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Lewis Capaldi on Mixing Balladry With Ribaldry to Become ‘America’s Sweetheart’

Variety — Chris Willman

For someone who’s quickly made a career out of mining sadness in songs like his international chart smash “Someone You Loved,” Lewis Capaldi has gotten kind of used to being someone you laugh at. The 23-year-old Scottish upstart is not the first performer whose personality outside of his songs is very different from the one within them; Adele is someone else who mines tragedy in nearly all her tunes and then turns into a bon vivant in the lengthy stage interludes between them. But Capaldi might be the most extreme example we’ve seen of this: a prince of wounded balladry, and a king of comedic ribaldry, all in one rudely adorable package.

His handlers and marketers have spoken about how important it was to expose his winningly self-deprecating personality to young audiences through his social media, which is an entertainment all to itself. But at the same time, Capaldi’s music is old-fashioned enough in most ways that it has a great appeal to older audiences, too, who want to hear a powerful, gritty voice delivering passion and emotion without a lot of bells and whistles — the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” crowd. For that demographic, might it would be more beneficial to hide Capaldi’s social media, so they don’t get turned off by seeing him make offhanded jokes about his pubes?

“The trouble with that, though,” Capaldi responds, “is if they come to a show, they’re still going to get a face full of me and my pubes.” He clarifies this, a beat later. “Not my actual pubes, but the mention of my pubes, I should point out.” Seriously, though, he doesn’t see the split personality so often mentioned in his presence. “A disparity between my songs and me as a person was never something I had considered,” he says. “Because who self-analyzes that much? It was only when I started doing interviews, when people started to say ‘You’re quite different from your songs,’ that I was like, ‘Am I?’ You know, I didn’t even notice.’”

It’s generally understood that the Adeles and Ed Sheerans of the world are the rare transatlantic success stories. More common are singers who create a frenzy in the UK and then not a ripple in the U.S. No one knew that better than Capaldi himself, so when he adopted the phrase “America’s Sweetheart” for himself as “Someone You Loved” began its 24-week climb to No. 1, it was a feint against the fact he felt it wouldn’t happen.

“’America’s sweetheart’ started ironically,” he insists, “because no one knew who I f—ing was. When the manager and the label started saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to go to America and see if anything can happen over there,’ I was like, ‘Oh. F—ing why? Things are going (great) here in Europe; let’s not leave!’ Because I’m not an ambitious man. I never have been; in school, I was very lazy. In my mind, I’d already managed to do an impossible task in the UK,” with multiple singles going top 10 and an arena tour booked before his debut album even hit stores. “But stateside, almost reluctantly, he allows, “once we got to No. 3 and No. 2 on the chart, I was like, ‘All right, it would be nice.’”

It was, and “Someone You Loved” hit No. 1 in America in November — lagging just a bit behind the rest of the civilized world — by letting Lewis be Lewis. There were a number of vital steps in that, starting with the fact that he was mostly left to his own devices in making the debut album, “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent,” along with Ryan Walter, the manager who discovered him via an iPhone video posted on SoundCloud. “On this album, there were like six A&Rs who all came in at different points,” Capaldi says. After he was signed to Universal Music in Germany and ultimately shifted to Virgin EMI, and also hooked up with BMG for publishing, the A&R “got moved to the UK, then moved to America, then back to Germany. People would say, ‘Oh, you should try this’ — people in there for such a fleeting moment that they couldn’t understand it on the level me and my manager had,” not out of incompetence, he emphasizes, “but because they didn’t have the time. So it was a blessing: I got to just do what I wanted to, essentially.  And though we didn’t have a constant A&R presence, we did have amazing people at the label, like Ted Cockle (in the UK) and Steve Barnett (at Capitol America).”

It didn’t hurt that key terrestrial and non-terrestrial radio outlets fell in love with him. SiriusXM got on board early, becoming the first to play him in America when the song premiered on the Pulse channel in December 2018, before his album was out. In July 2019, iHeartRadio pushed Capaldi into their On the Verge program, something the 800-station-strong media conglomerate will only do a handful of times per year in a format, where all their frequencies are commanded to play a new single at least 250 times, with interview bumpers to boot.

