Craig David: Special Delivery
Having sold over 13 million albums, enjoyed 13 Top 10 singles and achieved multi-Platinum status in over 20 countries, Southampton, UK-born-and-raised singer/songwriter Craig David this month celebrates 10 years in the music industry with the release of his fifth studio album ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’. Which - pioneered by the single ‘One More Lie (Standing In The Shadows)’ - finds him largely covering and sampling soul hits from the Motown era while giving them his own modern twist.
Born in May 1981 to a half-Jewish white mother and Grenadian father, Craig’s career in music began as a teenage club and pirate radio DJ on England’s South Coast, while his songwriting first came to public attention when, at just 15, he penned ‘I’m Ready’ - the B-side to Nineties UK R&B quintet Damage’s Top Three cover of Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’.
However, it was as featured vocalist on Southampton-based UK Garage duo The Artful Dodger’s 1999 Number Two smash ‘Re-Rewind’ that Craig’s name and face first came to national attention. In turn paving the way for his first solo deal with Wildstar Records. Which, in 2000, straightaway saw him spectacularly scoring two UK Number One singles with the enduring, self-penned urban-teen anthems ‘Fill Me In’ and ‘Seven Days’; while his debut album ‘Born To Do It’ (produced by the Artful Dodger’s Mark Hill) eventually went on to sell a super-impressive seven million-plus worldwide, prestigiously earning him Top 10 US success (and two Grammy nominations) along the way.
Indeed, while the blockbusting global success of his debut was never quite repeated, Craig’s later studio albums (2002’s ‘Slicker Than Your Average’; 2005’s ‘The Story Goes…’; 2007’s ‘Trust Me’) nevertheless found him retaining his prominent chart presence throughout the UK, Europe and South East Asia - via memorable Top 10 hits like the club-banger ‘What’s Your Flava?’; the Sting duet ‘Rise & Fall’; the haunting ‘Don’t Love You No More’; and the David Bowie-sampling, uptempo ‘Hot Stuff (Let’s Dance)’. All in all making him one of British music’s biggest male solo exports of the Noughties, while additionally resulting in three Ivor Novello Awards, two MTV Europe Awards and four sold-out shows at London’s Wembley Arena. Meanwhile, proving the appeal of his early music is far from faded, ‘Born To Do It’ was in 2009 voted by MTV viewers the Second Greatest LP Ever, just behind Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’!
The release this month of his aforementioned new set ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’ (the follow-up to his 2008-released ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation) meanwhile finds Craig temporarily putting his songwriting on hold to cover such Motown classics as Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, The Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘For Once In My Life’ - alongside other timeless Sixties/early-Seventies soul compositions like Otis Redding’s ‘The Dock Of The Bay’ and Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together’, in addition to Curtis Steiger’s underrated Nineties gem ‘I Wonder Why’.
Meanwhile, sample-wise the album’s furiously-pounding single ‘One More Lie’ utilises The Four Tops’ ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’; while soulful ballad ‘All Alone Tonight’ finds Craig borrowing from Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye’s ‘Stop, Look, Listen’. Plus, with all tracks being recorded either at Craig’s new home in Miami or at producer Jerry Abbott and Grant Black’s London studio, the album also marks Craig’s debut for the Universal label.
… Cue a welcome phonecall from the UK’s R&B king himself. As an ever-warm-mannered, now-28-year-old Craig happily reacquaints himself with the man who gave him his first-ever press interview just over 10 years ago, Pete Lewis.
His new single ‘One More Lie’, whose chorus samples The Four Tops’ 1967 Motown classic ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Love’
“’Standing In The Shadows…’ was a song I loved from back in the day. But I’d always felt the verses could have been, not necessarily STRONGER, but - in terms of my own interpretation - could have been driven in a slightly different way. So that was why that song in particular was one that I didn’t actually do as a straight cover for this new album. I basically wrote the melody and lyrics of the verses from scratch, while maintaining the hook of the original chorus, which was always very strong. Then sonically I decided to make it slightly more contemporary, with the production being a bit more four-to-the-floor and more in-tune to what’s going on today. Because, with it now leading into summer, a lot of the dance/house-driven tracks seem to be very popular at this time of year.”
