Lewis Capaldi is on top of the world in the back of a cab, not long off a plane from New York to find that back home his single, Someone You Loved, has held on to the number one spot for a third week and is likely to make it a fourth today. The sudden success of the 22-year-old’s heartbroken ballad has put him in such demand that he can only find time to talk to me in a taxi, which is shuttling him between an interview for one music magazine south of the river and a photoshoot for another out east.
He’s coping remarkably well – cold, coldsores, spots and general deathly Scottish pallor aside – articulating his surprise at sitting ahead of global stars such as Ariana Grande, Pink and Sam Smith in the hit parade in a slightly more elegant manner than he does on his popular Twitter feed, where he calls himself “Lewis Calamari” (typical post: “NUMBER FUCKING ONE FOR THE THIRD FUCKING WEEK” followed by three lovehearts).
“It’s mad, man. At the risk of sounding falsely humble, it never ever ever was on the cards for me to have a top 10 single,” he tells me. “I’ve never had a song do that before and I probably never will again. Even now it is hard to comprehend. It doesn’t feel real. It feels like this is all happening to someone else and I’m just watching.”
The humble thing is his thing. While his fellow countryman Calvin Harris can date Taylor Swift and model underwear, Capaldi’s strip club pole dance routine in the video for his earlier single, Grace, relies for its humour on this unsculpted Scot knowing that his sexual allure is low indeed. On social media, he’s joined James Blunt’s club of people who we’ll forgive for the soppy songs as long as they troll the trolls and give us a laugh.
Being funny is working out well for him, enabling him to stand out in a music scene where you can’t move for gruff, bulky Rag ‘n’ phoneys roaring about their feelings. While I’m waiting to meet him, a tabloid journalist phones his publicist for a response to their paper’s claim that Capaldi employs a comedy writer.
“Trust me, I do not have an online strategy,” the singer says a bit later. “At no point has anyone at the label sat me down and said, ‘Lewis, you should talk more about your pubic hair online. That’s what people want.’ Other people tweet about social causes. I use Twitter for talking absolute shit.”
It’s a jolly contrast to his songs, which tend towards slowness and sadness and are delivered in a manly rasp that he worked hard to attain after being inspired by Joe Cocker and Paolo Nutini. After hearing Someone You Loved, you’d be forgiven for checking your calendar and thinking that the John Lewis Christmas ad comes around earlier every year. Its video yanks even harder at the heartstrings, starring the actor Peter Capaldi (his dad’s second cousin, as it happens) as a grieving husband whose wife turns out to have saved a younger woman’s life through organ donation.
The lyrics are inspired by two major life events – the break-up of his first serious relationship and the more recent death of his grandmother – but the words are vague enough for anyone to claim it for their own sorrow. “I was bored of writing about the same break-up. I wanted to write something that dealt with wider themes of loss, and I wanted to do it in an open-ended way so that people could make their own story of it,” he says.
Writing this one was a slow process for Capaldi, who hacked away at it on the piano in the garden shed of his family home in Bathgate, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where he still lives. “I wouldn’t say I’m hyper-critical but I question myself quite a bit and find it hard to finish things,” he says. “But the best songs for me, I find, aren’t the ones that come quick. They’re the ones I’ve been umm-ing and ahh-ing over.”
His debut album, due in May, was already close to completion when he finally finished the song. His record label was planning to put its promotional muscle behind another piano ballad titled Bruises, which is currently hovering in the 50s on the chart but hasn’t yet become a proper hit despite streaming numbers that have passed 100 million. “In hindsight, I think my manager and I both knew that Someone You Loved was a special song that we had to put out. But no one was expecting it to do so well.”
Expecting the worst seems to be going well for him so far. When he announced the May release date of his debut album, his statement said: “I hope people don’t think it’s shit. I mean don’t get me wrong there will be one or two stinkers on there, but I’m only human and we all make mistakes.” Having performed in Scottish pubs since he was 11 (he’s never had another job) he’s used to tough crowds and has survived by getting the insults in first.
“You can’t give my album a worse review than I have already given it,” he tells me, looking forward to seeing how the critics react to an album that arrives titled with the ready-made headline Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent. The phrase comes from a song of his that won’t appear on the album, Figure It Out. “That song was about looking internally and realising that I should be taking this less seriously,” he says. “Once you get your head round the title, you don’t forget it. I wanted it to be as ridiculous as possible so it would stick out a bit more.”
As the taxi pulls up outside its destination and we continue talking, I’m reminded of meeting today’s most successful affable everybloke, George Ezra. He too has talked of this music lark being no big deal and enjoying it while it lasts.
“I’m not trying to put on an act. I am genuinely perplexed by how mental this has been. Playing live and making a living from music was always the only goal. I would have been happy being in a wedding band. Even now I’d be happy doing that,” Capaldi claims, and I believe him. “By the end of last year I was already blown away by how much this had grown. I played Shepherd’s Bush Empire, went on Radio 1’s Live Lounge and played Glasgow Barrowlands twice, where I once went to see my favourite band The Maccabees. I thought, ‘This is it, this is as far as it’s gonna go, and it’s fucking amazing.’ If you start to think that this is in any way normal, or that you deserve any of this, that’s when you’re in trouble I think.”
He found the red carpet at the Brit awards “pretty weird”. He likes talking to fans, but was out drinking on St Patrick’s Day last weekend, noticed people furtively filming him on their phones and didn’t think that was acceptable. But if he gets too full of himself, his nurse mum, fishmonger dad and three older siblings will soon cut him down to size.
“I don’t want this to become my normal. When I come home, that’s what’s normal. I’m always thinking about what my family are gonna take the piss out of me for when I go back,” he says. “I just want to play live and that’s it. I I hope the people who are enjoying the music right now continue to enjoy it, and it would be nice if we got another two years out of this, but if not, that’s fine.”
If that’s all he’s hoping for, he’ll find it very hard to be disappointed with what’s to come. This unpretentious joker is well on the way to being one of Britain’s biggest new stars.
Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent is released on May 17 on Virgin EMI.
Nov 29, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9. o2academybrixton.co.uk