Capaldi said there’s a section in the middle of his live show in which he does three slow songs right in a row; the third, Headspace, has a lyric that pleads, “Sing me a song and send me to sleep.”
“And every night I always look around at that point hoping no one heckles me: ‘You’re doing a good job of it!'” mock-hollered the singer, who looks like a slightly doughier Paul McCartney circa Rubber Soul. Dressed in a T-shirt and rumpled windbreaker, he ran a hand through his tousled hair and grinned. “I’m like, I need to get [American rapper] Trippie Redd on this just to spice it up.”
An unvarnished confessional with a yearning sing-along melody, Someone You Loved soared to the tops of the charts in the US, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia and Czech Republic. In Australia, it reached No. 4 and went 5x Platinum. It has clocked up more than 800 million listens on Spotify. Highly unusual numbers for a stripped-down ballad at a moment when the Top 40 is crowded with busy hip-hop tracks by the likes of Post Malone and Travis Scott.
“Look at the records around it on Spotify, globally or in the US,” said Capitol Records Group chairman and chieve executive Steve Barnett, who recently presented Capaldi with a plaque commemorating the song’s latest sales achievement. “There’s nothing like it.”
Now Someone You Loved – the key track from Capaldi’s debut album, Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, which has also enjoyed top 10 charting success around the world – is in the running for Song of the Year at next month’s Grammy Awards.
The Recording Academy has a proven historical weakness for this type of nakedly sentimental material, particularly when it comes from young Brits with show-stopping voices: see Ed Sheeran, Adele and Sam Smith, all of whom have won Song of the Year with tunes that might have been composed decades ago. (Worth noting: Barnett ran Columbia Records during Adele’s breakout, then moved to Capitol just in time to shepherd Smith to stardom.)
Yet the ascent of such an old-fashioned tune feels especially remarkable today given how quickly pop has been moving of late. Eighteen-year-old Billie Eilish was virtually unknown when Adele cleaned up at the 2017 Grammys, and now she’s nominated in six categories – including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artist.
Like many in his generation, Capaldi, whose aspiring rock star of an older brother led him to start playing music while still in school, was discovered by a manager after he posted homemade recordings online. His meal-ticket of an instrument, though, sets him apart as much as his attraction to classic arrangements does. Where artists like Eilish and Khalid do “this super-cool kind of mumbly, vibey thing,” as one of his producers, Malay, put it, Capaldi uses his powerful chest voice to reach the cheap seats. In the weathered grain of his singing, you can hear a performer capable of turning pain into beauty.
“There’s just not that many people out there who can do that right now,” said Malay, who’s also worked with Smith and Frank Ocean.
What’s striking about Someone You Loved – and about the rest of Capaldi’s impressive album, which he made quickly after an early single took off on streaming services – is that his stories often resist the type of emotional grandstanding for which his voice sets you up. Yes, the feelings are big and often raw. But Capaldi describes breakups the way they happen in real life – not necessarily “an explosion of trauma”, he said, but the sad, relatable experience of two people slowly drifting apart.
Indeed, Capaldi is on sufficiently good terms with the ex-girlfriend about whom he wrote most of his songs that, as he worked on them, he’d send them to her to see what she thought.
“She’s one of the only people who could tell me if they felt true or not,” said the singer, who now jokes frequently on social media about his hit-or-miss use of Tinder.
Backstage in the US, he faced some more fact-checking from his mum regarding his usefulness as anything but a musician.
“Couldn’t even do a dish,” she said, to which he shot back, “I f—— washed dishes!” At that, his dad laughed heartily while his mother winced at the sound of yet another F-bomb. “The swearing’s his fault,” she said, gesturing towards her husband. “He thought it was funny when Lewis was young.”
“Get your eight-year-old to say ‘F – off’ in front of your whole family,” Mr Capaldi advised in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s funny, you’ll see.”
These days the singer’s father isn’t the only one laughing at the foul-mouthed antics that provide an intriguing counterpoint to Capaldi’s ultra-sincere songs. On Instagram he’s become something of a sensation among his nearly 4 million followers, with hilarious videos about Noel Gallagher’s harsh opinion of his music and about the time he, uh, clogged a toilet in a Los Angeles hotel room. (“I’ve got someone coming here to put makeup on my face later on,” he says in the clip with perfectly pitched alarm. “I’ve been told it’s a lady.”)
If all the wisecracking seems at odds with his tortured-romantic persona, Capaldi insists it’s no less a product of his real life than his music. The other day his publicist got a call from a reporter who’d heard that he employed a comedy writer, which blew Capaldi’s mind since he doesn’t consider himself all that funny – definitely no funnier than his family or his old pals from home.
“It’s just where I’m from,” he said. “If I’m sat having dinner with my mum and dad, we’re all taking the piss out of each other. It’s how we show affection.”
In 2019, he pointed out, “People like to know where they’re getting their meat and their fruit and their coffee.” It’s the same with pop songs. “You hear something you like, you want to know where it came from.”
Los Angeles Times
Lewis Capaldi tours with Falls Festival over the New Year period, and plays Hordern Pavilion, Sydney on January 2 and Festival Hall, Melbourne on January 3.