As the voice of two No 1 singles already, John Newman understandably has plenty of people to thank on his forthcoming debut album. The title track, Tribute, begins with a quickfire list of musical inspirations that stretches from Wilson Pickett to Eminem, before the lyrics go on to praise those from the singer’s personal life — even some who have done him wrong.
“I’ve got to thank everyone, whether they’ve been bad or good, because they’ve all changed my life in a little way,” he tells me. “There are so many songs on my hard drive that have been written when I’m not in a break-up, I’m happy in a relationship or nobody’s pissed me off, and they just don’t cut it. They’re not the same.”
Thankfully for the rest of us, at just 23 the big man with the croaky voice and the stripey hair has plenty of tear-jerking material to draw upon for his album (out on Universal/Island on October 14). There’s been a father who left when he was little, a childhood spent feeling like an outsider in the small town of Settle in the Yorkshire Dales, a major break-up with a girlfriend and then, as the egg-size cherry on the cake, a brain tumour just as his pop career was taking off.
As the story goes, Newman heard the first radio airing of Feel the Love, his No 1 collaboration with dance collective Rudimental and the sound of the summer in 2012, from a hospital bed. Not quite true, he corrects. “I was in a waiting room, waiting for the surgeon to tell me how she was going to operate on me in three days’ time. I’d been working for so long and so hard towards this. It felt like a massive stab in the back.”
The tumour on his pituitary gland put so much pressure on his optic nerve that he still can’t see to one side today. They took it out through his nose. “It was caught very late so I was in quite a bad place,” he says. Although it was largely benign there were some cancerous cells so he now has to return for regular checks. “It’s horrible because I’m trying to move on and I have to keep going back. I honestly still feel like it’s coming back every time until I see the doctor. Every time I get on a plane I feel like my head’s about to blow up from the pressure.”
The episode put his career on hold for about six months. He first signed with Island Records two years ago. They waited for him to recover then sat to one side while he worked with Rudimental on a rival label (another hit single, the drum and bass rush of Not Giving In, also featured his mighty pipes) before he paid them back by sending his first solo single to the top of the charts this July.
Love Me Again is a monster of a song, with its pounding piano, northern soul horns and that voice roaring over the top. While we’re talking in Newman’s record company offices, a man from the label pops in to give him a framed disc commemorating its reaching number one in seven countries.
It falls into the heavily populated retro soul field also occupied by Amy Winehouse, Adele and Plan B’s second album but with one foot in the world of dance music there are no cobwebs on Newman’s vigorous tunes. The next single, Cheating, released on Sunday, whooshes along on a wave of strings and keys, every bit as catchy as its predecessors. Another gigantic tune, Gold Dust, has both a gospel feel and the high-pitched sampled vocals familiar from some recent hip hop.
“I love the music I make and I love making it, and that’s why it is different to everyone else’s. I don’t care what fits on Radio 1’s A list, though I’m so thankful that my music does. I just want to make music that I enjoy.”
Newman developed twin passions for music and motocross biking as a teenager in Settle. He left to go to Leeds College of Music, where he had an acoustic folk-soul style and early bandmates included two members of Mercury-nominated jazz group Roller Trio. “You can conquer Leeds quite quickly, I think. I was selling out acoustic gigs. That’s what made me come to London.” Down here, in his early twenties, he met the Rudimental boys while he was working in a pub. He doesn’t perform live with them any more but says they’re still good friends.
Now he lives in Islington, though he says it doesn’t feel like home. Last night he played a homecoming show at Settle’s 300-capacity Victoria Hall, a proud moment but not without some awkwardness, he confesses beforehand. “It’s a bit weird. I hate turning up there like Johnny Big Bollocks.”
His mum, who lives around the corner from the venue, attended but not his dad. They’re not in touch. “Because he left when I was six it left me a bit vulnerable. But I decided I weren’t going to take any more shit. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to teach myself a lot of things and look after myself. I’m so glad I grew up without a dad because I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t like to rely on people. I like making my own decisions.”
It’s another positive spin on difficult circumstances, as with the tumour, which he now says “inspired me, and matured me massively. I was the kind of guy who would stay up till four in the morning, gettting stoned with my mates playing FIFA. I’ve stopped all that.”
The next goal is kicking a 20-a-day cigarette habit. Newman seems to be a guy who gets what he wants, so it shouldn’t take long. But whatever struggle he has in the future, at least he’ll get another great song out of it.