JAMES the tour manager has just reminded Thalia the make-up woman that Craig the popstar has to be ready for the pre-gig press conference at 4pm.
The presence of Danish television camera crews necessitate Thalia’s presence – some of us have an image to keep up – although David doesn’t seem to need much work. He looks far healthier than any man in the latter stages of a European tour has any right to. He’s positively glowing.
Craig David is the most promising singer/songwriter this country has produced in years. He’s got an effortlessly lovely and soulful voice, he knows how to write a decent pop lyric, he’s young, good looking and suddenly he is everywhere.
“There’s all this fuss being made and I’m just thinking, I’m just this guy from Southampton who writes a few songs. It’s a bit surreal, to be honest,” he says, visibly perplexed by it all.
Sometimes it seems like Craig David is the living, breathing embodiment of multicultural Britain at its wholesome best, with his flawless coffee-coloured skin and catchy soulful ghetto-pop. At the very least, he’s a pin-up boy for a generation of teens. Unlike previous UK soul contenders such as, say, Mark Morrison or even Omar, Craig David is about as threatening as Sir Cliff Richard.
Thalia diligently pads away at David’s face, stopping when he waves his hands around. She doesn’t seem to be doing much, some white stuff goes on and then instantly disappears under her brush. A brown smear, a shade or two darker than David’s skin-tone, goes on and vanishes just as quickly. We all swap over halfway through so she can do the other side of this face.
A homegrown and wholesome British talent, David doesn’t drink – apart from an occasional glass of wine – doesn’t smoke and doesn’t take drugs. The only chink in his careful diplomacy comes when he says he “hates” smoking. He doesn’t even swear – “knackered” is about as close as he gets.
But he’s looking good on it.
Unlike the crazy kamikaze nut-job who created Wired For Sound, Craig David still lives with his mum in Hampshire – if the 19-year-old globetrotter can be said to live anywhere. And rather than talking about sharing Mistletoe & Wine with all mankind, he talks about sharing Champagne and jacuzzis with all the ladies.
Today, it’s Tuesday, so we’re in Copenhagen, backstage in yet another huge, sold-out venue on David’s European tour.
“It’s amazing! Every gig has been packed to the brim and still there are more people trying to get in,” he says with his usual fresh-faced candour. “It’s like, I’ve sold out Wembley Arena three times now. Playing Wembley Arena one time is like a dream come true for me. But three times in a row?”
Craig David’s rise is indeed the stuff of dreams. Buying a set of decks at the age of 13, he rapidly progressed from pirate radio to local clubs before winning a national songwriting contest at 16, and releasing his first record, produced with DJs he met in local clubs in Southampton, at the grand old age of 17.
David has voiced one of the biggest hits to come out of the UK’s burgeoning garage scene, in collaboration with the Artful Dodger duo, with Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta), which ironically enough, was only kept from the 1999 Christmas number one slot by Sir Cliff Richard’s Millennium Prayer.
Live performances are a different story again. The clipped two-step rhythms which made him famous are largely absent. A plaintive Re-Rewind for example, is performed with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, giving his rich, full voice room to fully flex (as they say in Southampton). He’s more of a good, old-fashioned soul singer than anything else.
“It was important not to take away the elements that people liked in the first place,” he says. “It was a bass-driven track. It was about the beats, it was about the club. I thought we just couldn’t do it as the whole big production again, the whole two-step garage flavour.
“So I go out there with Fraser and break it down. For me, it’s something special, it’s another element, it wasn’t just about, oh we have to do Rewind because it was a hit. I wanted to give it a unique feel. It’s the song I actually wrote.”
“When a crowd just erupts at you, it throws you for a second,” he says of his gigs around Europe. “I just have this flashback to when I was dreaming of being able to go and sell mixtapes and CDs to make a living. Next thing, you see a whole crowd embracing you and singing your songs. It’s just amazing.”
Craig David is amazed a lot these days. At times he seems like one of Harry Enfield’s Double Take Brothers, constantly bleurgggh-ing his surprise in getting so far, so fast. But Craig David knows that you make your own luck.
“I’ve DJed in clubs that have been absolutely dead with literally four or five people in them,” he says. “The thing is, I’d always look at the brighter side of it. I’d record my set for a mix tape. I’ve always had a way of getting something out of a situation that wasn’t working like it should.”
David’s athletic, engaging vocal delivery and adept songwriting skills make him standout head and shoulders above his pop music contemporaries.
He’s got gigs in the US next month. The aim, he says, is to “start the ball rolling. You can only give it your best shot, and I’m going to give it as much as I’ve done in the UK. Fingers crossed that they embrace it.”
“People in the UK are like, Craig, you’re doing great, the singles doing well, the album’s number, you’re the man!” he slaps his hands together in mock-rapture. “Well, not really. I can go to places in Scotland and they don’t know who Craig David is. They don’t care who Craig David is.
“I’ve got so much work to do in my home country, let alone the rest of the world. I’ve got so much more work to do before I start breaking out.”
As for the US, where many British soul artists have tried and failed to make an impression he says: “I think you can only go in with the attitude of, okay, I’m a British artist, I’ve got these songs in the bag, I’ve done well in the UK but now I’ve got to start from scratch. If I go over there and say, hey, I’ve gone triple platinum, sold two million albums in the UK, a million in Europe, they’d just say, okay. Thanks. Who cares?”
He generates something approaching hysteria among the young – and not-so-young – women who make up three-quarters of his audience in Europe. We stroll over to the press conference, walking down a glass corridor adjacent to the street outside, where a few hundred fans have gathered. We’re spotted and dozens of statuesque blonde teens rush towards us. They all hit the plate glass at the same time and it visibly bulges inwards.
