Lewis Capaldi is behind one of the biggest success stories the UK music industry has seen in recent memory. Next year, he returns with Broken By Desire To Be Heavenly Sent, a follow-up that is set to make a mockery of the notion of a difficult second album. This time, though, there’s much more to the story than heartfelt ballads and comedy high jinks. To launch the campaign, Music Week meets the Scottish superstar, plus team EMI and Wasserman Music, to hear how his second coming is set to reveal more about its maker than ever before…
WORDS: JAMES HANLEY PHOTOS: PAUL HARRIES
Lewis Capaldi didn’t need much persuading to strip down to his underpants. The Scot’s brain trust had been tasked with devising the concept for the music video for his comeback single, Forget Me, when EMI MD Clive Cawley came up with the winning pitch.
“Clive said, ‘Why don’t you just recreate Club Tropicana?’” smiles Capaldi, sitting down with Music Week in central London to discuss the small matter of his second album, Broken By Desire To Be Heavenly Sent, which is due on May 19 next year. “And it was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Nah.’ Then you think about it a bit and it sounded like it would be funny, so I was like, ‘I’m in.’”
Cawley says all credit must go to Capaldi.
“The idea came to me in a feverish dream,” he reveals. “And as with all these things, it needs an artist with sufficient skill, passion and talent to carry it off. It could have quite easily been an utter disaster, but the surrounding pick-up in terms of how it fitted with the music, body positivity, humour and respect for the original could only have been achievable with an artist like Lewis.”
Never afraid to be the butt of the joke in the name of self-promotion, the 26-year-old let it all hang out in a pair of oversized white Y-fronts in a spoof remake of Wham!’s iconic 1983 video. Before long, the image of a half-naked Capaldi holding a cocktail was on billboards across the land. Scottish soft drink company Irn-Bru even got in on the act, super-imposing a can into his hand. As the man himself put it on Twitter, sex sells.
“When you’re standing on a beach in Ibiza at 8am in your underwear, surrounded by a bunch of strangers, you’re like, ‘I should have thought this through,’ but it was good, man,” he chortles. “I saw someone tweeted: ‘I feel a bit uncomfortable that Lewis Capaldi’s new campaign is all about him being overweight.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ That’s not what it was about at all! I just thought it would be quite humorous that I’d be in my pants on a billboard. But most people got it.”
Whatever the cost to his dignity, the stunt served its purpose. Forget Me sailed straight to the singles summit with first-week sales of 56,882 (OCC), giving Capaldi his third UK No.1 – notwithstanding some unforeseeable last minute drama when the Queen’s death was announced just hours before release. The passing of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch meant an urgent shift in approach.
“For any budding artist out there thinking about a release strategy, maybe don’t release a single the week the Queen dies,” sighs Capaldi. “I was convinced it was completely fucked.”
“Our track was due out at midnight so we had to regroup, scrap the promo we had planned over the weekend and just release it as it was,” explains EMI senior marketing manager Jess Morton. “It was very strange – each day we were making it up as we went along because of the news. But even by the Monday the metrics were coming in and we were doing really well, which just shows that when a track is good and an artist is brilliant, it speaks for itself.”
Morton, though, suggests that nerves will always be present even when it comes to the return of a megastar.
“He was coming off a huge No.1 selling album and sell-out tours, but it had been three years and we didn’t know what we were coming back to,” she says. “But the fans were still there and we were all absolutely buzzing.”
Indeed, Cawley says Capaldi has injected further vitality to life at EMI, where the team are enjoying life under co-presidents Rebecca Allen and Jo Charrington.
“It was a wonderful day when we could start conversations about putting out new music after such a long gap and it was never in any doubt that we’d get utter quality from the great man,” he says. “Forget Me has delivered on every level and our main goal was to get him that third No.1 single to spearhead the new campaign. The track is sticking around marvellously and we are ready to deliver a huge album in 2023 and cement Lewis as a career artist good and proper. He makes us glad to be alive and proud to be on the project.”
Rebecca Allen is beyond excited for her first Capaldi campaign in the top job. She describes him as a “truly brilliant songwriter, performer and entertainer, and a truly beautiful human being.”
“I was such a huge fan of Lewis’ first album, so I was over the moon when I landed this new role and was able to watch the unfolding of album two,” she adds. “The hard work, nerves, leadership, creative process and engagement he and his manager Ryan [Walter, Interlude Artists] have both put in is truly brilliant to see. Where Lewis and Ryan lead, we follow. They have clear goals and know how to excite and motivate people to work hungrily and ambitiously.”
