Singer discusses social media, living in the moment, and his new album.
Craig David knows it might be easy to take his career for granted and wander off into the sunset. But having sold millions of albums and topping the charts multiple times, he’s now releasing some of the most inspired music of his career. His newest studio effort, The Time Is Now, isn’t out till January, but the LP’s excitement is tough to contain.
The Time Is Now is David’s biggest undertaking in years, and his desire to bring younger artists into the spotlight is infectious. Throughout the record, the R&B turned house turned R&B revivalist is still able to deliver some of the finest tracks of his career, all the while pleasing his eternally faithful fans.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Craig David to discuss social media, living in the current moment, and his new album.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you’re going to be releasing a new album, The Time Is Now. Just to start, how is the mood in your camp?
Craig David: I’m really, really excited because we had the opportunity of releasing an album last year, probably around September, that really changed the foundation of the music for me here in the U.K., for me especially, because it had all the elements of how Born to Do It, my first album, came about, and we released it and ended up having a number one album here in the U.K., which was incredible because that was my second number one album since Born to Do It.
And then we did a 17-date arena tour off the back of that, which was unreal. What it did was, the biggest highlight, outside of me being so grateful for having that kind of opportunity to be at that magnitude again, was that there’s the generation who, literally, have only just discovered me in the last year, who would say to their friends, “Have you heard of this new kid called Craig David? He’s got this album called…” And that for me was incredible.
Then to go out and do arena shows and see such a cross of different people who enjoy different music, but a cross demographic of people who would have been the kid growing up with me first time around, but there is now the younger brother or sister, who now is a teenager, is there too. And I was thinking, “This is something special.” That kind of leads it up to now because I know that America, for a lot of people, it would be literally discovering me again on a new album, and I know it’s very much possible to have that little thing happen for my music, so I’m just really excited about that.
CF: You recently shared “For the Gram”, which is an ode to Instagram. So I was wondering, in today’s world where everything happens in front of a camera, does it really happen if there is no recording of it?
CD: Yes. My thing is, I look at Instagram and SnapChat and Twitter being ways for me to connect in a more direct way with fans that I’ve never had the opportunity of before. Which for me is such an incredible tool, when you now have that ability to say thank you to someone directly, who messaged on a post, saying, “We just had a great time at one of your shows,” or, “We love one of your songs.”
I think to be able to make it personal all across those platforms is one of the most amazing things, but also I see those platforms as being, one, an opportunity, but at the same time, almost reinforcing why the album is called The Time Is Now. That I’ve always been very much about enjoying the moment, and to enjoy the moment means you can’t be secondary, where you’re trying to capture the moment, so therefore you’ve completely missed it.
So there has to be a fine line between how much you want to capture and allow people to be immersed in that experience, but how much you actually experience firsthand because, without that, you’re living vicariously through platforms at that point, and you’re in the hamster wheel of just trying to produce something instead of just trying to live life.
CF: For me, it’s such an odd thing because it brings us so much closer together, but it also alienates us…
CD: It’s a fine balance, and I think a lot of people find it quite difficult to find that equilibrium between how much. It’s amazing, it could work for you, and the amount of positives that can come from it, it’s just when you fully immerse yourself into showing people everything that you’re doing, and I find that a lot when I see, and I’ve done it a few times, but I kinda eased it back now because I realized it was great to take a video while you were out there, while you’re doing a performance.
But I was thinking, “Well wait, how many people are actually in front of you?” But yet you are trying to immerse the people that are at home, so again you’re disconnecting the thing, and I was thinking, “You know what, I should be in this fully, give everyone in front of me this feeling, and then if it means some of my posts are a bit delayed and they are a bit late for people who are in a different place or a different country, then so be it.” And I’ve found that that’s been a good balance for me.
CF: Talking about this being your second time around, you’ve had some amount of continuous success, I would say. So, what keeps your hunger and that creative fire going?
CD: It’s really simple. It’s when you live music, when it’s not a hobby, there’s a difference between the times where you really have to find your character, which means there’s going to be points in anyone’s career, and I’ve seen some of the most prolific artists from Elton John to Sting to Frank Sinatra, who had points in their career that were lower than others, and you’ve seen that when someone lives music and it’s not something that you kind of, “Oh I’ll do it today, but I’ll do something different tomorrow,” what happens is you really find it’s a blessing in disguise, those moments that seem to be, on paper, low, but it’s actually where your character is built.