The thinking behind Craig’s new album ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’, which primarily finds him reinterpreting classic songs from the Motown era
“I’ve seen with my own eyes how the music industry has changed so dramatically over the last 10 years. In that, while it used to be all about trying to find that first hit single and then building up anticipation by coming with a second single before releasing your album, to me it feels the whole way in which listeners receive music nowadays is very DIFFERENT. To where today you’re almost in a place where you can just be constantly putting singles out. Because people now - through I-Tunes and other media platforms - tend to put their own COMPILATIONS together. So I felt, instead of coming off the back of a ‘Greatest Hits’ record with a new album full of original compositions, I’d go with a project that had me singing classic songs I’d always loved. You know, at a time when you can pick and choose the songs you like, I thought ‘Why not hedge my bets by letting people hear songs they already know, but with me giving them a slightly different interpretation and twist?’.”
How he came to select the songs, which mostly emanate from the time of Motown’s Sixties/early Seventies heyday
“I wanted to make this a performance-based record that took me out of my comfort-zone vocally, and so I decided to take it back to the time when there were so many hits on Motown Records - because on-record those artists could truly PERFORM. So I ended up spending some time just connecting with great music again - going through all my OWN record collection, the collection that my mum had at HER house, and the collection my manager had at HIS house… And that in turn actually turned into a big LEARNING curve for me. Because growing up, when people spoke of ‘Motown’, I’d always thought they were referring to a song that came out during a particular ERA. And so it was interesting for me to discover that no, they were actually referring to records by artists that were signed to the Motown LABEL! So, from the beginning, for me this album was never really about just trying to create a revamp of Motown Records. It was more, I guess, about the big impact that era and that time-frame had on me. Which is why, say, ‘Dock Of The Bay’ by Otis Redding - who was an Atlantic artist - is on there... Though, having said that, it’s actually quite funny that around 80% of the songs on the album DO emanate from the Motown label! Simply because, I guess, their songs and the way they were performed were always so strong.”
The approach Craig took in terms of actually re-interpreting the songs
“My first rule, in terms of approaching any classic song, is to respect the song, respect the artist who sang it, and the person who wrote the lyric and melody. Because, being a songwriter, I know how it is on the flipside. You’ve written it; you’ve had your experiences; it means something to you - and you don’t want anyone to bastardise that. So I went into it with the attitude of ‘If I can bring life to this - in the sense of what I can do vocally and the way I approach it - then this could possibly make the record. But otherwise, if I sing a song and it doesn’t feel like I’m bringing anything, then best to leave it and move on’… And, to be honest, a lot of the songs worked, and some DIDN’T. So the ones that did work ended up being on the album! Because to me this record is about PERFORMING. And, though I think you can get away with a lot in the studio nowadays, when it comes to singing classic songs, I think that’s the point where you have to step up your GAME! Because otherwise people will completely slate you and be like ‘Why did you even ATTEMPT these songs?’! So I can honestly say I am very proud of the outcome of this record. Because for me, to actually hear my voice singing songs I love so much - like ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ and ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’ - is very refreshing and almost like an out-of-body experience sometimes!”
