at least do so again.
“Parade was a detour. I had no contact within the music industry, so for me as a kid from Bow being offered a major record deal to join a group and fly to LA to make an album when I’ve not got one contact? I was like ‘sick, I’ll definitely be up for this’. I love performing, so that was a no-brainer for me. It was just a bit of a crash course in not what to do, how to behave and treat people, how to work with people, keep contacts and build relationships in the industry.”
Jessica moved in with the other five Parade girls to a seven-bedroom house in Chelsea – “a lunatic asylum” – staying there for a whirlwind year or so that included an album on the appropriately named Asylum Records and supporting the likes of Shakira, Westlife and The Wanted at live shows. Despite having to put personal ideas and ambitions of her sound aside, Jessica was still fully committed to the success of the group but was bemused to find this wasn’t a commitment shared by all involved.
“I made sure I was in every single A&R meeting, there were five of us but I kind of fronted it business-wise. Two of us would go into every accountant, lawyer and label meeting, while some of the girls just enjoyed turning up to the red carpet events. If I hadn’t had that experience then I wouldn’t have the lyrical content for what I’m writing about now, and I wouldn’t have the nous for the business side either, which is really the whole machine behind an artist.”
Parade were dropped after their first album, and split for good just over a year later. “Let’s be frank, it felt like a massive weight off my shoulders,” she said. “I thought ‘oh my days, now I can go and write what the f*ck I wanna write, talk about whatever I wanna talk about on a song, and do music that my mates wanna rep.”
The latter point is significant to Jessica, who immediately took to the studio after the split, and played a big part in the sound of ‘Bam Bam’. “For this one, it was for my mates to respect my artistry. I see them as cool so if they like it, I know it’s good. One of my best mates is [Capital Xtra’s] DJ Charlezy, but he would not for love or money tweet about Parade, and I wouldn’t expect him to! With ‘Bam Bam’, he was like ‘I can cosign this,’ and that’s when things started turning.”
‘Bam Bam’ gathered attention beyond her friends, too, and when members of Roll Deep heard the song, they were keen to do a remix. ‘Bam Bam Pt.2’ features Scratchy (“the best white MC ever”) and Manga from the collective, spraying bars alongside 140 first-timer Jess, who was instructed to lay her verse down first in the studio.
“The whole of Roll Deep was there, near enough – even Target’s barber turned up – so I’m thinking ‘oh right, no pressure’. I knew I couldn’t get up on the mic and start talking like a yardie or some wannabe, so I started talking about what I’ve lived. Manga thought I was a liar! He said ‘you must have listened to so much grime as a kid, because your skips and your timing were effortless.’ I did it in one take, because it was so passionate. After that, we went back to the drawing board because they wanted to write on the same concept, and I thought ‘this is it, this is what I wanted to create’.”
The celebration of East London, her home again post-Parade, is a subject we feel Jessica could wax lyrical on forever, be that in music or conversation. It’s a place she wouldn’t swap for the world, and enjoys its changing landscape: “I spent a lot of time on Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane when it wasn’t trendy at all and just a pure shithole. For me, East London ain’t cool, trendy Shoreditch. East London to me is going down the market, being in Bow, being on the estate and being in Brick Lane back when it was just like count-the-prostitute time (laughs). Now it’s changed for the good, it’s a melting point of everyone and I think that’s only a good thing because it was such a poor part of London but now everybody wants to be here.”
‘Bam Bam Pt.2’ was premiered by Mistajam on his BBC Radio 1Xtra show, and having made the station’s daytime playlist soon after, expectations have been raised for Jessica’s next release, who is making good use of her Parade experiences now as an independent artist with plenty of plans. “I wanna make sure I’ve got not only the next big radio single (which I feel I have got) but an actual album,” she said. “There’s no point me coming with all this stuff is my main aim is not to create something that’s got a message and means something.”
One of the biggest lessons Jessica has learned in her career so far is to “always stick with your gut,” which she has had the freedom to do now, and cites singers such as Katy B and more recently Jessie Ware as examples of artists that have an unmistakable sound. “If you listen to [Jessie Ware’s] new record and tracks like ‘Tough Love’ or ‘Say You Love Me’, she can’t give those records to Katy Perry, because that’s her personified. I’m not trying to write a record that Rita Ora or Jessie can sing, because I want to write something that can only be a Jessica Agombar record.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, just completely carving my own lane with pop that’s influenced by grime, dancehall and the East End, because I don’t know if anyone else could try that. If they could, they’re probably one of my mates!”