Gig preview: John Newman, O2 Academy Leeds

John Newman

John Newman

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JOHN Newman’s chart-topping debut album begins with a long list of names.

The 23-year-old Settle singer explains the roll call that starts with Nina Simone and ends with Beyonce is his homage to the many artists who have inspired him to follow in their footsteps.

“When I was promoting Love Me Again [his Number One single from last year] one thing I was getting asked was ‘Who do you sound like?’” he says. “For me, it’s really hard. I draw influence from people I listen to but the list was so big it was hard to put across.

“The album is called Tribute as a thank you [to all these people] for making music what it is for me.”

Another key figure that the former Leeds College of Music student credits is his mother, Jackie, to whom he recently dedicated “at least 50 per cent” of what he does. She has been, he admits, his rock since his parents separated when he was just six years old.

“She’s my best friend,” he says. “Morally it’s such a big thing. Everything that has come with this job – fame, money or anything like that – I try to put on the side. It’s better to try to make people proud – my Mum, my friends – it’s about keeping them happy and making sure they are part of it. I love making music. My Mum is one of the key people that has supported me all the way through. I want to repay her in any way possible.”

One thing he’s keen to clear up is any offence he may inadvertently have caused to his old friends in North Yorkshire. In a recent interview he described the town as “small in every way”, adding: “The lads were all the same person I didn’t want to be.”

Some apparently have accused him of “making it sound like a bad place, lying how people treated me”, which, he says, “has been quite upsetting for me”.

“A lot of close friends have taken the comments towards themselves,” he says. “It was not like that. I did not want to offend anybody in the slightest. I was just saying, ‘This is where I’m coming from, this is me’. In terms of growing up, a Northern small town can be like that.”

When Newman was 17, two of his closest friends, Tom Rodgers and Ben Ineson, were killed in a car crash. The singer himself later had a health scare over a brain tumour, which thankfully turned out to be benign.

“I learned on the brutal side of things,” he admits. “Before I was making pop tunes that had got melodies and lyrics that suited them then on the other side I wrote all the dark stuff about friends. As I matured I realised that at five o’clock as you’re driving home listening to the radio you don’t want to hear really dark thoughts, so I express those now in my personal time.

“Relationships, things that are not that crazy, are all right to expose. [Writing songs] is a way of expressing myself, a musical punch bag, letting everything out.”

What has perhaps taken those in the industry back about Newman has been that for a singer at such a formative stage in his career he’s remarkably assertive. “It’s very hard work,” he says. “I like to get involved in everything – not because I want to speak about it in interviews but because I like creative control. I enjoy it – every aspect of the job I’m doing. I’m in a position now where the record label, managers, they all turn to me for my approval.

“In terms of coping with it, it’s a bit mad, but it’s your job and you concentrate on that. The main thing is I still enjoy it. Tonight I’ll be walking into a huge venue – 2,500 people – the pressure is on you to perform, but I walk in and go, ‘I can’t wait’. It’s incredible I get to do this in front of all these people.”

Having scored two Number One singles – Love Me Again and Feel The Love (with Rudimental) – and topped the album charts in the UK, Newman has set his sights this year on cracking the USA.

Sentimentally, he says, it’s hugely important as that’s where a lot of his inspirations on that “long list of names on Tribute” is from.

But it’s not just the history, he says.

“I don’t want to be a hype-y artist. If you want people buy into you as a household name they do that by buying albums. [Being successful in the US] can take you to that next level. It’s important in that way.”

February 4, O2 Academy Leeds, Cookridge Street, Leeds sold-out – returns only. www.o2academyleeds.co.uk

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