'It's become pretty mad': Lewis Capaldi on his big breakthrough

Lewis Capaldi

Lewis Capaldi is not the first celebrity to be caught with his head down a toilet in a Hollywood hotel room, but he’s probably the first to film it for our viewing pleasure.

“It won’t flush, it’s stuck there and there’s no fucking toilet brush!” the panicked 22-year-old told his army of devotees on Instagram Stories. “I’ve got someone coming here to put make-up on my face later on – I’ve been told it’s a lady – and she’s going to come in here and go, ‘Can I use the bathroom?’ And I’ll go, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no!’ And she’ll go in and she’ll see a big pile of dirty toilet paper and she’ll run out the door, fucking screaming!”

Our sheepish hero saw the caper through to its conclusion, venturing out onto the streets of Tinseltown to buy a plunger. “I’ve had a No.1 song for five weeks in the UK,” he lamented, in the process of unblocking said malfunctioning loo. “Come to America and it all changes.”

They don’t teach you that in BRIT School...

“We were laughing about it,” chuckles Shani Gonzales of Capaldi’s publisher, BMG. “How many times do you get to see an artist, while they’re having a No.1 single, go and plunge their toilet? It’s ridiculous and brilliant at the same time. He just feels like your crazy friend.”

The heavenly-voiced singer’s online escapades (recent viral posts have covered his neighbours’ noisy bedroom antics, his purported net worth and his Tinder profile, each delivered with impeccable comedy timing), have been lapped up by the public, swelling Capaldi’s Instagram following to 1.4 million and counting (his Twitter reach now tops 345,000).

“People always say they like real, but I’m not sure they were quite aware how real it would be, when he spends so much time talking about his body parts and his ablutions,” chortles Virgin EMI president Ted Cockle. “That is definitely part of the real that seems to be connecting with people.”

The more he was himself, the more people started to connect

Ryan Walter

Interlude Artists

Capaldi’s manager Ryan Walter, who scoured SoundCloud for months before finding his man, trumpets the Scot’s much-fêted social media presence. “The older audience loves the music, but might not ‘get’ him talking about his pubes on social media, whereas young people embrace the whole package,” he deadpans. “The more he was himself, the more people started to connect.”

He’s not your archetypal pop star, but Capaldi’s unkempt charm is proving irresistable. Indeed, he may even come to personify the next phase in the genre’s evolution. “Back in the day you had polished pop artists, then Ed Sheeran, who was the first relatable everyman in the middle,” observes Walter. “Lewis is almost a step further in that. His accessibility and relatability is resonating with people because they see a bit of themselves in him.”

Music Week encounters the man of the moment backstage at Dublin’s 3Arena, preparing for the last of five support shows for Irish rock band Picture This. Bathgate-born Capaldi is in fine form, having enjoyed some of the first perks of his newfound fame in the form of a free gold card from legendary local hangout, Coppers (“I get in for free and can use a wee VIP bar”), being interviewed by Lorraine Kelly (“like speaking to your auntie) and meeting actor Danny DeVito on the set of The Jonathan Ross Show (“surreal”).

Happily recounting dressing up as a hot dog for a recent Norwegian magazine photoshoot, his mood is buoyed further by Celtic’s late win over Rangers in the lunchtime Old Firm clash. Life is pretty sweet, then?

“It’s busy, it’s definitely busy. But it’s been good, man,” grins Capaldi. “It was already mental, but it’s definitely kicked up a touch since the start of this year. It’s cool though, I like to be busy – I don’t like to be home for longer than three days. Even if I’ve got a day where I’m not doing anything, I feel a bit like I want to be out working, doing something, anything, because I feel like I’m in it now and I just want to do as much as possible.”

It wasn’t always this way, reveals Walter: “When I first met Lewis, his target was to be able to play a show at [storied Glasgow venue] King Tut’s. He was a very shy, traditional young guy from a very small town in Scotland, who loved going out drinking with his mates, didn’t like getting out of bed and didn’t turn up to college half the time.

“I’m so hungry, I love music and managing; it’s my dream and I was like, ‘Is there going to be a difficulty with our work ethics not lining up?’ It’s definitely something I was worried about for the first six months, but as he started to see what his work ethic was achieving he’s just become incredible.”

BBC Radio 1 Brit List 2018 alumnus Capaldi spent seven weeks at No.1 in early 2019 with piano ballad Someone You Loved (823,355 sales – OCC) and enjoyed another Top 40 single in Grace (324,295 sales), which peaked at No.21. His first track Bruises (294,612 sales), meanwhile, made him the fastest unsigned artist to hit 25m Spotify plays.

It is on the live scene, however, that the true scale of the Capaldi phenomenon has been felt. Selling out his 2019 November/December dates in an instant, the star announced dates at Edinburgh Summer Sessions and Scarborough Open Air Theatre (the pre-sale went faster than for Britney Spears) and will support Ed Sheeran at his UK outdoor shows in August. Last week, Capaldi sold out a handful of arena headline shows for March 2020 – uncharted waters for a new artist.

