John Newman: a bright light of soul
The new voice of Yorkshire talks about giving up his dream of being a mechanic and how his mum’s love of Northern Soul is a gift that keeps on giving
It began with Feel the Love. Actually, the John Newman story began much earlier than that smash hit – stories are never as cut and dried as the narrative arc demands – but the release of Feel the Love was when everything clicked into focus. It was when the world took a good look at the strapping singer – a man who was all set to be a mechanic until things went in a different direction – and decided it liked the cut of his jib.
For Newman, Feel the Love was a calling card. Although his is not the name in the biggest type, his magnificent soulful voice is clearly the biggest, boldest, brightest sound on it. An electrohouse throbber recorded with and released by Rudimental, Feel the Love sounded like a winning lottery ticket. And then, just to prove that was no fluke, Newman collaborated with Rudimental again on Not Giving In. Two out of two. His numbers came up again.
At this stage of the proceedings we need to pause the fairy tale and establish how Newman got to this point. He grew up in a small, remote Yorkshire town called Settle, where, he says, “nobody had anything to do but fight”.
The young Newman was interested in sports such as rugby and motocross and occasionally getting into a spot of bother, but music was also very much on the agenda. His mum was a huge northern soul fan and she gave him a love for those fierce, emotional sounds. His older brother was in a band and that too filled his teenage head with ideas.
Newman remembers DJ-ing at parties and weddings, sticking pop music of every hue onto the playlist to get older relatives dancing and jigging. Then, there was a makeshift studio at home in a cupboard under the stairs which became his alternative universe.
He was certainly on track to make music, even if singing didn’t initially float his boat. “I just didn’t see it as creative,” he explains. “I wanted to be something else – a DJ, a producer, a songwriter for other people. I didn’t think my voice was expressive. It was just something to use to say a lyric.”
After school, he was on his way to be a mechanic, but that soon took a back seat as he realised that music was what he truly and passionately wanted to pursue and, at 16, Newman moved to Leeds to study music production.
A few twists of fate then took him in another direction. Shortly after arriving in Leeds, two of his closest friends were killed in a car crash. Newman found himself dealing with the outcome from that tragedy by singing.
“I was in a right state after that because we were so close and they were so young. I just couldn’t get over it or understand it. I’d sit in my little flat in Leeds just crying and messed up.
“But I also had a guitar and I started writing down was going through my head. It took me a while but I realised that I was getting over what had happened by singing, that this was my way of sorting myself out.”
By day, he was building his confidence through his college course. “It was only when I got to college and did a performance course that I got a band together (an acoustic folk act with members of Leeds’ jazz act Roller Trio) and began to realise I could be more than a session player or songwriter. It really opened things up for me. It was really good for me because it showed me that I had to go out and do live gigs like everyone else.”
He headed down to London, got a job in a pub called the Old Dairy, and started to put in time on his music – and then things took another turn when he met Piers Aggett. Aggett was working in the same pub and playing in a band called Rudimental. One thing led to another and Newman found himself singing Feel the Love.
His raw, emotional voice transformed the song from a slow, jazzy thing into the stuff of a worldwide smash. Then he did it again with Not Giving In. Newman was now ready for the next step: a solo album. “I didn’t want to be just known as the Rudimental singer. I knew I’d a lot more than that. Not Giving In was me showing people that it was my songwriting and it started to establish me as a solo artist.”
While all of the Rudimental fuss was beginning to take off, Newman had other concerns to deal with. He discovered that he had a non-cancerous tumour on his brain which had to be removed. While he was in hospital, he heard Feel the Love on the radio for the first time. “It was quite a moment because it made things a little bit easier and helped me think about what was to come.”
With a deal already in his back pocket from Island Records, he had been working on his own debut album. He had the guts of the songs in mind, too, following the break-up of a relationship.
“It was my first full-on relationship and I needed to write about it and express it otherwise I was going to end up in a state. I seem to write best when I’m lonely or down, I think. I learn how to deal with my emotions by singing and writing down lyrics. When you write about it, you can deal with it and move on. You can be intense and put it all into the songs or you can go down the pub and make yourself feel better that way.”
It’s interesting that Newman, like many soulmen and women, seems to be able to write better when he is suffering and hurting. “I like to make uplifting, happy songs and I’ve written loads when I’m happy with myself and in my relationship and when I’m not in a bad mood, but they’re just not the same.”
The album, Tribute, is also a tribute to the music which has inspired him to date. You can hear it all in the mix: the northern soul from the tracks his mother played again and again at home in Settle; the small hours’ heartbreak and torment of Otis Redding’s Otis Blue, which got him through the hard times when his friends died; and the euphoric house grooves which powered many nights out.
His mother’s soul fascination in particular has paid off in spades. Newman has spoken in the past about how he can listen to a Motown song and recognise the studio it was recorded in, but his own album has taken the soul, the feeling, the emotion and power knitted into the fabric of the source material, and created a whole new pattern with it.
“Music always relates to a certain time and place for me and the album is full of those memories. With influences, you kind of look at everything and absorb it, but you don’t even realise you’re doing it. In my head it all builds up into one little pot and comes out in my music, my style and in everything I do.”
That’s Newman in a nutshell, then, a man who truly believes in what he’s doing and who’s doing this for the right reasons. There’s no artifice, no pretence – just a singer singing his heart out and winning you over with sweet soul music.
“People want to listen songs that are real and by real people,” he says. “I’m not about fame or celebrity or that fake talent show world and I really believe that this is what most people want as well. I want to make the records that they love and believe in.”
Five great soul pop albums of recent vintage to check out if John Newman’s Tribute has you in the mood for that throwback thing . . .
NICK WATERHOUSE: Time’s All Gone
He looks like Buddy Holly, but sings and swings like Smokey Robinson. The Californian’s debut album was full of meaty songs all done up with strong, timeless hooks and riffs.
RAPHAEL SAADIQ: The Way I See It
Former member of Lucy Pearl and Tony! Toni! Tone! and producer for The Roots, D’Angelo, John Legend and Joss Stone. Saadiq hit a groove on his third solo album by taking his cues from the Motown archives. Suited and booted to match the album’s delirious vintage soul two-step.
MIGUEL: Kaleidoscope Dream
Miguel Pimentel’s second album is full of tracks (see big number Adorn) which sizzle with rich, deep soul and offer shades of psychedelia, disco and prime-time balladry.
FITZ & THE TANTRUMS: Pickin’ Up the Pieces
A hot-to-trot band led by the hyperactive Michael Fitzpatrick and charismatic soul sister Noelle Scaggs shake it loose with a punky, high-velocity take on Sixties soul and pop.
AMY WINEHOUSE: Back to Black
The retro soul classic to beat all retro soul classics. You can trace so much of the current fondness for soul redos back to the tragic singer’s second album, which still sounds fresh and invigorating seven years-plus after its release.