Kiwi singer Ginny Blackmore is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers – or walk away from a prestigious record label when it wasn’t working out.
It all started off so promising. Kiwi singer and songwriter Ginny Blackmore walked into Epic Records in Los Angeles, sung her personally penned song Bones for Epic Records boss and former X Factor judge LA Reid and impressed him so much she was practically locked in his office for hours while they prepared her contract. It’s the stuff of dreams for all aspiring musicians. But for Blackmore, now 29, it soon became a nightmare. And after almost two years of an increasingly disintegrating relationship, she called it quits and left, choosing instead to sign with Epic’s sister label Sony in New Zealand.
It’s almost unheard of for an artist to leave a prestigious record label, particularly 18 months in with a half-finished album. When NEXT asks what happened she pauses for a moment. “That’s a hard one because artists don’t drop labels,” she says slowly. “But… I had called the meeting in which we separated.” Blackmore, who has written songs for musical heavyweights Christina Aguilera and Adam Lambert, wasn’t at the meeting but her manager was given strict instructions to say the exact words “Ginny’s not happy – she wants out”. And that was that. “I knew I could do that because on the day I signed, in front of the whole company, he [Reid] said ‘If we don’t win a Grammy with Bones it will be our fault and you can leave the label’.” So confident was Reid he even shook on it.
Indeed, the music veteran knows when he hears a good song. He’s worked with some of the most successful artists in the industry like Avril Lavigne, Pink and even a 14-year-old Usher, who all went on to create multi-platinum selling records. But although Blackmore’s first single Bones became a runaway hit, peaking at the Top 40 on the American charts and reaching number one in the New Zealand charts… it didn’t get a Grammy.
And despite the Cinderella story of it all – inwardly Blackmore wasn’t happy. So how does it go from being so good to so bad, so fast? “When I signed my record deal, the first thing on the agenda was ‘let’s get Ginny to the gym’, says Blackmore matter-of-factly. At this stage, Blackmore was a NZ size 10, which is hardly overweight. But by the strict and unrealistic proportions of the showbiz industry she was, and under advisement she eventually slimmed to a 6. Despite initially succumbing to the pressure, Blackmore wasn’t interested in being another manufactured pop star – which these days often means going on stage in nothing more than embellished underwear. For Blackmore it wasn’t about her appearance; it was about her songs and her voice.
“I think they hoped I’d morph into this glamazon but I pretty much refused to do it. So it was a frustrating time. I guess you just have to see yourself through their eyes, see yourself as a product and not take it personally. I’ll never be Beyoncé… but I’ll be me, and I’ll be me to the best of my abilities,” she says honestly.
The unkindest cut
NEXT meets Blackmore, who is releasing her first album Over the Moon later this year, at her parents’ East Auckland home, where she lives 50% of the time. She spends the rest of her year in LA. The décor harks back to yesteryear, with cabinets of vintage china teacups and crystal, embroidered pillows, and gold gilt mirrors. Blackmore’s mum, Christine, has thoughtfully prepared a jug of elderflower cordial, “Ginny’s favourite,” she tells us, serving it on a silver platter. When asked about her youngest daughter, Christine doesn’t hesitate, saying she’s always been headstrong. “Oooh yes she’s stubborn. Even from an early age I couldn’t really dress her, she had to dress herself. You couldn’t move her one iota.”
Blackmore sits in a regal-looking maroon French-styled armchair in ripped jeans, vintage black ankle boots and a cable knit sweater the exact colour of the chair. If it wasn’t for her long, willowy hair, porcelain skin and piercing blue eyes she might be camouflaged, but blending in clearly isn’t something Blackmore likes to do. And one thing that made her stand out for all the wrong reasons was a case of extreme Photoshopping. She talks about the time she was getting ready to sing at a music showcase in New York and caught sight of a promotional poster of herself with something amiss.
“They’d completely cut off my ears! Normally my ears stick out a little bit,” she says pulling her long dark hair behind her almost elfish ears so they’re on show. “In the photo my hair was up and all you could see was my ear lobe whereas usually you’d see my ears sticking out.” In her own words she ‘spazzed out’ and went to find someone to tell them exactly what she thought, eventually making it onto stage late and ‘killing it’ because she felt she had something to prove. “I understand making me all smooth and taking away all the crap on my face, but cutting off my ears? I was just shocked. I know so many people don’t care about that stuff, but I do. I feel like there has got to be a way I can be successful but also be myself, and be accepted for it.”
The same old song
Something else that didn’t sit well with Blackmore was the fact the music industry in America was a pretty sexist environment. This isn’t news. For decades women in the know have been telling it like it is. This year singer Björk noted the difficulties faced by women in the music industry, saying “Everything a guy says once, you have to say five times.” And last year singer Lily Allen told a British newspaper she was astonished by the lack of female executives in the music industry. She even went on to say “you will also notice of those big successful female artists there is always a ‘man behind the woman’ piece”, noting for Beyoncé it’s Jay-Z and for herself and the late Amy Winehouse it was Mark Ronson. New Zealand isn’t exempt either. Lorde’s producer Joel Little, for example, is often given as much credit for her hits as she is. Would this happen if she had a female producer?
“It’s really hard being a girl in the music industry,” admits Blackmore. “The expectations are ridiculous and it’s definitely a big boys’ club. They [Epic music execs] would say things like ‘oh she’s just so difficult to work with’… but I wasn’t difficult. If a man says no and screams and yells they think it’s like, gangster. When a girl says no it’s like ‘oh what a bitch… she’s so difficult’. That’s what it was like for me.”