How he now looks back on his initial global breakthrough at the start of the Noughties, with his multi-million-selling debut album ‘Born To Do It’
“Like you say, it was really FAST! I mean, it was straight-out-the box! Like ‘Here I am, 18 years old and playing three nights at Wembley Arena, having these Number One hits, travelling all around the world, and the album is just impacting in every country I’m going to, including America’… And to me, when you start early and you have SUCCESS early, how you handle it after goes back to the way in which your parents raised you. Because you could easily get carried away with yourself and believe that you’re the hottest thing out there. Whereas my attitude always was ‘You know what? I’ve been blessed with a talent, and I’m able to write songs and PERFORM those songs. But it’s the SONGS, as opposed to me, that are CONNECTING with people’. And I think the fact I was, to a degree, naïve in terms of the aspirations and dreams I had, made the songs feel even more REAL. I mean, the purity of that first album is amazing. And I think it really did paint the foundation for me, as an artist, to be where I am TODAY. Because I’ve seen so many people come and go in the last 10 years. And to me it’s about consistency, so much more than believing the hype. And I think the songs have PROVED that.”
With Craig having first broken through to the mainstream as a pioneer of UK Garage, his ideas on why the whole movement later went back underground
“With a sound that’s deemed as being ‘urban’ and that rises from the street, there’s almost a kind of ownership that people just wanna hold ON to. So I think that, when it becomes commercially viable and it’s embraced by the mainstream, people just feel it’s being taken out of their hands. So the only way to sort of reinforce that not happening is to then create something that’s a little bit darker, that’s not necessarily gonna get played on the radio so much, and that isn’t deemed as being ‘commercial’... And I think that’s really what the UK Garage scene ended up turning INTO, from about 2002 onwards. Which is when the early grime scene started. Where it wasn’t so much about melodic vocals, but more about ‘If you’re an MC and you’ve got something to say, then you jump on the mic, you spit ‘x’ amount of bars into a microphone, and that’s how you connect with people’... You know, the scene did go underground and it basically made that transition.”
His ideas on today’s UK funky house scene, and how it connects with to the UK Garage scene of l0 years ago
“Basically what happened was the whole grime scene - having originally evolved out of UK Garage - kind of moved on to more of a funky house tip. Where it kinda took ANOTHER sort of transition, which was more about being instrumental and getting back to the music. And I actually think it’s only now, again, that it’s finally started to revitalise people into recognising that MELODY is such an important aspect for ANY type of music to break out. So, in that way, I think the scene has almost come 360 and it’s now starting to bring together the Tinchy Stryder’s, the Wiley’s and the Dizzee Rascal’s. Because all these people are now recognising that, if you add a bit of melody with what you’re doing, you can spit as hard as you wanna spit AND sell records! So I’m very happy about that. I think it’s a very British-sounding scene, and it’s a scene we should feel very PROUD of. Because it’s something that’s patently British, that no other country can produce. You know, I haven’t heard any producer anywhere in the world really get it right the way the people in the UK do. Plus it also makes me PERSONALLY very proud to think that I was the person - the pioneer - who first opened the door for so many of these artists to come through so many years later.”
Craig’s early-Noughties American chart success, and why it turned out to be relatively short-lived
“After releasing the first album, I dedicated a year-and-a-half of my time to America. And then I also went there with the SECOND album - and overall I had a lot of success. I mean, we sold about three-and-a-half million records in America with the first and second albums. But then, to be honest, it became a situation where I had to make the conscious decision as to whether or not I wanted to spend all my time in America. Because, although I had already made an impact there, to have consistency there I did really need to stay there full-time. So it became a question of whether I could take the risk and the gamble of putting all my eggs into America, when I already knew I was selling so many records OUTSIDE of there in Europe and South East Asia. So, in the end, I had to kind of say ‘You know what? I’m happy with Europe, I’m happy with South East Asia. Let me work those markets hard’... And that decision did pay dividends! Because I sold a lot more records in Europe AFTER that, and that’s stayed consistent ever since. So I mean, America’s always there. It’s definitely still on my radar. And the fact I have a home in Miami now means I’ve already got a base there when I decide to release a record there. But, you know, I have no regrets about not staying out in America and pushing it. Because I think I’d have lost a lot of momentum in Europe if I HAD done. And, in my opinion, that would have been detrimental to my career overall.”
