Providing the guest vocals on one of the biggest selling tracks of a year can prove to be something of a mixed-blessing, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee success.
Just look at ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ Singer Kimbra who has failed to capitalise on the mind-boggling success of that song. The concern is surely that you get lumped alongside the band to forever become associated as “that guy/girl from that so-and-so song”. John Newman has not had such a problem.
The 23 year-old landed two hit singles, co-writing and featuring on Rudimental’s ‘Feel The Love’ and ‘Not Giving In’, before his own debut release ‘Love Me Again’ reached the top of the UK chart. “Feel The Love’ was Kesi’s idea; he had the hook and I just did general songwriting around it, like melodies around the middle 8 and stuff. Whereas, ‘Not Giving In’ was me crafting the lyric about my friend. The reason I wanted to do that feature was because I wanted to show people, if it went around, that it was my songwriting and it kind of started to establish me as a solo artist.”
“I moved down to London and it came to that point where I didn’t have a band and I needed one, Newman continues, “so I was kind of on the look-out, I was working in a pub. Kesi’s Sister told me about Piers and he played keys in my band for a bit. Then I met the rest of the boys and we started doing some work together; that was so long ago it feels weird. And then we just jammed together ‘Feel The Love’, which was a bit mental, and then ‘Not Giving In’ was just me and Piers in a bedroom writing about a close friend of ours.”
“I was always going to do ‘Feel The Love’ but there was a question about ‘Not Giving In’,” he reveals, “because I didn’t want to become just the Rudimental singer. I wanted to have that solo career on the back of it, so I was – not persuaded to do it – but after a long time thinking about it, decided to do it because it was a song that was so close to me.” The personal nature of Newman’s songwriting is wonderfully audible; emotion plays a big part towards the character and stand-out quality of his vocal as well as the lyrical content.
Indeed it hasn’t been an easy journey for him; two of his closest friends were tragically killed in a car accident and his own health has been at serious risk. “I was sat in, like, this weird little room in UCLH and I really wasn’t very well. I found out I had a non-cancerous brain tumour, so I was waiting for the surgeon and she’d been like an hour. I was sat shaking like a shitting dog and sweating.”
It really was “one extreme to the other” as this hospital played host to the first exposure he had to, what was to become the unmistakably recognisable ‘Feel The Love’. “My girlfriend at the time was like ‘chill out’ and put the radio on. I totally forgot because I had so much going on, but Zane had the debut play and at seven o’clock it came on. It was quite a nice moment because it made things a little bit easier, and helped me think about the other side of the operation and all the great things to come. To be honest it was one of the greatest moments of my life, my music starting to be played on the radio and such an amazing thing to come out of that hospital to.”
But the context of this first listen doesn’t appear to have tarnished the enjoyment of a song that shows no sign of fading away from the mainstream. “The good thing about it is that when I hear it I don’t think about being sat in a hospital. I just remember amazing, amazing times with the boys last summer, the places we got to go and the people that gave us such great comments and the general platform it gave me to the music industry. I’m still not tired of that song, just because of what it did for me.”
Certainly, it’s a song that launched Newman’s career, but the quality of both his own vocal and all-round songwriting have, and will continue to, ensure that his music does not stray far from this early standard set, and you definitely get the feeling speaking to him that he understands its importance.
There is an underlying sense of pride that filters through as he explains where he came from and how he got to be where he now finds himself, at the very top. “I grew up in a small town called Settle and music was just a hobby really. I started by DJing and producing, then songwriting on the guitar and piano when I was about 14/15, but it was only seen as a hobby because I was from a small town and that stopped me feeling it was possible. I DJed funky house music, then it was just sort of Northern town stuff; donkey music, like Wigan Pier stuff, which is funny because later on I started appreciating Wigan Pier for a bit of a different reason!”
Studying music and embracing a wonderfully wide range of influences has moulded him into the artist he is now and helped to hone the sound he is championing – a sound that may just see Newman develop into the somewhat elusive British male singer-songwriter that we crave. “I was producing a bit of hip hop, and then when I moved to Leeds I started listening to stuff for my songwriting – Ben Harper, Damien Rice, Ray LaMontagne – I started mixing all these things together, these things I was influenced by, and put it purely into my songwriting and production.
It is interesting to discover the appreciation of these acoustic artists that have inspired his writing that is now so readily compared to the likes of Plan B and jazz-inspired singers; even being mentioned in the same breath as the ethereal Amy Winehouse. “Yeah, I massively appreciate it and it led me on to really appreciate soul music, because it’s kind of what that acoustic folk songwriting is; an expression of soul. When I was in Leeds I was compared to Ray LaMontagne quite a lot because it was just me and a guitar.”
“I started as that in Leeds ’cause I didn’t have any friends until I got to music college, and then I got a band together and it grew from there. I studied at Leeds College of Music and did a performance course. It was really good for my confidence. The good thing about going to a music college on the back of a small town is that I started seeing people that wanted to be session musicians or teachers in music when they finished the course, and they were going out to do live gigs, so I slowly started realising this really could be possible if I put the work in. The thing was I never really had the confidence in myself to be a solo artist, I just really enjoyed making music in any sort of way. I thought I might go on to be a session player or a songwriter, but I kept doing my artist thing because I just love expressing myself.”
You wouldn’t know that confidence is lacking in the young man; his debut headline show at London’s Lexington showed not only his very obvious talent, but a swagger and belief in what he is doing. “Yeah, it’s the first John Newman headline gig which will be amazing. We supported Rudimental to get the band going and tried stuff out, but this feels good with the single being out there and the first proper headline thing.” And an impressive “headline thing” it was.
With a number one single secured, what of a John Newman full-length? “I’m actually in the studio right now. We did a really cool thing last night up in Camden; we hired a pub, got everyone drunk and then set up some mics and recorded some gang vocals with everyone just shouting my lyrics in unison and stuff like that; we got it all filmed for VEVO and it was really exciting. Tomorrow we’ve got the orchestra coming in to do the strings so it feels like it’s really, really coming together. The songs were written a long time ago and they’re all really good; it’s a break-up album and it’s all quite touching but it is feel-good in parts. I didn’t know , I was trying to keep it on the down-low, but my record label released a statement saying it’s out 07 October. As long as we’re on time for that and it’s all really exciting with a tour around that time.”
A knack for melody and fiercely catchy choruses leaves the record sounding like it has the potential to transcend music fans of all backgrounds and tastes with its jazz and soul-like sound and a level of cool accessibility. “I think that’s the most important bit, as long as you’re writing lyrics that people can to and melodies that are catchy enough for the radio, the production can be cool and you can do what you want – as long as you’ve got that nailed.” And there can be little doubt that John Newman has indeed got it nailed.