After finding fame on The X Factor, singer Rebecca Ferguson says she suffered exploitation and bullying in the music industry. She’s now taken control of her career for her first album for seven years, but says it will be her last.
There have been exactly 12 years between Ferguson’s first album Heaven, which went to number three in the UK, and her new release.
The Liverpudlian singer has had three more top 10 albums in between – but her latest, titled Heaven Part II, is billed as a belated follow-up to her debut.
The original Heaven came out in 2011, the year after Ferguson was runner-up on The X Factor’s most-watched series, when more than 17 million people saw her finish behind Matt Cardle and ahead of One Direction.
Her first album “was just a young woman writing about her heartbreaks and her life experiences”, she says.
But by the time she made her second LP, she was writing “very much about my trying to escape people within the music industry”.
Freedom came out in 2013. “I felt like the music I ended up creating was just about the terrible experiences that I was going through,” she explains.
Now, with Heaven Part II, released on Tuesday, Ferguson says she has made the album she should have written after her debut, “had not all these terrible things happened”.
“It’s me saying, ‘I’m going to press the reset button for a minute. This is what should have been happening. I should have been creating music from a positive, lovely place.'”
As well as songs of empowerment and love like standout track Shallow Breathing, the new album does contain references to her experiences in the industry she entered in the prime-time spotlight 13 years ago.
In the chorus of Found My Voice, she promises she “won’t stay silent”.
“I wrote that about the time when I started to speak up and went from the shy girl that everyone knew on television to somebody that was actually quite outspoken and had an opinion,” Ferguson says.
“I finally just stopped caring about what people thought about me and I spoke up.”
Ferguson really found her voice, she says, when lockdown gave her time to take stock.
House of Commons evidence
“I reflected on some of the old video footage of me, and I just saw a very vulnerable girl. And then I questioned why I was taken advantage of so much.
“I became angry, and I mourned for the girl that I used to be. And then I channelled that emotion into campaigning for a better workplace in music.”
Ferguson has called for more safeguards for people on reality TV and in the music industry, speaking out on Twitter and in powerful evidence to a committee of MPs this September.
She told the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee that she was “fleeced” both “financially and morally” by executives and others in positions of power, whose “disgusting” conduct was part of a “rotten” culture.
“Unfortunately there is a bullying culture to make artists behave how people want them to, often for others’ commercial gains,” her evidence said.
Ferguson told the committee she was pressured into signing contracts; was denied royalties and medical attention; had personal and professional relationships deliberately wrecked; and was forced to carry on working after collapsing through exhaustion and having a miscarriage.
‘I harboured secrets for powerful men’
She also claimed a “senior mogul” threatened and blackmailed her former manager, and on one occasion “forced his way into my home” and refused to leave until she called the police.
She has not publicly named those she says were responsible, but says she has given names to the police and the committee.
At the time those things allegedly happened, the singer feared for her career if she spoke out.
“I learned that I had to be the obedient girl,” she says. “I was told, ‘You do as I effing say and if you don’t do as I say, you won’t have a career’, effectively.
“For so long, I harboured those secrets for very powerful men about what they were doing to me, and the truth of what was happening to me is it was a form of abuse. In fact it wasn’t a form of abuse, it was abuse.
“The sad reality is it is an abuse that many creatives – be it models, actors, musicians or singers – go through, and we harbour the secrets.
“Found My Voice was me basically declaring I didn’t care. Take the career. I’m still going to snitch,” she adds with a laugh.
“Give me your best shot. I’ve found my voice and I’m not going to be the shy girl that you thought you had in the palm of your hand. I am going to expose what happened and I am going to speak up for myself.
“That felt like an amazing, freeing moment for me.”
Things in the music industry are changing “slowly”, Ferguson believes.
She has been one of the driving forces behind a new body called the Creative Industry Independent Standards Authority (Ciisa), which will investigate complaints in the music, film, theatre and TV industries.
“I had to suffer it in silence but I feel like if there was like a company [like Ciisa] that I could go to that dealt with these matters, and held these people to task, it might have gone off differently for me,” she says.
It’s two years since Ferguson announced Heaven Part II – and also announced it would be her final album.
When she made that decision, she had “completely had enough of music” and was “ready for a clean break”, she says.
“But actually throughout the process of writing this album, helping produce it and doing it independently, I’ve realised that actually you can have a good relationship with music.”
She’s now enjoying having control by releasing the album on her own label. Ferguson still insists she will stick to her word and Heaven Part II will be her last album, but says she will continue to release music in a more spontaneous and less structured way.
“Actually, I do love music. What I don’t like is other people profiting from it when I’m not, and what I don’t like is other people dictating who or what I should be,” she says.
“So actually, you will still hear Rebecca Ferguson music, but now it’s on my terms.”