We catch up with Capaldi over breakfast at a King’s Cross hotel where he’s been staying since returning from a recent trip to Los Angeles. Joking his living quarters make him feel like Alan Partridge holed up in a Travel Tavern, he is yet to mimic Steve Coogan’s alter-ego by bringing his own 12” plate to the buffet or dressing up as a zombie to terrorise hotel staff.
The weary singer/songwriter does admit, however, to being just 24 hours removed from the type of lager-induced hangover “that makes you rethink your whole life”.
“I think the jet lag combined with being hungover hit me like a train,” he laments, sensibly sticking to water with his order of scrambled egg, bacon and mushrooms on toast.
The Bathgate-born BRIT Award winner and Grammy nominee still considers Glasgow home but is growing accustomed to London life and gives a glowing review of a recent trip to see The Greatest Showman at Backyard Cinema (“I’m going to get into more musicals, that’s my vibe”). In a development of far greater consequence, he also recently got on the property ladder by purchasing a house in Hampstead.
“I won’t move into that until next year,” he says. “Right now, whenever I’m not needed anywhere, I’m in Glasgow, but I feel like I’ve avoided moving down here for long enough. I was always quite tentative about moving to London, but I spent a bit of time down here at the start of the year – tying up the album and all the rest of it – and when you’re not here just to work, it’s actually all right.”
Already a made man on Instagram, Capaldi turned to TikTok to launch his second album campaign via a livestream from the first of his long-delayed headline concerts at London’s The O2 in September. The irreverent star debuted a 30-second snippet of Forget Me over the PA to the sell-out crowd and a global audience of six figures, marking the end of his near two-year hiatus from social media, where Capaldi’s uproarious escapades on Instagram Stories had become the stuff of legend. His following on Instagram stands at 5.5m, compared to 3.9m on TikTok, 1.3m on Twitter and 2m on Facebook.
Today, he says being back on social media is like “re-learning how to ride a bike” and notes that it is a key skill for artists.
“I see a lot of artists complaining that they didn’t sign up to be an influencer or whatever, but it’s just the way it is now,” he reasons. “The definition of an artist in the ’90s and early ’00s is drastically different to what it is now.”
Wasserman Music’s Ryan Penty, who guides Capaldi’s live career with Music Week Awards 2022 Agent Of The Year Alex Hardee, believes the singer’s absence has only served to make hearts grow fonder.
“The best thing he did was come off social media because then he didn’t have the pressure to try to be funny the whole time,” Penty says. “We’ve seen with many artists in the past where they’ve been everywhere and not gone away and people are like, ‘Oh my God, can’t they just fuck off for a bit?’ And he did – he fucked off for a bit – and now that he’s back, no one’s sick of him.”
So what became of the unlikely lad? Capaldi’s meteoric ascent on the live scene was stopped in its tracks due to Covid, but he returned this year for a slate of headline dates (most of them rescheduled from 2020) at Trnsmt, Isle Of Wight, Latitude and Lytham festivals, plus his twice-postponed shows at The O2.
Capaldi’s re-emergence has also reignited his mega-selling first LP Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent (1,380,780 sales, OCC), which rebounded into the Top 10, while Spotify streams of his transatlantic chart-topper Someone You Loved (4,531,887 UK sales) have marched past 2.5 billion. His monthly listenership on the service currently hovers around the 30m mark.
“We know that new music always feeds the old, so Forget Me is helping people come back to Lewis or discover him for the first time,” says EMI’s head of commercial and streaming Andy Knox. “The strategy going in was to keep it all about him and the voice, but also to keep it real and honest, which is what I think set him apart in 2018/19. We wanted to make sure it didn’t become something he wasn’t.”
This time, says Knox, EMI are able to reap the rewards of carefully laid plans, having reacted swiftly to the surge in streams during the summer.
“We feel really organised and ahead of ourselves, which we weren’t on the last campaign because we were chasing our tail the whole time due to the quick success of Someone You Loved,” he says. “Lewis was riding such a wave when he went away and it was a shame that he didn’t get to do his victory lap, but Covid cut that short. In other ways though, it gave him the chance to slow down and reflect, so to have him back now is amazing.”
EMI have deployed digital advertising and worked closely with fan-run social media accounts to bring Capaldi back into public consciousness. Knox also points to work done on TikTok and a sped-up version of Grace that went viral on the platform prior to Forget Me coming out.
