Britain’s latest Eurovision hopeful explains why at first she was less than enthusiastic about the role
By Sarah Rainey
What do a man in an evening gown, a plump Belgian singing about his mother, a pair of identical twins and a tracksuited Icelandic band called Pollapönk have in common? On Saturday night, they’ll all perform in front of 125 million flag-waving europop fans in the 59th Eurovision Song Contest, live from Copenhagen. And this motley crew makes up just some of the 36 European competitors up against the UK entry, a previously unknown singer-songwriter who’s been tipped as our best chance of actually winning the thing in 17 years.
Molly Smitten-Downes, the girl with a name more like a Downton Abbey heiress than a 27-year-old from Leicester, is this year’s British entrant. She’s written her own song, a soaring folk-pop ballad called Children of the Universe, making her the first contestant since Katrina and the Waves (our last winner, in 1997) to do so – and she’s the face of a new campaign by the BBC to take Eurovision more seriously. Because, no matter how gloriously camp, kitsch and bizarre the competition can be, nine million of us tune in every year, and our repeated score of nul points is starting to become more than a little embarrassing.
“All the stigma and connotations aside,” says Smitten-Downes, a doll-like 5ft tall even in her four-inch gold platform boots, “coming out as being in the Eurovision was scary. I didn’t know what my family would say; whether they’d think I was mad. It’s hardly an artist’s dream to do Eurovision – it certainly wasn’t mine. But the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been hilarious seeing my friends, some of my coolest, most ‘street’ friends, telling me they love the show. There are a lot of closet fans out there.”
She nearly didn’t have the chance to find out. Back in January, Smitten-Downes was working as a shop assistant in Topshop, playing low-key gigs in pubs and clubs in her spare time. BBC Introducing, a scheme for new artists, had shown interest in her music and was playing her songs on local radio. Without her knowledge, a producer there put her name forward as a Eurovision candidate – and that’s when everything changed.
“I got an email asking if I was interested, completely out of the blue,” she explains. “I wrote back saying: ‘I’m so flattered, but it’s not for me’. Guy Freeman, the executive producer, asked for a quick chat and I agreed, ready to say a polite ‘Thank you, but no thank you’. Then, something happened. I remember it so clearly – I was on the phone, looking out the window, and I just had this feeling in my stomach; I knew I had to give it a go.”
Weeks later, Smitten-Downes had a melody, an orchestral accompaniment and lyrics which she submitted to the Eurovision selectors. “It was the longest 24 hours of my life, waiting for them to get back to me,” she admits. “That’s when I realised how much I wanted it. The whole way through I was telling myself this might not happen, but it would be a good experience. It came as a massive surprise when they said yes. I’m still surprised.”
And she really means it. Smitten-Downes seems genuinely bowled over by the fact that she will take to the stage in the Danish capital, following in the footsteps of Abba, Bucks Fizz, Lulu and Sandie Shaw. The daughter of a textiles manufacturer and a former PA, she’s about as undiva-ish as they come. She arrives to our interview carrying a Curry’s bag (“I bought myself a humidifier – apparently you put oils in it to soothe your throat”) and is more comfortable talking about where she gets her nails done and her “big fat geeky” obsession with aliens and astronomy than her path to global stardom.
“I come from a pretty normal, working-class family,” she says. “When I was little, the textile industry was booming, so we were doing really well. I was about eight or nine when it all imploded and I remember my mum and dad being stressed because of money. Now Dad’s doing all right for himself and I’m so proud of him. Both my parents came through difficult times and that taught me a lot – not to value money too much as it can be gone so quickly.”
Her mum, Jan, worked in Germany before returning to Rothley, Leicestershire, where Smitten-Downes was born. Father Dave is remarried and lives nearby, while her brother Sam, 32, is a professional wrestler in Manchester. “My mum put this photo on Facebook of the two of us the other day, saying ‘When they were little I told my children they could be whatever they wanted to be – now look what’s happened’,” she laughs.
Is music in her genes? “No!” she splutters. “My family love music and they’re really sociable, always singing along and having parties and going to gigs. But they can’t hold a note.” Smitten-Downes’s singing career began at holiday camp in Tenerife, when, from the age of two, she’d get up on stage to belt out pop songs. “I’m dreading the day someone digs out those videos,” she says with a blush. “I used a torch as a microphone and my mum would hide it to stop me singing. I had piano lessons, too, but I was terrible because I’d get so distracted.”
At school, she was a “dreamer – that’s what my reports said”, and was at her happiest on stage, starring in musicals and talent shows. “I always wanted to be a singer, but then I started to get a bit bullied, as all kids do, and I cared what people thought. If I sang it made me a target for bitchiness, and I hated that negative attention. It had a massive impact on me and I got stage fright. But when I was 16 I left school and went to college [The Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford], and that was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Smitten-Downes, whose sound has been likened to “a soulful Dolly Parton”, moved to London with her boyfriend, builder-turned-businessman Jay, five years ago. “I don’t want to harp on about it but it was a struggle to make ends meet,” she says. “I made a choice a long time ago to do music the hard way, even if that meant not earning any money from it.” After a spate of “really s— gigs, proper soul-destroying evenings where I was playing to the bar man”, she started winning competitions for unsigned acts, which led to her supporting chart-topping stars such as Tinie Tempah and Labrinth in Ibiza and America.
She goes by the mononym “Molly”, in the style of Prince or Cher, simply because “a fake name felt insincere and my surname is a mouthful”. Her image is a mix of Seventies hippy and Eighties urban (today she wears a grey boiler suit and floaty waves in her hair), and her Eurovision song, inspired by a poem from the early 20th century, hints at a maturity far beyond her years. “It’s about how, deep down, we’re all connected,” she explains. “Nowadays so many people are guilty of abusing drugs and drinking to forget, and this is about waking up from that and realising how fascinating life is.”
In the past, Smitten-Downes has turned down requests to audition for X Factor and The Voice, “because I’m not that bothered about fame”. She’s too clumsy, she insists, and an “atrocious” dancer – “You won’t see any moves on that Eurovision stage. Not one.” Instead, she wants to be remembered for her songwriting. “I am inspired by singers like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush – people who have something to say,” she says. “They’re leaving legacies. It’s not all about how they look or what they wear. No one’s going to look back and say ‘Oh, she had a good arse 40 years ago’.”
Smitten-Downes is unlikely to be forgotten quite so easily – she’s just signed an album deal with Warner Music and bookies have put her in the top five favourite acts to win tomorrow. How much would the Eurovision crown mean to her? “It would be amazing. If I win I will cry and probably pass out,” she admits. “But I hope people realise it’s about a lot more than that. It’s such an amazing opportunity: five months ago I was working in Topshop, thinking I might never make it. Now look at me.”
Tactical voting, she says, doesn’t worry her at all. “I’m not naïve about it, but I do genuinely think the best songs have been winning recently. The politics can only help you so far. The middle section of the board might be based on who your neighbours are but the top ones are people’s favourites. That might not be mine this year – but who knows?” She laughs. “Ask me again on Sunday – I might be like, ‘The b——-! It’s all rigged, damn Europe! And then I can drown my sorrows in Bucks Fizz and pretend the whole thing never happened.” Douze points to her just for that.