The fall guy
After the hits came the misses, but Craig David is ready to revive his career, writes David Momphard
Craig David is tongue-tied by Tagalog. He's just finished an interview with a Philippine radio station and is taping several on-air promo spots. One contains a cool colloquialism that might translate to 'homeboys' in the country's national language, but stumbling off the tongue of the singer-songwriter from Southampton it sounds neither cool nor colloquial.
'Manong ka-bar-ka-da! What's up, Philippines!? I'm Craig David ...'
The interviewer has flown to Hong Kong for the release of David's fourth album, Trust Me, and isn't going back to Manila with a tape that has the star sounding like a sap. He interrupts and makes him try it a few more times.
Such are the tricks of the trade - if you want to be a successful entertainer, you must learn to sound cool in a several languages. Having sold 13 million albums before he turned 26, David would seem born for it.
The first two singles off his debut album, Born to do It, shot up the charts and it went platinum in 20 countries. It also made David the youngest person in British history to hit No1, at just 19 years of age.
So why does his record company talk about David having a 'fresh start'? With one of the greatest-ever starts to a career, why the need to start again?
'If you look at record sales - seven million on Born to do It, three and a half million on the second [Slicker Than Your Average], two million on The Story Goes ... - you could say you're looking at a decline,' David says.
'I recognise that at the end of the day it's about having a hit song.'
He understands better than most what such a song can do for a career. From 1996 to 1998 he'd been deejaying and doing live-mike performances at clubs along England's south coast. That led to a co-production with dance music producers Artful Dodger called Rewind, a two-step garage track that crossed over from dance floors to a larger audience.
'There was a natural kind of surge that went from the crowd wanting this track to be played, to the pirate radio stations wanting it be played, to the commercial stations starting to recognise it,' he says. 'At that point it started to cross over. The fact that it was embraced and sold so many singles was the turning point for me. I realised, 'Wow, there is something more than just doing dance records'.'
When Born to do It was released other singles took off fast. Fill Me In became his second No1 single in just four months.
'There was an uncontrollable smile on my face when Fill Me In hit number one,' he says. His parents were 'more ecstatic about it than I was. I was kind of going though the motions. It wasn't like I had struggled really hard and then saw the light at the end of the tunnel.'
The change came when one moment he was performing live-mike sets at clubs - 'dance music is rather faceless', he explains - then performing on Top of the Pops, TFI Friday and Jools Holland's show.
'You couldn't hide behind anything. It was a real transition from being seen as a fad to people saying, 'Okay, this guy could be in it for the long haul'.'
He hopes to be. Since the lacklustre sales of The Story Goes ... there has been some doubt as to how long the haul might be. The album wasn't even released in the US after Slicker Than Your Average failed to chart there.
Part of the problem seems to be success itself. He explains that for someone who started out in rather anonymous dance music, being recognised everywhere can be stifling.
'There's a domino effect,' he says. One minute he'd be shopping for a pair of sneakers and someone might ask to take a photo with him. 'But if someone makes a bit of noise about it, next thing someone else wants a shot, then someone else sees that and next you've got the whole shop on you. And you're left thinking, 'I just wanted to buy a pair of sneakers'. It can become quite frightening.'
He's resorted to hat-and-sunglasses disguises in an attempt to get back the normal life he had.
'I find it exciting now to go out incognito,' he says. 'Back in the day I would never have thought of going to a sneaker store as being the most exciting thing in the world, but those little things have become so important for me.'
If he didn't find a way of getting out and leading a normal life, he says, he'd find it difficult to write songs that normal people could relate to. The life of a pop star is too removed from the real world and not always glamorous.
'Who wants to hear about me being on a plane?' he says.
So, he's stepped back into the mentality he had when he was starting off.
'I loved deejaying,' he says. 'I loved being out in clubs and picking up records that were the most current things or about to come out. I was ahead of the game.'
So he took a year and a half to go back with his records and find himself again. He spent more time back in the clubs listening to the DJs and watching the crowd react - going back to where he started.
Most importantly, he says, he took the time to do things guys in their early 20s do, like dating. He says he was recently in a relationship that 'had potential', but it didn't work out. It did, however, give him something to write about.
'Letting things fade away seems to be how a lot of guys - myself included - like to handle things,' he says of the relationship. The song, Awkward, is about not knowing how to handle a romance when it's ended. The song picks up after the romance has died.
'Six months later you bump into the girl and you think, 'I'm not sure if I should apologise for not telling her properly, or pretend that nothing happened and act like we've met for the first time again',' he explains.
'Then you see an engagement ring on her finger and start doubting yourself thinking, 'Well, maybe I should have put a little more effort into this girl because some other guy thinks she's worth marrying and sees complete potential in her.''
With the past eight years allowing precious few 'normal' experiences to write about, David has taken stock of memories from his teen years. And on Trust Me, few of those memories sound much like what the average 18-year-old is up to.
On Friday Night he sings about his friends complaining they don't have enough money for drinks or cigarettes. But he clearly has different priorities.
'I'd be sitting there thinking, 'I've got to get some money to buy some records to make another mix CD' then sell that down at the barbers to make some more money to buy some more records.'
Some might say flying to Cuba to record half of Trust Me is proof his life is anything but normal. David says it showed him a different side of normal. The impoverished country offers little luxury, but Cubans make the most of it.
'When they go out dancing it makes the rest of the world look like it has no idea what going out and enjoying yourself really means,' he says. 'The one thing they all have in common is they love their music.'
On the several tracks he recorded there he sacrificed perfection for performance. Producer Martin Terefe told him there was an urgency he'd heard in his live performances missing on his recent albums.
For the Cuba tracks he put him with a band - including members of the Buena Vista Social Club - had him rehearse the song, but only let him record it three times. David could pick the one he liked best for the album.
Hot Stuff, a track that rips David Bowie's Let's Dance and is the first single from the album, had a similar start. 'I had to treat it as if I were going in front of crowd,' he says. 'You have to weigh up. Perfection goes out the window. It's a matter of which one gives you that feeling when you hear it. That's the difference on this record.'
Before leaving he tells a quick story about how he came up with the name for his debut from Roald Dahls' book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
'There's one part where the boy asks the candy man, 'How do you do it?' And the candy man says, 'Do you ask a bird how it flies? Do you ask a fish how it swims? No, sir, you don't. They do it because they were born to do it.''
While he still feels born for it, he certainly feels older, he says. Eight years of expectations, largely from his record company, have eaten at him. But it was those expectations that ultimately brought him to Trust Me.
'I went [to the record company] and said, 'Look, let me make a record that's me being 26 years old. If I'm going to fail, I'll fail on my own terms. But just trust me.''
Trust Me is out now