New Music To Know: John Newman Takes on Soul Music
By Courtney E. Smith
All the best soul songs are about love: from falling in it to losing it and everything in between. And it’s that Motown sound in particular that John Newman takes inspiration from on his debut album, Tribute. When the music drops out on the first chorus of the single “Love Me Again,” you know what you’re in for.
Recorded on vintage equipment using analog gear where possible and backed with string and vocal arrangements inspired by Phil Spector’s work with Motown, the album is a real throwback that’s full of the musical spectacle we associate with the Detroit sound.
“The wall of sound, I love it,” Newman smiles when he confirms the influence. “I love the epicness. I love film music, I love Bond themes and that whole cinematic thing. And I needed to get that.”
It’s really underselling Newman to call him a male Amy Winehouse or a lyrical heartbreaker like Adele, although there is a case to be made for both. For every gospel choir or massive strange arrangement, he incorporates electronic elements that separates him from those divas, and gives things a bit of ’90s house music feel. It’s the bits and pieces of another world he has inhabited in his creative partnership with electronic music group, Rudimental.
It’s also that he’s more willing to let his hip-hop influences—that would follow the line of evolution from soul music—slip through in his production choices. But it’s almost as if he’s doing it backwards from the way you’d expect in a Drake track, like soul is the upbeat and hip hop is the downbeat.
“We had a massive ’90s house era in the UK, which was very piano—the years of trashy pianos and soulful licks and breakbeats that were turned into jungle, garage and drum ‘n bass. All these breaks [in house music] were taken from [songs like] “Funky Drummer,” the likes of James Brown, but then…it went into hip hop. Where these breaks were first being used, these break beats, were for the dancers. When they were…DJing on one vinyl, in America, and the B Boys would get their break. And that’s how hip hop influenced me. That history of how they started bringing these breaks out of old funk and soul records into hip hop. You listen to the beats in hip hop and it is based around that. And it’s incredible.”
That said, Tribute is a break-up album. Its inspiration comes from the ashes of Newman’s first major romantic flame-out, already come and gone at age 24. Newman puts it down to coming from a small town in rural England.
“I am from a small town mentality, definitely, and it’s hard to get rid of that,” Newman says. “And I’m glad I don’t because it does keep me grounded but it doesn’t benefit me sometimes because I meet girls and I want to move in with them and have kids with them. But there’s a job to do here and I love doing that job…In terms of me and Adele doing break up albums, people are starting to ask me if it’s a formula. It’s not. I don’t know what my second album will be about, but I just need to express myself. That’s how it came out on this album.”
It seems more likely that what Adele and Newman have in common, other than a small-town mentality, is youth.
“I think the other thing is, when you are young you can talk about [feelings] more almost,” Newman says. “Whereas when you mature, it becomes ‘aw, that’s just life.’ When you’re a kid you question everything and that makes such great material. There also is a certain matureness [expected], especially being a guy — I felt that from doing it. I felt quite, ‘Oh god, can I talk about these things?’ I’m meant to be a guy and all, ‘Oh she was just a girl, which bitch next?’ But that’s not it. It’s like, there’s a certain matureness to it. All guys are vulnerable. Everybody’s vulnerable and everybody has them emotions. If you need to express them, then you should be able to without being criticized or commented on by maybe your peers or everybody who is judgmental for any reason.”