We don't need to explain to you, musically, why "Uptown Funk!" became the biggest song of last year. The Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars collaboration was equal parts instant nostalgia and feel-good Top 40 pop with a massive frontman and giant hook attached; with those ingredients "Uptown Funk!" ended spending a near-record-breaking 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Imagine that same funk sound and riotous energy getting a fresh female voice; the idea is worth getting excited about, right? America tends to have an issue recognizing great British pop singers (see the underappreicated careers of Marina & The Diamonds, Jessie Ware, Paloma Faith and the Girls Aloud members), but we're here to tell you why you can't ignore Fleur East or her single "Sax."
The 28-year-old London native initially broke out on the U.K.'s The X Factor in 2005 as a member of the girl group Addictiv Ladies, before returning to the same show in 2014 as a soloist and placing as its runner-up. The singer sealed her fate as a modern-day Tina Turner with a breakout performance of "Uptown Funk!," the cover that left East's mentor and current label boss Simon Cowell speechless and ultimately became a pivotal point in her solo career.
"As soon as I heard 'Uptown Funk!' I thought, 'This song is incredible and it's something that I would want to do as an artist," East tells Fuse over the phone from L.A., boasting a warm, regal tone that occasionally cracks into a cackle. "It was pretty clear what direction I wanted to go in as soon as I came off the show. As soon as got into the studio, I was like 'Right, it needs to be up-tempo, it needs to have that old-school vibe, it needs to be something I can really perform to.'"
That mission resulted in the irresistible "Sax," which not only stands out for its horn-heavy energy, but for how effortlessly Fleur brings the song to life in its music video and in live performances.
"We all agreed that we wanted my personality to come across through the music," she explains of early inspiration. "One of the toughest challenges for me as well, because I love to perform and performance is such a big element of who I am as an artist, that my music needs to reflect it. I wanted people to hear the song and imagine what a performance would look like. And that's why 'Sax' is so high-energy."
Fellow Cowell act/crossover successes Little Mix apparently echoed that sentiment, too: "They heard 'Sax' before it was released and they were saying, 'Oh my gosh, your song's incredible. We wouldn't just say this, it's so good, you've got no problem.' They were really supportive of me from early on. They were always saying, 'Be bold! Do what you want to do!'"
“I would imagine myself sitting around a fire with my family saying, 'Oh yeah, I wanted to be a singer, but it didn't work out.' That image scared me.”
Similar words haunted East's professional psyche when Addictiv Ladies disbanded after they were the first act eliminated in 2005's X Factor U.K., with her group mates leaving music for individual acting and modeling careers. Fleur began working towards a journalism degree while doubling as a waitress and session vocalist, until her friends encouraged her to try out for The X Factor one more time for the 2014 season—this time, on her own terms.
"Looking back, I was like 'Oh I love being in a group, I think I'll always want to be in a group,'" she reflects. "I think it was an excuse for me because I wasn't as confident on my own. I needed that boost to do what I wanted to do, One thing for me that always kind of brought me back to it was: Think of yourself in 10 years time: If you give up, what are you going to say looking back at yourself in 10 years? I would imagine myself sitting around a fire with my family saying, 'Oh yeah, I wanted to be a singer, but it didn't work out.' I didn't want that to happen! That image scared me."
Despite being somewhat well-known in her native U.K. from X Factor and beyond, East now comes West as a completely fresh face to promote "Sax" and its forthcoming, accompanying LP Love, Sax and Flashbacks. The track is already a Top 5 hit in the U.K., and while she's moved onto a second single across the pond (the delicously synthy, Lionel Richie-recalling "More and More"), "Sax" will introduce Fleur to an incognizant American audience.
"It's interesting, because I guess in the U.K., I had the comfort blanket of being on the show," she explains of her upcoming promotions. "Coming over here, I'm just going to be a new artist and people are going to have to get to know me. It's going to be interesting, but I'm really confident in my music and who I am in an artist. I'm really excited."
All in all, Fleur's passion is fueled from wanting to see something more in pop performers.
"I know there's a lot of stigma attached to people that come from talent shows," she adds. "For me, it's a lot more than going on a talent show and doing this overnight. This has been a lifelong dream for me and something I've been I've been pursuing for years now... I was missing, as a music lover, that old-school sound and someone that really could put on a show and be entertainer. I was like, 'I need to be that person.' I feel like I've found my lane, I'm really excited to come out to the U.S. and show people what I have. I just want people to know that I'm serious and I'm ready," she says. What, exactly, is she ready for? "Ready to deliver," she says, cheekily changing "deliver" to a classic British "deliv-ah."
Get to know Fleur even better with our red-carpet interview with the singer at the 2016 BRITs: