Since the release of his breakthrough single in 2013, John Newman tells Duncan Seaman how he has ridden the highs and lows of the industry and faced his own personal demons.
On stage, singer John Newman might have sometimes carried the air of a bruised prize fighter willing himself against the odds through one more bout. The video for his new single Fire in Me, however, takes the analogy further. In it the 27-year-old Yorkshireman plays a club singer and amateur boxer heroically unbowed by a gang of thugs who’d beaten him black and blue for defeating one of their number in the boxing ring.
For Newman, originally from Settle, this is a big moment. A couple of records that didn’t perform as well as hoped after the massive success of his debut album Tribute were followed by a serious health scare that gave him cause to re-evaluate key aspects of his life and musical career.
In familiar style, he has emerged from a break undaunted, but clearly mindful of some of the things he’s encountered since rising to fame with the Number One singles Love Me Again, Feel the Love and Blame.
Fire in Me, he says, is “very much” the sound of a man coming out fighting. “When you take a little break you start observing a little bit more and you start noticing things a little bit more. And also when you feel a little bit vulnerable, maybe your last single didn’t do that well, it starts building up, especially if you’re like me. So when it came to the time of releasing new music I was like, ‘It’s got to be the right thing and it’s got to say what it needs to say’.
“I remember being in Denmark at the time and thinking I’m ready to write a song. I’d been trying to write pop songs that didn’t necessarily need to be written. That was kind of the beginnings of all the new music that’s coming and (Fire in Me) was a song that I thought, ‘Right, it’s time to write something that makes me fired up’.
I felt like I got that tone across: that it’s back to me and that lad that everyone met for the first time, who hasn’t lost their way and become all fancy sports car and shiny shoes.John Newman
“I heard it on the radio the other day and when it gets to the pre-chorus and I’m vulnerable and I pull the window down and go ‘Go on!’ I generally feel the drive when I listen to that song. It’s the song I needed to go ‘Right, come on, get your a*** in gear and let’s get going’.”
He admits to questioning himself when his chart fortunes dipped in 2016. “I keep saying when you lose 10 per cent of success you lose 100 per cent of people most of the time,” he says. “It felt like everyone said, ‘Well, OK, the John Newman project’s over’. For me, I was like, ‘Why do people feel like that? What’s led them to think that?’ I think just generally I was making the wrong music.
“I’d started to go into an area that wasn’t necessarily me. It wasn’t raw and it wasn’t grungy and it wasn’t dirty and it wasn’t saying what needed to be said.”
The dip coincided with fresh concerns over his health. Before fame, Newman, who studied at Leeds College of Music, had been treated for a benign brain tumour. In 2016 doctors found a second tumour.
He says “it all escalated into madness” after he revealed during a photo shoot that the illness was back, with the press reporting that he was to undergo surgery and radiotherapy.
In fact, he says, he was told last year that “it hadn’t grown any more, it had remained the same size”. Hence he’s foregone surgery for the time being.
“I did genuinely think that last year it was time to get it sorted but it turned out that it wasn’t – which is good, but I felt like I was sitting and waiting for the bad news, almost. Now I’ve changed my whole mindset. It can be dealt with when it needs to be dealt with and I can focus on present things that make me happy.”
Past experience had at least prepared him for the situation. “The first time it happened it was really scary,” he says. “I thought it was going to ruin everything I wanted to do, which was music, but I didn’t let it do that. I let it inspire me and that made me better and then coming into it a second time I was like ‘It’ll only do that again’ and it has.
“The whole experience of taking a break and not being very well and losing some people that I thought were friends has only inspired.”
The video for Fire in Me was filmed in a working men’s club and boxing gym in Hull as well as nearby beauty spot Spurn Point. For Newman, it was a welcome return to his Northern roots. While he might live near London these days, he says he’s still “100 per cent” an admirer of gritty Northern working class towns and cities. He might not have agreed with some of the opinions he heard voiced on Brexit – “That took me back a little bit. I was like ‘What’s happened here? This is ridiculous’” – but nonetheless he says he was glad to be away from “all the LA glam s***” that surrounded him while he recorded his second album, Revolve, in 2015.
“It was back to where I grew up and where I belong, so I felt it was important and I felt like I got that tone across in the video: that it’s back to me and that lad that everyone met for the first time, who hasn’t lost their way and become all fancy sports car and shiny shoes.”
Newman’s elder brother James and mother Jackie also make a brief appearance in the promo clip. The singer says: “This is a very personal record so I wanted people close to me in it and they’re the ones that are important. I didn’t want any A-list gimmicks in there. I got my Mum, my brother and a few great actors.”
Having felt that he rushed the release of Revolve, Newman is keen to take his time with his third album. “We live in a world now where’s it’s important to make sure you’ve got your audience to give an album to,” he says. “There’s key people now that I see online every day that I’m sure would love to get an album tomorrow and listen to it every single day. But there’s people that have no idea who I am or what my name is or what I sound like or what my lyrics are saying. It’s those people that I need to get on board in this new era and get myself and my face back into their houses again.
“I think the best thing for me right now is to take my time, work with the right people and release the right music until that day comes when I feel comfortable enough that everyone’s ready to hear the rest of my heartache.”
Newman is hopeful of playing live in the UK again soon, but, he points out, “that all depends on the success of the music”.
“As long as everyone keeps buying the records they’ll be able to come along and see me.”
Away from music, he’s been taking his first steps into rally driving. “I love it, it’s such a buzz,” he says. “I’m building a Subaru myself and I’ve had a couple of WRC rally teams asking me if I’d like to have a go in their cars, but I don’t think it’s a thing that’s going to take over my music just yet. I think it’s something I can safely keep as a hobby.”
More importantly, he has wedding plans in the air. Having become engaged to his Danish girlfriend Nana in 2017, he says: “I think probably this year we’ll get married.”
Fire in Me is out now. johnnewman.co.uk