Singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi has released just four tracks but they have been streamed so much, stratospheric success is within sight for the 21-year-old, writes Fiona Shepherd
I’ve not been found out yet,” says Lewis Capaldi, with the pleasantly puzzled air of someone sore from all the pinch-me moments he has experienced in the last year. By his own admission, the 21-year-old Bathgate-bred troubadour has gone from an audience of eight to eight million in the last 12 months, with the illustrious likes of Chloë Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld, Ellie Goulding and One Direction’s Niall Horan – a particularly enthusiastic patron of his music – among that rapidly expanding fanbase. And all for a public catalogue of four songs, gathered together on the Bloom EP, which was released last autumn.
Thanks to the potential exhibited by these raspy pop confessionals, he ended 2017 as winner of the Breakthrough Artist at the Scottish Music Awards and begins this year on the list of nominees for the BBC Sound of 2018 title, which is traditionally a pretty accurate barometer of future commercial success. The Top 5 countdown starts this Monday on Radio 1.
“I’ve seen more places in the past year than my mum has seen in her life, and I’ve seen them from a very privileged point of view,” he reflects. “You go to see the skyscrapers of New York – I was getting to have meetings in these skyscrapers.”
For all the jet-setting, Capaldi remains refreshingly grounded, as only a man who writes in his parents’ garden shed can be. And if he wasn’t, his recent support tour with 2017’s big noise, Rag’n’Bone Man, would have brought him back down to earth with a bump.
“Some of the shows were quite tough,” he says, recalling some rite-of-passage heckling, “but I think that’s good cos it would be very easy, especially with the way the last few months have gone, to have my head in the clouds a bit. I think it’s good to have your feet pulled back to the ground with shows like that, where everyone’s like ‘go ahead, impress us’ and no one really cares about me, and I have to make them.”
Capaldi has past form when it comes to dealing with intransigent audiences. Like most overnight successes, there is a pretty prosaic backstory of dues-paying graft. In fact, Capaldi has been gigging across the Central Belt and writing his own songs since the tender age of 12, he says “constantly chipping away, gigging every weekend, picking up a guitar every single day, really putting in the effort to be a writer. But I was never writing and gigging because I wanted to be a big singer, it was just what I wanted to do in any capacity. I saw playing in the pub to four or five people as my idea of being a musician and I was still enamoured with it.”
Capaldi credits his older musician brother with leading by example, putting in a word with local promoters. “Hats off to the people who let me come in and play when I was that age. For me, I feel most at home when I’m playing live. It showed me the ropes a bit. It goes back to that thing that it’s good to be reminded that nobody actually cares who you are. I think that’s a good thing, I think it forces you to make some noise and make yourself known. That set me up nicely for this career that I’ve stumbled upon.”
For a couple of years, Capaldi played in a band. “We just ripped off The View completely,” he freely admits. Then he went through a “Beatles phase” which led him to Joe Cocker’s big, bluesy version of With A Little Help from My Friends. It was a lightbulb moment for the teenager who started to cultivate his own raspy tone. Unsurprisingly, Paolo Nutini is another inspiration from closer to home. Capaldi is a great fan of his supremely soulful Caustic Love album, though at this nascent stage Capaldi’s music has more in common with Nutini’s earlier pop material.
Just as his brother helped him get a foot in the gigging door, his parents proffered their shed as a songwriter’s retreat. “I’ve got quite a loud voice,” says Capaldi. “Mum and dad were growing tired of having me shout the house down, so they exiled me...”
He is comically dismissive of some of his efforts down the years. “Terrible songs,” he remembers, “trying to be an insightful 12-year-old… But it was good to get the songwriting muscle working. The sooner you start writing songs, the sooner you’ll get better. Anything I wrote before the age of 17 is probably worth putting a pin in and moving on.”
His first keeper was a song called Headspace, which is still part of his core set and would, he hopes, make it on to his debut album. Around the same time, he was accepted to take part in Hit the Road, a touring project for 14-19-year-olds which is run by the Scottish Music Centre, funded by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative and gives young musicians viable experience and training in all aspects of touring. Thanks to his involvement, he met his manager and his prospects started to move up through the gears.
The breakthrough came a year ago when footage surfaced online of Capaldi performing the bare ballad Bruises in front of a capacity crowd at King Tut’s. The track became his official debut single and has since racked up 30 million streams on Spotify. He followed up with Lost On You, co-written with Fame Academy alumnus David Sneddon, who since his brief brush with reality TV has found his vocation as a songwriter for the likes of Lana Del Ray and Newton Faulker.
Since then, Capaldi has travelled far from the garden shed, including over to the States to collaborate with the Grammy-winning John Legend/Lorde/Frank Ocean producer Malay on the polished balladry of Fade.
“It only feels really in the last year, maybe two years that I’ve come into my own as a songwriter, being able to work with other people and learn from them,” he says. “For me I need the benefit of hindsight in order to craft a song properly. I wouldn’t have written Fade if I hadn’t written Bruises so all the songs have a knock-on effect to each other.”
In between winning awards and fielding tips-for-the-top, Capaldi is diligently amassing material for his debut album, but that particular production is still some way in the future, and may not be ready until the start of next year. Meanwhile, the touring continues in earnest, only this time Capaldi has swapped the bars and clubs of the Central Belt for established rock venues throughout the UK and Europe, including his biggest Scottish headline to date at Glasgow’s ABC. Yet when asked about his plans for 2018, Capaldi refuses to be distracted by the dazzle of budding success and adopts more of a taking-care-of-business attitude. “Keep the head down,” he says. “You’re only as good as your next song, so I’ve got a lot of work to be getting on with.”
Lewis Capaldi plays ABC, Glasgow on 17 February