“I don’t want to be negative about the past,” Sharon Kovacs says as our frank and heartfelt trip through her chequered history concludes. “I just want to use it, and learn from it.” She’s had much to learn from. It takes strength, determination and gold-plated talent to turn a tale like Kovacs’ – full of rejection, discouragement, drug-ruined lovers and absent fathers – into an award-winning international success story. But via a lifetime of hard knocks, this shaven-headed enigma hiding the voice of a soul legend beneath her fluffy bear hood has forged her own unique path through life’s twists and tangles and made, in her second album ‘Cheap Smell’, one of the most open, honest and inspired future soul albums of the decade. 

Kovacs’ fight started young. As a child growing up in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, singing along to Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and Otis Redding on YouTube, her true calling was considered a nuisance by her parents. “My parents didn’t really support me,” she says,” nobody was a musician in my family. My father was, but I never knew him. My parents always said ‘shut up singing!’, they thought I was trouble-making.” 

At home, in school bands and at talent shows, Sharon’s unique skills went unrecognised. It was only after leaving school and beginning to hone her art – a dark, raw, bare-hearted soul with distinct touches of the greats (Holliday, Simone, Bassey, Winehouse, Portishead’s Beth Gibbons) - at improvisational open mike jam sessions that she felt appreciated. “I loved it because it was a thing you do in the moment, you create something and it made me find what I liked and what I didn’t,” she recalls. “In the beginning I was quite rock and blues, but I want to tell a story and soul fits. I like to combine a lot of styles and make it into something different. That’s what dragged me into making music, to have this moment onstage with all these people who make you feel like family.” 

Local fans encouraged her to study at the local Eindhoven music college, Rock City Institute, but Kovacs’ was a talent beyond their limited comprehension. “I had some problems with the teacher who said I had to go out of school because my voice wasn’t good enough,” she laughs, admitting to not being the “easiest student... At one point they told me ‘just do your thing’.” In her final year at Rock City, on the verge of being thrown out, Kovacs’ first family came together. Messaging producer Oscar Holleman (Within Temptation, After Forever) on Facebook in 2013 with a recording of her cover of Grace Jones’ ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’, she received an invitation to Oscar’s studio in return. Instantly bewitched by her voice, Oscar found an investor and the pair made Kovacs’ debut EP ‘My Love’ with a band she concocted from her Rock City classmates, travelling to Cuba for recording sessions. “Everything was broken,” Sharon says of Cuba’s Egrem Studios. “Nothing worked. So it was kind of a struggle. But I loved Cuba, I loved the music there and also this way of life, music was a part of their lives. Everywhere we walked there was music.” 

Led by the entrancing tango noir of ‘My Love’, a song that could soundtrack a Bond film if it weren’t for Kovacs’ tone of withering vengeance and edgy references to whiskey and cocaine, the EP was a huge European hit – Number One in Greece and Top Ten in the Dutch iTunes chart. Signing to Warners, she set about writing and recording her 2015 debut album ‘Shades Of Black’ in the Netherlands, New York and Berlin, travelling the world to try to make sense of her own. “I was a bit troubled, in a dark world,” she says. “My contact with my parents was very bad, I was angry about a lot of things. A lot of that came through my music.” 

‘Shades Of Black’ reached Number One in the Netherlands and charted across Europe, garnering her 60 million YouTube views, a modelling contract with Viva Paris, a clutch of awards and high-profile sets at major festivals such as Glastonbury, Sziget, Pinkpop and Rock Werchter, so Sharon had to face further fears. “When I started to perform I was really shy,” she says. “I didn’t even want to move. It was quite overwhelming to be on a stage in front of 40,000 people. For the first shows I took my whole living room onstage. The vibe was very intimate, and I wanted to keep it like that because I felt comfortable like that. One night we had a gig the next day and we had to sit in the dark at home because all of our lights were onstage.” 

