Three years ago Pearl was just another music-loving shopgirl (Woolworths) and student (primary school teacher). She was classically trained (on woodwind) and could bash out a tune (on piano). But she’d never so much as picked up a guitar. For all her time in school orchestras and love of images and visuals - for all her teenage obsessions with a fantastic array of artists, from Regina Spektor to Belle & Sebastian, Rufus Wainwright to Feist and Jack Johnson to The Cranberries - in terms of songwriting Pearl didn’t know her art from her oboe.
Then, aged 19, she bought a guitar. She taught herself how to play it and quickly wrote some songs. Within a matter of months she’d set up a myspace and posted four demos. Within a week, the first record label contacted her. Who was this unknown, fresh-voiced Scottish singer-songwriter?
‘There was a bit of a buzz going on,’ she remembers, still bamboozled by the excitement her brand new songs aroused. She was flown up and down to London from Glasgow by labels and publishers. When she couldn’t get time off from Woolworths, she had to quit. The Pick’n’Mix counter’s loss was Warner Chappell’s gain: the publisher signed up Pearl quicksmart.
Something had to give. Pearl abandoned her degree at Glasgow University. Her tutor, she remembers, was remarkably understanding. ‘That was totally surprising to me – here was an educator of educators supporting me giving up education.’
Maybe she had heard Pearl’s songs. The breezy acoustic-pop of Because I Do; the irresistibly charming Lower Ground; the quirky jauntiness of Kisses – these are instantly infectious tunes, airborne by Pearl’s effortless way with a melody and bell-clear, Celtic-tinged vocals. Maybe everyone who hears these songs is immediately bowled over. Remember, she only started writing three years ago.
After Warner Chappell, Pearl signed a management deal. Twenty-First Artists, established by Elton John, with huge success with James Blunt and Lily Allen behind them, and with offices in New York and Los Angeles, spotted something special, with international potential, in Pearl. The bosses at Universal Republic in New York agreed: they flew over to see Pearl perform within a week of hearing her songs. They fell in love too, immediately signing her.
‘I was really inspired by Twenty-First Artists because of Elton John’s commitment,’ Pearl says. ‘He basically runs the show. I got to know him really well. Within a few months of leaving university I was having dinner with Elton. It was weird. It just shows you how committed he is the to the artists on the roster – when we first sat down he said, “OK, I’m gonna tell you my favourite songs of yours…” He knew five, in detail - more detail than even I knew at that time!’
Pearl spent much of 2009 developing herself: she gigged, she wrote, she gigged some more. Having recruited a band and taken the name Pearl and the Puppets, she supported Sugababes, Elton John and played the Scottish festival circuit. She amassed an amazing catalogue of songs, most of them written alone, but some in collaboration with writers who have worked with, amongst others, Paolo Nuttini, Xenomania, Corinne Bailey Rae and on the soundtrack to John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. In studios in London and Yorkshire she hooked up with veteran producer Stephen Street (Blur), with David Kosten (Bat For Lashes) and with Steve Chrisanthou (Bailey Rae).
Because I Do was an early stand-out, immediately picked for use in a Vodafone advert in Australia and New Zealand from the original demo recording but also a new, fresher version is tapped as Pearl’s first single.
‘It’s about my boyfriend,’ she explains. ‘But I wasn’t going out with him at the time I wrote it. It’s about realising you really like someone no matter what they’re doing – I used to see him on the bus coming back from college, fast asleep, mouth open. If I was in the postion I’d be mortified. But I was, like, wow I really like this guy…’ Even seeing him legless at a party didn’t dim her enthusiasm. ‘I was still totally attacted to him,’ she sighs.
Mango Tree had more poetic beginnings: ‘one morning I woke up and I had dream that someone proposed to me under a mango tree. And I said no. I had a melody and I just picked up my guitar and wrote the song.’
Smile, meanwhile, is already a big favourite with her burgeoning fanbase, ending Pearl and the Puppets’ gigs in rousing fashion. ‘I wrote that in Mexico, locked in a hotel basement with a bunch of people for 24 hours as Hurricane Dean approached. There was nothing to do but drink and play my guitar. Maybe that’s why it sounds good for fans in bars and clubs to sing!’
Pearl maintains her love of Regina Spektor and Feist, but when she’s writing songs she never thinks of other artists, or any music at all. She thinks entirely in visuals: from films, or dreams, or something she’s seen in the street.
‘When I saw that film (500) Days Of Summer, I totally got what I’m doing. Each song for each scene they use in that film is perfect, and I think that’s how I write my songs, with little scenes in mind.
‘A lot of my songs sound chirpy-cheery,’ she admits, ‘but the lyrics can be quite dark – like Kisses – it’s basically telling someone you don’t want a relationship, you just want some fun. It’s quite harsh…’
Right now Pearl and the Puppets are finishing off their debut album. Pearl, from a small town outside Glasgow, likes the space and the time and chance to fill her eyes with ideas and inspiration.
Things have moved far and fast for the former shopgirl student. So much so that she’s given herself a little reminder of who she is, and where she’s at.
‘I’ve got a Pearl tattoo on the inside of my wrist, just to remind me of what I’m doing,’ she laughs. “You know, so I’m not thinking “who am I?” when I’m wasted at all these parties I go to now, ha ha…’