The Soul of John Newman
ABOVE: JOHN NEWMAN. PHOTO BY VITA HEWISON
If the name John Newman doesn’t instantly ring a bell, his voice—that soul-laden voice—almost certainly will. He first appeared as the vocalist for electronic quartet, Rudimental, on their worldwide hit “Feel the Love”—a song that, for many, defined the summer of 2012 and was followed by another hit, “Not Giving In,” and a world tour. All good practice for a man whose ambition is to compete with the likes of One Direction when it comes to levels of success.
When he met us in the offices of a West London record label, Newman commanded the room, with his broad stature, trademark striped quiffed hair, and wolf-like eyes, exuding focus and determination. Here, he speaks with Interview about the making of a “breakup album,” the journey he took while doing so, and the terrifying hospital ordeal that preceded it all.
HOLLY RUBENSTEIN: Your debut single, “Love Me Again,” hit the number-one spot in 16 countries across the globe. How has life changed?
JOHN NEWMAN: It’s fucking busy, mate! I can’t get a good night’s sleep. If I’m not busy I start twiddling my thumbs, though. I’m feeling massively creative, which means the second album’s coming, which is good.
RUBENSTEIN: Your debut album is called Tribute. Whom is it a tribute to?
NEWMAN: I wanted to say thank you to everyone that has known me. I’m still quite small-minded and small-town, and people look at me like, “You’re too famous to remember me.” I want to give them a tap on the shoulder and thank them.
RUBENSTEIN: You’ve described it as a breakup album. Has your ex heard it or given you any feedback?
NEWMAN: I presume so. There was this horrible English press thing that got out at the start of all of this, where the press said that I cheated on my ex-girlfriend and treated her like shit. She saw that, and it was horrible because that wasn’t the case. I felt bad, and I felt like pulling the album because I was scared that it was all going to turn on her. Touch wood, I’ve been lucky since in that the press don’t want to know me, and I don’t get pictures taken of me when I leave clubs.
RUBENSTEIN: You’re not after that kind of fame?
NEWMAN: Exactly. I don’t want to date celebrities, I don’t want to roll out of clubs absolutely steaming, make an idiot out of myself. I want to concentrate on my music career.
RUBENSTEIN: You were inspired by a breakup—so would you consider yourself the male Adele in terms of your subject matter?
NEWMAN: I do like expressing how I feel about things in my music. People keep comparing me to people, and I just ignore it. It’s nice, but I can’t walk away from this room with the pressure of Adele’s songs on me, when I’m trying to be a songwriter. My A&R was very close to Amy Winehouse. Just before my breakup, I was really struggling to get something out, because I was so happy. I’d just had a number one single, I was touring the world with Rudimental, I was happy in my relationship, and I’d just got through being ill. [John had major surgery to remove a non-cancerous brain tumor.] I was writing songs about shit, I had nothing to express! He turned around and said, “You know mate, we need that lyric. We need Love Is A Losing Game.” As soon as he said that, I thought every song I wrote just wasn’t as good as that. I’ve stopped doing that now. I’m somebody different.
RUBENSTEIN: I hear the album is very much your own project?
NEWMAN: Yeah! I designed and created my album artwork. I chose that picture, and I designed the shirt I’m wearing. I MD my own band. I wrote the “Love Me Again” video treatment. I have such a creative vision that I don’t want to let it go. I don’t think people have known me long enough to take it off my hands.
RUBENSTEIN: Was it stifling for you, then, when you were fronting Rudimental, because it wasn’t your own project?
NEWMAN: Yeah a little bit. But Piers (from Rudimental) is like a brother of mine, and we still work together musically. I felt like I was fulfilling my creativeness, but I did feel like I was being held back in what I was trying to achieve in the long run with my project. Through it all I stayed in the studio and was working on my own album.
RUBENSTEIN: What is your favorite track on the album, and why?
NEWMAN: I’m going to pick two, “Love Me Again” aside. If I had to pick a song that said, “This is John Newman,” it would be “Out Of My Head.” It’s the song that came right in the middle of the breakup. It’s just me. The other favourite is “Tribute,” which came in very last. I hadn’t written the lyrics to it two days before I recorded the vocal because I was letting it brew and live, and letting the feelings come.
RUBENSTEIN: You grew up in Settle, in the Yorkshire Dales—I imagine that was quite remote?
NEWMAN: Very remote. Nobody had anything good to do but fight, and the police had nothing better to do than arrest people. I was a big rugby player and into my motocross, so I lost loads of weight and a rumor went around the town that I had picked up a drug addiction! I didn’t see a future there. I went and studied music in Leeds. It really woke me up socially, to stop being so naïve and narrow-minded.
RUBENSTEIN: What music did you listen to growing up?
NEWMAN: My mum played a lot of Motown and soul stuff. I then went on to become more intelligent about soul than my mum. That happened when I moved to Leeds and started getting into Otis Redding, studying Motown, and their recording techniques because they were so genius. I can listen to a Motown record now and tell you if it was recorded in Studio A or Studio B from the way you can hear the drums. I was also really into ’90s house, funky house and hip-hop—the likes of Jadakiss, 50 Cent, and Ludacris.
RUBENSTEIN: Who do you think is the most underrated singer out there?
NEWMAN: Hannah from London Grammar. It’s mental that she’s like this Hollywood-beautiful person—you look at her and you just go, Wow. And then you come into the music and her voice is sat there with Adele, Amy Winehouse, Lana Del Rey, in the middle. You don’t compare it to anyone else because it’s such a classic voice.
RUBENSTEIN: Tell me about the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
NEWMAN: I was sat in a waiting room, in a hospital, three hours before the operation to remove my tumor. I was shaking like a shitting dog and really scared. My girlfriend at the time—who the album is about—put the radio on, and we had totally forgotten that Zane Lowe was playing “Feel The Love” as his Hottest Record. It put a smile on my face but also made me think, shit, I really need to get through this. The Rudimental boys were brilliant. They kept coming to see me in hospital and reminding me that as soon as I got through we were off to have some fun. I just wanted to be better so badly. There were so many times that the doctor would come around and I was sat on my bed, in a suit, with drips in my arm, asking, “Can I go home now?” And they were like, “No!”
RUBENSTEIN: What was more exciting—when “Feel The Love” hit number one, or when “Love Me Again” reached the top spot?
NEWMAN: Both were a little bit weird—the exact same feeling, which I thought would be different. It was surreal. I think it’s all part of the big plan, so I can continue doing this forever. I just knew that that was just the start. I jumped on a train to Paris to do promo the next day after “Love Me Again” was number one in the UK, because I only had a number one in one country and One Direction had got 65 countries the week before. I just thought, one is not enough.
RUBENSTEIN: What has been your career highlight, so far?
NEWMAN: So far, having a number one in 16 countries. Sixteen is pretty strong.
RUBENSTEIN: What are your plans for the US?
NEWMAN: I’ll be there in January, gigging and doing lots of promo. I’ve sold 22,000 singles there already after just a couple of radio plays. Hopefully I’ll get back out there in March for a full-on tour.
JOHN NEWMAN‘S DEBUT ALBUM, TRIBUTE, IS OUT IN THE U.K. OCTOBER NOW, AND HIS LOVE ME AGAIN EP IS OUT IN THE U.S. ON OCTOBER 15. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.