Craig David: Confessions of a singer

Craig David returns from a career break less manicured, more mature and refreshingly off-message.
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The Independent Culture

When Craig David returns to a British stage on Monday in the august surroundings of Somerset House, the seductive (nay, horny) lyrics of new songs such as "My Love Don't Stop" and "Take 'em Off" should remind any doubtful observer that he's pretty fly for a sensitive guy. The polite young man from Southampton stops short of the single entendre seduction techniques of his hero R Kelly, but the ultra-American R&B jams on his third album The Story Goes... will replenish his image as a latterday lurve man of soul.

"Take 'em Off" could be on a Kelly album or, more accurately, one by the veteran Ronald Isley in his latterday, Kelly-produced guise as Mr Biggs. That is an achievement for a British artist, just as the endorsement of David's early hits by US radio stations was a rare compliment in an essentially American art form.

On his first two albums, David was derided for an apparently populist approach that attracted the Asda end of the record-buying market. Cocky-sounding album titles, Born To Do It and Slicker Than Your Average, may have been part of the problem. "The Casanova thing..." he says. "I can see it comes down to me talking about relationships and being in love. There's so many intricate things between women and men that I could write about it forever."

David's "lifetime in the business" still amounts to only 24 years. But after a long break - the first since his emergence in 1999 - he is happier in his skin. Few artists who sold 3.5 million copies of their last album and 8 million of the previous one would be talking about having something to prove, but he misplaced his spontaneity somewhere along the way.

"I've released two albums, I've done the promotion thing, done the world tour, done pretty much everything you could possibly do," he says. "I just want to make a record that's honest, and some of the things I'm talking about I wasn't comfortable talking about before."

Having spoken to him in the lead-up to the release of each of his albums, I notice someone markedly less on-message. The groomed beard is looking less manicured and now he even swears a bit when the tape's running.

"I was absolutely proud of Slicker Than Your Average," he says. "But if I'd been given another year and a half to do it, the record would have panned out differently. This time I said to my manager, please give me the time to create a record I can be passionate about. Otherwise, it's going to be shit... I'm quite narrative when I write songs. I like them to draw on my personal experiences, so I was, like, 'Don't call me up every five minutes asking where the record is and tell the record company to chill.' If I can't make a record I'm proud of, there's no point."

I'm at the Montreux Jazz Festival. On stage, the image of the cocksure gangster of love is superseded by that of a confident but connected entertainer, someone at ease singing about a short-lived love affair, on "Don't Love You No More (I'm Sorry)" and about being bullied at school, on "Johnny".

The Montreux date is only his second performance with this band but the frontman reestablishes himself as an excellent communicator, working the crowd and successfully integrating new songs such as the future club anthem "Hypnotic" and the single "All The Way" with old favourites. His hit catalogue is as fat as he's slender, and contains 10 Top Ten hits. David's in-concert vocal control on "Rise & Fall", in particular, is exemplary.

For The Story Goes..., David rekindled his songwriting and production relationship with his friend and south-coast neighbour Mark Hill. They'd created Born To Do It in a spirit of youthful exuberance but found that very hard to recreate when expectations for a follow-up hit the roof.

They also found that making Slicker Than Your Average, the second record, in the environs of a European club capital was a wrong turn. "Ibiza was a terrible mistake. Not that we were going out clubbing, but the headspace was wrong. Before, we were recording in Southampton, in a basement. That was the vibe, not 'Oh, let's go and get some tapas.'"

They parted with the record unfinished and unfocused. David went to work with the dance production team Ignorants, with whom he'd done a remix of "Walking Away", one of the many hits from Born To Do It.

David and Hill never came to blows. But the singer says: "We did need to talk, because I knew I had to prove to the world and to myself I could make another record people could really get into. I wanted to rekindle the relationship, because there's a chemistry between us."

David's new-found lyrical maturity has allowed him to tap into an uncomfortable episode of his teenage years, on "Johnny". "It was too close for comfort to write about on the first album, which was pretty much only a year after being at school," he says. "And on the second album, my head was in a million places." Such autobiography requires a certain resolution and deserves some respect, not least because you can't quite imagine R Kelly singing about fights over his lunch money.

He is even magnanimous about the grotesque mannequin of him on Avid Merrion's Bo'Selecta! "At first I thought it was really funny, I saw it on TV... Then it got this cult following, and it had its pros and cons. Yes, it pisses me off when people come up to my face shouting my name, but apart from that I was quite chilled about the whole thing.

"It's weird when you've come from nothing in the music industry," he says. "You fly into the deep end of having success, and all those things you took for granted are taken away from you. I had security, people with me pretty much all the time. Now I love going to the 24-hour Tesco at 1am. I'm a lot more cool with living life."

Craig David's single 'All The Way' is out on Monday on Warners; he plays Somerset House, London WC2, on Monday. The album 'The Story Goes...' is out on 22 August