Now 40 years old, he’s a comparative pop industry veteran who has racked up more than 15 million album sales in a career spanning more than two decades, yet there’s still a glimmer of the boyish DJ who hoarded dance records in his Southampton bedroom about him as he discusses his undiminished appetite for music.
This month David is due to embark on an arena tour that was intended to take place in April 2020 to celebrate his first 20 years as a solo artist; instead a Covid-enforced delay means he’s actually marking the 22nd anniversary of his debut chart-topper, Fill Me In. Aptly, the tour retains its original title: Hold That Thought.
“It became quite clear to us at an early stage that there was no planning here,” he says, recalling how carefully drawn-up schedules had to be torn up as the world locked down. “Everything was out of our hands, the only thing we could do was surrender control and go with this and hopefully come good news would come.
“Thankfully we’re now in a much better place than we were when we first started off, but after that (initial) period I did feel that OK, I can’t control this, but I’ve got a studio upstairs, I’m going to mess around with some vocals and maybe write some lyrics and I’m going to watch a movie and I might come back to that tomorrow and continue. I was very grateful to be in a position where I could still live within that and I wasn’t stressing about how I get from A to B, but it did mean that I had nearly 100 songs by the time the pandemic was over...and I’m very blessed that family and friends weren’t too badly affected by (Covid), so that was good.”
Whittling such an array of songs down to 12 for his eighth album actually proved “the hardest part”, he says. Nevertheless with the process complete, he will be releasing the disc, entitled 22, later in the year.
He feels the “arc” of this album is closer to his debut longplayer, Born To Do It. “It’s the first time that I’ve had this amount of time to just record music without there be any pressures of I’ve got to fly somewhere, I’ve got a show here and there’s promo,” he says. “And Zoom turned into a dream throughout that time for virtual performances and for just being able to do this so there was still a connection but I was still able to make an album that feels that it’s got the R&B and the garage and the pop sensibility of what I got into this in the first place to do, but also the production leans to being fresh and innovative, it still sounds like it’s 2022. So it’s got the feel and the nostalgia of what I originally got into, and that’s always a good place to start from. My litmus test is ‘am I feeling this or am I just doing this because I’m looking at the charts and thinking I need to make this kind of song because radio is playing this?’ This just felt like I was making that music again, which was great.”
David also hints that the lyrics on 22 may have a more philosophical air after our shared experiences of the last two years. “I can’t help but see that music has been holding my hand from a kid all the way through to me now being an adult,” he says. “It’s literally been saying ‘if you give me time and you nurture me and you spend time creating songs and you pour your heart out in them and you play it back and feel it (it will reward you)’. If you’re not feeling it then you know the same mirroring is going to happen out there. It’s like with Rewind, on the way home I had it on my Walkman and when I got home I had a big sub-speaker in my little flat and (I thought) if it plays good on this then we’re good and I was like, woah, my God, if this feeling I’m getting is the same as what other people are going to get, it’s going to be amazing.
“I feel like that’s been my take into the world, making sure that I feel the music and not defining it by numbers. I think that’s the one thing that has changed. Music is a form of healing, it heals me, it heals people when they hear it when they go out, so make more of it.”
Last autumn, David joined Gary Barlow, Alesha Dixon and Dawn French as a judge on Walk The Line, Simon Cowell’s new talent show on ITV. The singer says he found it “the most exhilarating, different experience” because he would normally be the one on stage performing; consequently he adopted a considerate approach.
“I hate to use the word judge because I don’t feel like I have the right to judge anyone, I can give positive criticism to something and help it through, but I don’t think anyone should be shamed and named onstage for a performance because I’ve had performances where I’ve felt ‘ah, that just wasn’t the one today’, so why am I going to crush somebody’s career because they’re on national TV doing it?” he says. “I always found I was having to be articulate and honest but also recognise there’s a human being onstage that’s sensitive and they’re putting everything on this, but then also being able to enjoy the juxtaposition of me being on the panel, wow, I’m not singing tonight, we can talk. I got a lovely rapport with Alesha Dixon and Gary Barlow and Dawn French is one of the funniest people that I’ve ever met in my life, it rolls off the tongue, it’s not sketched. I had a really good time and I’m really glad someone went home with half a million pounds. It was a nice experience for me.”
In December David was presented with an MBE for his services to music by the Prince of Wales; it was something, he says, he felt “very proud” to receive. “All I could think of when I got the news was how my grandma, God rest her soul, would have felt,” he says. “I know she was watching and she saw the whole thing play out, but just for her, everything that she went through as someone who had bombs dropping over her when she was trying to get to a shelter in Southampton in the Second World War, and her appreciation and love for the Royal family and what it means and me learning that through her, then my love for being able to perform at different things. I performed at the Commonwealth and there was the Queen and you’re seeing Harry and Megan and Kate and William and Prince Charles, and you’re thinking ‘this is unbelievable, the Queen is arm’s length away from me’. So to then get the moment where I’m celebrated for my services to music, I felt like it was a beautiful full circle of everything. I didn’t expect I’d ever get an MBE but I was very proud.
“I took my mum with me to Windsor Castle and she had the best time ever. I was living through her eyes for a moment where she’s looking round. It was the strangest thing to try and understand how a mother would feel about her son being in Windsor Castle about to be given an MBE by Prince Charles, what is going on here – from a council estate in Southampton making music. I was so grateful, it was wicked.”
Craig David plays at First Direct Arena, Leeds on April 22 and Hull Bonus Arena on April 26; he also headlines the Made in Leeds Festival at Church Fenton on June 4. craigdavid.com