“Lewis is the king of TikTok and the plan was always to get [his debut] back in the charts,” he says. “We did a Spotify Single a few weeks after Forget Me and there is a lot of life left in that song. Lewis is his best salesperson, so him actually grafting the songs and showing what he’s about will help drive them forward.”
After memorable hook-ups with the likes of Greggs and Deliveroo on his first run, Capaldi launched his very own pizza range in late September in a brand partnership with Iceland and Tesco. Take your pick from The Big Sexy Meaty One and The Big Sexy Cheesy One, and there should be plenty more where that came from. He has also partnered with Guinness.
“We’ve got some plans, I’ll do anything for money,” quips Capaldi, as talk turns towards the album campaign. Not content with the six-word title of his planet-conquering debut, Capaldi has upped the ante to seven for the sequel.
“I love it,” he enthuses about his latest body of work. “I’d say I love it a lot more than the first one, but that’s probably to be expected – I’m trying to sell it to people! But I’m so proud of it.”
With its predecessor certified as the biggest-selling UK album of both 2019 and 2020, it doesn’t come as a shock to hear that Broken By Desire… follows a similar template, musically and thematically. Hey, if it ain’t broke…
“It’s sad music: songs about heartbreak or loss,” says Capaldi. “I went into my mental health a bit more, but there’s pianos, guitars and me moaning, essentially. With this second record I definitely wanted to strike that lane again. I didn’t want to change things up too much and confuse people. We’ve been away for three years and that’s a long time. Plus, I was enjoying making the music that I was making before, so why stop?”
“I’d be naive to think, ‘You can’t put me in a box, man,’” he adds. “You can put me in a box and that’s fine, I quite like the confines of the box right now.”
That being said, the uncharacteristically upbeat, synth-powered Forget Me did mark something of a departure from the tried and tested (sonically, if not lyrically).
“We debated on the comeback song for a long time, but Forget Me having a bit of tempo to it – when I think people probably expected him to come back with a ballad – was crucial to the comeback,” says Knox. “The debate about the single was amazing because there’s probably five or six songs on there that could be singles. I can’t wait for the whole thing to be out, it’s fantastic.”
When it came to the choice of lead single, the team also had a helping hand from a man who knows a thing or two about hit records – Capaldi’s label mate Sir Elton John.
“He’s just the soundest guy – and it’s weird to hear that coming out of my mouth,” smiles Capaldi. “I played him three singles from this record and he was like, ‘I think you should go with that one first,’ and it was Forget Me. We were in two minds, so that helped. To get advice from someone like that is amazing, he’s a legend.”
Capaldi was accepted into the Rocketman’s inner circle three years ago in a meet and greet facilitated by David Joseph, Universal Music UK chairman & CEO.
“David Joseph told me that Elton wanted to have lunch and I was like, ‘I’ll check my schedule,’” he laughs. “So we flew to his house in Nice and had lunch there. Elton sat down and said, ‘Trust me, Someone You Loved is going to go to No.1 in America.’ I was miles off it at that point, but a couple of months later I had a No.1 in America.”
The regard in which Capaldi is held in the upper echelons of the business speaks volumes.
“I had a call with Lucian Grainge the other day,” he notes, intriguingly. “Not that I’m often on the phone to Lucian Grainge by the way, but one of the first things he said was, ‘I was with Elton the other week and he was talking about your songs and how big a fan he was of you.’ To hear that those two people were having a conversation about me when I’m not even in the room is a nice thing.”
Lewis Capaldi’s self-deprecating wit and everyman charm made him an instant hit when he exploded into the mainstream in 2019. But the world at large has changed dramatically since Capaldi last ruled supreme – with a global pandemic, a war in Ukraine, a new King, four British prime ministers (at the time of writing) and a cost-of-living crisis coming into view. There was also a change at EMI, with Rebecca Allen and Jo Charrington succeeding Ted Cockle, but, good ship Capaldi remains on course.
“Ted leaving was a shame because I got on well with him, but Becky and Jo have done a great job,” says Capaldi. “EMI’s fucking bang on, I love it – great label, great people.”
When his epic promo trail began last month, Capaldi had the nation spitting out their Corn Flakes with his now infamous live TV appearance on BBC Breakfast, during which he misheard presenter Naga Munchetty’s offer of a “room” for something altogether less wholesome. While he’s yet to be asked back, his “gaffe” was taken in the right spirit.
“They were having a laugh and were totally fine,” he grins. “It’s interesting because I hate doing TV shows full-stop – I’ve got Michael McIntyre today and I’m fucking terrified – and I get more nervous on those morning shows than any other. But it did sound like she said ‘rim.’”