“We’ve learned it takes about 250 spins at a minimum for that cultural shift to happen,” says iHeart’s chief programming officer, Tom Poleman. “And coming in with a ballad, especially, is not easy at top 40. Greg Marella, who runs promotion for Capitol in the U.S., came to me and said, ‘Okay, I have this new artist. He’s a little bit different in that he has this beautiful voice and his style is very emotional — yet he’s sort of like a standup comedian.’ When you put him on the air, he’s hysterical. He has some of that Ed Sheeran, common man, ‘aw shucks’ kind of appeal, too. And when Noel Gallagher went after him, anyone else would have got into a Twitter fight with Noel, but Lewis embraced and owned and loved it, and it made you root for him even more.”

Proudly, Variety helped perpetuate the one-sided feud. After the ex-Oasis guitarist had already opined that Capaldi’s sad-sack songs were a disgrace to pop music, and Capaldi responded by saying it was an honor to be insulted by him, Gallagher further disparaged him in our pages, saying: “F—ing Chewbacca should enjoy his 15 minutes. The greatest day of his life that I slagged him off or called him an idiot… Well, I know you’re Scottish and all that, but f—ing hell! It is like a third world country, but for f—‘s sake, man, you must have had a better day than this.”

This all but created an international incident, as Scotland rallied behind its rising native star — and as Capaldi points out, “His wife is Scottish! That was so f—ing funny. A lot of people were angry about the Scotland as a third world country thing, and I was like, just relax! For me, having grown up an Oasis fan, Noel Gallagher slagging me off is much better than Noel Gallagher paying me compliments. And then Liam chimes in [attacking Noel’s comments] — it was f—ing mental. That was tremendous!” And, of course, he posted a video of himself enjoying Noel’s show at a festival with Gallagher’s daughter, Anais — and wore a Chewbecca mask on stage. No one with three or four decades of show business experience could have played the situation any more brilliantly. “He knows it’s all a laugh, in the same way that I did,” Capaldi offers.

 

Well, Gallagher does cultivate a shock-jock persona, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t serious. You can see why an Oasis member might be offended by Capaldi’s self-deprecating approach. The Gallaghers have been all about rock ‘n’ roll cockiness as the only way to play the game, and here comes the antithesis of that swagger, Capaldi, as the next generation of superstar: a piss-taking-out young pop singer who describes himself as “a fat gimp” who has “the best nipples in the game.”

Capaldi pauses for a moment, hearing these social media self-descriptions repeated back. “It’s so amazing hearing ‘man with the best nipples in the game’ coming out of someone else’s voice,” he laughs. “ But that’s stuff that I f—ing love. I feel like there’s many ways to… skin a cat? Is that a saying? That expression sounds wrong! But there’s no right or wrong way to do this f—ing thing. Some people are very reclusive and don’t use social media, and that works for them. Other people like Noel and Liam are very cocky and very brash — and I just talk a bit about going for a s—. But (stardom) is so weird and so stupidly big now that it’s like, what the f— is going on? If I didn’t take the piss out of it every constant moment, I’d go mad. This is a very, very strange experience I’m in, and to be able to find the funny side of it is really good for me.”

His Grammy nomination for song of the year is no joke, though. Coming on the heel of “Someone You Loved” hitting No. 1 in America in November, Capaldi describes the nod as: “A f—ing huge honor. It was already an honor just to be part of the conversation. This has already been the most rewarding year, without an award. My goal was to play King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow, which is a 330-capacity room. So the chart position thing is obviously amazing. But for me it’s about playing live, first and foremost. Because music is cheaper to listen to now than it was back in the day — just 10 pounds for Spotify or Apple or whatever — and live shows are the only things that have gone up in price when it comes to music. That’s what matters to me, that people are willing to part [with their money] for that.”

Plus, he has celebrity acolytes who’ve sung his song, like Camila Cabello, or announced they’re teaching their kids harmony based on his record, in Pink’s case — “that feels good, when they’ve seen you on MTV and they’re saying, ‘Oh, I like the chubby boy’s music.’”

Will success spoil the sad songs that made his debut album, “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent,” a somewhat morose worldwide phenomenon (back to being No. 1 in the UK at the beginning of 2020)? “I’m in a good mood now, but I was in a good mood when I wrote those songs, too,” he contends. “There are points that are very happy and exciting, but you’re also away from your family and all your friends for a very long time, losing touch with people, which is something I’ll probably write about on the second album. There’s self-doubt, and I’ve had imposter syndrome — so much to write about now that this has all gone crazy, where things can become amplified, under a magnifying glass.

“There’s a lot of stuff to write about, good and bad, the highs and the bullshit. Don’t worry,” he assures us about the music to come. “I won’t struggle to make some f—ing miserable s—.”

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