It’s little more than five years since John Newman was studying for a BTEC in pop music at Leeds College of Music. Since then soul singer with the distinctive blond and black quiff, who was born in Settle, North Yorkshire, has gone on to achieve international fame with songs such as Love Me Again, Feel The Love and Come And Get It.
Though his trajectory might have been swift and steep his affinity with Yorkshire, and the conservatoire that set him on his path to the top, remains strong. Last week he returned to the college to talk to students and launch his first book, Revolve, the same title as his new album.
“I do still feel a massively strong connection with Yorkshire and it keeps coming back,” he reflects. “I’m proud to be from the North, to turn around to people and go, ‘You know what, I’ve got very good morals and I love my accent’. It’s down to everything and it keeps me so humble and it provided me with an incredible inspiration in terms of music with the whole Northern Soul thing that I came from and I still listen to those tunes now.
“I really am a proud Yorkshireman. It’s that thing when I’m in London I’m the man at the bar shouting ‘Yorkshire’ quite a lot because I’m proud to be from there and so I should be.”
The 25-year-old credits Leeds College of Music for providing him with the perfect grounding for what he has gone on to achieve. The first thing he learned from college, which is based next door to the BBC studio in Quarry Hill, he says was “the basics of understanding music theory” which now underpins his everyday life.
“But the other thing, and I learned this from my time in Leeds as well,” he adds, “was just socially you should never ever p*** anyone off or do anything wrong because it might just be the one person that you need tomorrow. I’d come from a town where I’ve been taken the p*** out of a bit because I was classed as a bit of a weirdo within the school because I wanted to do something different but I learned that the weirdo will always do well. There’s a place somewhere that’s full of the weirdos and I found that. I worked in a bar called Milo, in Call Lane, and we were all weirdos together. We were all making music together and we were all into different things that wouldn’t be classed as the normal thing and I found that in Leeds it’s not a weirdo, it’s just somebody that’s creative.”
When he left school at 16, Newman trained as a car mechanic. His ambition was to run his own garage. “I still quite like the idea now,” he says. “I always wanted to be able to design and customise cars myself, that’s what I always dreamt of being able to do. I still to this day watch old episodes of West Coast Customs. But that was just the early stages of my creativeness that I put into cars.”
While music, which he also loved so much in his youth that he had a small home made studio in the porch of his mother’s council house, might have been his ultimate calling, he remains a self-confessed “petrolhead”.
“I sometimes get a drilling in interviews because I’ve been seen at the Ferrari factory or something like that,” he says. “It’s not that, it’s just that I love the smell of petrol, I love driving cars, I love the mechanics of cars, I’m still very much a petrolhead and I love the idea of cars for that reason, not for the baldy type that would drive around Knightsbridge revving his engine as loud as he possibly could.”
Revolve, the follow-up to Newman’s platinum-selling debut album, has a feisty tone that’s reflective of the mood he was in when he made it, he says. “I think I was raring to go by the time it came to making a new record, and also genuinely excited, to release pressure from my first record. What I wanted to do was go back to Tribute and go what worked, what didn’t work about the artwork, about the layout of the booklet, about the music as well.
“One thing I did realise was that it was rushed because I released the first single then I had to make an album. Another thing I learned is that I needed to mature a little in terms of my producing, which I have done, where yes, it’s all well and good wasting studio time setting up three kick drums with a bucket of water with a microphone in to try to get a different dynamic in sound to what other people were doing but it didn’t quite come across right. I think it was just about tightening these little things up so by the time it came to making a new record and working out how I was going to move forward with my sound, to make it fresher and slicker, I was genuinely really excited to do that.” Revolve was mostly written and recorded in Los Angeles and Miami. It seems the boy from Settle was more than happy to challenge himself in new surroundings, although he quickly found himself unimpressed by its glitziness.
“We made a wanted list and half of those people were in America. The musicians I wanted from the disco and the funk era, they were all from America,” Newman says. “But for a young lad from North Yorkshire going to Los Angeles it took two weeks of mad nights and people’s fake dreams for me to turn around and go, ‘All right, I’m going to find a scuzzy Irish bar and go for a beer’. “Although there were a lot of flashy press pictures coming out of the trip, of me stood by nice cars, dressed to the high heels and all, in black and white, there’s a horrible flock of sheep chasing celebrities around there and you just want to avoid that whole thing and talking about yourself, which I’ve never been that good at unless it comes to interviews.
“I was all right, I had my friend with me and we just cracked on. We went for some amazing drives and used it as an opportunity to travel across America as well as making some cool music.”
Newman has long had his eye on making it in America. Love Me Again made the US top 30, as did its parent album Tribute, and the singer admits he’d like to go further there, more for the sake of longevity than any career plan.
“How the marketing happens in America and the roll out of radio and everything – actually we’re seeing it a lot more now in the UK because of the global release date that you’re not allowed to do pre-orders and singles don’t move as quick any more because of streaming kicking in – but what they do in America, it takes ages to get a track on radio and then when it’s on it’s on for about a year, so I guess it is a longevity thing. In itself the breakthrough in America is already creating longevity. I obviously want to push the boundaries of success to create more success to be able to turn around and do this for a long time, to be able to continue to make my family proud and continue to make myself proud and enjoy my job, like I do.”
Newman’s mother Jacquie raised him and his older brother James as a single parent when his father left home. She passed on a fondness for Motown, Stax and Northern Soul to her son and he vowed when he made some money from music he would buy her a house close to him and his brother, near London.
“She’s run me skint now,” he laughs, before going on to recall how she had supported him over the years, from giving him space for his home studio to going to all his early gigs “and giving me all the money that she could possibly afford to give me”.
“It was always the first thing that I was going to do at any opportunity and I managed to get a house not just for her but for the family. Me and my brother were living in London, my mother was stuck in a two-bed council house up north and she’s been there her whole life and I just wanted her to try something different. She wanted to try something different. It makes me very proud to be able to go home there and see how happy she is and see she’s smiling in this country house.”
John Newman’s album and book Revolve is out now. Plans for a UK arena tour, in January and February, are due to be announced soon. Visit http://johnnewman.co.uk/