Craig’s response to the backlash he later experienced in the UK, with accusations of “staying too long in America”, “turning his back on the UK Garage scene”, plus the merciless ridicule he suffered with the whole ‘Bo Selecta’ comedy characature.
“You know what? You live and you learn along the way. I mean, I’ve always maintained my integrity. I’ve never put myself in a situation where I’ve looked back and thought ‘Why did I DO that?’… But then there are things that are sometimes out of your control that you can’t physically change. But what you CAN do is, you can go into the studio and you can write some more SONGS! It’s like when David Beckham lashed out in the European Championships and he got sent off. The whole of the UK was blaming him for England not getting through, and the only way he could deal with the media really and truly - and there WAS only one way - was for him to jump back on the football pitch and put the ball in the back of the net.. And, at the end of the day, that’s what he DID! And now he’s the David Beckham we all know who’s gone on to be the best at Man United, the best at Real Madrid, AC Milan, LA Galaxy... You know, he was able to show that it’s about making sure you go back to basics, and concentrate on the thing that got you there in the FIRST place. Which, in my case, is the SONGS. “
How he feels about his life and career today
“To be here today - 10 years on from when I first started - for me is the most important thing in all this. Because I’ve just got a new deal with Universal - the biggest record-label in the world - I’m 28 years old, got a new record out… I’m very thankful and blessed that my friends and family around me are healthy; my mum’s got a lovely home in Southampton; I’ve got homes in London and Miami… You know, I’m living this incredible life! So all in all, when I look back in hindsight it’s like ‘Yeah, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride. But where are we NOW? Over here, and ready to ROLL!’!”
Touring plans around ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’
“Right now it’s all about getting prepared with the band to tour and perform these songs from the new album, which is something I’m really excited about. Because, like I said, these are songs that I’ve been singing for years. So, to add them on to the songs I’ve already got - with me having now put out five studio albums - is gonna be really cool. Because that means now I can pick from so many really big HITS! So yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to going back on the road.”
Craig’s plans for the album’s international release
“In terms of the album’s international release, what’s great about being with Universal is that, once the album is finished, it gets delivered to every MD of every one of their labels around the world. So right now it’s on their table, and I’ve already had a lot of interest from the American market in particular. So that’s something ELSE I’m really excited about now Though, having said that, I don’t wanna straightaway start running 100 miles-an-hour thinking ‘Oh, we’ll go straight to America’… Because first I just wanna make sure this record impacts correctly here and in Europe. And then, when the time’s right, THEN we’ll take it over to America.”
Possible upcoming collaborations with US rappers
“It’s weird - because, when it comes to collaborations, I guess it’s all about location, location, location... So - if you’re looking for rappers to jump on your record - the fact I’ve actually now got a place in Miami certainly makes that all a lot more possible. Because the amount of people I meet in the lobby of the apartment I live in is INCREDIBLE! I mean, a few weeks ago Lil Wayne was there; a month ago Nelly was staying in the apartment next-door to me… And, because I have a recording studio in my apartment, it makes it all such a simple process! You know, it’s not like having to try and call the management and the record company, and then ask ‘Can this person do a rap on my track?’. Now it’s more like ‘Do you wanna throw a little 16-bars on a track I’ve got upstairs? I’ve got a beat ready to go. You ready to do it?’… And, because of the bravado the Americans have, it’s always like ‘Yeah. Let’s just do the music first - and then we’ll work out all the legalities and business AFTER’… Which is very much an attitude I RESPECT. Because, if you just sit back and wait, nothing HAPPENS! So yeah, collaborations-wise I definitely think there’s gonna be some exciting things coming up in the future. So that - along with the response I’m already getting to this new album - has got me really excited with the way things are going right now.”
Craig’s single ‘One More Lie (Standing In The Shadows)’ is released March 22. His album ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’ follows March 29, both through Universal Music Group/All Around The World
Words PETE LEWIS