Estelle Fanta Swaray, better known as Estelle, had a complicated start in life, growing up in West London, the second of nine children. Or maybe it was eight?
“It varies, it varies,” she told the crowd with a laugh and a wave at Fortune’s MPW Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Monday. “Pick a number, we’ll go with it.”
But the complications helped her forge her own path. The Grammy Award winner, best known for her genre-bending range—including reggae, R&B, soul, hip hop (she’s also the voice of the super woke, or socially conscious character Garnet in the animated TV series Steven Universe)—made the secret to her success very clear. From a very young age, “I was very clear about who I wanted to be and what I wanted it to look like.”
Her family’s complicated origins are the inspiration for her upcoming album that will be released next April—one part a musical tribute to her parents, two parts a celebration of unlikely love.
Her mother is from Senegal, and her father is originally from the Caribbean nation of Grenada. While the pair fell in love at first sight, they found themselves on the wrong side of cultural feuding that can be typical of U.K. immigrants, says Estelle. The pair broke up, just three kids into their growing family. “People didn’t like that they were in love and together, and nobody had the courage to break out,” said Estelle. After playing out her own tortured love life in her music—she cited her breakout hit, American Boy, featuring Kanye West and Break My Heart with Rick Ross as examples —she decided to turn to her parents, who reunited in 2013, for inspiration.
The video for the first single from the album, Love Like Ours featuring Tarrus Riley and directed by Denzel Williams, is already online.
But nearly a decade ago, Estelle was an up-and-coming star with her own label, a second U.K. record deal, and had become accustomed to calling the shots in service of her specific artistic vision. “My whole career…I looked up to Jay Z and Puffy [Combs],” she said. But when people around her wanted her to “move in a direction I didn’t want to go in,” she came to the U.S., determined to meet and collaborate with her mogul-idols, John Legend, Kanye West, chiefly among them. And she did, entirely by accident, when she stumbled on the two, who were hanging out Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles. The rest is history.
While her pitch worked she says what lead to her ultimate success was dedication. “I put in the work, it’s second nature to me,” she says.
She offers three pieces of advice to future creative moguls.
First, make sure you really love what you’re doing. “You have to go through things to deduce whether you love it or not,” she said. Then, understand the business. “I worked at a record shop, did music videos, I was even a journalist,” she says. “I learned every capacity of being an artist.” Finally she says, be prepared to grow. “Look at what’s happening and adapt.”
Now, she’s the person young fans hang outside and wait to see.
“It came full circle. There’s a whole new breed, showing respect,” she says of her fans. “I’m still weirded out by it, but I see it and appreciate it.”