When Jay Sean was given the rare opportunity to prove that an Indian guy could sing R&B without offending its staunch followers, he not only did a pretty good job, but earned the kind of attention that seemed certain to establish him among the UK's pop elite of 2003 – at the time flooded by the schmaltzy efforts of a certain Daniel Bedingfield and the rightly forgettable David Sneddon.
Sean's guest spot on the Rishi Rich Project single, "Dance with You (Nachna Tere Naal)", set the then 22-year-old up nicely for his official debut in 2004, "Eyes on You", which would enter at No 6 in the singles chart. It was a good time for Sean, who would release a Top 30 album, Me Against Myself, to become an urban hero in India, while making hundreds of teenage girls blush in Hong Kong. "We didn't expect to go to the territories that I've been to," recalls Sean wistfully, as he sips a cup of tea in a north London pub. "I literally went around the world in three years."
But then the penny dropped. Once the invasion of the heavily appropriated desi beats slinked back to the corners of "Asians only" territory and the idea of "the UK's first crossover Asian superstar" rang with the same novelty bestowed upon the first Chinese-American rapper (Jin) and the first hillbilly MC (Bubba Sparxxx), Sean's buzz started to cool off. Hype has an annoying habit of not sticking around for long enough to have a deep-rooted effect, and while Sean might have opted to use the last three years touring around more impressionable countries, the UK's Indian community has been one of the few demographics on these shores to be bothered to keep his name alive. Even his label, Virgin Records, let him go in 2006.
A lesser man would have been inclined to quit while they were ahead, but Sean will tell you that he just wasn't built that way. "I've never been the type of person to stop there and call it a day," he explains. "I'm always striving to be better in everything that I do. I know what I've achieved and what I'm yet to achieve. But I know what I want and I know where I've yet to go."
The destination this time is commercial success, minus the labels, the branding – and the convenience of being in fashion. His sophomore album, My Own Way, is just that – a competent follow-up in the tradition of slickly produced R&B for club consumption that seeks to cross over further than just the BBC's Asian Network and a few specialist stations. He's dropped the beat-boxing and rapping – which might end the comparisons to Craig David – and has teamed up with US producers J-Remy and Duro, who've worked with the likes of Jay-Z, Mary J Blige and Pharrell Williams.
Sean speaks of his record like a proud father, stressing its loyalty to his British roots but its ability to stand up to anything by "Justin Timberlake, Mario or Chris Brown". Quite rightly too – the lead single, "Ride It", is a sexy lament that borrows from Eastern Asian sounds, and "I Won't Tell" is a fantastic sing-along stomper. Then there's "Murder", another electro offering that's made up of pure cool. "I was labelled Asian R&B for a long time and my whole thing was, why am I Asian R&B? Is Eminem white hip-hop? No, he's just hip-hop. And in music, we suffer so much from labels and pigeonholes. Those are the pigeonholes and the labels I wanna break. At the end of the day, it's about my music and that's all that should matter."
He also insists that he's not keen to play up to the clichés that dominate in urban music. Nowadays, his wardrobe consists of suits, rather than the hoodies and baggy jeans of earlier times. He's reinvented himself as something of a romantic. "I don't sing about bling, I don't sing about Lamborghinis, I don't sing about hos and bitches, that's not my life," he says. "I don't know anything about it. Never have. The closest I've been to a gun is a Super Soaker."
So what's his hook? Without previous collaborators Rishi Rich or Juggy D in his camp, or the embellished bravado of your everyday R&B singer, surely his comeback is a bit too, er, normal? "Normal may well be boring in this industry," Sean says with a steady smile, "but what's amazing is, I've gone back to normal and I'll tell you why." He leans forward in his seat. "I've lived the life that all these guys have. I've been on first-class airplane seats and gone and had the most luxurious buffets and stuff in your suites in your hotels and having hundreds of thousands of girls offer to do stupid things for you – if you took advantage of them – but I never touched any of that, because for me, it wasn't the life I was interested in."
Was he ever tempted? "God, yeah, I had fun," he says. "Of course it's fun to travel the world, of course it's fun to get paid to sing, of course it's fun to have fans and people wanting to take their pictures with you. But there's a point when you just gotta go, 'Who am I really? Why does this girl really fancy me? It's not because I'm the hottest guy in the world – it's probably because I have a pretty cool job.' You just have to understand where you're at, and then you'll be good, regardless."
The impeccability of Sean's character, coupled with his ambitious streak, can be traced back to his upbringing in Southall, West London. Although he was swayed by R&B and rap music at an early age, even going on to start a rap duo called Compulsive Disorder, his success at a private boys' school eventually led him to medical school, where he planned to train as a doctor. "I was very studious," he admits. "If I didn't get an A, I wanted an A star, not an A, you know what I mean? And that's how I've always been." Choosing to follow the path of music instead, his new career might have been a blow to his parents had he not made good use of his record label advance money. "Thank God I had Indian parents who told me to invest in property," he says, laughing.
Some might say it was a wise choice, especially when you examine the dull climate of urban music in the mainstream. Sean admits he's learnt a lot about the music industry since being thrust into the spotlight all those years ago, and has even put more backing into developing his own label, 2Point9 Records. Although he's raised the bar musically, does he feel he'll ever be inclined to compromise the sound further in order to hit those fanbases that previously eluded him? He takes time to ponder the question, then breaks into a wide smile. "If I wanted to take commercial success instantly, I should pick up a guitar and start singing rock songs and indie rock ballads. That's not me. I will continue to back my horse. I don't care. Yes, urban music is the underdog in this country, but it doesn't matter, because I always support the underdog. R&B is all I know, man. It's what I love and that's what I know to write."
Does he have a plan B? He sighs. "I don't know. I don't set up contingency plans for failure. A lot of people would, but I don't because I refuse to believe that I will fail. I would quite happily live my life knowing that I was just this niche artist that 16-year-old Katie in Hull never ever knew about. But you know what?" He emits a loud laugh. "One billion people in this world did, you know what I mean? That's my people – the Indian community. But in terms of breaking the mainstream, as it were, this album is almost a way of me saying, come on then, let's see if there really are no boundaries in music. That's what it is for me – it's more of a personal mission, to see if my music can break those boundaries, and there's no reason that it shouldn't."
He's also keen to point out that's he's not set to ride on the back of his pin-up good looks either. "I have a very real perception of who I am," he says, shrugging. "I'll look in the mirror and go, 'Yeah, I'm all right. You're no Brad Pitt, so relax yourself.' But once in a while, you will get artists who come through who might not exactly look the part," he continues, "but you hear their voice, and you hear their songs and understand why they're around. People like your James Morrisons. He's not a model, he's not an amazing-looking geezer, but he's got emotions, he's got real songs. That will always cut through, and that's what I have."
Sean describes the beginnings of his career as "a bit crazy", and has been unable to determine clearly what he stands for until now. "I'm proud of being a British R&B artist, and I think there's not many of us," he says. "If anything, I'd like people to now refer to me as Jay Sean, one of the few British R&B artists around who's trying to rep the scene – that's what's important to me."
'Ride It' is released today through 2Point9/Jayded Records