Blackmore started to feel alone and unsupported, which was only exacerbated when she was told things by record executives like ‘even your friends don’t believe in you’ and ‘you’re never going to make it like this’. Then the comments changed to ‘you don’t have a choice’. Clearly they didn’t realise who they were dealing with.
“I thought ‘you’re crazy if you think I don’t have a choice’. I don’t know if it’s because in New Zealand we don’t have a strong sense that men are more powerful than women but I feel completely equal [to men] in all I do. So when they tell me I’m not I’m like ‘what year are you living in?’”
A little help from a friend
It seems stardom was always on the cards for Blackmore. Leaving school at 15 with her parents’ permission, she set up shop in her bedroom treating songwriting like a nine-to-five job. At 19 she left for London with refreshing naivety, hundreds of personally penned songs and her sights set on making it big. Blackmore admits she arrived in the city with no idea about how the music industry worked but thought she’d ‘try her luck’.
Unlike many aspiring singers she didn’t have that period where she had to slave away in an office – she went straight into making music.
“That happens for hardly anyone,” she says. “I owe so much to my friend [musician] Daniel Bedingfield. When I got to London he immediately introduced me to his management company and they took me on straight away.” It wasn’t long before she signed a publishing deal with Sony ATV, and started writing songs for big names like Aguilera and Lambert. But even back then she noticed what a fickle world the music industry was.
“It was quite painful at that time realising year after year no one was looking at me as a recording artist. Everyone said ‘your voice is amazing’, but for whatever reason they didn’t like the way I looked so I was never considered [to be a recording artist]. I had to make a huge life change,” she says. Blackmore signed up to the gym and would go at 5am every morning, early enough so she’d have ample time to spend hours applying makeup in preparation for meetings. After losing a ‘bunch of weight’ finally people started saying ‘so why aren’t you a recording artist yourself?’ From there it all took off. “I was excited because that’s what I always wanted. But I knew the only reason they’d all suddenly opened their eyes to me was because I was thinner and I was wearing more makeup. So it was bittersweet.”
She went on to not only write songs for big name musicians, but after eventually signing with Epic Records, she finally got to record some of her beloved songs for herself. And yet – it wasn’t working. Blackmore was on a radio tour around America when the wheels finally came off and the supposedly glitzy ride was over. Graciously Epic Records boss Reid let her finish out her tour before finally severing ties. She was in New York performing when she heard the news she’d finished with Epic and she burst into tears.
“I was like ‘wow thank you god’. So I knew it was the right thing to get out even if I’d lost an incredible opportunity and had to start from scratch. I had to do it to feel like myself.”
Exit stage right
Ultimately the biggest problem for Blackmore was she didn’t like the direction the record label was taking her in. They brought a template, and a winning formula they’d used over and over to churn out cookie-cutter pop stars – but it just wasn’t Blackmore. And although she didn’t agree with what was suggested, she didn’t know how to offer an alternative.
“They just weren’t interested in the persona I wanted to have. I could have been more forceful and said this was my vision. But I didn’t have that tenacity. I didn’t have the guts to call a meeting and tell them what I really wanted.”
Instead, she said ‘no’ to what they were offering. And that attitude “ruffled a few feathers.” As the months ticked by, Blackmore realised it just wasn’t working.
“Even though it was super tense at times during the first year, I was still filled with hope and excitement. But it slowly dawned on me it wasn’t going to work because there was no compromise so we were never going to get anywhere. And once I thought that, it got tougher and tougher.”
You have got to admire her strength and her intense pursuit to stay true to herself. But where does this leave her? Has she self-sabotaged her own career before it even really got off the ground? Blackmore doesn’t think so. She’s proud of her decision to leave and has no regrets about it. She’s even managed to do it in a way where she’s kept relationships (including that with LA Reid) intact which, according to her mum Christine, is one of her strengths.
“Any relationship that breaks she’ll do everything she can do make sure they can still communicate. I really admire the way she always gives people a second chance.”
Logistically, the transition to Sony New Zealand was simple because Epic is a Sony label so the contract was swiftly transferred. And because New Zealand is Blackmore’s home, she says “there was something comforting about returning”, especially at a time when Bones was gaining a lot of traction here on the radio.
“It felt like fate – something was ending but something else was starting – and it was back to where I came from.”
Since returning, Blackmore has managed to find time to do a duet called Holding You with Stan Walker that also made the coveted number one spot and was the most played song on New Zealand radio last year. Friend and fellow musician Walker, who loves jamming with Blackmore, says she is a rare talent. “She’s one of the best female vocalists not just in New Zealand, but the world. And her songwriting is also right up there,” he says.
But the move home hasn’t all been smooth sailing. As much as she seems content with her decision to return, she admits “it’s been tough”.
“I felt I was grieving in a way. I was definitely sad and disappointed for it [the Epic recording contract] to not work out.” One downside was the fact some of the songs Blackmore wrote and recorded with Epic can’t be transferred to her upcoming album, mostly because Sony NZ can’t afford to pay the superstar producers Epic hired to work with Blackmore. But by coming home she got what she finally wanted – support. And she says that has been like food to her soul’.
“Even though I did really well, to come home from a disappointment should feel like a step back. I guess it did in some ways because I was back in St Heliers but then I was going to the supermarket and people would be coming up to ask for a photo. It felt like a huge leap forward at the same time. And it just made me feel loved.”
Back better, stronger
Blackmore still has big plans. Although she’s currently signed to Sony NZ, she has her sights set on conquering America again. But this time she won’t be bowled over by big names and big promises. She’ll be less intimidated, less naive and less scared to speak her mind, allowing her to aptly navigate her way in the music world.
Because in the end all she wants to be is Ginny Blackmore… and that’s a good enough reason as any.
From the editors at NEXT