John Newman On “Olé,” His Stateside Ambitions & His Pal Calvin Harris (Yep, They’ve Got Another Song Coming): Interview
Four years, two albums, three UK chart-topping smashes and two US Platinum singles after making his debut via Rudimental‘s euphoric dance hit “Feel The Love,” John Newman refuses to pause for even one day to relax.
Okay, that’s actually not entirely true. While sitting down for a chat in the offices of his American label, Republic, Newman admits that he has taken a lone, one-week vacation since 2012.
“I went on holiday. I was bored shitless,” the 26-year-old singer admits. “I didn’t know what to do, and my ex-girlfriend was like, ‘Just sit down and relax by the pool.’ We’re not getting anything done! It’s not productive! I came off the back of that and, sure enough, the relationship went downhill and my career started going back up.”
You’ve no doubt witnessed the recent press dust-up over Newman’s current single, the smooth and breezy reggae-pop number “Olé.” It’s marks the second time in two years he’s released a track in conjunction with Calvin Harris (following “Blame”), and rumor had it briefly that the lyrics were a reflection on Harris’ ex, Taylor Swift. They’re not, in fact. But it was the type of perfectly-timed, unplanned happy coincidence that’s put John front and center again at a time when he’s feeling more productive than ever. (Spoiler alert: There is yet a third Newman/Harris single “that’s coming out soon,” John reveals.)
Head below to catch our chat with the extremely prolific pop star known as John Newman.
I spoke with Bruce Felder, aka Sigala, in May. He gave his version of how your recent collaboration, “Give Me Your Love,” happened. Would you like to hear it? JOHN NEWMAN: Did it involve online dating?
No! Wait…this sounds much more exciting than what he told me. JN: Swiping left and right. [Laughs]
He said you didn’t want to work with him at first, because he used a Jackson 5 sample in “Easy Love.” But then you apparently came around when you heard his follow-up single. JN: [Laughs] I love that. That is actually true. I never really take things on through record labels. I never really like when they suggest doing a collab and things like that. I think, “No, because I’ve never met them.” It’s weird — you get in a room with somebody and spend the first day getting to know the person. With Calvin, I think it’s a natural progression; Nile, natural progression; Rudimental, very much a natural progression. With Bruce, it was my A&R Louis [Bloom] who rang me and said, “Do you want to work with Sigala on a few tracks?” I was like, “Who’s Sigala?” Then I listened to the radio and realized he knicked the Jackson 5 sample and I was like, “No chance. I’m not havin’ that.” About 30 minutes later I was driving in the car, and on British radio they played his new single. I was like, “Woah — that’s good.” I had to do the really, really awkward call to my A&R and say I was up for it. I’m so glad. I think that’s a lesson that I learned: Don’t judge anyone for anything. You always get reminded of that.
It was a good experience for all. JN: It was a good thing. We’re still working on stuff [together] now and will continue for awhile. I think that’s the thing with people that I collaborate with; it’s not just a one-night stand. It’s a long relationship.
Did Sigala already have the track for “Give Me Your Love” done when you went into the studio with him? JN: No. There’s some amazing facts about that track. I went in and I was laying down some bits of guitar and stuff. I was like, “Mate, you gotta keep the guitar in there. It’s fresh as fuck.” He was like, “It’s a dance track, though. You can’t put guitar in there.” I was like, “What?” Then Nile sent in the guitar bits, and I’m really proud to say that the actual chorus is me playing the guitar because we preferred it over what Nile had done. [Laughs] But we totally started that [song] from fresh, and it was the first day, first thing we’d done together. I think it was a track I needed to make. It was in my system. Same for him, as well. It was like something different for him. That’s why I was pushing him so hard. I was like, “Mate, this has got to be your next single. It’s different to what you’ve done before, but it still relates.” As soon as we got Nile on it — and I’m not speaking in an egotistical way — I think it was a good thing, for longevity, for Bruce.
Did I just see you did some acting on camera? JN: I studied acting, and I told my American agent that I wanted to do acting. The first thing that came in was this Star Wars spinoff. I did an audition tape for this Hans Solo spinoff that’s coming and felt like that went really well. Didn’t really hear anything back. I wasn’t expecting to. But then in that period of waiting, I kind of talked myself out of it. I was like, “If I go in and act as Hans Solo and I’m really bad, I’ve fucked it. That’s it! My music career, everything’s gonna be over because I’m gonna be known as that guy that messed up when he tried acting.” So what I’ve done is gone back to the UK and gone down an independent route. I’ve done this really cool Danish crime murder mystery thing. It’s just a small part, but it’s literally going from the ground up, so if I do it, it’s good. I’m still getting audition tapes and I’m still sending them back. But it’s just one of those things. I’m just another kid trying to get a part at the moment.
