James Newman: ‘Everyone wants escapism and fun’

James Newman is all smiles on our early morning Zoom call as he contemplates a second tilt at the Eurovision Song Contest.

James Newman. Picture: Victor Frankowski

After disappointment last year when the contest was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, the 35-year-old Yorkshireman is looking forward to representing the UK in Rotterdam, with his song Embers.

“When it got cancelled I was completely gutted,” he says. “I thought I was going to Rotterdam and sing in front of 200 million people. It was looking so good, then it got cancelled, it had to be for people’s safety. As soon as it got cancelled I rang the BBC and said, ‘I really want to do it again. Just to let you know, if you want me to do it, I’m up for it’. It took a while, they didn’t even know if it was going to happen, but in the summertime I had a meeting with my record label and at the end they said, ‘By the way, the BBC want you to do Eurovision’. I was like ‘Oh my God’.”

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With strict safety protocols in place, singer-songwriter Newman, who was raised in Settle, with his brother, fellow pop star John, is preparing in isolation after a Covid jab. He and his team will have to stay in a bubble in Rotterdam.

He’s pleased that many of last year’s contestants, with whom he struck up a friendship, are returning too. “I made friends with Lesley Roy, who’s the Irish entry, we did some interviews together,” he says. “I chatted to the Australian entry (Montaigne) and the Iceland entry (Daði Freyr). It’s kind of weird because we’re having a reunion of people that I’ve never met. It’ll be nice to see all these people in the flesh that I’ve been interacting with over two years.”

After last year’s ballad My Last Breath, Newman’s song this year is an uptempo banger. “When I came to write Embers I said ‘what do I want to sing to people in May when hopefully we’ll be getting to the end of this rubbish time? It needs to be an uptempo, fun song.’ I listened to the charts and it was all dance songs, everyone wants escapism and fun.

“At the end of last year before the lockdown we were lucky enough to do a writing camp at place called Tileyard in north London. We did about seven sessions that week of different people and this was one of them. It was with Conor Blake, Tom Hollings, Sam Brennan and Danny Shah who have all had big hits in the industry so we all knew what we wanted to do. Conor said, ‘we should do a song about embers because it’s the glow in the fire that hasn’t burnt out and can be reignited, and that’s what it will be like coming back together’ and then we managed to get this big brass riff and it all just felt like the right song.

“I really love it, it’s been so fun to sing it. I’ve done the video for it and I’m still not bored of it yet, which is a good thing.”

He’s optimistic of his chances in the competition. “What I’ve found is that if you show the Eurovision community that you care and you’re putting in a good effort then you get a good response,” he says. “The response this time has been so amazing. People have been saying, ‘This is the best song the UK has put in in years’. Everyone has been so nice, so I feel like as long as you show them that you care I think that’s really going to help a lot.”

Newman has even become a student of Eurovision. “I think you’ve got to,” he says. “If I’m doing something, I’ve got to do it properly. If I’m walking up a hill I’ve got to get to the top.

“There are some simple things that you’ve got to do that can instantly make it better, like putting in a good song, caring about it and getting involved, speaking to fans, speaking to other artists and just showing that you want to be there.”

Now fully recovered from the effects of Long Covid after a bout of the virus early in 2020 (“It took me until December to start feeling better,” he says), he is looking forward stepping up his career in the coming months. Having written for others such as Rudimental, Gorgon City, Little Mix, Olly Murs and Jess Glynne in the past, he has spent the past few months writing intensively for himself.

“Everyone was writing from their house on Zoom, you’d have three people jamming away,” he says. “I wrote loads last year. It can be more productive, I think, because you can do two sessions a day and not leave the kitchen. I love writing in real life and I can’t wait to do it again, but you have to travel there and go out for lunch, it’s more social.

“A lot of the time (during lockdown) you’d do two hours of writing, put the computer down, have some food at home, then open it again and do another session. There was definitely a lot more productivity in that way.”

Some of the new material with the same “vibe” as Embers will be included in his forthcoming album. “My next single is ready to go after Eurovision,” he says. “It will be very exciting to keep riding the wave of all these people watching me at Eurovision.”

He is itching to play live too. “Can you imagine getting to do some festivals or go on a small tour?” he says. “I’d love to go around Europe and the UK and actually meet fans and play to them.”

The Eurovision Song Contest takes place on May 22.