It barely seems to register with him.
He’s in a weird position. Never has there been a more unlikely sex symbol. He’s keen to emphasise that he’s ‘all about the music’, but you get the impression that it’s not all about the music for many of his fans.
At times during his gigs you can barely hear what he’s singing. He talks about singing songs where he gets to give his vocal chords a work out “and people are just screaming at you”, but he says he takes it all with a pinch of salt.
So does he find that the sex symbol thing gets in the way of what he’s really about?
“People have bought into me because of the music. I always look at it like that. I think, Craig, you’re a normal guy, there’s hundreds and thousands of people like you around – but what you do musically is unique. That’s what I’m passionate about.”
It’s hard not to take what he says at face value – he is simply painfully sincere and seems to be utterly without guile of any kind.
“I want to make sure the music is strong and if anything else comes with it, that’s a bonus,” he decides, fiddling with the wafer-thin Marco Valentino on his wrist. ” That’s why the live show is based around the music – there’s no big dance routines. All you’re getting is vocal and music.”
Yeah, I get that. But you do wind them up a bit too, don’t you?
“There’s certain songs,” he concedes, suddenly coy, “say they’ve got innuendo in them, about .. er, sexual activity, like Follow Me and Nice And Slow, it kinda gets the crowd, ‘specially the ladies, up for it and very energetic. I’m trying to flex the vocals over it and” – he chuckles – “some of the moves can make it just that little bit harder to hear what’s going on.”
Do you feel the need to show out a bit more in bigger venues?
“You should be true to who you are,” he replies. “If I want to wiggle my backside a bit, I will do. But I was never brought up as a dancer in the sense of Sisqo, where there’s lavish dance routines and somersaults and everything. That’s his vibe and he’s great at that. As an artist you should have the integrity to say, hey, this is what I do.
“I want to perform this vocal in a way that touches you. You can watch an artist jumping around and the lights are fantastic, but I want people to connect with the songs.”
I never realised you had such a ragga-style vocal thing going on until I saw you live. I thought that was brilliant.
“Aw, dancehall’s the vibe, man!” he says, delighted, clapping his hands and snapping his fingers. “That’s one thing I’ve been disappointed about, that I couldn’t really incorporate that into what I do. Playing R&B in clubs was cool, you put acapellas over instrumentals, all that stuff, but ragga was about the whole sound system, because you had so many tracks with the same rhythm.
“You’d have like 16 cuts and people would get bored if you played the whole of each track out, so you’d play the intro of one track and then you’d cut into the next one and then back again. So you’d be going from turntable to turntable and having an MC there, the whole vibe was great.
“If you were quick, it was just hype.”
“That’s one thing I haven’t actually yet been able to show out. DJing, I dunno, it’s a funny one. If I saw R Kelly or Usher DJing in clubs, constantly, it would feel like they were almost too accessible.”
“When I was DJing, you’re playing a song and the crowd would erupt, so you get the energy from that but you knew it was because of the song, not you. But when you’re going out and singing one of your songs and the crowd sing it back to you, it’s like, hey I’m the one actually dropping that song. And you’re singing it back to me. It’s another level.
“The whole thing about music is communication. If you can touch someone with something that was inside of you. You’ve expressed it, written it on a piece of paper, put it into a musical form and now they’re singing it to me.
“It’s so easy to write a song when you’ve been through it,” he continues. “Fill Me In was something I’ve been through. You just tell it how it is. I mean, I wasn’t driving a 4X4 because I was 16. My bike was runnin’. Or I was on foot patrol!”
If Craig David ever gets his dancehall album together, don’t expect any lyrical slackness from this MC. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool tease, an inveterate flirt who has that kind of indefinable doe-eyed vulnerability which seems to drive some women to distraction. He’s also a good deal more subtle than many 19-year-olds (although he seems to have been 19 for about three years now). Either way, you shouldn’t expect any Macy Gray-style dirty-talk from Craig David.
“Even in Follow Me, where I’m talking about bodies touching in the jacuzzi, and we’re doing certain things, I kinda shut the door before any of that happens. I’m still only young and I don’t think I should talk about things that I’m really not that experienced in.”
And the good news for all you ladies is that Southampton’s most eligible bachelor doesn’t have a girlfriend “at the moment”.
Last summer there was a brief flurry of ‘is he? isn’t he?’ stories in the tabloids, when a disgruntled former business associate aired what appeared to be deliberately mischievous stories about David’s sexuality. Much of this seems to be based on the singer’s mild-mannered demeanour and his failure to take advantage of young fans throwing themselves at him in nightclubs.
As it happens, he seems about as gay as any bloke would if they were having make-up applied to their boyishly soft-focus features while you talked to them.
“I’m free and I’m single,” he says, brushing an imaginary piece of lint from his grey polo-neck. “I’m going round the world trying to find Mrs Right. You meet so many beautiful women along the way, but to me it goes beyond skin deep. Yes, you’re beautiful – there are a lot of beautiful people in the world – but I need someone I can get along with. I need to know, can you connect with me?”
Okay. Um, do you get much opportunity to look around places like Copenhagen when he’s on tour?
It seems not. “You just try and get as much sleep as possible,” he tells me.
With the wisdom accrued from a half-hour walk around Copenhagen I tell him he’s not missing much. All I found were streets full of hairdressers and hair product suppliers.
At this, the man who has his hair re-waxed every couple of days looks at Thalia. His perfect eyebrows shoot up towards his perfect forehead.
“Maybe we should try to make some time while we’re here,” he says to the make-up artist.
They both laugh like drains.
[A shorter version of this piece was first published by the Big Issue in the North, based on an interview in December 2000]