“The ticket appetite certainly seems to be an indication of the depth of feeling and affection for him at the moment,” asserts Cockle. “The agent was struggling to know of anybody that has ever managed to achieve that level of success without an album in the market.”

“Normally when your single connects, you need another single to back it up, but I think his personality is the main thing that shines through,” adds Coda agent Ryan Penty, who reps Capaldi alongside Alex Hardee. “Being on the Radio 1 Brit List really helped, as did the way they backed him through three singles. And he’s undeniably good live.

“Next year, we’re going to do very strategic plays. We don’t want to overexpose him – he’s special and he’s going to be here for a long time, so we want to do it the right way.”

The singer drops his debut album, Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent, via Virgin EMI on May 17 (“There will be one or two stinkers on there, but I’m only human and we all make mistakes, but as a whole I think it’s pretty fucking good,” read the note-perfect press release). A new single, Hold Me While You Wait, is out next month, with Bruises due for another run out later in the year.

“As much as we’ve hit the bullseye with Someone You Loved, thankfully, all the data is telling us that people are listening to a lot of his other songs already,” says Cockle. “With the way the public is reacting and the fact we’ve got stuff to come, our opening week should be reasonable and I’d like to think we can match up to the debuts so far. We think that he deserves to be a frontrunner in terms of breakthrough artists this year.”

Capaldi was signed to Universal Music Germany by exec Daniel Lieberberg, whose exit for Sony at the beginning of 2018 prompted Walter to take a more hands-on role in the project. “We made a conscious decision to stay true to what he would like to listen to and what he feels comfortable doing,” says the Interlude Artists MD. “Someone You Loved is a 2019 representation of what I call honest, real music and that was another thing that came into play during the A&R process. I was like, ‘Can a real artist, singing a ballad achieve the critical mass you need to break through in 2019?’ Fortunately, the answer has been yes.

“We did one feature – Jessie Reyez came onto one of our songs [Rush] – but it’s something we don’t want to do at this stage because we feel that Lewis’ core proposition shouldn’t be diluted.”

“He’s unique,” affirms Gonzales, co-head A&R, frontline publishing, BMG US and co-head writer services, BMG UK. “He can still connect to youth culture – and that is pervasive when you look at the charts in the UK or US – and he’s still a classic songwriter, so we can place him with any kind of producer and he rises to the occasion. The producers of [Someone You Loved] – TMS – are signed to us out of the UK, so it’s a great story for us all around.”

Divinely Uninspired... features additional collaborations with the likes of Jamie Hartman (Calvin Harris/Rag‘N’Bone Man) and Malay (Frank Ocean/Lorde), and Capaldi credits the co-writing experience with nurturing his prodigious talents.

It took writing with other people to be able to talk about myself a bit more in songs

Lewis Capaldi

“The most important thing is that it comes from you initially,” he advises. “Maybe I’ll start writing album two by myself, but I’ve definitely become a better songwriter having worked with other people. Ironically, It took writing with other people to be able to talk about myself a bit more in songs.”

As the release draws closer, Walter has become even more bullish in his projections. “We truly realise that this is already wildest dream territory. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t aspire to go beyond that,” he reflects. “I want a No.1 album. I haven’t set a numbers target, but my target is for it to be as visible for as long as possible and for us to carry on creating opportunities around that.

“The life cycle [for LPs] is insane now, and I feel like that expectation is a little bit unhealthy. People are already saying, essentially, that once you’ve put your material out on streaming platforms, you’re never going to get a big global look on another song off that album. So more and more, you’re having this conversation around, ‘Do we keep one of your best songs off the LP so that you can have another moment with it?’ In Lewis’ case, we just wanted to provide the best album possible for his fans. The longer you can keep a body of work visible, the world around Lewis will grow and I want this to be a real moment where a guy writing songs in his bedroom can prevail.”

With a few hours left until showtime, here, Music Week goes mano a mano with Capaldi for a sweary chat about selfie culture, social media and the business of music...

Can you sum up the madness of the last six months?

“Towards the end of last year we released the [Breach] EP, did Shepherd’s Bush Empire, two nights at [Glasgow] Barrowlands and then Live Lounge for Radio 1, all in the space of five days. And we had Grace, which was so close to being Top 40, but then all the fucking Christmas songs wiped it out and it wasn’t getting played on radio anymore. I suppose I’ve got a bit of imposter syndrome so I was like, ‘This is as big as it’s going to get and that’s absolutely fucking fine’. But then in January, it leapfrogged into the Top 40 for the first time. People must have just been finding it themselves, which was exciting, and then Someone You Loved really started to pick up steam.”

Bruises was the song that got you noticed, right?

“That was never meant to be a big tune, it was just a little drop in the water. I’d been writing for a year-and-a-half and I was like, ‘Let me fucking put a song out’ because I was sick of going to family gatherings with no music online and them going, ‘Are you still trying that music thing out?’ It went to No.1 on New Music Friday in America. For some reason people at Spotify and Apple showed it a lot of support and thank fuck, because they gave me a career.”

When did things take off on social media?