“Olé,” your current single, sees you reunited with Calvin Harris, two years after you two released “Blame.” How is collaborating with Calvin different from any other producer? JN: Calvin’s a one-man machine that is very focused. It’s a delight to work with him. He’s a very, very good friend, so we can be very honest with each other. I said when you collaborate with people differently every day, like songwriters and stuff, you spend the first day getting to know somebody and the second day deciding whether they like you once they’ve gotten to know you. With Calvin, as soon as we get together, we work on an idea. We’re constantly working on stuff. It was a a natural progression. I think the hard thing we had to do this time — you know, I can jump straight on his tracks and I’ll come up with a hook, straightaway, and it’ll gel and it’ll work. We’ve just done a new one that’s coming out soon. But with “Ole,” we had to be a bit more scientific in a certain sort of way. We had to stop and think a bit more, because it had to be different.
I’ve already seen speculation and people wanting to talk to me more, in terms of journalists, and more attention from doing that. Do you know what the amazing thing is? I’ve had texts and congratulations from songwriters saying, “It’s very brave, but I like it.” That’s the thing: I had to do something very brave and different to catch people off guard, so people don’t just go, “Oh, it’s John Newman,” and pass it by — or not even perk up an ear to know who it is. With this one, it stops you a little bit, because it is very different to what’s on the radio at the moment. It’s very different to what I’ve put on the radio before and very different to what Calvin’s put on the radio. We talked about longevity before and careers and you’ve got to do things a little bit different, with Bruce. And I think this was the time for me to do that. I’m really excited for what’s to come after this. It’s opened up a new door of I can go anywhere now.
Another thing that’s new for you is that you didn’t write or produce the song, and you usually have a hand in both of those areas. JN: Calvin wrote it all and he produced it all, and I just went in and sang on it. I think it was quite nice to not be caught up in my head. “Shit, do I need to change this? Do I need to change that?” It was refreshing to let someone else take control.
Is there an upcoming album lying in wait? JN: There’s no record at the moment. The beautiful thing is, there is a record, but people are getting to listen to the record by each single I put out. I’m almost giving people a preview early, because I want to do six singles. I’m really enjoying the idea of making [songs that are] different from each other, that are strong in itself. And the way I can see that working is by doing singles. I think a John Newman album wouldn’t work right now, and I don’t want to stop. So what do I do?
In other words, you’re keeping busy in the meantime. JN: I will always produce. I’m producing for other people. I’m making loads of tracks at the moment. Like I said, after “Olé,” I’ve got another Calvin track, and then I’m preparing a single myself for after that. I’ve got another collaboration in the works. I’m working on a duet kind of thing, ballady thing at the moment. My input is still so strong. It’s not like I’ve turned around like, “Right. I’m just gonna sing other people’s songs now.” I just needed a little flip for a moment, and now I’m inspired again.
Who else are you producing for? NJ: I’ve just started up a record company and a publishing company — a very Motown-esque kind of thing. I’ve literally just found my first artist and started working with her. She’s called Gia, and she’s really talented and really incredible. I’ve wrote this track and produced it all with her. The feedback has been amazing. Gia worked in a cafe in the studio where I’ve got a studio. [I’m also] working with huge pop acts, writing for them.
It appears like you’ve been on the go since your first single with Rudimental, “Feel The Love,” topped the UK chart in 2012. Have you taken a vacation? JN: This year is so full-on, and I’ve one hundred percent asked for it. 2015 was a year that I worked so much, but I got caught up in a relationship where I was being distracted a little bit and I let it distract me a little bit. And then I came out of that and I was like, “What the fuck have I been doing? I’ve released an album and I’ve released these singles, and I don’t feel like I’ve worked hard enough. I don’t feel like it was the best I could have possibly given.” My favorite project is always my next project. It’s like Enzo Ferrari said, his next car is always his favorite. You learn so much about the project you’re making whilst making it, and you learn even more once it’s released. So now, [“Olé”] is the best thing I’ve ever done!
But I took one week off since 2012, where I went on holiday. I was bored shitless. I didn’t know what to do, and my ex-girlfriend was like, “Just sit down and relax by the pool.” We’re not getting anything done! It’s not productive! I came off the back of that and, sure enough, the relationship went downhill and my career started going back up. I’m getting to that point, though, where I could take a good chunk [of time off]. But then I’ll take a day and I’ll be somewhere like, “I need to hit the studio!” It’s probably never gonna happen, in all honesty, until I drop.
You’ve not toured the States much. JN: I’ve done one. And then we were gonna do a second one, a bigger one, and something fucked up — something to do with money somewhere — and I rebelled.
Money is usually the root of problems, isn’t it? JN: Oh, that was it — I had to pay for it! I wasn’t going to be given any money to do [the tour], so I went, “Well, I won’t do it.” [Laughs] And the thing was, in the States, I really didn’t have a single to go with [the tour]. I’ve learned a lot about the States and I’m really ready for it now. I don’t feel like I was [three years ago]. I feel like I was a hype, and I don’t want to be a hype. Now I feel like I know what I need. The music’s got to be incredible. You’ve got to write brilliant pop songs that stick here. I’ve learned that. I don’t feel like “Cheating,” my second single, was strong enough to be a smash in the States. “Love Me Again” did really well, but there’s only so long you can ride on one thing. I think it worked for the best, though. It gave me a preview of what I could have, and a start to a career here. Now I’m ready, so next year you will see me back in the States, one hundred percent.