When the tour for ‘Shades Of Black’ finished, in 2016 Kovacs was again left in the dark. Holleman abandoned her, and after initial sessions for album two proved unsatisfactory, the band she’d put together for the first album decided to stick with Holleman. “That was quite hard,” she says. “I thought I’d found my family, but I didn’t. It took me a little bit to overcome that.” Having to start again from scratch, Kovacs “wanted to trust somebody again”. She turned to Liam Howe, a trusted co-writer on ‘Shades Of Black’ and producer of Lana Del Rey, Marina And The Diamonds and FKA Twigs. In his Laundry studio in London (with strings, choirs and horns added in Manchester), she set about replacing the parts her original band had recorded and, over the course of two years, creating a second album that was distinctly hers. “I didn’t want to go back to the old because Oscar had a very strong direction,” she says. “I got pulled by his direction sometimes more than I wanted. So I wanted to show a bit more of what I would do. My last school band was called Cheap Smell, which is also what the album is called. That was the last project I did by myself and, for the new album, in my head I was going back to that time and continuing from there.” Revisiting events from her past that “I’ve had put on me like a cheap perfume”, ‘Cheap Smell’ turned out as dark as it is delicious. Tackling the light and shade of modern relationships, it’s a series of confessionals about wild love and abusive romantic webs, about hedonism and addiction, that follows Sharon’s emotional journey over the past few years. “The whole album is this journey of me finding that actually I need to learn to be happy with myself and accepting some parts of myself that maybe aren’t perfect.” 

Several songs, such as the modernist flamenco blues ‘Adickted’, are about the drug-addict boyfriend she cut loose at the start of the process, with cocaine cast as Kovacs’ money-sucking love rival: “you’re all he wants, how can I compete?”. “I knew he had some problems with drugs, then all of a sudden he went crazy and I had to let him go,” she says. “Because all of that happened – the band left me, and my producer – I was just holding on to him in a way. I actually sent that song to him. He was like ‘well, it’s your story’. It might help him as well, a little bit. He’s actually doing quite well now.” The ruined cabaret tune ‘Freakshow’ concerns her split with Oscar – “the time when everybody left and I woke up and had to jump through rings of fire” – while ‘Play Me’ and the album’s first single ‘Black Spider’ address the insidious lure of abusive relationships in general. “I’m always caught in the web,” Kovacs admits. “It’s about how you end up in circles all the time, but every time you enter the circle again you have a different layer on you. Every time you’re in this web, it’s like being comfortable being trapped, but not really. There are a lot of other people in there, but it’s also really personal – a person in my life who was very important to me didn’t want me in his life and took my best friend, in a way. I’m just warning this person that she needs to look out, because she’ll be the next to be spat out. ‘Play Me’ I wrote later on, when I was still seeing my boyfriend but he was dating this other girl. I wrote that song to make a fool out of myself, then I listened to it and I was like ‘okay, this is stupid’.” 

Kovacs leavens such romantic bleakness with the sultry, sax-stroked celebrations of sex ‘Midnight Medicine’ and the love-struck ‘Priceless’, and counters her portrait of Eindhoven’s lost party kids (‘Oblivion’) with a track about getting righteously, blissfully stoned (‘It’s The Weekend’). But as the album approached completion, she realised that her deepest confessionals were to be the heart and soul of the album. Hence the late addition of the record’s most revealing tracks, “the part of the story that wasn’t told”. The airy, euphoric ‘Skyscraping’, “trying to understand the addiction of that relationship I had”, and ‘Mama & Papa’, about reconnecting with the father who’d left when she was a child. 

“On my first album I wrote ‘Fool Like You’ about my father, who at that time I didn’t know,” she says. “A week later, without sending the song to anybody, he contacted me through Facebook and we started talking, but he is a bit weird. He’s very religious and he was like ‘you have to be with God’ and whatever. So it was a really weird time. Through this album I started talking to my mum about the past and trying to deal with things and work on them. I always wanted to know who my father was and I was always blaming my mother for not telling me – now I understand that she might have been protecting me and that our relationship in the past has nothing to do with who my father is.” Set to slot into the grand canon of legendary modern soul confessionals alongside ‘Back To Black’ on its release in August, ‘Cheap Smell’ is a healing album, a trawl through Kovacs’ emotional rubble in order to finally rebuild. “From here, I’m in quite a good place,” she says, “the people I love now are around me. The album really helped me achieve being more happy. I learned a lot about myself and musically. I’m much more confident with the things I make now than I was before.” Get doused in ‘Cheap Smell’ and you’ll hear it too; Kovacs has an inimitable way of accentuating the positive.