Rewound and Rejuvenated: Craig David Is Having the Time of His Life
"I feel like a 16-year-old again... I've realised what really matters."
(All photos by Luke Dyson)
Craig David's dressing room is about a 30 second walk from the stage. In fact, it's so close to the throng of fans outside that the warm-up set preceding his practically fills the room. The noise is rising from below, where a swimming pool and auditorium of balconies are wrapped colosseum-like around a podium, awaiting David's arrival. For the past 8 weeks the Ibiza Rocks hotel has played host to this anticipation. The rejuvenated singer's residency here has proven to be one of the hotel's most successful to date, both in numbers and atmosphere, and this – the last of the season – is promising to be the wildest yet.
Yet despite the melee outside, David seems resolutely mindful and relaxed. Having just spotted me, hovering in the doorway, a grin spreads across his face. "Angus," he calls, "my man." I'm pulled into a hug and then offered whatever I want from a rider seemingly comprised of apple juice and Dairy Milk chocolate. Friends and management fill the rest of the space, laughing and fixing drinks – I feel like I've been welcomed into a family holiday home, or a wedding reception, rather than a pre-show green room. David gestures to a sofa in the corner of the room, and sighs happily as he sinks down next to me. "About time."
If there's a reason for David's genial and seemingly long over-due introduction, it's this: a year ago I published a piece on Noisey titled 'Rise Craig David, Your Time Is Now', where I argued that Craig David was long overdue a renaissance. As the summer of 2015 drew to a close – thanks to the genesis of his TS5 performances, which saw him DJ, MC and sing classics from his and other's back catalogues in venues across the country, and a sensational 1xtra appearance where he debuted a now fabled mash-up of "Fill Me In" and "Where R U Now" – it felt like a long dormant sentiment was stirring. The world was ready for Craig David in a way it hadn't been when he first broke through at the turn of the millennium. The piece dropped at the right time, and in the weeks that followed people shared it more than most things I've written put together. "I will go on record, Angus," David says, after I sit down, "if it wasn't for that piece…"
I can't claim responsibility for his resurgence, but as we begin talking, it's clear that Craig David – the new Craig David; Craig David 2.0 – is walking on air right now. "I feel like a 16-year-old again," he enthuses, almost immediately. "I'm more passionate and hungry now than ever, because I've realised what really matters."
Now, aged 35, a 16-year-old Craig David feels like an eternity away. But it's arguably at that age that the roots of his career started to form. He grew up in the port city of Southampton, the son of a carpenter and a retail assistant. As a teenager, his love for music began to develop into a fascination with dance and club culture – which existed far beyond the reach of the Solent. "My mum was living way beyond her means to take me up to London and support my fascination with vinyl," he remembers. "There were a few stores, Uptown Records in D'Arblay street, Solo Records and Red Records in Brixton. I'd come back so gassed because I knew nobody else in Southampton had this tune."
It was this process, collecting "vinyl instead of football stickers" that married Craig irrevocably to the sounds of UK clubland. Before long he was experimenting with making his own music. "When I first made 'Re-Rewind' I was just excited to get it home," he laughs. "I just wanted to blast it on the system in my room." The system, he goes on to tell me, consisted of one massive sub as big as a sofa ("I don't know how we got it in the room") and some speakers Craig had built himself, inspired by his carpenter father. "The feeling when I first heard the bassline drop in, my mum telling me to turn it down because the flat was shaking – I'm feeling that again."
Yet his memories of his early days are about far more than just a feeling. Despite spending much of his time in the limelight perceived as an R&B crooner, he started as an MC and DJ, cutting his teeth on Southampton's club circuit. "I played this hip-hop and R&B night mostly," he tells me. "The original Artful Dodger guys would play in this small room upstairs – 2-step and early speed garage – and I'd be MCing for my good friend DJ Flash. I used to carry his boxes of vinyl as well, which was long." As Craig puts it, he would wait for Flash to catch the eye of a girl on the floor, at which point he had 15 minutes of chirpse time to takeover on the decks. "I was always praying that he'd clock some girl, and I'd be encouraging him saying, 'Yeah bro, I think she likes you.' Then he'd go off, and I could man the ship. Suddenly it was just me playing to a couple of hundred people."
These nights provided David with crucial experience, especially considering the DJ-cum-performance set-up of his new TS5 show. "It's left me in good stead, because I know now that if things go pear shaped I can hold the mic, because I've been there years ago," he explains.
That said, for all the symmetry between 'then' and 'now', there's also a whole lot of 'in between' that needs mentioning. After being scouted at the age of 18 by Colin Lester – who has worked with acts from the Arctic Monkeys to Lily Allen and remains his devoted manager to this day – Craig went on to produce the fastest selling debut album for a British act. Yet, after this success, he found himself increasingly mired in major label cycles and ultimately stuck in a rut.
"Born To Do It was the most natural thing, but after that there was suddenly this clock," he recalls. "I was on a time constraint to do it again and get another album out, and then when I did I was being told that the 3.5 million the second album did wasn't a success – three and a half million albums! I look back on that and think: are you for real? You can go number one with 15,000 now." Over time however, Craig naturally began to value his own creative process on these terms. "You feel like you're pushing a product."
From our conversation it seems like the 'low-point' – if Craig possessed such negative terms in his vocabulary – was the release of his 2010 album Signed, Sealed, Delivered – a record comprised largely of Motown covers. "I was 27, 28-years-old! Why was I singing 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay'? And not even some chopped and screwed, trap version!" The album is perfect and palatable Sunday afternoon listening – but probably not what one of the fathers of UK garage needed to be doing before he was 30-years-old. So David moved to Miami ("Started burning the candle at both ends," as he puts it) and largely disappeared from the British consciousness. "Even I needed time away for a while. Time to let people move on. To move off the radar and then wait for the moment."
Which brings us pretty much, to where we are. A fizzing dressing room and the final night of a sold out residency. So what's changed?
"Once you've been on the rollercoaster, you start to get back to basics," David figures. "I just want to go out and perform. Miami was fun, the partying, the tequila shots, but the mentality had to switch. That kid, who said no to his mates when they went out raving because he wanted to finish making tunes – I have to get back to that blueprint."
As on the nose as the title of his new album might be – Following My Intuition – it's pretty obvious that Craig David is a man in the throes of a revelation. Yet this return to his roots isn't just a spiritual process. From the hands-in-the-air piano house of "Ain't Giving Up" to the Big Narstie featuring "When the Bassline Drops", his new material is carrying club sounds into pop song contexts more effectively than anything he's done since Born To Do It. His work with Blonde and Sigala are results of what he describes as a desire to "be around people who are hungry." Artists who, in his eyes, "will go above and beyond to get it right."
It sounds perhaps dumb to mention, but the most striking thing about Craig David is how sincere he is. A lot of people talk in positive platitudes – maintaining that they 'don't look back' or that they are 'all about being true to themselves' – but talking to Craig you get the sense he really embodies those statements. Maybe it's just a really well-oiled persona, but in truth it felt genuine – a realness that has kept him grounded since his first brushes with the industry aged 16. With the time before his set running out, we wrap things up, but not before he nods to one other change in the world that has made his comeback easier.
"I couldn't have done this set when I was 16, 17. You know why? Smoking in the clubs. Back then, five minutes into a set, trying to sing, my voice would be gone." Now, he tells me, a sweaty club is "heaven" as he can perform with more dexterity than ever before in that environment.
He's the same Craig David but, at least this time, the air is clearer.
You can find Angus Harrison on Twitter.