Nottingham artist Harleighblu chats to Notion about telling stories through music, being part of the Paco Rabanne Fund, and hitting new milestones in 2022.
Harleighblu is a proud product of her environment. Immersed in Nottingham’s underground music scene from a young age, she absorbed the influence of some of the hottest soul and hip-hop acts the UK has to offer.
After playing around in music studios from a young age, Harleighblu cut her teeth on the city’s vibrant festival circuit. Her music reached new heights with the release of her 2019 single “Queeen Dem”, an empowering feminist track that paid tribute to the women who’ve inspired her growth as a person and artist. Fittingly, it proved to be pretty inspirational for her own fans, with the song sparking dance trends all over the world.
With her artistry firmly rooted in performing live, Harleighblu has played prestigious festivals such as Lollapalooza, and was all set for a big slot at the 2020 South by Southwest festival in Austin before it was cancelled due to COVID. She’s taken the pandemic as impetus to put even more building blocks down, recently collaborating with US artist Illa J to record a whole new album. The artist’s music is all about nurturing the confidence to be herself and chase these dreams, and as her status continues to grow, it’s certain that her confidence – and the great tunes it produces – will grow along with it.
As one of the latest recipients of the Paco Rabanne Fund (alongside London producer Mom Tudie and French-Senegalese artist anaiis), Harleighblu has been utilising the brand’s support to take her career to the next level, connecting with more collaborators and platforms to keep pushing the quality of her music higher and higher.
The Paco Rabanne Fund is the brand’s way of giving back to the artistic community with which it has always been intertwined. The pandemic brought hard times to an already challenging industry, and the initiative aims to knock down those barriers to give today’s most exciting talent the resources they deserve. From improving an artist’s recording set-up or touring capacity to facilitating their growth online, it’s all about being flexible to meet their individual needs. At its core, The Paco Rabanne Fund hopes to bring artists to a place of success that feels truly their own.
Before she dives into the year, we caught up with Harleighblu to discuss navigating her journey in music so far, how the Paco Rabanne Fund and My First Million Campaign have accelerated it, and her next steps from here.
How did the Nottingham music scene shape you as an artist?
It’s a special place. You wouldn’t think it in the middle of England, but we’ve got a lot of different live music styles coming out of Nottingham – from indie to super soulful, jazz to hip-hop. Nottingham helped shape me because it gave me the live experience that I think is so necessary as an artist. I’m very much a live artist as well. I’ve got a four-piece band and we go out as a UK jazz hip-hop set-up. I like seeing real musicians, real instruments, real instrumentation; I like to go out and play like that. Notts has been wicked for me in that way.
Why does music feel like the right place to share your love of storytelling?
It’s just natural to tell it through music. Cutting my teeth in the community recording studio in Notts, I’ve had studio time since I was seven. For me, that’s the natural setting you would want to tell your story.
Is telling stories through writing and performing cathartic for you?
Yeah. There’s this track I made called “Queeen Dem”. It was quite feminist – female empowerment, basically. I’ve always wanted to deep dive into how I feel about being a woman in this world and doing my thing. I wanted to uplift. When I released that song, it was more for me than anything.
Then when I actually did release it, there were so many people from across the world doing some crazy hip-hop. I’d get tags from Asia, South America, Russia, all over the world, from people dancing to this feminist anthem. I released that song because it’s something I felt I needed to do, and then so many people connected with it for their own reasons. The majority of the time you’re making music, you’re doing it for that reason. You’re doing it to get some shit off your chest. That’s how I write.
How does it feel to be part of the Paco Rabanne Fund programme?
It’s so exciting to be a part of that. I can just have fun because of them believing in me, believing in my vision and believing in what I’m about to do next. I’m totally honoured to be a part of it.
What qualities do you think have helped you get this far in your journey?
It’s a hard industry. There’s no point pretending it’s not. Getting a following online is hard, getting that following to buy tickets or invest enough in you to actually want to see you on the stage is all hard. And I do believe there is an element of luck to it. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I get on better when I’m just keeping it real and doing what I authentically want to do as an artist. When I’m running around trying to follow something or make a track that’s more on trend, that has caused me more problems.
I think you should always believe in your own special quality; you should always believe in what is authentically you. That will always make me stay true to my art and make the music that I should be making, not what other people are making. That makes you special; that makes everyone special. Every artist is going to have their unique take on the world, their unique expression, even their unique sound. I think it’s really important to not get lost in the madness, and know your own uniqueness and what you’re bringing to the table. Not everyone has to fuck with it, but if you believe, that’s going to put you in good stead.
What have you been up to since receiving the Paco Rabanne Fund, and how has it helped further your career?
At the start, I didn’t expect to get this. Paco Rabanne isn’t a small name, it’s a popping name. I was just so happy that someone believed in me, believed in the vision and believed in what I wanted to do. Pretty much straight away, I invested into something I really believe in. I flew out to Vegas in America and made an album with an artist called Illa J.
I’ve already got the album locked, which is mad, because it’s actually the best I’ve ever done. I can say that with my chest.
How important is it for brands to support emerging artists, especially in the wake of the pandemic?
I do think they are important. If a certain brand is aligning with who you are artistically, that can be powerful. We’ve seen it time and time and time again – there are so many examples as to how that can be powerful. It can solidify someone and it can sort someone out with revenue. The last few years have been crazy, so you kind of need that investment. What’s good about brands who invest in you, or just cosign you, is it makes other people believe. I might get a mad show because a promoter has seen that and they really rate Paco Rabanne as a brand. I think artists need as much support as they can get right now, and it’s a great way for artists to tap into a different audience.
Any advice you’d give people looking to break into the industry?
This is a hot take: I believe that artists should learn to play live. These days, there’s a lot of artists that are popping on social media and have never played a show. I find that crazy because I’ve only ever played live, so that’s where I’m coming from. I understand the power in promoting yourself online and everything being on social media; if you’ve got fans there, that’s fantastic. But if you can’t play a show, what are you doing? If you can only promote yourself in a really contrived setting with the angle of the cameras in a certain way, when you’ve mixed your vocals after the fact and everything is polished, can you sing live? Or can you rap live? Can you perform?
There’s power in that. There’s power in performance. There’s power in expressing yourself on the stage. It’s the original art form. In the 60s and 70s there were artists who only performed live, particularly Black artists. Back in the day, artists would have to be amazing to even get on stage, whereas now it’s so polished.
So my advice to anyone is learn how to perform live. Any gig you get in the beginning, you might get booed, you might get heckled, but that’s called earning your stripes and is what makes you a better performer. You learn how to captivate an audience, you learn how to bring an audience in, you learn how to chat to an audience. It’s so important.