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March 01, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST

Fleur East is a star on the rise.

With her bouncy new video for “Day in L.A. (More and More),” the British singer-songwriter proves that she’s more than her X Factor roots and that “Sax” — a funky, Gold-certified, saxophonic expression of pure joy — is no fluke. Though her debut record, Love, Sax and Flashbacks, has yet to land a release date in the U.S., East officially signed with Columbia Records in January and will soon make her Stateside debut in earnest.

East, 28, might be a fresh face to U.S. audiences, but she has been working toward a career in music since she was a teen, having first auditioned for The X Factor when she was just 17 years old as part of girl group Addictiv Ladies. When the childhood friends disbanded shortly after their elimination from the first round of live shows, despite being under Simon Cowell’s coveted mentorship, East was not ready to quit on her dream of performing.

“After I did the show the first time, I got a taste of the industry, and I definitely decided that a career in music was 100 percent what I wanted to do,” East tells EW. Though she continued her schooling — East holds a degree in journalism and history — she worked diligently on her craft, “doing lots of shows, songwriting, performing up and down the country, and just gaining a lot of experience.”

But sometimes experience isn’t enough. Following a series of false starts — she was signed to U.K. label Strictly Rhythm in January 2012, but her singles and features failed to gain traction — East found herself at a crossroads that would lead her to auditioning for X Factor a second time, nearly 10 years later. “I came so close to making it, but it just didn’t happen,” she explains. “And just before I auditioned for The X Factor, there was nothing in my diary at all. I had no shows, nothing was happening; it was make-or-break time for me, and I had to consider doing another career altogether,” East admits. However, thanks to encouragement from friends and family, “I decided to take the risk.”

Her risk paid off. East auditioned for season 11 and came in second to Ben Haenow, joining X Factor act One Direction in becoming far more successful than the artist voted into first place (Haenow was dropped by Syco Music in January).

A competition frontrunner throughout, East made her strongest impression on audiences with her cover of “Uptown Funk,” which Cowell — not known for doling out effusive praise — dubbed “one of the top three performances” in X Factor history. However, the song had yet to be released in the U.K. — as a result, East’s cover rocketed to the top of the U.K. iTunes charts, both a testament to East’s prowess and the popularity of a song that would go on to become one of the best-selling singles of 2015. The reception for East’s cover led Mark Ronson to debut the track five weeks earlier than its planned Jan. 11 release, and The X Factor in general faced a small amount of criticism and accusations of favoritism, with Lily Allen referring to the early performance as an example of “industry corruption.” 

However, East had no idea the performance would become so successful; after all, the voting public had yet to hear “Uptown Funk.” “We felt like it was a big risk, because no one knew the song,” she says. Plus, she adds, X Factor contestants can cover any song as long as it’s out somewhere in the world. “In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Er, maybe people won’t like it that much.’ But then it charted at No. 1, which no one had done up until that point. It was really exciting, but we didn’t think about that at all when we picked the song. We just chose something that I would do in the real world.” 

Indeed, East’s debut single, “Sax,” certainly bears a similar vibe to “Uptown Funk,” but the comparison gives East no pause. “In the U.K., people kind of associated that song with me, so it was a nice way to get judged as an artist in the real world. It would be silly to ignore that sound; I fell in love with it, because I was like, ‘This is the exact sound I would do as an artist.’ The brass, the funk, and the throwback element appear in a lot of songs on my album. … It made perfect sense. ‘Sax’ made perfect sense.”

And despite the massive success that has followed artists like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, 1D, Little Mix, Fifth Harmony, Jennifer Hudson, and many, many more who found stardom on reality TV, there might always be an asterisk next to their names, at least in the eyes of some critics. “Everyone’s path is really different,” says East, “and you just have to be in the right place at the right time. The X Factor gave me that chance I needed, that platform. I felt like I had the experience, and I was so passionate about it, but I needed to be put in front of the right people, and it just so happened that for me, that was the show. It doesn’t mean that because you auditioned for a show that you haven’t been working at it just the same as anybody else.”

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