It’s always peaks and troughs. The come back up is always there, it’s only a song away, I’ve always believed you’re three minutes away as a songwriter from changing your life. But even if you write that three minute song, it doesn’t mean necessarily that the time and the culture and the climate is ready for you at that point, and have you got the patience to be able to wait it out until that moment comes back around.
For me, knowing that I live this and I’ve seen what music has done and how it has impacted people’s lives across the course of my career so far, it alleviates the pressure of being number one or how many records are you selling, it’s more about being a timestamp in people’s lives. That people who have grown up on your music can always remember that moment they went to college or they went on holiday for the first time or they met their partner and that was the song that’ll be played, and you will always be somehow in the DNA of people.
And I think for me, that is such a mind blowing concept to even try and comprehend, that I live for that. So then it sort of makes life really simple and easy. I don’t get lost in statistics and chart positions and, “Are we going up in the streaming or are we down?” If you get into too much of that, you’re gonna be lost again, back in the hamster wheel, but for me it’s like back to basics as soon as you start to enjoy what it is you got into music for, which was initially it was just for me to create a reaction, create a sense of, “Oh, I love that,” and if I can keep doing that for the rest of my life, then I’ll be a happy guy.
CF: You said, “This album is me going back to those days of simple storytelling and waving the flag for U.K. R&B.” Can you take us through a bit of your songwriting process?
CD: I’ve always been about the melody first. Chords and melody, for me, are the most important factor in the way that I write a song. I see other people who, you could have Elton John and Bernie Taupin, where here’s the lyrics for the song, and Elton is in a completely different place and he’ll put the melodies and chords to it, and I think that is a fascinating way of doing things. But I find that the melodies and the chords, if that resonates with me first, then I find it very easy to look at different concepts that I’d like to talk about in a song, and then make the lyrics have to conform to the melody because I think, otherwise, what happens in the way that I write songs, sometimes when you start with a concept, start with a lyric, it’s almost like the melody, which is what people are hearing first, becomes the secondary thing.
And then you are trying to, like, make the melody fit to the lyrics, where I think a lot of the biggest songs you’ve listened to, sometimes they are very, very simple, maybe they haven’t even got a lyric that’s kind of really saying too much, but it’s the melody that the four, five, six year-old kid taps into. That melody is what I’m grasping, and I think the real skillset is then to be able to write lyrics that, once you’ve engaged the melody, then when you go a little further and you’ve got to ask, “What’s this actually saying?” That the lyrics then gives you that feeling of like, “Oh, ok.”
Kind of like Eminem’s “Stan”, is a great example. It wasn’t the rap at first that got me, it was the, ♪My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why I got out of bed at all♪, and you are just thinking, “Oh, that melody! What is that?” And then when you went into it you were like, “Oh man, Eminem, you’ve taken this to a whole other planet, like, lyrically, the concept that you’ve come up with.” That’s what I’ve always found with music, melody will draw you in, and then the lyric will hopefully cement the deal.
CF: You worked with a number of producers on this new LP. With so many people coming in and out, was there a moment from your time in the studio that kind of summed up the entire recording process?
CD: I’d say that one of the things that I wanted to be able to create with this album is to be ahead of the curve for the artists that I was doing features with. And I wanted it to be very organic and I wanted it to be authentic. So having met Dan from Bastille, we were actually on Radio 1, one of the radio stations here in the U.K., and we were on the breakfast show, the first time we met, he showed a lot of love and said he was a big fan of my music and my albums from Born to Do It all the way through. And I was like, “Oh man, I love Bastille,” and then we ended up in the studio and we wrote a song called, “I Know You”, which for me is a very special song, even with both of our vocals on it, which I love the textures of our vocals, but even if someone else had written that song, I would be like, “Oh, I wish I’d written that song,” and I don’t say that very often.
And I probably only said that with “Walking Away” and it’s funny because that same feeling happened. If it’s anything like that song, then hopefully it will connect. But then it was having the new wave people who, AJ Tracy, the rapper from over here in the U.K.; Ella Mai, who for me is very much about to blow; and you’ve got JP Cooper, who is starting to have his moment; GoldLink and Kaytranada, for me Kaytranada has that Pharrell, sort of Neptunes, quite eclectic, N.E.R.D., could go any route he wants. And GoldLink, too, I just love. Hopefully in a few years time, or maybe not even that long, people will look at this album and say, “Oh man, he had all these guys on this record, like way before they fully blew up worldwide,” and I think that was an important aspect of the record.
