Pop Essays #14: Maria Lawson, ‘Sleepwalking’

Welcome to this week’s Pop Essays, our regular series offering a chance to revisit some of the lesser started gems of pop music and rightly giving them the chance to shine. This week: an early discovery from one of the biggest shows on British TV in the 00s that truly didn’t deserve to get away…

  • Artist: Maria Lawson
  • Song: Sleepwalking
  • Release Date: 14/08/2006
  • Writers: Andy McCluskey / Barbara Acklin / Eugene Record / Morris-Ord / Styles
  • Producers: Andy McCluskey / Simon Ellis
  • Chart Run: 90 – 20 – 34 – 52 – 94

The X Factor was on air for so long that sometimes it is easy to forget which stars emanated from which series of the ITV talent show. Listening to an episode of People Just People, the brilliant podcast from the show’s host for the vast majority of its run, Dermot O’Leary, last week, consolidated such a belief for me.

Speaking to his guest Niall Horan – of course, one fifth of one of the show’s biggest success stories in One Direction – there was one point where they referred to the 2009 run, the series prior to the one he entered, as the ‘Olly Murs and Joe McElderry series’. Likewise, if I was to refer to the ‘JLS / Alexandra Burke sobbing on Beyoncé series’, I’m more than likely talking about the 2008 run.

So where art the series that Maria Lawson came from? Ah, for that we have to cast our minds back a tad. The London born singer, who was previously vocalist with the Italian dance group Ti.Pi.Cal, first appeared on the series’ second run in 2005 – read the ‘Shayne Ward and Chico series’ – although she had auditioned for the first series the year before, when Simon Cowell had turned her down at the Boot Camp stage of the competition.

It was a decision he evidently lived to regret when her second attempt at the show was more successful, this time making it to Judge’s Houses and landing one of the final 12 places in the live shows as part of Sharon Osbourne’s Over 25s category, along with the aforementioned Chico Slimani, Brenda Edwards and eventual runner up, Andy Abraham.

Her early performances – most notably of Erma Franklin’s ‘Piece of My Heart’ and James Blunt’s then galactico ‘You’re Beautiful’, installed her as the bookies’ favourite to begin with, not to mention her awesome voice. Whilst it was true that Chico was the installed ‘Marmite/joke’ act from the off (he waded into a pool during his Judge’s Houses performance with a live mic for crying out loud), Shayne didn’t truly emerge as a contender until he was given a buzz cut, a change of clothes and some more up to date song choices.

Said move to more contemporary outings for Mr Ward – amongst them, ‘If You’re Not The One’, ‘Cry Me A River’ – came around the week Maria sung ‘Brown Sugar’ by The Rolling Stones, which inexplicably landed her in the dreaded bottom two. And despite having twice as many public votes as The Conway Sisters, in the final decision she was voted off by Simon and Louis Walsh. Cue Sharon Osbourne’s ‘Irish mafia’ rant and something approaching national shock.

With hindsight, we can look back and say that Maria being the early favourite probably went against her in that the wider viewing public assumed that she was automatically getting votes and so was ‘safe’ – which, as we see all too often on shows like The X Factor is not the case.

Still, she had no less than three seperate offers of record deals on the table the day after she was voted off the show, eventually signing to Sony offshoot Phonogenic, who had just seen Natasha Bedingfield to huge success on both sides of the Atlantic with her debut album Unwritten.

Fast forward to August 2006, and Maria’s self titled debut album and lead single ‘Sleepwalking’ were being readied for release. Co-written by OMD’s Andy McCluskey, it was a stunning, soulful midtempo about following dreams and destiny that also found time to sample the old Chi-Lites number ‘Have You Seen Her?’

The accompanying promo video (above) was possibly a cliched one, with Maria doing a bit of people watching and preventing mishaps occuring in a bustling coffee shop. And whilst it’s true that the quality of the song outshines the video, everything needed to come together to ensure ‘Sleepwalking’ was the big hit it deserved to be. With the stakes that high, it couldn’t afford to be anything less.

Alas, despite strong airplay from Radio 2, and having her celebrated version of ‘You’re Beautiful’ as the B-side, the single came out in an exceptionally busy release week. And whilst it did have the honour of charting higher than Chico’s followup to his number one ‘It’s Chico Time’ (a lame cover of Ottowan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O’), ‘Sleepwalking’ debuted and peaked at #20, with her album just missing the top 40 a week later.

It was the same weekend the single charted that the third series of The X Factor – the ‘Leona Lewis series’, and one which changed its fortunes and wider perception considerably – started airing. One can only wonder if Maria would have had the better luck she deserved on this or any later series, but facts still stand that this song remains one of the most slept on to have been released as a direct result of a contestant appearing on the show.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new Pop Essays playlist on Spotify, which includes all the songs we’ve written about. What are your memories of this week’s featured song or band? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or message us on our Instagram.

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