McClean: What's going on?
Prestigiously described by chart-topping British producer Fraser T. Smith (Taio Cruz; Tinchy Stryder) as “the modern-day Marvin Gaye”, Dagenham, Essex-raised soul vocalist McClean - after recently being tipped by critics-in-the-know to become one of 2010’s major UK breakthrough acts - has this month justified those predictions by seeing his haunting first “official” single ‘My Name’ impressively debut at Number Ten on the mainstream UK chart.
Indeed, having seen his independently-released 2007 single ‘Broken’ go on to accrue over 20 million hits across such major networking sites as YouTube and MySpace, the artist formerly known as “Digga” - having now signed to Atlantic Records’ Asylum imprint - is also later this year scheduled to drop his highly-anticipated debut album. Which in turn promises to boast A-list UK and US production input from the likes of Timbaland affiliate Nate ‘Danja’ Hills (Justin Timberlake; Nelly Furtado); London-based urban head Naughty Boy (Chipmunk; Wiley); and aforementioned UK hit-maker Fraser T. Smith.
Kicking off a Friday afternoon of press interviews at Atlantic Records’ temporary West End HQ, a soft-spoken, humble-mannered McClean (who started out singing with his family in church) begins his chat with Pete Lewis by revealing his main music influences: “Well, because it was what everyone in my family was listening to, I first grew up immersed in a lot of reggae”, he recalls fondly: “Then, as I got older, I got into Michael Jackson - and, for a while, I didn’t wanna hear anything ELSE! You know, the first-ever album I got was ‘Bad’! But then, as I grew up a bit more, I started listening to the Nineties R& B groups like Boyz 11 Men, Jodeci, BLACKstreet… And that eventually led me to discover the Sixties/Seventies classic soul era of artists like Stevie (Wonder), Marvin (Gaye) and Otis (Redding). Which for me personally is the best music ever MADE! You know, I particularly relate to the depth of soul and the feeling those artists put into their music. So my album basically is gonna have all those different influences in it just kinda fused into one sound - which I guess you could call MY sound!”
Indeed, with McClean (first name Anthony) being the son of Lovers Rock legend John McClean (whose ‘If I Gave My Heart You’ remains to this day a much-played favourite in West Indian circles) and cousin to Nineties reggae hit-maker Bitty McClean (his ‘It Keeps Raining’ reached an impressive Number Two in the UK in 1993), he understandably traces a lot of his early inspiration back to his family’s rich musical history.
“Yeah, that was definitely a massive, massive influence”, he concurs: “Because, when I was around four of five years old, my dad was really riding high. So I’d see him getting ready in his smart outfits and going to shows, then coming back home with his records and playing his music... I mean, he had like a whole WALL full of Gold discs and stuff. So, even at that age, I’d be there looking at all that and thinking ‘One day I wanna have all those things and be just like him - going on the road, going to all these countries’… So yeah, that was definitely where I first got the bug from.”
“I mean, even when I was really young, my dad would tell me stories about the ups and downs he’d had in his career”, continues McClean: “He’d tell me what I needed to look out for if I wanted to be a singer, and how I should always stay humble… And so I’ve definitely tried to keep all those little lessons that he taught me on board for my OWN career. Then, with Bitty’s success too, I remember how - when I was at school - me and my friends would all be singing ‘It’s rainin’, it’s rainin’’ all day LONG - which was also a really good feeling for me! And even my brother (current Peterborough striker Aaron McClean) - although he’s younger than me - is again definitely someone you can look up to, especially with regard to how he treats his fans. Like I was at one of his games recently, and his whole team were on the bus waiting for him. But he still just kept standing out there signing autographs and taking pictures - you know, he wouldn’t leave until he’d done EVERYONE! So again, that level of dedication to your fans is also something I’ve taken on board.”
Interestingly, it was during the early-Noughties UK Garage boom that the soulful Mr. McClean actually began his musical career: “Yeah, when I was in school back then, everybody I knew wanted to be either an MC or a DJ”, he relates with a smile: “I mean, some were better than others - but everybody was ON it! So, because I had some decks, all my friends would come around my house! You know, there’d be like 15 of us all grabbing the mic and wanting to mix… And it was from listening to all the Garage tunes back then that I actually started writing lyrics. Then from there I joined a little rap group, who were signed to an independent underground Garage label - I’d MC a bit and sing on the choruses. Then, after all that fell apart, I kind of left the MCing bit behind and just carried on with the singing. I got the MySpace and YouTube stuff going, wrote ‘Broken’... And that’s when everything went CRAZY!”
Indeed, with Mc Clean having fought his way up through the UK urban scene working with the likes of M.J. Cole, Chase & Status and Tinie Tempah along the way, it was nevertheless with the aforementioned ‘Broken’ that things took off in a major way: “Oh yeah, that DEFINITELY benefitted me - though I didn’t intend it to be that way”, he replies without hesitation: “I mean, at the time I was working on an underground mixtape and thinking ‘OK, I’m gonna put my mixtape out, sell a few copies, and hopefully get my name out there’!... But then, once I made ‘Broken’ and people started getting it off the MySpace, everything just suddenly took OFF!”
“You know, I was getting e-mails from Germany, Austria, America, Australia… And I’m thinking ‘What’s going ON?’!”, he recalls: “Then I’d look at YouTube, and every day there was like 10 new videos of ‘Broken’! And I’m thinking ‘Who is DOING this?’ I mean, I know it’s piracy and these days I’d definitely prefer people to BUY my record. But, at the time, I couldn’t have been HAPPIER! And it’s still going on TODAY! You know, ‘Broken’ hasn’t died down - there’s still new videos coming every day!... So yeah, I’m just happy that it’s touched people in such a way that they feel the need to DO that. Especially when it seems people are now liking ‘My Name’ just as much!”
McClean’s single ‘My Name’ is out now through Asylum. The single ‘Finally In Love’ follows May 24
Words PETE LEWIS