TERRI WALKER is trying to convince me that her barely stifled yawns are due to her heavy schedule over the last few weeks and have absolutely nothing to do with my interview questions.
“This month has been kinda crazy,” she says with a sigh as she relaxes into a sofa at her management’s offices in Shepherds Bush, “but you know, it’s worth it.”
Walker’s debut album, Untitled, was among the nominated albums for last month’s Mercury Music Prize, and although Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner eventually won the £20,000 prize money, the exposure the competition afforded Walker has given her profile a big boost. She’s a busy girl.
“I’m glad Dizzee won,” she says. “He’s young, he’s giving hope to those kids out there that feel they have to beat someone up or shoot someone in order to get ahead in life. It’s not about the bling-bling. He did it up in his little studio and when he accepted that award, it really touched me. I nearly cried. He deserved it.”
Terri Walker deserves her day in the sun too. Although at the time of going to press it remains to be seen whether she will have any success at the MOBO awards – she was nominated in no less than four categories – whatever happens, Untitled is one of the most assured and accomplished debut albums to have emerged from the British soul scene in years.
Receiving four MOBO award nominations is, she admits, “exciting” but she doesn’t think she has much chance against the more radio-friendly likes of Mis-Teeq and Big Brovaz.
“It’s like, Terri Walker? Who’s that? It’s a big honour for me to be nominated, trust me, when I heard I was like, four nominations? Finally, what we’ve been doing has paid off. But I don’t think we’re gonna win anything.”
It seems like big things are starting to happen. But it’s never that easy for British soul artists. In recent years, only a handful – Sade, Soul II Soul, maybe Incognito – have managed to move on from their success in the UK and actually build anything like a fan base in the US. The truth is, the vast majority of UK soul acts have a hard enough job getting heard outside of the soul scene in the UK, never mind the rest of the world.
You could probably say the same about home-grown UK hip hop – but maybe Dizzee Rascal will change all that?
Mercury and MOBO awards notwithstanding, Walker still struggles to get her music onto the playlists of the UK’s notoriously conservative and un-adventurous radio stations.
“It’s very difficult to get into the mainstream over here,” she says with a shrug. “You have to sell your soul, man. You really have to compromise and I don’t think that’s right. You shouldn’t have to do that. I love England but England’s a tough place to conquer. It’s really hard.”
Walker can offer a unique perspective on the UK, having moved to Regensberg in Bavaria when her mother married her step-father 20 years ago.
“I was only four, so it didn’t really affect me,” she remembers. “You’re that young, you don’t really know what’s going on. I reckon if I’d gone there when I was 16 or something, it would have completely floored me. If you don’t speak the language, it’s quite difficult.”
“People think, Germany: racism, but it’s not like that at all. I grew up in Germany and in all the time I lived there, I had just one comment from one old lady. Germany is actually very diverse. They love black music over there and they’re very, very friendly. It’s a fun country, even though people don’t always see it like that.”
Walker even goes so far as to eulogise her adopted home on her album, with a track called Deutschland, appropriately enough.
“It’s just me saying to Germany, thank you for the years I had with you, because Germany basically moulded me into the person that I am,” explains Walker earnestly. She shakes her head. “I got to see so many different cultures and I got to grow up with them. And speaking another language opened up new doors for me.”
With her easy laugh and ready smile, it’s tempting to see Walker as some happy-go-lucky innocent floating through life, and while she’s certainly no ball-breaking diva, every so often you catch a glimpse of burnished steel behind the easy going manner.
At the age of 12, for example, she decided that she wanted to return to London to be with her father’s large extended family (“My dad was a Jamaica,” she says with a raucous laugh. “Says it all, doesn’t it?”). Her mother agreed but only if she attended boarding school – “because if you stay with those kids you’re just going to be out on the road getting up to badness. I was like, fair enough.”
Encouraged, she is faintly embarrassed to admit now, by Enid Blyton tales of jolly japes and midnight feasts, the self-confessed tomboy Chanelle Gstettenbauer thrived at the all-girl school, excelling both in the classroom and on the sports field. Walker also began to develop her distinctive singing voice at boarding school, honing her natural talent with the rigor and discipline of opera training.
She began to attend the Italia Conti stage school at the age of 17, alongside Lee Ryan of Blue (“He’s a very good singer”) and Abs from 5ive (“That’s the way he actually talks, bless him”) and a whole host of future stars of The Bill and Hollyoaks. Walker couldn’t stand the place – “It wasn’t my cup of tea at all” – and left after the end of her first year.
Walker quickly began to get session work on the burgeoning UK garage scene before signing to Def Soul a couple of years ago. A couple of brilliant singles (Guess You Didn’t Love Me and Ching Ching), one fantastic album and a few award nominations later, we’re here today.
The last couple of years have been a bit of a whirlwind. And Walker is enjoying every minute of it.
She’s already started work on her new album (“I’m not telling you anything about it yet”) and it’s obvious that the 24-year-old Londoner simply cannot wait to take her music to the US, where she feels it would sit easily alongside the back to basics nu-soul of people like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.
“We’re waiting for things to happen over here before we go over there,” she says, more weary than impatient, “because you can’t really go over there half-heartedly. You’ve got to work your arse off. Look at Floetry – they’ve worked so hard over there but they’re completely unknown over here, even though they’ve done songs for Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake.”
“My record company said to me, we don’t want you to change what you do or what you’re all about, we just want more club songs and more hits, which is fair enough. We can do that.”
Walker’s understated, low-key style – “I’m wearing a pair of 30 quid jeans today” – is in stark contrast to the high-end glam of J-Lo or Beyoncé.
Does she ever feel any pressure to get a bit more bootylicious?
“Do you know something? Personally, as long as you don’t tell me to change my music, I don’t care. My music is me. I sometimes go to clubs and I might wear a short skirt or whatever – for me, showing off your booty isn’t such a big deal.
“For instance, look at Beyoncé. The girl can sing and she looks great. If she shows her booty, she’d allowed to, she’s got the talent. I think it’s bad when you haven’t got the talent, when you have to show some flesh for people to buy your records. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not real.
“So to me, that doesn’t really phase me. If people were telling me to compromise my music, well, that would piss me off. Definitely.”
[This a slightly reworked version of an interview originally published by the Big Issue in the North in September 2003]
After all that, six years later, Terri Walker seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Both her old official website and her old label website are offline, and although there are a fews references on MySpace – she worked with FirstLove Music on a track called Rice & Peas, she’s had something to do with an album by Danish pop princess Nabiha and did a track called Love At First Sight with ‘funky house’ producer Diamond – it’s getting on for two years since she’s been heard of.
Happily, it turns out that Terri Walker is no more and independent music professional Chanelle Gstettenbauer is alive and well and living in Southall. She says that we should listen out for her “two main projects”, Belle-Vue and The Champagne Flutes. I’m looking forward to it.