The Voice may have introduced Bo Bruce to the British public, but it was leaving the show on which she came second that set her on the path to the career she craved.
Bo’s impassioned performance every Saturday night ensured she was destined for more than the fleeting fame that being on a TV talent show brings. But not even Bo could have foreseen how quickly her dream to make the music she wanted, the way she wanted, would come true.
Barely 24 hours after The Voice ended, Bo was invited to a Coldplay concert – it was no secret she was a huge fan of the band, having covered their song ‘Charlie Brown’ in The Voice final and semi-final. When she got to the gig, however, there was a mix-up over tickets. Someone took the singer under their wing and – as Bo recalls with the wide-eyed wonder of a regular fan, not the boast of a sudden celebrity – somehow she ended up watching the concert from Coldplay’s box.
“It was a very strange experience,” recalls Bo, during a break from finishing her album, ‘Before I Sleep’, in a small basement studio in central London. "As I arrived, Coldplay’s agent tapped me on the shoulder, told me he’d been watching me on TV and said he wanted to work with me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Then I saw that Snow Patrol, whom I adore, were also in the box. We chatted, had a drink and they suggested I try co-writing with their bandmate Johnny [McDaid]. That’s where my album started – in that box, where I shouldn’t even have been.”
That was also the day that Bo’s EP ‘Search The Night’, recorded and independently released 18 months earlier, shot to no.2 on iTunes chart, nudging Coldplay to no.3. For Bo it was proof that the musical path she had followed before appearing on the voice remained the right one for her.
When I entered The Voice, I had a publishing deal and management; I had my own vision and my own sound in mind. I was very lucky that no one on the show tried to mould me. I got to be myself, entirely, throughout the whole process."
Within a week of The Voice ending, Bo had signed a record deal with major label Mercury and begun writing songs on a daily basis. There were sessions with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid, Joel Pott from Athlete, Henry Binns of Zero 7, Sia Furler and Greg Kurstin, The Alisha’s Attic Sisters Karen and Shelley Poole and with Tom Marsh, producer of Bo’s 2010 EP ‘Search The Night’.
But most of ‘Before I Sleep’ began and ended in this studio with just Bo and 24-year-old producer James Flannigan, once a young engineer who had worked with McDaid, and who the singer affectionately refers to as “2 of my favorite people.”
Make no mistake, ‘Before I Sleep’ is no mere vehicle for Bo Bruce’s bewitching vocals. It is exactly the album she had in her head, its sonic roots obvious from her EP. Bo doesn’t just belong in the songs, she occupies them entirely. Her emotions are as integral to the otherworldly atmospherics as they are to the intriguing, open-ended lyrics. The honesty that shone through Bo’s performances on The Voice hasn’t been hidden by the lush production; nor has the vulnerability of a woman whose tumultuous childhood and teenage years the tabloids gleefully detailed from the moment she first appeared on TV.
Put simply, ‘Before I Sleep’ couldn’t have been made by anyone but Bo Bruce. You may hear hints of Kate Bush or Ellie Goulding in Bo’s haunting vocals and the warm wash of sound in which the songs are steeped bears the hallmarks of Bo’s fondness for Massive Attack and Sigur Ros, but ‘Before I Sleep’ isn’t trying to sound like anyone else. Nor is it trying to be trendy or catch the slipstream of a scene. It’s Bo, baring her soul.
“The album is a bigger version of my EP,” says Bo. “I worked so hard for so long to create my own sound that I had to be involved in every step of the process, from writing to producing, to make sure no one tried to change it. Being so sure of my sound was a shock for some people. I often had to stand on tip toes, with my arms folded, in rooms full of big strong men and say this is how it’s going to be. It’s how it has to be.”
Bo’s perseverance has paid off. ‘Before I Sleep’ is a stunning set of widescreen, emotion-soaked songs, from dreamy debut single
‘Save me’, with its euphoric sunburst of a chorus, to the gorgeous, drama-packed exploration of fears that is ‘The hands I hold’, a song with the swelling optimism of a classic. The striking imagery of ‘On The Wire’ and the perky, panoramic ‘Over & Over’ prove Bo is as bold a lyricist as she is a singer. On ballad ‘The Fall’, she sings of stillness and a void that are chillingly summed up by the sparse piano backing.
‘Before I Sleep’ may have been just six months in the making, but it has been a decade coming and draws on a lifetime of extraordinary experiences.
The product of an eccentric and painfully dysfunctional family, Bo had a turbulent upbringing, as unconventional on the inside as it appeared traditional on the outside.
Asked to leave school early, she moved away from home in a bid to escape what she saw as a life of convention. "Never feeling like I fitted into the right camp created a wanderer in me.
“I didn’t know at that point where I wanted to be – but I knew I needed to go away for a while.” It was around this time that Bo’s life went badly off course, and a warren of treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals quickly followed, Bo being moved around like a party game in the system, until the call was made to send her to Arizona, the desert, and a residential treatment centre dealing with issues holistically rather than individually.
These years were incredibly formative, enabling her to experience and reflect on the darker side of the human condition – this process had a profound effect on Bo, and is an integral part of her music. “I’m grateful to be one of the few people that came out of those holes – finding some kind of peace is something I now realise has to be worked on every day.”
Bo taught herself to sing and play guitar and wrote and recorded demos that came close to snagging her a record contract on several occasions. She spent time in the States, where she was also almost signed, before returning to Britain and securing a publishing deal that allowed her to finance her first EP.
Throughout it all, Bo’s constant supporter was her mother, Rosamond, who died of a rare form of pancreatic cancer just after The Voice ended. ‘Before I Sleep’, inevitably, is Bo’s tribute to her mother and the faith she showed in her.
“When my mum died, I had a choice,” says Bo. “Either I’d wait for the day I might feel ok again or try to keep hold of a career we had both longed for.”
That loss is of course a looming presence on the album: “There are lots of moments about her, that experience changed me forever,” continues Bo, “but not every track. I also needed to write about all the things that tried to get in the way; the mistakes I’ve made, the effect that a sudden absence of both parents had on me – the voids I’ve tried to fill – the hearts that got trodden on.
But most importantly to one day let go of all of that – the hope to keep walking, to keep evolving. The process of making this album has been extraordinary. It’s also been the hardest and most testing time of my life. But I’ve made an album I’m incredibly proud of and I can’t wait for people to hear it. For the moment, that’s enough.”