Interview: John Newman
His unique brand of northern soul may be instantly recognisable, but how is he feeling ahead of album number two?
North Yorkshire’s John Newman became one of the breakout successes of 2013 when his song Love Me Again became a No 1 smash and huge radio hit. His assured and distinctive vocals were already familiar, having helped Rudimental’s Feel The Love top the charts the previous year, but it was his catchy debut single and its northern soul inspired parent album, Tribute, that truly announced Newman’s arrival. Further collaborations have followed, such as with Calvin Harris on Blame, and he has also penned songs for pop stars Olly Murs and Jessie J.
This month sees Newman release his second album Revolve. Packed with energy and positivity, each song has hit potential and the lead singles Come And Get It and Tiring Game are already sound-tracking triumphant sporting montages. We spoke with him a few days before the album came out, to discuss how his writing has matured and what we should expect from the new record…
How are you feeling ahead of Revolve being released?
“I’m very excited, it’s a project that I’m very proud of. I still listen to it now and it sounds fresh. I’m also nervous, there is a huge change in the charts, and around the music industry, and there are a few headless chickens running round.”
In what way has your writing progressed since Tribute?
“Both musically and sonically. I went back and listened to the first album, to see what was working and what wasn’t, asking myself what do people know me for and how do I create a progression from that? I knew I wanted to make a record that sounded vibey and fresh, with a more positive outlook. I looked back at the first record and noticed some things with the drums, like chucking a mic in a carrier bag inside a bucket of water in front of three kick drums, to try and get a heavy kick. Maybe I should have just programmed that! I learnt to pay more attention to the detail of the final sound instead of the gimmicks of making the sonics. That first record was a bit muddy underneath and could have done with tighter bass, a punchier sound and grooves.”
The first album was mainly co-writes, was that the same with Revolve?
“No, I’ve actually opened up a bit and done more of my own. I think there are four tracks, including Something Special and Give You My Love, which are solo produced and solo written – the rest are co-produced and co-written. I did those four tracks to get down the vibe that I wanted. It was a clarification for me to then be able to go into the sessions and say, ‘this is what I want’. It was my vision, but I work with very good people who let me breathe and helped me execute, instead of fighting against me to get what they think I should have.”
Is the more positive theme down to the success of the first album?
“I’m not a big believer that fame brings you happiness; money doesn’t bring you happiness. The more money you make, the more bills you’ve got to pay. The more success you have, the more you’ve got to do to keep it. It was almost easier being on the dole for me – it was one meeting and that was it!”
Where do you think the positivity comes from?
“I think it just came from a brighter place, because the more I’m maturing, the more I’m growing and becoming more positive. I was in a dark place on that first record. I was writing at a time when I had stacks going on in my personal life, which I’d never write in my music. I didn’t want people to hear in my music that I was going through a brain tumour. I’d rather write about the relationship I was coming out of. I was kind of locked in this house after she’d gone and the outside world didn’t feel normal anymore.
“It was good to have the relationship I was getting into when I was making Revolve. It was a very complicated relationship to start with which slowly became more positive. You get that amazing juxtaposition of these dark verses and then choruses about how it’s been sorted, or how it will be sorted.”[cc_blockquote_right] WHEN IT COMES TO SONGWRITING,
I HAVE A VERY CLEAR VISION OF WHAT I WANT TO DO [/cc_blockquote_right]Revolve starts with an introduction from Idris Elba, how did that come about?
“I wanted somebody that could do it real justice and Idris was the man who turned what was just a piece of writing on a sheet into something really stunning. I always like to make a concept for the album. The marketing and explanation and graphics are then based on that concept. I like to have the lyrical content, which comes from my personal situation more, and the actual concept of the album too. Revolve came from me looking into the idea of wanting a circular logo that could be put anywhere. I started looking at circles and getting the idea of Revolve in my head. I was looking at what it was about a circle that I’m liking and I realised that it was the idea that everything runs in a cycle, that relationships or day-to-day life or anything is a constant cycle. I started looking back at me growing up in a cycle. Then one day I just broke that cycle a little bit and went and did an audition at Leeds College of Music. I got out of that town and did something different, just because of that one audition.”
Do you normally bring the lyrics to the table yourself, even when co-writing?
“The lyrics have got to be my own. I like to write 10 pages of crap, fully express myself, write it all down – about whatever situation I’m in – then go back and break it down. I turn it into sections, almost like I was writing a book, and then break that down even more and find the relevant lyrics. When it comes to songwriting, I have a very clear vision of what I want to do. It’s then about sketching it out and writing what colours I want to go where and then letting somebody else put those colours on, because I’m not that great a painter.”
How does that collaborative process work?
“I like to write with people who are a good wall. I can strip everything out and they can help me put it down in the right manner, or sometimes turn around and say, ‘Why don’t you try something a little different?’ I do collaborate well with people, but I collaborate in a perfectionist kind of way. I’m just focussed and know what I want, but then I’ve got to let them breathe and listen to them; give them a chance.”
Is that why you like writing with other artists, so you can try different things?
“Yeah, definitely. Even as a perfectionist, it’s great to work with these people. Somebody like Calvin has made hit after hit after hit, he has made ridiculous music for so long and is a brilliant songwriter. It’s his name and mine together, it’s 50/50. That’s why I go and write with other people because I like that, there’s something nice that it’s not just my record.”
