Molly Smitten-Downes ready for Eurovision

Molly . Pic:  BBC
Molly . Pic: BBC
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The last time the UK won the Eurovision Song Contest, Labour, under Tony Blair, had just ousted the Tories from power, the Hibees were battling to avoid a relegation play-off spot (no change there!) and Edinburgh was preparing to award Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city.

The year – you guessed it – was 1997, and the winner was Katrina And The Waves, with the song Love Shine A Light.

Tomorrow night, in Copenhagen, Molly Smitten-Downes hopes to end 17 years of hurt performing her self-penned song, Children Of The Universe, in front of an estimated global audience of 180 million viewers.

She may be feeling the pressure, but after a string of UK flops failed to set the Eurovision scoreboard alight in recent years, she can’t do much worse.

In 2011, former boyband Blue hoped to win in Germany with their song I Can. They couldn’t, and came 11th. In Azerbaijan 12 months later, legendary crooner Engelbert Humperdinck finished in second last place with his song Love Will Set You Free, while last year, in Sweden, Bonnie Tyler was totally eclipsed by the competition, finishing 19th.

“I wouldn’t say I was nervous just yet – mostly excited,” says 26-year-old Smitten-Downes, who is third favourite to win the competition. “There are some really good songs and I think I’ve got some stiff competition. It’s not going to be an easy call.”

Although not exactly a household name (yet), the singer, who performs as ‘Molly’, isn’t exactly what you would call a newcomer.

The Leicestershire lass, who cites Kate Bush, Blondie and Fleetwood Mac as influences, has been writing her own songs for a decade and studied at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. And she has already had a taste of the limelight after a UK top 10 hit in 2008 with Sash on the song Raindrops (Encore Une Fois), and has supported a host of big-name acts on tour, including Jake Bugg, Tinie Tempah, Labrinth and Chase and Status.

But Smitten-Jones, who has performed to 25,000 people in the past, admits she is struggling to get her head around the fact that she is going to be singing in front of a worldwide television audience of more than 180 million viewers.

“Hands down, it is the biggest audience I’ll ever have performed in front of,” she says. “I don’t think it really gets much bigger as a platform.”

Smitten-Jones came to the attention of the BBC’s Eurovision team via the corporation’s Introducing platform, which gives aspiring singers opportunities and the chance to shine.

The Beeb’s Eurovision producer, Guy Freeman, liked what he heard and invited her to submit a song for consideration.

Given that Eurovision has a reputation for being a bit naff, she had some doubts about taking part.

“When I was little, I used to watch Eurovision, but for the last few years I’ve not really engaged with it much,” she says.

“I wasn’t quite sure at first [when the producers got in touch]. I didn’t know if it was going to be just as a singer or if it was going to be some kind of awful song, a tacky novelty thing. I had a bit of a preconception of what it might mean.

“Then I spoke with them and it turned out that they didn’t have any preconceived ideas, they just wanted it to be a good song and they were interested in me as a songwriter.”

Children Of The Universe, which Smitten-Downes describes as “quite contemporary, with a bit of a tribal feel”, was inspired by Desiderata, a 1927 poem by American writer Max Ehrmann.

“I’ve always found it really inspiring and comforting,” the singer explains, after reciting some of her favourite verses.

“It starts off where you’re in a bit of a bad place and transcends into a sort of awakening, realising that you’re worth so much more than that.”

Smitten-Downes knows there will still be detractors who turn their noses up at her involvement in the contest, but she insists she is not compromising her artistic integrity in any way.

“People can judge what they want and they will, but I’m pleased with this song and I’m confident in it,” she says.

“I’m not compromising my artistic integrity at all, which is really important, especially with all the negative Eurovision stigma that can come with it.”

Staging on the night will be “big”, she promises, but tastefully done.

“We’re focused on delivering a really strong musical performance. The audio comes first and the visual second, but a close second.

“We want it to look great, represent the song and give us a good shot. But you can only have six people on stage, and you can’t have pre-recorded vocals, so a lot of the people on stage will have to be backing singers for us to deliver the song in the best possible way.”

She insists she isn’t worried about the accusations of block voting that are levelled at the contest every year.

“I think that [previous] winners have been great songs, so I don’t know if the winner is chosen politically.

“The winner is a great song, and I hope that will be the case this year as well.”

It remains to be seen if she can add her name to the list of UK winners alongside Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Katrina and the Waves, but Eurovision nevertheless presents a great platform for Smitten-Jones, who has already bagged a lucrative record deal with top label Warner Music.

“Dance music was great, but it wasn’t really the music that I felt represented me,” she says. “Now I’ve worked really hard to get to a point where I know the kind of music I want to be putting out. I know how far I’m prepared to go.”

Avoiding hearing the dreaded ‘nul points’ as much as possible in Denmark tomorrow night would be a good place to start.

“If anyone gives me nul points I’m going to go berserk! I’m going to trash the green room,” she laughs, “No, obviously I’ve thought about it. I’m not looking forward to the points reading out, I do think that’s going to be the worst bit.”

Whether she triumphs tomorrow night or brings shame on the nation, Smitten-Jones feels like she is already a winner.

“I do feel, for someone like myself, I’ve already won in a way,” she says. “Because in January I was working part-time in a shop just to support my band, and now I’ve got an album deal and a hundred-and-whatever million people are going to be hearing a song I’ve written.

“So even if 1% of them like it, that’s one million people!”

Eurovision Song Contest 2014, tomorrow, BBC1, 8pm