Delilah is the future sound of London

The 21-year-old singer is part of a new generation of young British talent, happy to join underground beats with pop ideas and soulful exuberance.

Delilah performing in London in February this year. Hayley Madden / Redferns
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As anyone attempting to make a living as an artist will know, it's not a profession that tends to reassure parents. The worried phrase "But when are you going to get a proper job, darling?" has echoed through the minds of millions of musicians, artists, actors and other assorted itinerant creative types.

So when 21-year-old London singer Paloma Stoecker, aka Delilah, finally got her all-important breakthrough, she might have expected parental relief. Not a bit of it: "When I told my mum I was going to sign a major label deal, she was like … really?" Delilah laughs as she goes on to explain.

"She said, do it independently, do it yourself. My mum has always supported me, but she and my dad come from the underground music scene. In the 1990s, live music and major labels weren't exactly as one."

Not that Delilah's path to becoming a bona fide pop star - her debut solo single, Go, reached the UK Top 20 last year, and this year it's been followed by an excellent debut full-length, From the Roots Up, and a personal invitation from Prince to tour with him - has been particularly conventional.

Born in Paris and raised in London, the young Delilah absorbed her musical education through her parents: her mother was involved in running the Music of Black Origin Awards, while her late father was a DJ and record label owner. "Music was my family's religion," she reminisces. "Sunday meant record shops, not church. They were intellectual musical appreciators. None of them could play an instrument, but they'd sit in the living room until 4am debating songs - then go out and DJ."

London's burgeoning underground club scene was integral to Delilah's musical roots: "When I was a kid it was a real family environment - the promoter would be my godfather, I'd be looked after, it was safe as houses," she grins. Not that this excused her from the usual growing pains of any teenager. "I went to garage raves like Twice As Nice, and I'd dance and dance and dance … but my mother was like, get home! Just because I was allowed there at five didn't mean I was allowed there at 15." Still, it was here that the seeds were planted for Delilah's future sound.

The girl who snuck out to garage raves while embracing both the Chaka Khan and Roy Ayers records in her parents' collection and key female pop icons of her generation such as Amy Winehouse and Aaliyah is now one of several young British women recalibrating expectations of what a UK female pop star can be in 2012. Delilah is at ease with underground beats, a pop sensibility and classic soulfulness, seeing no inherent contradiction between modes of expression that, since the 1990s, have often regarded each other with mutual suspicion; in this respect, she forms part of a wave that also includes Katy B and Jessie Ware, two other singers who first made an impact on underground dance labels before easing into the mainstream. That said, the comparisons end there: the three women have little in common sound-wise.

Delilah's own breakthrough came with the sinister Go, a bold debut single in every way: from the bare-bones beat consisting of little more than an electronic thrum to an interpolation of Chaka Khan's Ain't Nobody that turned that classic on its head, intertwining it with Delilah's own tale of dark obsession.

This is an aesthetic she commits to fully on From The Roots Up, an album that largely turns its back on the overproduction that can mar so many promising major label debuts in favour of carefully paced, delicately constructed interior meditations. Cinematic strings and a circling bass line lend I Can Feel You a swooning stateliness; the tactile clicks and metallic, distorted echoes that form the backdrop to the yearning Never Be Another are superb examples of the minimal details that prove so compelling across the album. The astounding Love You So blends dramatic, crashing drums with a filigree-thin bass line threading between the rhythms, stitching the song together; while the masterful interplay between voice, piano and electronics on Insecure - co-produced by up-and-coming Hyperdub artist LV - evokes the power play of a chess match.

These arrangements are all the more effective as frames for Delilah's distinctive voice: every gasp of suddenly realised emotion, every sultry purr that morphs unexpectedly into a bleak, blues-ridden croon is magnified so that her catharsis is unavoidable. Not that Delilah would ever get in-your-face and confrontational with her feelings: in fact, the raw intimacy of her music belies the way in which she seems to be playing smoke and mirrors with her own thoughts, using startling imagery to deflect attention and subtly turn the focus of a song around. Indeed, the weakest songs on From The Roots Up come with one or two lapses (Shades Of Grey, 21) into the kind of sunny blandness better left to the likes of Adele and Emeli Sandé.

Her sense of restraint may not be new - Delilah's sensibilities hark back to the 1990s trip-hop of Massive Attack and Portishead, but filtered through rhythms that also betray her simultaneous debt to turn-of-the-century Timbaland and UK garage. But it's a rare stance in latter-day pop, and one she is keen to defend. "I will say this all the time," she says firmly. "The space between two notes. The part where, as a performer, you take a breath and watch everyone in the audience take that breath with you. That's the moment that you capture your audience, where they feel what you're feeling. Not the loudest note - but when everything's silent and you can think what you feel. I feel that's often overlooked in pop music. Even in the biggest house tune, it's the space that makes you go … yyyyeah! When it stops and the bass sizzles out and you're like - ooh! I'm constantly telling everyone around me - just let it breathe, give it space, where's the silence, I need to hear the air. That's the human part of music - the breaths that people often edit out, I work hard to keep them in."

In order to perfect her style, Delilah found she first had to learn the rules of the game. Most emergent major-label songwriters tend to gush about how much they have appreciated working with established hitmakers - and Delilah, too, is thankful for her experiences here. "I had the chance to work with a lot of very acclaimed, successful writers in that first year I was signed," she remembers. "Very commercial, at the forefront of pop music at that point - the first person I started working with was Guy Chambers [better known as Robbie Williams's musical partner]. And I learnt from them."

Delilah pauses, then continues: "I saw how they'd structure a song. It felt obvious, to a certain rule book. It felt like it was done. I took that knowledge - and did the opposite." This has more than paid off: From The Roots Up heralds a distinctive, magnetic new presence in pop.

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.