Maybe there’s less pressure?
“I think that’s it as well, there’s less pressure and it means I can blossom a bit more as a writer because it’s not me going ‘this is my career’.”
Do you take a different approach when writing for other people?
“It’s pretty much the same. I’ll sit in the studio at the piano, but when somebody else is involved you obviously have to listen to them.”
Are your lyrics written at home and then brought to the studio?
“I think it’s important to step away from the track for something like that because you’re restricting yourself if you start putting lyrics to music too much. The best thing to do is get the melody in your head and the idea. Then write it all down and get your lyrics there until you can start matching it back to the music and cutting it down a little bit. I’ll probably then take it home and have a special moment about it. It’s nice to do that song check when you go home and play it on guitar and it still hits you in the right place and you know that song has been really well written and is incredible. If anyone can cover it and it sounds great in any format then you’ve got a good song there that’s just shining through.”
Do you carry a notebook with you for when inspiration strikes?
“I do but it’s not just for lyrical inspiration. I design my own clothes and am trying to venture out and create a record label. I design my artwork and have just done a book that is out on the same day as the album. I want to do a documentary, I’m starting a band. I’m trying to build Rome in a day, which is a ridiculous thing to do, a notebook is very key to have with me at all times.”
What is the book about?
“Part one and part two are about my upbringing, where I came from and what created me as a person and as an artist. Part three and part four are about making this record and appreciating the people who helped me make it and showing them respect. With iTunes and downloads there’s no booklet so nobody gets enough respect for the work they do, the credits aren’t as strong as they were before. The amazing thing about the book and with it also being called Revolve is you read all the way through it and then realise that the very last page is all thanks to the first page, that upbringing by my mother and those friends around me in North Yorkshire, and you realise that the reason I’m stood here in Los Angeles is because of it. The whole book is a cycle.”
Perhaps we should touch on that upbringing a bit, are you from a musical family?
“My father played guitar. My mother can’t play an instrument and can’t sing but she is very wise with words and I think that is where the lyrical thing comes from. Both me and my brother are musicians so it must be coming from somewhere.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I THINK PRODUCING IS NOW CLASSED AS SONGWRITING AS WELL BECAUSE IT’S MUDDLED UP IN TODAY’S WORLD [/cc_blockquote_right] Was there lots of music played in the household?
“There was, my dad had guitars and he was more into folk music really. My mum is a huge northern soul nut, she’s got records kicking around everywhere and she’s also a fan of Diana Ross, Motown and Steve Wright in the Afternoon fan so there was plenty of incredible music playing in the house.
“I grew up DJ’ing and I was taking all these influences and putting them out. Even back then I was doing the same thing as now, trying to build Rome in a day, I was learning drums and making pop tunes on acoustic guitars and then going home and producing hip hop tunes and I’d also get on my decks and make some house tunes. So there was a very varied sort of input which is the same now.”
When did you first start writing?
“I think producing is now classed as songwriting as well because it’s muddled up in today’s world. I started producing the hip hop tunes when I was about 11 and started writing my own music around the same time and it just progressed from there.”
So your initial endeavours were mainly hip hop tracks?
“Yes. I remember singing ‘going loco down in Acapulco’ over this beat and just had it on repeat for ages, like all kids do when they’re sat in their bedrooms, well I assume that’s what they do!”
Was that a strange thing for an 11-year-old to be doing in North Yorkshire?
“Not really, it was the whole Fruity Loops and Play Station era, when production was becoming quite commercial and popular and easy to access. It’s amazing to see how much that has progressed and how it’s used every day now in modern music. It wasn’t that strange a thing, a few of my mates were DJing. The DJing, house music, producing hip hop and mixing in my room was the normal bit, the bit that gained me the title of being a weirdo was playing the guitar and hiding away playing drums in the back of a music room.”
You can definitely hear all of those influences in your bombastic northern soul sound.
“Very much so, it’s nice though to have my own corner in music.”
There’s also a Michael Jackson vibe on the new record, especially the final track. Are you a fan?
“Absolutely, and that came from the musicians I was working with as well as what I was trying to achieve. I wanted a fresher groove with a punchier bottom end and you look at disco and funk and Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 pop up everywhere. I was definitely inspired by that and always have been. It came into play when I was looking for musicians, we used the brass arranger he arranged all Michael’s horns, Jerry Hey and the guitar player Paul Jackson, Jr. who has also did a lot of work with Daft Punk. We worked in Westlake Recording Studio D which Michael had built for Bad, so I guess it’s a massive influence on the record and it has come out in places. What I like about the last song, We All Get Lonely, is that it’s the pinnacle of my influence coming out in an absolute mess with it having disco funk verses I and then Primal Scream/Rolling Stones choruses. To me that’s very exciting.”
It sounds like it was also lots of fun to make?
“It was, the whole record was. I had loads of fun making it and letting it out and that comes across in the music.”
What is your biggest hope for Revolve?
“I hope that it gets me through, that it’s another album added on to the longevity of my career. I just hope that’s it’s successful enough to let me have the trust of those around me to continue doing what I want. I also want to make my family and my mother proud. I want her to be able to turn the radio on and hear her son because it gives her an incredible smile and that keeps me going.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Revolve is out on 16 October on Island Records. Visit his website for more information: johnnewman.co.uk