Released: 9th February 2008
Writers: Carsten Schack / Kenneth Karlin / Harold Lilly
Peak position: #3
Chart run: 39-23-13-6-5-3-5-10-15-15-18-24-25-29-34-45-47-44-45-55-61
After a false start to her solo career in the mid-’00s, Alesha Dixon finally landed a top-ten hit in 2008 with The Boy Does Nothing. But now she needed a follow-up that would galvanise interest in her album, and there couldn’t have been a better choice than Breathe Slow.
Having won Strictly Come Dancing in 2007, Alesha Dixon found herself at the centre of a bidding war as record labels scrambled to capitalise on her status as a household name. Within months of signing to Asylum Records (an imprint of Atlantic), The Boy Does Nothing reached #5 in the UK and was followed shortly thereafter by an album, The Alesha Show. Despite Alesha Dixon’s raised profile, it was ambitious to launch her straight into the busy festive market off the back of one popular (but not necessarily album-selling) song. Thus, while a #26 debut was somewhat disappointing, it’s not wholly surprising. Nonetheless, with The Alesha Show dipping out of the top 75 after five weeks, promotion quickly started for Breathe Slow as the second single.
It marked a sudden shift. The Xenomania-written and produced mambo-pop of The Boy Does Nothing and an R&B midtempo from Danish duo Soulshock & Karlin aren’t necessarily two songs which sound like they belong on the same album. But that typifies The Alesha Show pretty well as a veritable mixed bag with no real overriding direction. Even so, despite their differences, both tracks work as Alesha Dixon singles and showcase her versatility as a performer. Moreover, Breathe Slow had immediate potential for strong radio airplay and mass market appeal. It’s precisely what the album required at such a crucial juncture in the campaign.
There’s an added dimension to Breathe Slow, which makes it an even more compelling choice, and that’s in how it alludes to Alesha Dixon’s divorce from MC Harvey several years earlier. The broad details had never been a secret (he cheated on her with Javine Hylton), so it’s not that the track is an exposé. Indeed, there’s no specific reference at all. However, the narrative subtext of Breathe Slow is present: “I’m running out of patience, ‘cos I can’t believe what the hell I’m hearing (hearing), and speaking of hell, it don’t compare to this heat that I am feeling (feeling)” and the awareness of Alesha Dixon’s lived experience fills the song with a palpable sense of gravitas. There’s sincere meaning behind Breathe Slow, yet, crucially, enough time had passed since those events for her material not to be entirely defined by them either.
The shimmering, popping production on the track is utterly gorgeous. Throughout the first verse – before the beat kicks in – it sits behind the vocals but doesn’t match their tempo. It’s not immediately clear what the track might do. That juxtaposition is musically evocative of the internal conflict and confusion Alesha Dixon is experiencing: “I love you too much, it shows, all my emotions go outta control, good for you, bad for me, when I can hardly see, from the tears that flow-woah”. However, once the beat starts, Breathe Slow suddenly feels coherent as a contemporary mid-tempo R&B. The shift towards a more conventional sound fits with Alesha Dixon beginning to exert control over the situation. Or as much as she can muster, anyway. The track does a great job at never entirely suppressing her anger: “Somebody better hold me back, you’re lucky I know how to act, so lucky I ain’t gonna attack; I’m being calm and cool, but believe me you, it’s taken everything to just breathe (breathe, breathe)”. It simmers in the background, leaving no doubt that Alesha Dixon could unleash a scathing fury…she’s just choosing to maintain her poise, instead.
Yet, for all that the essence of Breathe Slow comes from a place of hurt and pain, that’s not what ultimately characterises the song. The chorus is a rousing statement about taking the high road: “Can’t forget to breathe slow, count from one to ten with my eyes closed, ‘cos ladies take it in and get compo-oh-oh-oh-whoa-sure, before I lose it get compo-oh-oh-oh-whoa-sure. I’m gonna breathe slow, count from one to TEN with my eyes closed, ‘cos ladies take it in and get compo-oh-oh-oh-whoa-sure, ladies never lose compo-oh-oh-oh-whoa-sure” that is filled with dignity. Alesha Dixon’s ad-libs (“Bre-e-e-e-eathe…bre-e-e-e-eathe…”) come across as almost cathartic in their delivery; it’s as if every emotion she’s experienced is coursing through the song at once. If people weren’t already rooting for her to succeed, then Breathe Slow is as persuasive a reason as any.
A radio edit was created for the single’s physical and digital release, although it doesn’t make any significant changes given the album version has already proven so popular. The intro is a bit shorter, and a final chorus is cut to reduce the running time, though, thankfully, all the best ad-libs are retained. Various production elements were also tweaked. The gunshot accompanying the second verse (“And I ain’t the one to shoot the gun, ‘cos that means you will be winning, oh, yeah”) is amplified and lengthened, making it more akin to an exaggerated movie sound effect. More subtle – yet very effectively stirring – is an orchestral underscore which swells towards the end, giving Breathe Slow one extra final emotional pull.
The accompanying music video (which uses a shorter edit of the album version and omits the gunshot altogether) was filmed in Las Vegas. It shows Alesha Dixon walking pensively down the street; she enters a cafe and, after gathering her thoughts, removes her wedding ring and the coat she’s wearing to reveal a showgirl outfit. Heading back outside, she walks confidently down the street and enters a stage door (passing an Elvis Presley impersonator, naturally). It’s a simple concept; the black-and-white visuals make it feel even more understated by removing the vibrancy and distraction of Las Vegas. The way it parallels Alesha Dixon’s journey through a breakup and back to ‘putting on a show’ isn’t dealt with in a heavy-handed manner. Instead, there’s a quiet decorum about the video that complements Breathe Slow perfectly.
Woven throughout these events are shots of Alesha Dixon in a dance studio performing energetic choreography, which seem ever so slightly misplaced. It’s obvious why they’re there, and Strictly Come Dancing was, undoubtedly, a massive part of her journey back to the charts. Nonetheless, the routine isn’t tied to the other sequences – or Breathe Slow itself – in any meaningful way (if only there’d been a version that featured the very good Cahill Remix…). As much as it’s important in the context of the track that Alesha Dixon had already proven her divorce wouldn’t define her, there also came a risk that she’d end up being defined by Strictly Come Dancing instead. Indeed, it’s hard to feel this part of the video concept exists as anything other than a marketing stipulation, however talented she is as a dancer.
Even though Breathe Slow was very much pushed as the second single from The Alesha Show, it also proved to be something of an organic hit. After some early promotion – the song was performed on the BBC’s New Year Live – it began climbing the top 40 on download sales alone throughout January. A physical and digital release ultimately earned Breathe Slow a peak of #3, but even without that, the track still would’ve been a bona fide success, having already reached the top five. It sold 313,500 copies to become the 44th biggest seller of 2009, was the 19th most-played song on UK radio that year and earned Alesha Dixon a Brit nomination for Best British Single.
Crucially, Breathe Slow also had a significant impact on The Alesha Show, which returned to the top 75 after a week’s absence. It climbed steadily – entering the top 20 for the first time – and reached #12. This track ultimately proved a pivotal moment in the campaign. Having reversed the album’s trajectory, Breathe Slow created enough stability for The Alesha Show to achieve an eventual peak of #11 after the third single, Let’s Get Excited.
With her profile nowadays sustained primarily through being a TV talent show judge, it’s often forgotten that, for a brief moment in the late ‘00s, Alesha Dixon was, first and foremost, a pop star (again). There was real momentum behind her, too, and with material as good as Breathe Slow, it’s not hard to see why.