“Off the back of Bruises, and since February it has just taken on a life of its own. I used to use social media the exact same way I use it now, it’s just that no one was fucking listening. I stopped for about 18 months when I was 16/17 because I was like, ‘I want to be off the grid and I will be really cool’. I was just being a prick. And then, because I’d been away from it for so long, I didn’t know what to post. It’s quite hard to put yourself out there initially because it’s one thing if someone says, ‘I hate your music’. It’s another thing if they say, ‘I fucking hate you’. I don’t know when exactly, but I stopped posting things like, ‘Great show tonight in Birmingham’, and just wanted to have a laugh with it and do stuff that I was doing when I was 15. My sense of humour hasn’t evolved much – I talk about pubic hair and going for a shit and apparently that’s funny. I’m 22 years old and need to grow up, but I wanted to take the piss because there is a lot of negativity on social media. Now, there are even more people listening to me talk about fucking shiting.”

How often are you getting recognised now?

“It depends where I am, but in the UK and Ireland it’s become pretty mad, which is fine, I guess. I don’t mind taking pictures with anybody, I’m totally open for that – I like speaking to people who listen to music and it’s nice to meet people who are essentially giving you a career. But there’s this weird thing where people don’t ask you for a picture, they will just film you. I’m halfway through a Bruschetta at TGI Fridays and someone gets their phone out and starts filming! But for the most part people have been very nice to me. No one’s coming up and saying, ‘You’re a wanker’... Yet.”

Why do you think people have connected with you?

“[Puffs out cheeks] I don’t know. I wish I did, because I don’t have a clue. People in the music industry go, ‘The social media strategy is absolutely incredible, man’ and you’re like, ‘What fucking strategy?! Do you think if there was a strategy I would be talking about my arse as much?!’ I post shite and I talk to people online – that’s all I do. It’s very nice when people seem to like you as well as the music but to be fair, in 2019, I think people like to know who their music is coming from. They just like to know – I’m trying to think of a lovely way to say this – if you’re a prick or not. And if you are a prick that will hinder you, because no one likes a wanker.”

What was the album like to make?

“Oh, stressful and boring. The guys I worked with were brilliant, obviously, and I loved writing and arranging it, but the actual recording process was the most fucking tedious thing ever. I’ve always hated recording because all I want to do is play live. I’m not particularly a perfectionist, which is probably not a good thing, but if I could go from writing a song to [releasing it] immediately, I would. That’s very 2019 of me - I want it now! I suppose I am an millennial. But I’m proud of the album.”

What have you made of the music industry so far?

“You always hear horror stories, but I’ve been given a lot of free rein. No one’s ever told me what I can and can’t say; no one’s ever told me what I should and shouldn’t wear; no one’s ever told me I need to go to the gym, which is fucking good for me... This is meant to be fun and when I realised that I started to enjoy it a lot more. I know people put a lot of money into these things, but sometimes it’s a bit too serious.”

How do you feel about playing such big venues this early in your career?

“I’m shitting myself. To be honest, any time I put a tour on sale I’m like, ‘This will probably not sell’ because it’s strange to think that people will pay money to come and see you. As far as the Edinburgh [Summer Sessions] were concerned, it was a fucking massive surprise. I was like, ‘Fuck, 6,000 people, outside, this is not going to go well’, and then it went really quickly. Then you get a call saying, ‘We want to add a second date’ and I’m like, ‘Are you fucking stupid? We’ve won here, take the win and walk away!’ I was on a plane just about to take off and in the space of time it took for us to taxi from the terminal, the second show had gone as well. It’s just weird to keep seeing them go up a step and realise people are still buying tickets.”

How do you follow a smash like Someone You Loved?

“You don’t try to. I think if you try to follow that with another Top 10, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I’d be very surprised if we had another song in the Top 10.”

We don’t think anyone else would be surprised...

“Thank you, that’s nice of you to say, but it’s so unpredictable. Sometimes a song will just catch on and maybe lightning doesn’t strike twice. You need to treat every new song with the same [respect] and act as if that No.1 didn’t happen, because if you start getting bogged down in chart positions you’re always going to be disappointed. We’ll put out another song and if it doesn’t go on to do what Someone You Loved has done, it’s fine as far as I’m concerned because this was never supposed to happen in the fucking first place. Don’t ask for too much, let’s not get greedy.”

The screams could shatter glass, the mobile phone lights are out in force and Dublin’s 3Arena is bursting at the seams, packed to its 13,000-capacity. For a support act.

“This is mental, the last five nights have been some of the best fucking nights of my life,” announces Capaldi to his adoring flock. “If you like wee fat guys singing sad songs you’re in for a fucking treat.”

His six-song set, climaxing – of course – with Someone You Loved, is delivered with consummate precision and no little professionalism, but there are plenty of LOLs in between. “This has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” he proclaims. “It comes very close to when I lost my virginity in my friend’s bathroom.

“I’ll be back to Ireland very soon [he returns next March to headline]. If you haven’t enjoyed it keep it to your fucking self please.”

Post-gig, there’s just enough time to savour the moment with a celebratory bottle of Buckfast. Fame is going to have a hard time changing this unlikely Instagram icon.

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