'If you're really Stevie Wonder, sing Isn't She Lovely to me!' Alexandra Burke on the phone call that set her on the road to stardom…
22:22 GMT, 7 June 2012
New sound: Alexandra Burke has put her experiences since winning the X Factor to good use in her new album
Alexandra Burke has had a bumpy ride since winning The X Factor in 2008. The North London soul queen with the lung-bursting voice topped the charts with her first single, Hallelujah, and watched her debut album sell a million copies around the world.
Unlike so many of her talent show peers, her success was no flash in the pan, either. She chalked up two more No 1 hits before returning to The X Factor last October as a temporary judge when Kelly Rowland cried off sick.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Her second album, Heartbreak On Hold, was delayed for a year after she parted company with Simon Cowell’s label, Syco, while a romance with Spurs and England footballer Jermain Defoe recently came to an end.
But Alexandra, 23, is nothing if not a trouper, and she has poured her frustrations — personal and professional — into a new album that suggests her unhappy experiences have at least had some artistic benefit.
‘The things that have happened in the past year have affected me deeply,’ she says. ‘I’ve tried to please everybody, but I’ve decided to simply be myself — and be more open in my songs.’
Alexandra’s new album, while dominated by dance beats and euro-house rhythms, certainly finds the singer baring her soul. Recent single Elephant is about an affair with an older lover; This Love Will Survive, co-written by dance DJ Sonique, details ‘the ups and downs of a relationship’.
She admits her naivety has landed her in trouble in the past. So, have her romantic disappointments made her tougher and more circumspect It appears not. ‘I let my heart rule my head, even if that means I get burnt,’ she tells me.
Heartbreak On Hold, out this week, is a marked progression from her 2009 debut album, Overcome.
A move towards the dancefloor is exemplified by the raunchy Between The Sheets — ‘the sexiest number I’ve ever recorded’ — although her core strengths are still evident on the heartfelt ballad What Money Can’t Buy, written when she was just 18.
‘My newer songs owe more to Donna Summer and [New York dance diva] Robin S. I’ve taken some Nineties influences and updated them to fit my needs.’
The record certainly reiterates Burke’s intuitive grasp of classic dance music, something that gives her an edge over most talent show graduates.
Heartbreak On Hold: Alexandra Burke's intuitive grasp of classic dance music speaks volumes in her new album
Given her background — mum Melissa Bell was a member of London funk-reggae collective Soul II Soul — that is hardly surprising. When she was 12, she even came close to landing a record deal with Stevie Wonder.
The American superstar had telephoned her mum, but ended up chatting to Alexandra.
‘I thought it was somebody playing a prank, so I made him sing Isn’t She Lovely down the phone line. When he did, I realised it wasn’t a joke. Then he asked me to sing for him, so I did.
‘My mum, who’d been on tour, told me I was very cheeky, but I was actually very embarrassed about it. Stevie wanted to sign me, but my mum felt I was too young.’
Alexandra remains close to her mother, although a potential collaboration fell through when Melissa, who suffers from kidney problems, was too ill to attend the studio.
Young talent: Stevie Wonder, pictured performing at the Queen's Jubilee Concert in front of Buckingham Palace, wanted to sign Alexandra Burke before the X Factor had even been created
‘She’s my biggest influence. She wasn’t in the best of health a year ago, but she’s much stronger now. She uses a dialysis machine every day, and she’s an inspiring woman.’
Last year’s return to The X Factor, three years after beating JLS, is something Alexandra has mixed feelings about. She didn’t hold back in her opinions, likening one hopeful, Kitty Brucknell, to a cabaret singer, but incurred the wrath of some fans, who accused her of being too harsh.
‘Being a panellist was surreal, but not as scary as being a contestant,’ she laughs. ‘I got flak, but I wanted to be honest.’
Alexandra admits she would be tempted by another chance to mentor new acts, but only after she has promoted her own music — and an album that represents a true coming of age.
‘People find it hard to believe I’m genuinely happy,’ she says. ‘They’d rather see me as this massive diva. I once read that I demanded manuka honey, Evian water and M&Ms in my dressing room, but that isn’t me at all.’
Heartbreak On Hold is out now.