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Lewis Capaldi on Being 2020’s King of Pain: ‘I’ve Soundtracked the Worst Year of Many People’s Lives!’

Chris Willman
·11-min read

“I’m a two-hit wonder — officially,” crows Lewis Capaldi, who, last year at this time, was actually using “one-hit wonder” as his temporary Twitter handle. “The jury is out on three and four, but one and two are in the bag.” Those would be “Someone You Loved,” a No. 1 song from 2019 that has gone on to again be one of the most consumed songs of 2020, and his follow-up, “Before You Go,” which was a chart-topper in the UK before going No. 1 at the Top 40 and Hot AC formats this year and reaching at least the top 10, if not the top, in most global territories.

“It’s genuinely overwhelming, especially this year, to know that through all this shit that has been happening, people are listening to my music through it,” says the 24-year-old Scottish sensation. “Whether or not they wanted to — maybe someone was listening on the radio and they went, ‘This shit is fucking terrible, turn that off’ — they listened to it. I’ve soundtracked the worst year of many people’s lives. That’s quite a feeling!”

Capaldi is making a career, or at least a winning persona, out of being the guy who takes the piss out of his penchant for going melancholy before anyone else can beat him to it. Asked how he so easily reaches such sad depths in his writing, the singer answers: “What I do is before I write songs to get, as you say, in that zone, is: Immediately before a song, I will go to the bathroom, look into the mirror and I‘ll pick my nose hairs out or pluck my ear hairs out, while also just filling my own head with little things like, ‘Oh, you’ve got that weird tooth thing that Tom Cruise also has, where your teeth don’t line up. You’ve got one of those tuck-in chins that is not desirable at all.” I’ll just give myself little japes in the mirror, as I’m causing very minor physical pain via pulling my nose hairs out. And then is how I zone in on what it means to be sad. We all have our processes, and that is mine. It’s not too dissimilar to like Daniel Day Lewis, when he gets in for a method acting thing.”

The phrase “But seriously…” should be on hold as an instant cut-and-paste into any Capaldi interview. But seriously…

Of the song that made him a two-hit sensation this year, “Before You Go,” Capaldi says, “I actually prefer it as a song to ‘Someone You Loved’ — I’m much more proud of the lyrics in that one, just because of how kind of personal it is to me. And the response that we’ve had back ultimately makes it my favorite one.” He co-wrote it as a very belated, very adult response to a traumatic event that he wasn’t able to process when he was a boy.

“Obviously it was about my aunt, who sadly passed away from suicide when I was really young. That’s something that, as you get older, it’s something that plays on your mind a bit more, as you learn a bit more of the situation. You think about how this is a whole experience your mom and dad were having that was so deeply emotional that you never even suspected. So as I learned more about it, it was something that I thought that I should try to make sense of myself and write a song about it. Unfortunately, I’ve known people who have also gone on to also take their own lives, people that I went to school with and had mutual friends with. You can overanalyze every interaction that you may or may not have had with that person, and think about every little thing that you may have heard them say in passing, even if it was completely innocent.

“That means more to me than the songs I wrote about an ex-girlfriend that I had when I was 19 or 20. You get over a relationship, but coming to terms with the death of a loved one is something you carry with you your whole life.”

But he’s more than fine with most people hearing it as something less grave, noting that in the writing it “naturally started flowing in that sort of love song-y way. I want it to be as universal as possible and people to be able to relate to it in many different ways. And I don’t want to be too dark. I tread lightly with (the suicide theme), because I don’t want to overstep the mark and have people think I was exploiting the situation — which I guess technically I have,” he laughs. “But I don’t want people to assume that my experience was universal. And I don’t want to assume that people who have experienced a similar thing would have had exactly the same experience I wanted to keep it quite broad in that respect.”

Of course, Capitol saw the potential in “Before You Go” and saw its potential as a possible smash follow-up to “Someone You Love” once he did cut it for the deluxe edition, which came out in late 2019. No one could have necessarily guessed exactly how it would go over during a pandemic, but it turned out America wanted songs that put them in touch with their feelings about loss, as well as purely escapist ones. “It was such a great feeling to experience the shared joy and sense of accomplishment that the entire promotion team and company felt once the record went to No. 1,” says Greg Marella, Capitol Music Group’s EVP of promotion. “We started this before COVID, and the campaign was our labor of love and sense of purpose during the most difficult time. We all knew how personal and special this song was to Lewis, which made it even more important and special that we delivered for him.”

“Before You Go” wasn’t on the original edition of his blockbuster debut album, “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent.” He remembers the then-not-quite-finished song being the runt of the litter when last-minute decisions were being made about what should be recorded for the initial release.

