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Sometimes the most extraordinary talent comes, seemingly, from nowhere. John Newman is only just 23 years old, but his voice and his songs cut through with a depth and a richness that’s way beyond a couple of decades and some change. A true force of nature, John writes, produces plays, performs and remixes his own music, as well as writing his own video scripts and designing his own clothes. This is a seriously larger than life character.
In 2012, a year before his first solo material had even seen the light of day, John Newman scored a number 1 single, appeared on both Later with Jools, and the Christmas Top Of The Pops, and had written and sung on two of the biggest dance hits to storm the UK charts in years: Rudimental’s massive number one “Feel The Love” and the powerfully anthemic follow up “Not Giving In”. Those who enjoy life’s savage juxtapositions will appreciate he was in hospital recovering from surgery to remove a (non-cancerous) brain tumour when he heard the song on national radio for the first time. “I woke up and heard my song on the radio,” he smiles. “That was quite surreal. The nurse was quite fit too, so it was good to turn around and say, ‘That’s my tune!’” Shortly after leaving hospital “Feel The Love” went to number 1 in the charts.
“That really was quite surreal,” he smiles.
After 12 months spent writing, recording and touring with the ‘Mental and Plan B, John is now preparing to release his debut solo single, “Love Me Again”, a huge great melodic and emotional banger that weaves in and out of John’s most beloved influences, the pieces he’s been drawn to since childhood.
Born in Settle, North Yorkshire, to a mother obsessed with Motown and Northern Soul, John never really even knew you could be a singer, that you could express yourself through writing and performing your own songs. No one from where he grew up ever spoke about such a thing; indeed, to bring the subject up among your school friends would only provoke scorn. But as a teenager, having watched his elder brother leave home and form a band, John began to realise there was a whole world beyond everything he knew.
As a young woman John’s mum had danced to Northern Soul at Wigan Pier. A quarter of a century later John was in the same legendary venue dancing to Hard House, “and Donk” he laughs. But, Donk was just the gateway drug.
“Everything I heard there just got me into house music,” John says. “And through that I started listening to my mum’s records…”
In short, John began to stretch out. The house music he loved turned into hip hop, then Motown, then his mum’s eclectic 70s and 80s vinyl, there were albums by Diana Ross and James Brown, there was Northern Soul and punk too and John loved playing them so much he began DJing at local birthday parties. At the same time he was listening to Damien Rice, Ray Lamontagne and Ben Harper as he taught himself guitar. Aged 15 John commandeered the cupboard under the stairs and, being a confirmed DIY nut (he’d already been building go-karts in the garage) turned it into his first, tiny, studio. In there, with an acoustic guitar, a battered laptop and some “crappy” hi-fi speakers he’d produce hip hop and house instrumentals, taking little bits from everything he heard and making them groove together. Before long John decided he should sing over these beats and soon began doing solo gigs in local pubs, advertised with his own photo shoots, posters and artwork. When MySpace appeared he took it all online – and suddenly he was too busy for some of his previous pursuits.
“It was time to stop getting arrested and start taking music seriously,” he laughs, clearly not missing a career illegally riding mopeds across farmer’s fields. “Saturday morning’s better when you don’t wake up in a cell…”
When John left school what he really wanted to be was a mechanic, but halfway through his first term he realised he was spending more time asleep in the back recovering from gigs than he was learning about carburettors.
“I was sat in class writing songs,” he says. “I’d gone totally over music and once I know what I want to do, I do it.”
With that decision made, John moved to Leeds, where he studied at the College of Music, “A bit of culture was coming into my life,” he says. Student life opened up his mind, provoking a rash of new songs. John describes his three years in Leeds as, “both brilliant and horrible”. Two of his closest friends died in the same tragic car crash, while weeks would pass in a hazy, cloudy blur. Later John got a job as a glass collector, then as a cocktail barman, and his gigs just got better and better. For the first time, he felt accepted. “Leeds was all about your personality, about who you were,” he says. “By the end of my time there I knew what I was doing was fucking cool.”
Next stop, naturally, was London. John moved into a “grotty old warehouse” and started again. It was while working at the Old Dairy in Stroud Green that he first met and formed his first band with Piers Agget, sometime before the latter would form Rudimental. Soon the two gathered a band around them and began playing gigs across town. John’s new job at the Silver Bullet in Finsbury Park introduced him to a whole new community of thirsty musicians who would gig there, jam there, “and smoke there”, John laughs.
And those songs coming down the pipe? There’s Cheating, the story of a vulnerable boyfriend who forgave his unfaithful partner, written with his old guitarist, Jack, who he found living in a tent in an abandoned corner of a warehouse. Gold Dust is about finally opening up to someone and saying, “Listen, I’ve got to tell you something…” Losing Sleep is about someone left alone, “like a child scared of the night”, racked with fear and paranoia, while standout “Out Of My Head”, which takes the pace down a notch or two, tackles being fantastically lonely and dealing with it all by getting pissed every night of the week. Sometimes a busy bar is the best place to be because at least there you’ll find people to talk to.
When John talks about his love of Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye and Adele, or piano classics like Liquid’s “Sweet Harmony” or Black Box’s “Ride On Time”, that small town boy who fell in love with music without ever knowing it could provide him with an escape, appears right there in front of you.
“I don’t like silence,” he says, gathering up his things as he heads back to the studio. “When it’s silent I think too much. I realise now that I like the sound of sitting on hills, listening to the wind and the birds. We should all listen to that more because when you really listen, you don’t feel alone anymore…”