Switching from sordid to serious and back again in a flash, like only he can, Capaldi opens up on his battle with the neurological condition Tourette’s, suggesting that going public with his diagnosis as his comeback began lifted a weight off his mind.
“I think it’s good that’s out there,” he contends. “I used to think it didn’t bother me what people were thinking when I was twitching, but I find myself getting more self-conscious about it now, which is annoying because that makes it worse.”
For Capaldi, the issue is all-encompassing.
“I didn’t mean to draw attention to it as a condition,” he says. “I just felt like I should explain it so that anybody who sees me twitching a bit at a gig now won’t be like, ‘He’s full of coke, he’s steaming,’ which people have done in the past. If I look after myself and eat well, it does drastically improve – this breakfast doesn’t count!”
Capaldi, who is in therapy, has detailed suffering a panic attack at the Grammys and talks frankly about his ongoing struggles with anxiety, relating it to a comment made by James Bay in an appearance on Steven Bartlett’s The Diary Of A CEO podcast.
“He was talking about going to see Maggie Rogers before she took off,” says Capaldi. “Sam Smith was there, and Sam had said to James, ‘She’s about to go on this completely wild, traumatic, incredible experience, and she doesn’t even know it.’ It was interesting hearing James say that because I’d never thought of it as a traumatic event, but I suppose it is. You’re swept away with this madness and then just plonked back where you were – especially the way it all came crashing to a halt with the pandemic.”
Capaldi suggests this realisation offered a wake-up call.
“The more I’ve learned about anxiety and Tourette’s, the more I’ve realised I’ve had it my whole life, it’s just that my new surroundings have exacerbated it somewhat,” he says. “But people have got it worse than me and some don’t have the same resources to deal with it, so I think I’m one of the luckier ones in that regard, even though it can be quite debilitating. I’ve never had a problem speaking about [mental health] in therapy, or in conversation, and it’s the same with my friends. We all come from a regular town in fucking Scotland, so it’s nice to know that is changing slightly.”
Capaldi applauds Sam Fender’s recent decision to cancel a number of US shows after feeling “burnt out” from touring.
“I was on the phone to him the day he announced that, and you could tell from the way he was talking that he was just drained,” says Capaldi. “Seeing someone like him [pull tour dates for mental health reasons] is good for so many newer artists, because I think there’s a fear of cancelling gigs and missing your chance, but that shows you can do it and still be successful. Sam’s really good at putting his health first and to see him do that was inspirational, even for me.”
“You still get the odd c**t online being like, ‘You’ve cancelled this gig for your mental health and then you’re in the pub a few days later,’” Capaldi says. “But that’s at a pub at home, with your friends in familiar surroundings. You’re not flying every single day. I don’t think people understand how touring can affect your head and the way you think and feel. There’s still this massive misunderstanding [around it].”
Capaldi feels the responsibilities that come with his job acutely.
“If you’re asking people to pay £40 for a ticket, especially with the economy the way it is, you want to give them a night to remember,” he says. “You just don’t want to let people down and having that expectation, or fear and anxiety, about it night after night can be crippling.”
Conversely, Capaldi sounds positively zen about the pressure to repeat Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent’s monster impact.
“I don’t know if I’m just trying to manage my own expectations and go easier on myself, but if the second record doesn’t sell as much as the first, my manager and the label will probably be more disappointed than I will,” he says. “I don’t know if you can expect to sell that many records again. I’m trying not to put too much stock in it, otherwise I’ll just drive myself mad.”
The creative process saw Capaldi reunite with established first-teamers TMS (Someone You Loved), Phil Plested (Before You Go), Malay (Fade), Nick Atkinson and Edd Holloway (Grace), newer additions to the squad such as Tobias Jesso Jr and JP Saxe, plus bona fide masters of the trade Max Martin and Ed Sheeran.
“We did a song with Max Martin called Leave Me Slowly, which is very ’80s,” gushes Capaldi. “He’s an intimidating man. He’s very nice, but you’re like, ‘Fuck, that’s Max Martin!’ We worked with a few of the Swedish lot and I think, for the next album, I’d like to go back and forth to Sweden. They’re a cool bunch and they’re good at writing songs. But what I loved about it was I didn’t expect to come out with the song that we came out with. It sounds like an ’80s high school slow dance banger, so that’s an interesting thread to pull at when the time is right.”
The Sheeran collaboration Pointless, meanwhile, was once pencilled in as the first single.