Or, as Capaldi tells it: “It was something that we had written around the same thing as ‘Someone You Loved,’ and we thought, you know what, let’s hold this back for the cash grab of a deluxe edition.” But seriously… It was a label exec, actually, who thought the then-unfinished song didn’t merit recording. “Me and my manager were like, ‘Do you think we’ve got time to record this?’ I said that to someone at the label, and they were like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think this is good enough to warrant chucking one out.’ They thought it was like a B-rate song. I won’t mention who. But we kept off, and at that point, ‘Someone You Loved’ was doing its thing (even before the album was out), so it’s not like we were (thinking), ‘Oh God, we need another song.’ When it came the time to do the deluxe album, we had it knocking around, and me that’s when me and manager went, ‘Okay, let’s go back in and properly finish it.'”

In accepting his Variety Hitmakers award for songwriter of the year, Capaldi says he’s thrilled to be honored for his writing, specifically, for the first time. But he admits“I love writing songs,” he says. “I do think for me it was something that was born out of necessity. I needed to write songs so that I could go play live. I wasn’t like one of these kids who was in a book, writing poetry for fucking years. Do you know what I mean? That’s not me at all. Like, I barely fucking read books now, let alone write poetry!”

But he’s not driven by sheer commerciality, either. Much more than success as a recording artist, Capaldi is driven by the need to communicate live — which was happening on a large scale when the pandemic hit, with his ascent into U.S. arenas scheduled and then canceled for this year. When the international lockdowns hit in mid-March, he had just played two sold-out nights at London’s Wembley Stadium, where the results of his writing ambitions were coming to the largest possible fruition.

“When I’m writing songs, I don’t imagine hearing it on the radio or it being in the top 10. Not to say that that is not something I enjoy getting. It fucking pays the bills — I love it! Some songs that really go down amazingly live are not radio hits, but I do think that in the Venn diagram, you find there’s a lot of crossover between what goes well live and what gets played on the radio. So for me, I imagined me on stage singing it, and how it would feel to hear that back.

“But there’s no better feeling than when you finish a song and you go, ‘I love that song,’ irrespective of anyone else enjoying it. If you write something that really means something to you, it’s this incredible rush that you get that you don’t get anywhere else. Similar to when you play live — under the same umbrella, but a completely different feeling.” Capaldi offers ample credit to his collaborators on both hits, as well, the TMS writing-production team out of England.

Capaldi really did think that he might be one-and-done in fickle America, even if Europe had already shown an abiding interest. “I was so surprised to see ‘Before You Go’ go the way it did this year. It was the last thing on my mind, thinking about how that song would do in America, because it was just like, ‘Well the world is fucked, and that’s the year — done, right?’ And then it started climbing, and I just remember seeing it and thinking, ‘Oh fuck, this is really strange that people are listening to this song when nothing’s happening.’ And I’m not one of these people who’s like, ‘Chart positions don’t matter.’ Of course they fucking matter! In the sense that I want to play shows to as many people as possible and do this for as long as possible, so they do matter in that regard. it doesn’t have to be top 10s or No. 1s, but if any musician is releasing stuff and they’re telling you they’re not looking at that chart, they’re lying. As soon as it becomes a reality, that your song could be on a chart like that, you do have a look. Success is exciting.”

He adds, “I’m also a very glass-half-empty person — like, ‘We got a No. 1 in America — who cares what happens now?’ And I’m like that now. So in making this new album, I’m like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll make the album that I want to make, and as long as I like the songs, if it goes tits up and no one buys the second record, you can’t begrudge that, because of what’s come before it. I’ve been lucky to do way more than I ever should have been able to do in music. There are people faaaaar more talented than me who don’t get a sniff of all this stuff that I’ve been able to do and play places like I get to play. I’d be mental to begrudge that and to be like ‘Ahhh, the second one should have done as well.'” (Which actually sounds rather glass-half-full, but why question metaphors with someone on such a serious roll?)

The man who, more than anyone since Adele, has proven Elton John’s maxim that sad songs say so much is now at work on his second album. “Surprisingly, a global pandemic is quite good for inspiring you to write depressing songs. Who would have thought it?” He believes there’s “a natural progression,” taking heart that he must be improving as a craftsman because “the last two songs I wrote for the first album were ‘Before You Go and ‘Someone You Loved.’” But, he says, “I joke about all the time about ‘Well, I’m going to do exactly the same thing for my second album’ — which I have every intention of doing! The sound isn’t going to be massively different. I’m very much a one-trick-pony guy. It’s going to be depressing shit.”

He’s not averse to selling out his balladry for something more au courant, though, he admits, with tongue completely in cheek. “I hope that one day I can bust out some disco, or perhaps some trap, or, really, make a song about lovemaking. Which, for me, would still be quite a sad song, but it’d be nice to kind of throw that into the mix.”

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