Amy Winehouse, Taylor Swift, and Adele; it’s no coincidence their most beautiful ballads sprang from their most miserable moments. Eliza Doolittle, London’s latest soul singer, says it’s impossible to write great music until some bastard has broken your heart.
Doolittle’s first album, in 2010, may have gone platinum in Britain, but bubblegum pop tunes were the height of its ambition. After a series of failed relationships, one with Good Charlotte guitarist Benji Madden, Doolittle is back. Her heart has been broken, and she sounds all the better for it.
“If you haven’t experienced anything, how can you live life to the fullest and express things in your art?” she told The Daily Beast. “When you finish a song and play it back, I always want it to have a feeling that other people can understand, something more than la-di-la.”
The effect has been transformative. With the exception of the sugary first single, “Big When I Was Little,” the upbeat, “la-di-la” sound of her debut has been replaced by something altogether deeper and more melancholy on the second album, In Your Hands, which is released next week. “As much as I loved my last album, and it was fun, I hadn’t really experienced much of anything,” she said. “Now I have learned things about myself, about life in general, and I just wanted to be honest on this album and write about what I felt.”
Doolittle was 21 when she recorded Eliza Doolittle, the same age as Adele when she wrote the soaring hits from her sophomore album. Perhaps Adele was lucky—her heart had been broken early. Speaking at the time, the multiple Grammy winner explained that many of the songs on 21 had been forged from the despair of a breakup. “I had to deal with the devastation of feeling like a failure because I couldn’t make things work,” she said.
The heart-rending cry of “Sometimes it lasts in love / but sometimes it hurts instead” followed the collapse of Adele’s first serious love. “He was a few years older than me. He made me feel alive,” she said.
Doolittle says she had exactly the same experience. “I guess I was separating the boys from the men, really,” she said. “I met a really good man and suddenly I realized that I’d been seeing boys for a while. That was a very enlightening experience.”
She refuses to divulge the name of the man who truly stole her heart, but Madden was one of the boys, she says. On the song “Checkmate” she is in combative mood, singing: “You’re just a little boy in a big girl’s land / Playing at being king, I take my kingdom back.”
“I met a really good man and suddenly I realized that I’d been seeing boys for a while. That was a very enlightening experience.”
While adopting that playfully confrontational approach, she probably steps closer to Swift, whose celebrity boyfriend-revenge song cycle has become a national obsession. On the title track, “In Your Hands,” however, Doolittle is following firmly in the footsteps of fellow Londoners Winehouse and Adele. “I’m in love with you and I entrusted you with my beating heart / You’ve got the power to destroy my world,” she sings, on what she describes as her favorite song on the album. “It reminds me of the battle I’ve had for security and me wanting to give everything away to this one person, put your life in their hands. It also reminds me about how awful I was feeling,” she said.
Admittedly, Doolittle has a way to go before emulating the poetic majesty of the late Winehouse. Of Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of Winehouse’s life who left her for a former girlfriend, the singer wrote: “We only said goodbye with words / I died a hundred times / You go back to her / And I go back to black.”
So is this all a deliberate ploy to emulate Adele and Winehouse, who became global stars on the back of their intense relationship failings? “It’s always inspirational to see British artists doing well, but I honestly don’t overthink it. When I’m in the studio, I just let it out,” Doolittle said. “Love is the most important thing in the world, and it makes sense that those albums about the negative side of it are successful because people are able to relate to that. But [on my album] it’s not just that, there’s a positive side in what you learn about yourself.”
Doolittle, who at 25 has been performing live gigs for a decade, is confident there is plenty more material on the horizon. “I’m as single as it gets. I need a boyfriend,” she said. “Although, the loneliness right now—maybe it’s good for my music.”