John Newman: Settle For Nothing

Clash speaks to the number-one pop newcomer of 2013…

Life’s been tough since the recession struck. Many of us have lost savings, or houses, or the ability to shop at Waitrose, whatever… We’ve all faced some hardship.

But when John Newman lost his London bar job it proved an accidental catalyst that saw him go from claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance to signing a record deal and topping the UK charts in just six months.

Teaming up with electro-pop masters Rudimental, he provided vocals for their ubiquitous number one single ‘Feel The Love’ in the summer of 2012, and then hit the top spot again with first solo release ‘Love Me Again’: a romping northern soul meets drum‘n’bass fusion of brass and beats. Now, his debut album ‘Tribute’ (Clash review) has furthered that success – the record went straight to the top spot in October, and charted highly on the continent, too.

So how did this blend of retro northern soul and modern electronica come about? It all stems from an incongruous sleepy North Yorkshire town called Settle – the very name of which implies a decision to renege on aspirational thinking and accept a tedious life.

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John Newman, ‘Love Me Again’

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Newman tells of a youth filled with boredom, a small town with small-mindedness in abundance, where parochial mindsets led to lads “beating the shit out of each other” to impress girls. Newman was no angel either, and once got into a police chase on a motocross bike: “I went onto a rugby field and they blocked off the exit, so it was just me and a police car going up and down the field until I ran out of fuel,” he laughs with jack-the-lad nostalgia.

“I wasn’t a drug-dealer or anything. I was just up for a laugh,” clarifies Newman, who was more a sensitive soul in a tough town, lacking a father figure when his own left after being consumed by alcoholism. He was vulnerable because everyone else had “hard dads” who would stick up for them, but kept out of further mischief by hiding away in a cupboard underneath the stairs that he’d made into a makeshift studio.

Nestling in around the gas and electric meters, Newman learned how to produce. That cupboard must’ve sounded like the smallest nightclub in the world to his poor mum, who would’ve heard a mixture of house, hip-hop, and drum‘n’bass being blasted from tinny laptop speakers. She is the source of the northern soul and Motown streak that make ‘Tribute’ sumptuously rich. Newman would wake up with soul compilations spinning in the house: “It was like she was secretly injecting it into me.”

He didn’t appreciate the Motown osmosis until leaving Settle to study a two-year music theory diploma at Leeds College of Music, where he picked up ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’ from the library and listened to it intently while grieving for a friend who’d recently passed away. From there he studiously pored over the era’s names and their techniques.

“When I listen to a Motown song, I can tell you what studio it was recorded in from the position of the drums and how far away the brass section is,” he’s able to say, and his album’s title-track illustrates this knowledge by listing greats from the ’60s onwards – “Wilson Pickett, Aaron Neville, Aretha Franklin” – until the chorus booms, “It’s all for you / For what you have made me / It’s my tribute,” amid a lush backdrop incorporating cinematic strings with northern soul flourishes.

Other lyrics allude to childhood troubles and those who’ve helped him overcome adversity. Verses speak of the “vicious world I was captured in”, and those who “lit the lights I’d been dampening”.

Studying at Leeds proved important in breaking out of the Settle mentality and made the boy into a man: “From a social aspect I learned so much. I shouldn’t say this, but when I was a kid I was a chav and you’d instantly hate moshers, whereas I started to learn at Leeds that everyone around me was there for the same reason as me, for the thing I’d fallen in love with but didn’t know how to express, which was music.”

People encouraged his creativity, which was now truly out of the closet (or cupboard). But after throwing his mortarboard in the air, Newman knew the big city had to come next.

He worked at the Old Dairy pub in Stroud Green while concentrating on music, but ironically the bar job had more of an instantaneous impact. How do those clichéd jokes go? A man walks into a bar… The man in this case was Piers Agget – now of Rudimental – who joined Newman’s band on keys. The two are “like brothers now”, with a near telepathic chemistry in the studio.

Newman eventually lost his job for trying to network too much from behind the bar: “I was too nice and started giving drinks away all the time,” he says. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant now – he’s not going back for a reference.

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Rudimental feat. John Newman, ‘Feel The Love’

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Agget and his family gave the newly unemployed musician a place to call home and allowed him to use the dole time to hone his craft. “I felt like I became part of that family. I can’t thank them enough.” Meanwhile he and the Rudimental fellas were hanging around in the studio, and while jamming Newman wrote the middle-eight for a song that became ‘Feel The Love’, one that would chart in nine countries across the world.

Two weeks after that, a mutual friend of theirs tried to kill himself, so they wrote a song for him called ‘Not Giving In’ – a second future Rudimental single featuring Newman and Alex Clare on vocal duties.

It wasn’t long until labels started turning up at shows, and soon after he signed to Island to begin work on the album in a studio next door to one Adele frequented. Unfortunately though, the dream as he imagined it was tainted by personal problems – something that inspires an informed lyrical undercurrent to the lively record.

There’s still a part of that Yorkshire rapscallion within him that means emotional release can only come through indirect means: “To my friends and family I open my heart, but there’s a part I keep locked up that goes into my music. I was in a good situation and then my girlfriend, who I’d been with for a long time and was massively in love with… huge problems started coming in the relationship, and sure enough the album started changing.”

That’s why the uplifting pop hooks in ‘Tribute’ carry poignancy. Relationship problems inform the premise of his first solo UK number one, ‘Love Me Again’, which was the apex at which things began to change: “That was when I jumped on a train down to Dorset, where she’d gone to for work for three months, and said, ‘Can we get back together?’” he explains.

The final embers of that bond burning out inspire a piano-driven confessional named ‘Out Of My Head’, in which the scene is set with vivid lyrics (“Living in a broken home alone / 16 weeks since you’ve been gone”) that find Newman sitting in a house he’s filled with memories of a now-absent partner.

“I was walking around this bleak house that used to be so warm and the way to deal with that for me was to go to the pub and get wankered. It didn’t feel like the same house anymore,” he explains in a more clinical tone. Now he’s exorcised these demons, and though he uses the emotional intensity they summon to inform his vocals, he’s moved on. “I like to make fun, uplifting songs, but with a personal sentiment that’s mine,” he sums up.

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John Newman, ‘Cheating’

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Words: Simon Butcher

This article originally appeared in Clash’s Pop Issue, where it was accompanied by magazine-exclusive photography. If the idea of that tickles your fancy bits, why not click here to find out more about the issue in question, and even order it directly from us.

Find John Newman online here. Listen to ‘Tribute’ in full via Deezer, below…

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