“Sorry, the voicemail inbox of the person you are calling is full. Please try again later.” A frustrating message at the best of times, but when you’re trying to get hold of someone for an interview even more so. Then again, it is only a couple of days since Speech Debelle emerged as the surprise winner of the 2009 Mercury Music Prize with her Speech Therapy album so maybe it’s only to be expected. We call back and discover the reason for our inability to make contact – she was asleep. To be frank, she sounds knackered and we feel bad for disturbing her. Such is the way of her life at the moment and, as she mumbles through our first few questions, she starts to come to round.
You’ve said that you personally weren’t too surprised to win the Mercury. Did you feel that people got what the record was about from the off?
Yeah, the people who heard it did anyway. It was just that not a lot of people heard it. There are no straight pop songs on the record so it was difficult to get played on daytime radio. We didn’t have much money for marketing so it was just put out there, like a teardrop in the ocean. No-one really knew it existed.
A label like Big Dada must have been patient though, they know what’s involved with promoting a UK hip-hop record more than most?
From their point of view it was going to have to speak for itself. I know people considered it to be one kind of record but I did believe it could go on to sell a lot of copies on its own.
You’ve attracted a lot of criticism, does that get to you personally?
Everybody’s going to have something to complain about, no-one’s happy all the time. It’s not real. People have complained that I don’t sound like a real rapper. People have opinions which is good, it’s just the Internet means they can share them with other people a lot more easily.
We saw you reacted to Mike Skinner’s dig at you on Twitter, do you feel the need to respond to people directly?
Sometimes I do, it depends on the kind of comment. If it’s someone like Mike Skinner then I’ll react because he’s someone who should know better. It was a strange comment, slightly nondescript but still enough to make a point and make me put him straight every time I see him. Twitter doesn’t make people look good, it just makes them say things that’ll upset somebody. Lily Allen was a case in point when she was upset about not being nominated.
You mention your background and that has drawn a lot of attention, from those who claim you’re not ‘real’ enough and then the mainstream media who seem desperate to make out that you were living rough and forced to turn to crime. Does that depress you that an artist like yourself can only be dealt with in those terms?
That’s easier for some people to digest. Before this happened I was having a conversation with my A&R and saying ‘I’m a black artist coming out of the UK, the media are going to look for a story like that.’ Some people can’t comprehend that I grew up in a middle class background. They ask me if it was tough and the only reason it was was because I was used to having everything that I wanted. Then I had to look after myself, which could happen to anyone at any point. You have to learn to manage your money and what you have. I mention being in a hostel once on one song on the album but all I hear is that I was homeless and living on the streets, which I wasn’t. It’s just bullshit.
Speech Debelle plays the Academy in Dublin this Saturday 3rd October. A few tickets are left but hurry, hurry, hurry…