“I went into the studio with Johnny McDaid and Steve Mac and at the end of the first day they said, ‘We wrote this verse with Ed, but we couldn’t think of a chorus to save our lives, do you want to have a look?’” remembers Capaldi. “So I gave it a listen, did my interpretation of a chorus and a middle eight and it came together well. It was one of those things where, because you’re removed from something, you can maybe see a bit more.”
And from there, his collaboration with Sheeran evolved.
“Ed wasn’t in the room when we did it,” he says. “But we’ve since written together in the room. I think he’s the best British songwriter of the last 20 years, but I had reservations about putting out a Sheeran co-write as the first song because it would be portrayed as ‘Ed Sheeran wrote my first single back,’ and I didn’t want that to be the takeaway. He understood where I was coming from.”
Launching a robust defence of co-writing, he argues it is widely misunderstood by its critics.
“I always think people who talk down co-writing don’t get it,” he opines. “It’s like being in a band. For Someone You Loved, I had a verse, pre-chorus and a chorus melody, and I thought it was rubbish. But I took it to TMS and Sam Roman and they thought it was really good and helped me write the lyrics and the middle eight. We all have an equal spot in that song because it wouldn’t have been what it was if it wasn’t for them.”
Peeling back the layers of his newest radio-friendly unit shifter, Capaldi reels off Haven’t You Ever Been In Love Before? as one stand-out track, while his own personal favourite is Wish You The Best.
“All the usual shit’s in there – the love and loss – but there are two songs in particular about my mental health that I’m nervous for people to hear,” he adds. “There’s a line in the last song of the album which is, ‘So here’s to my beautiful life that seems to leave me so unsatisfied’ and I don’t want people to get the wrong idea and feel like I’m being ungrateful. It’s just about a moment when I was very low and dejected making a second record.”
Clearly, Capaldi’s career is built on high and low moments, but does he really feel dissatisfied with the view from the top?
“I wouldn’t say I’m dissatisfied generally – a No.1 still feels like a fucking No.1 – but it does happen,” he responds. “It’s more of a comment on myself and this constant need for more and more; it’s so easy to get caught up in it, especially in the music industry where it’s always about the next thing.”
And exactly what’s next for Capaldi is an international arena headline tour, confirmed for January 2023, with even bigger stages rumoured for next summer.
“People always ask me, ‘What is Lewis’ fanbase?’” says Wasserman’s Penty. “And it’s everyone: my grandma knows who he is; kids love his music; he’s now in that bracket of artists that people who buy one ticket a year go and see. I think Lewis is like a cross between Ed Sheeran, Adele and Peter Kay, so you get half comedy, half hits. There’s no reason why he can’t go on to do Ed-level tickets.”
Capaldi’s goals, though, are rather more modest.
“I’d like to twitch less, that’s my number one ambition at the moment,” he deadpans. “I just want to sustain a good career and that’s it. I’d like to hang around for at least 10 years. But I’ve already achieved way more than I expected so fuck it, let’s see what happens. I would love to say I’ve played a stadium.”
Does he not strive to be as massive as Sheeran, then?
“Erm… it would be nice to buy a big house like that,” quips Capaldi. “It’d be lovely to play the same size of shows and have my songs reach as many people – and to be able to travel the world to the extent he does – but I would worry about where my head would be at. I’m more self-conscious and unsure of myself than I’ve ever been since I’ve had success. So I would like to be that big in theory, but in practice I don’t know.”
For now, Capaldi is content in the position he’s currently in. What people make of what he does is of no concern.
“I want people to be able to judge [his personality and music] separately, but people can’t and that’s not my problem,” he says. “I remember when I was 16 and in bands, I wanted to be seen as cool but it’s like, who gives a fuck? The least cool thing is trying to be cool. I always joke and say I’m a serious musician, but what is a serious musician? I think I’m well compensated and I’ve been given way more credit than I’m due, probably.”
The numbers are stunning – a US and UK No.1 album, three UK No.1 singles, two BRIT Awards, a Grammy nomination, one million concert tickets sold and 25 billion-plus worldwide streams. So, after a morning spent weighing up their impact, we ask Lewis Capaldi what do his achievements so far actually prove as he heads towards releasing his “difficult second album”?
“Nothing really,” he shrugs, pushing his plate away. “People keep saying it just shows that you don’t have to have superstar good looks and all the rest of it to be successful, but people have been proving that from the fucking dawn of time. There were some ugly motherfuckers in ’50s Hollywood! I don’t ever feel like I’m making a statement, I’m just making music.”