Jess Glynne Finds Her Voice After Overcoming 'Traumatic, Terrifying' Throat Surgery

Koury Angelo
Jess Glynne photographed on April 11, 2015 in Indio, Calif.

With a Grammy and a historic string of No. 1 singles in Britain, Jess Glynne was living her dream. Then suddenly she couldn’t sing a note.

Just weeks before the release of her debut album, I Laugh When I Cry (Atlantic, Sept. 11), Glynne, 25, had to have surgery to remove a polyp on her vocal cord and stop hemorrhaging; she used a doctor recommended by old friend Sam Smith, who suffered a similar problem earlier this year.

The singer-songwriter was forced to cancel her U.K. tour with John Legend, an idol of hers, and spent three agonizing weeks in total silence, communicating via whiteboard (she didn’t like the app Smith recommended), pondering whether she would be among the unlucky few patients who would never sing again.

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“It was so terrifying,” says Glynne. “I was right at the beginning of everything, and wondering if it was all going to be over.”

As she tells this story -- “one of the most traumatic things that has ever happened to me,” she says -- Glynne plays with the gold Chinese character for “double happiness” she wears around her neck, given to her by a great aunt so beloved that Glynne has her name, Ivy, tattooed on her right wrist. It’s the morning after Glynne’s first gig since the surgery, where the air conditioning had to be turned down to protect her voice, and the singer is eating a tuna melt at a favorite gluten-free bakery across the street from her realtor father’s office in London. She’s tired but exuberant, and looking forward to a theater tour that will stretch into October and beyond, including an 11-city North American trek this month.

“It felt so amazing to stand onstage and sing again,” says Glynne, who’s wearing all black, with her copper curls piled on top of her head in a messy knot. “I cried loads. I’m a really emotional person.”

There have been many tears of joy shed in the past 18 months.

On Aug. 21, with new single “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself,” the soul-pop artist tied with Cheryl Cole for the most No. 1s (five) on the U.K. Official Singles Chart by a British female -- a feat not matched even by one of Glynne’s inspirations, another North London Jewish girl named Amy Winehouse.

Glynne first topped the charts in 2014 with “Rather Be,” a Grammy Award-winning collaboration with electronic group Clean Bandit that hit No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and which she credits with setting the “insane roller coaster” of her career in motion.

She followed it with charttopping duets with Route 94 (“My Love”) and Tinie Tempah (“Not Letting Go”) and solo single “Hold My Hand.” (She marked the success of the lattermost with an Instagram post of her holding a champagne coupe, captioned, “I have tears streaming down my cheeks.”)

But the big question: Will Glynne replicate the U.S. success of her pal Smith, who also started as a guest vocalist on dance tracks and then went solo with soulpop? Or, will she share the fate of Cole, who’s virtually unknown stateside?

Either way, the fans that Glynne does have tend to be devout. One of the first was Joe Gossa, co-president of Black Butter Records, who signed her to a publishing deal in 2013: “I was going through a bunch of demos and her voice just flipped me out,” he says. “There was a fierceness to it. She can talk about everyday things in this way that’s just epic.”

"There’s a real subtlety of emotion in her voice,” adds Jack Patterson of Clean Bandit. “You can hear the fragility of her personality, but at the same time there’s a raw power.” (Patterson subsequently co-wrote “Hold My Hand.”)

Glynne honed that voice -- whose husky, soulful power has drawn comparisons to 1990s house-pop diva Taylor Dayne -- growing up in London’s Muswell Hill neighborhood as the younger daughter of music lovers who weaned her on Prince, Aretha Franklin and Sheryl Crow; her mother, Alexandra, is a former Atlantic A&R rep who quit when Glynne was born. She’s still very close to her parents -- she even entrusted her Grammy to them. “I don’t feel safe keeping it at [my place],” she says. “I live with my mates, and people like to party.”

Glynne always has enjoyed a good time -- it’s the main reason she liked school as a kid: “for the wrong reasons, for the social life,” she says. “I talked out of turn a lot and got in quite a lot of trouble.” Glynne still sounds bitter that she somehow always was rejected for parts in school musicals or performances. “I wasn’t pushed or given much support, and it put me off,” she says. “I kind of lost a lot of my drive.”

After graduation, unsure of her path, the singer “had a bit of a meltdown,” she says. “If I drank, I would get out of hand. I just had a year where I was pretty lost and pretty low.”

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She bounced back in part thanks to a woman she fell for at one of her many odd jobs (working at an AllSaints apparel shop, distributing shots for an alcohol company). “She was amazing in helping me go forth and work on my music,” says Glynne. At the time, “I was going out with this guy, whilst basically I fell for her. I feel really bad.” 

Just as Glynne signed her publishing deal and then her contract with Atlantic, the woman broke up with her -- over the phone. The heartbreak inspired such songs as “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself,” and “Take Me Home,” though the rest of her album is more hopeful. “I’m a happy person,” says Glynne, who is currently single. “I wanted to listen to my album and feel good. I didn’t want to reminisce and feel like shit.”

Glynne picks up her iPhone -- where WhatsApp messages arrive almost by the minute -- and plays “Home,” one of the first songs she wrote that she liked, featuring the lyrics: “At last, relief/No more weight on my shoulders.” She closes her eyes, smiles and dances in her seat.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.