Then talking about the U.K. R&B side of things, well, let’s say U.K. R&B has a common thread through the album. It’s that, culturally, it’s almost open and acceptable to have a little dance or reggae element if you want a little hip hop here, if you want it to then, sort of jump into a garage, to grime, to a little bit of house, it’s almost like any format is open to play into, as opposed to when I was living in Miami for a period of time, it felt like you either were kind of fully immersed in the EDM world or you were into trap and in the hip hop world, and it didn’t really have a middle ground. It wasn’t like, “Well it’s okay to have a bit of trap, but then it diverged into something completely different or transitioned.”
And I felt that that for me is why I say the U.K. because I remember with Born to Do It, at the time, it was the creme de la creme of R&B producers doing their thing. Somehow Born to Do It seemed to cut through because it wasn’t as produced as what was going on in America, because the production was incredible but it was almost a bit too simple for it to work like this. And I think it’s what made it work, even though we were not going all out with the crazy ad-libs for days. “7 Days” has no ad-libs whatsoever, yet for an R&B song, you’d expect you to blow and show that you can sing. It was almost stripping it back and saying if the melody’s strong then we’ll stick to that, we don’t need to show and prove.
CF: You said, “This is authentic me, doing what I love, just like I did when I was an unknown artist – that kid from Southampton making mixtapes in his bedroom and taking risks.” How have things changed for you over the years and what has brought you back to your roots as an artist?
CD: You know what, everything that is happening now, feels like… when people talk to me, they say there is a 15, 16 year cyclical thing that sort of happens in the world, where, like I was saying, the teenager who was growing up with my music, who is about the same age as me, is now possibly married, kids, and they’re looking back at some of the best times, the carefree years of their lives, which would have possibly been 15, 16 years beforehand. They are having, like, a reminiscing, nostalgia thing happening, and I didn’t know that was really true. You experience it first hand, but I’ve seen that because I’m hearing in the music that is being used, the samples that people are using in records, you hear it, it’s very 90’s, early 2000’s, so there’s definitely something to be said for that.
But I think that my, kind of, going back to basics was I realized that I had so much fun when I didn’t overthink the music. It was just, “I’m going into the studio, I don’t know what this is for, I don’t know,” which, to be honest, at the time, even back in the day, I wanted to just have a record so I could play it loud in my bedroom when I got back to my mom’s flat. Or I could go out and play it as a DJ, and play it to the crowd, so it was just that. It wasn’t about, “How many will this sell? Will it get onto the chart? Will it get on this playlist?” It was just simple.
And I think having been on this journey for 17 years so far, which only feels like yesterday, weirdly enough, is that I have realized through wisdom that as soon as you uncomplicate everything, which for me was to move back from Miami, even though I have my home still there, but would move back from there probably two or three years ago now, and to be entrenched in the scene where I started, and just literally going in with these young up-and-coming artists and producers who would say, “Oh man, we loved ‘7 Days’,” and “I grew up on your Born to Do It album and ‘Walking Away’,” and what it did for me was amazing because I knew when they were talking to me, even though I was so grateful for their praise, they were kind of talking in the past tense of, “I loved it when you” and “inspired,” as if I wasn’t really present.
So for me then, my whole thing was to walk into the vocal booth, play the track or play the chords, whatever was going on, and literally morph into that 16 year-old kid again and give everything on the mic and just wait for the talkback button to be pressed to hear the response. And when I got that response of, “Oooooh Craig, you still got it man.” Oh man, that, for me, was a game changer because it just reinforced to me, which I needed, was the only way you can be relevant to a culture right now is you’ve got to forget that you’ve got a million records sold, you’ve got to forget arena tours, you’ve got to forget all your history and facts and whatever you want to tell yourself a story about, and get back to being you’re a brand new artist and you’re going to have to give everything to show this 17 or 18 year-old kid you’re working with that you are somehow part of his culture again. I think that was the start, a year ago with Following My Intuition, and now I get it. The path I’m on is back to basics, leave it to the unknown, don’t worry about the records you’ve sold, get on with it.
