John Newman: I don't need ego but I'll put my foot down
He's no diva, but John Newman will put his foot down, writes Ed Power
John Newman's rags-to-bling story has a little of everything: love, death, outrageous hair. Above all, it features a compelling central character: a starry-eyed urchin from deepest Yorkshire who, through sheer force of will – and, yes, that astonishing soul voice – has clawed his way to the pinnacle of UK music.
"I grew up in a place called Settle. The people remind you of League of Gentlemen," says the Love Me Again chart-topper, referring to the creepy British comedy set in a Twin Peaks style village.
"As a kid, it was like you had a blanket over your eyes. How could you possibly get out of Settle? It seemed impossible. Everyone is so messed up. I was picked on. At the time I felt angry. I understand now why it happened. There's not much to do except drink and fight."
I tell him it sounds like the backdrop to a bad kitchen sink drama and he laughs. That's the thing you weren't anticipating about Newman (23), who racked up two of 2013's outstanding number ones with retro soul smash I Wanna Know and Rudimental hook-up Feel The Love and has garnered a Brit nomination thanks to his debut LP Tribute. Get past the quiff and the young man in a hurry, and he's down to earth, not at all the scowling artiste you expected.
Our opinion of the singer had not been helped by the huge circus leading up to this interview, which was postponed , rescheduled, postponed again – only to then come together out of the blue after we'd abandoned hope.
Rather than reflecting any snootiness on Newman's part, however (he is hugely apologetic – a first for a musician in our experience) the saga attests to his over-stuffed schedule. Some mornings he glances at his diary and wonders how he is supposed to find a stray moment to pull his socks on.
"It's crazy. But I'm determined to keep going," Newman says of his manic year. "The hype will kill you if you let it. I want to build a professional life that will last forever. I don't want to go anywhere. That requires hard work."
Raw ability has unquestionably helped bring Newman to where he is today, the very edge of a big league career (in the UK he is confidently predicted to equal, potentially eclipse Emeli Sandé, the vintage soul belter du jour). Still, other more esoteric factors have shaped him too, most significantly the death of two close acquaintances in a car crash several years ago.
"I was reminded of it just last night," he says. " I was going to bed and put on Lonely & Blue by Otis Redding. That was the record I listened to when I lost my two best friends. All the memories came back."
In the tragedy's aftermath, he bunkered down in the cramped Leeds flat he'd shared with the friends, strumming a guitar, singing out his sorrow. The pain you hear in his music is real, flowing from an intensely personal place.
"It was difficult. I'd moved in with them having left home for the first time. You know what it's like after you move out – you are used to your mum doing everything so your new place tends to be a mess. After the accident, I was sat there, in this untidy house, listening to Otis Redding, playing my guitar, staying up until 4am. The thoughts going through my head weren't very nice. I put the suffering into music. I wanted to carry the hurt with me."
Heartache rather than grief provides Tribute with its over-arching theme. In 2012 Newman broke up with his long-term girlfriend. A natural moper, he fell off the wagon, emotionally speaking. Shutting out the outside world, for days he would mooch around the house, drinking in the cold, lonely silence.
"I'm not one for the whole 'I love you, I'm missing you' shtick," he says. "I prefer approaching the subject from a different angle. I didn't want to talk about what this girl had done to me, about trying to cope without her – any of that. I prefer to be metaphorical. I'd sing about how the rooms all felt 'broken' because she was gone. That was my angle. Sophistication is better.
Serendipity has played its part in his rise also. Struggling to make the rent, he took a job at a London pub. There, he crossed paths with up and coming dance crew Rudimental. Soon they were swapping ideas, discussing potential collaborations. A cocksure sort, Newman hadn't realised he needed a big break. He did – and here it was.
"Working in the bar, I had no sense I was struggling," he says. "I was gigging across London. It was fun. For instance, one time a call went out to submit songs for a One Direction album and I was chuffed at that opportunity. The idea that one of my compositions could end up on a One Direction album was mind blowing (the tune did not make the cut alas). I did not realise I had such a long way to go."
Success possesses a surreal side, he says. Newman has watched astonished as his songs are covered on X Factor in the UK and America, and featured on the cornball reality series Strictly Come Dancing. Does he ever cringe?
"Well, it's one way to boost your bank account. It's not cool, not like The Roots on Jimmy Fallon. It gets your music out there. In that respect it is good. That said, I'm not in this to be famous. I don't want helicopters outside my house taking pictures."
Slight and softly spoken he may be, but by all accounts Newman is a handful for his record company. In an era when stars are happy to be moulded, he knows his mind and isn't slow to put his foot down – both feet if necessary. A case in point is his image – the unconventional quiff and '80s goth clobber. It is rumoured that his label was keen on a more contemporary look – Newman, though, had no intention of acquiescing. It's the same in the studio. This is his career, and he is determined that his vision be honoured 100pc.
"I'm not a dickhead," he says. "I'm not one of those musicians who are utterly full of themselves. Nobody says about me, 'he's a diva, he's a knobhead'. I don't complain all the time. Some people carry on like that because they're all about the ego. That isn't me. I have a plan – I understand what I want. Whether it's a jacket or a lyric or a stage show – in my head there is no budget. I want to go for it.
"I've been doing this for 12 years. I can look out for myself better than anyone else. Hard work doesn't scare me. For anyone to walk in and say, 'we're going to put you in a bright suit, with girls dancing around you sucking a lollipop', that would be bullying, and I'm not having it."
- Tribute is out now. John Newman plays Academy, Dublin tomorrow night
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