CF: In this rather tumultuous world that we currently live in, how do you view the voice of the artist?
CD: On one hand, it looks like there is so much going on in the world that you can see, that it’s kind of at this boiling point of just, like, if it’s not war, it’s on the brink of war, or the hurricanes that are going on, or the mass shootings that are going on more recently, which open up all these topics. And then to see the support of people who have now built a foundation where they are speaking to people who are following them and listening to their voice, I think it’s such an amazing time because even with the platforms that we’re talking about, with Twitter and Instagram, and especially Twitter, is that it’s a given, this is not local anymore, it doesn’t matter where it is in the world, it is now worldwide.
I know exactly what is going on in a completely different country, and you can tap into it completely, and I think, as an artist, being able to use your voice in a positive light, to highlight something that you feel passionately about, I think it’s one of the most amazing things that this whole evolution of social media has given people. And I’m so pro speak your mind, if it’s for change and making this world a better place, because ultimately it’s almost like you’re wasting an opportunity, and if you can see it for what it is and you can see where the land lies, there’s so much ground for improvement.
And I’m all about, not just positive thinking, but for people just, kind of, giving awareness. Because you just need one person to be like, not to preach, but to throw it up there and allow someone to feel passionate in themselves, to then go and say, “You know what, I kinda feel the same way you feel about that. Let me go and help this person. Let me go donate to this. Let me go and go to my local congressman and say something and make something change here.” I think that’s amazing. I love seeing people who step up, especially who are having incredible amounts of success, and you’re like that’s just what this is all about. That’s what music is. It’s not just playing songs and getting them on the radio or streaming on Spotify. It’s more than that now.
CF: Throughout your career, we can imagine you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences, but is there one moment that stands out – a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
CD: Recently, I had the opportunity of playing Glastonbury here in the U.K. But the year before I had performed at Glastonbury on the Sonic stage, which is in an area called Silver Hayes, which is within Glastonbury festival, and I had the most amazing performance. It was a TS5 show, which for me started in Southampton, before I put Born to Do It out, but it kind of really found its legs in Miami, in the house party. And then that house party, which if you go, you’ll see some of the stuff that I do with my TS5 show, which is really me DJing, mixing records together, but I’ll also come out of the booth, do a little freestyling over an instrumental, then I’ll sing one of my own tunes, and then I’ll go back and mix a different tune into another, so for me, it’s a different experience of what you can do, being able to mix records together.
So I performed, it was amazing, the crowd was like over the capacity, it was a tent I was in, and it was spilling out and it was an incredible moment, and I felt like I’d experienced my Glastonbury, which everyone talks about being so iconic, to then, a year later, being asked to play the Pyramid stage, at like 2:30 in the afternoon, and to see 90 to 100 thousand people listening to me performing songs from my new or my old albums, but then to do a 25-minute TS5 show, which I remember was only like 10 people in my home in Miami having a couple drinks, and me playing some records. Actually, it wasn’t even me playing records, it was just me playing stuff on my iTunes playlist, and because they kept messing around, because everyone wanted to be the DJ, I was like, “No, no, no let’s bring this back.”
One minute it was Biggie with some “Juicy” playing, and then the next thing it would go into “Macarena” or some kind of tune, and I was like, “Guys, I’ve had a couple of shots here, but I can still hear the music is… You can’t go from Biggie to ‘Macarena’, this just doesn’t work.” So it ended up, I got a little DJ setup and I got a microphone because people were saying, “Ok cool, you need to host this little party.” And it grew into a full-on party where I invited people over and there were like 100 people at my home. We had a full house party, it was amazing.
But to see that 25 minutes, where I saw, like I said, between 90 and 100 thousand people, all there to see different people – they weren’t all there coming to see me perform, Chic was playing, Ed Sheeran was headlining one night, Foo Fighters the night that I was performing – and to see that amount of people was such a humbling experience because it felt like all I did was go back to something I loved and genuinely, when you love something it’s weird how the universe conspires, that the people around you reflect that love that you have for it, and I was so in awe and it was such an emotional moment for me to see that many people connecting with “7 Days”. And then me looking into the crowd and seeing a 14, 15 year-old kid connecting with not only that song, but then listening to something that had only come out a year ago on my new album, and was thinking like, “Wow!” So that moment was definitely a highlight for me. Like I said, go back to what you love.