Exclusive: X Factor winner Matt Cardle gives his first major interview

One year on from that 'X Factor' win, the pop star is set to release his first album – but not everyone has had such kind things to say. The singer reveals all about the band he abandoned, being snubbed by friends and needing to be flanked by security

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The Independent Online

This time last year, his was surely the most famous new face in Britain, boyishly handsome in repose, constipatedly puckered in pursuit of those high notes he seemed perpetually, and impressively, capable of scaling. Matt Cardle, it quickly became evident to older viewers, was not average X Factor fare: he was neither precociously young (at 27), nor preternaturally irritating; he didn't look particularly malleable nor anybody's – least of all Simon Cowell's – idea of an obvious successor to Leona Lewis. When he first walked nervously out on to that reality-show stage last autumn, dressed in knackered k jeans and paint-flecked boots, his chin unshaven, his hair hiding beneath a scruffy cap, he described himself to the judges as "a bum", and seemed all too acutely aware of what he was laying on the line here.

"Oh, I felt like I was risking everything," he says today, hands clasped together as though recalling his anxiety. "I had been making music for about 14 years by that point, and hadn't got anywhere. I had nothing else in my life, just this.And I knew that if X Factor didn't work for me, I was fucked."

He sang Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good", prompting Cowell to remark afterwards, "Matt, I like you very, very much." With that sort of endorsement, he sailed through "boot camp", then on to the live shows and into the final 10, his sense of wariness perpetuated throughout.

"I knew that if I ended up going out at an early stage, or even if I finished third or fourth, that would be it for me. It would be seen as a kind of death in the industry. Basically, I needed to win."

He went on to do just that, and his subsequent victor's single, an unlikely cover version, perhaps, of beefy Scottish rock act Biffy Clyro's "Many of Horror" (retitled "When We Collide", perhaps because Cowell couldn't abide the prospect of a Christmas number one with the word "horror" in it), went on to sell more than 800,000 copies, and afforded Cardle, overnight, what he had for so long sought: fame, success and recognition, albeit at the cost of anything even approaching credibility.

"I went in the back door, didn't I?" he sighs. "There are so many bands out there right now doing exactly what I was trying to do, and keeping at it. But how did I make it? By slipping in the back door via a talent show. In a way, I feel a bit cheeky, but it did get me where I wanted to be."

By Christmas 2010, Cardle was all over television and radio, and splashed across the red-tops. On 20 December, a week after his win, HarperCollins, a tad presumptuously perhaps, elected to publish his autobiography, My Story (224 pages, £16.99), and the frenzy of post-final promotions continued right up to Christmas Eve, at which point he returned to his parents' house in Essex, exhausted. "I was in bits," he says. "I'd hardly slept for a week before. I had laryngitis, tonsillitis, bronchitis. I crashed out on the sofa the moment I walked in the front door. My mum threw a duvet over me, and left me to it."

He recovered in time for New Year's Eve, and decided to spend it with friends in Newcastle. It was only a last-minute call from his X Factor security guard that alerted him to the fact that clubbing on Tyneside when you are the most famous new pop star in Britain might just require a highly visible level of protection. He spent the night cowering in the VIP section of a club, alarmed by what his mere presence caused among his fellow partygoers. A few days later, he was shopping in the January sales, alone, when he was mobbed by a swelling crowd demanding photographs and autographs. After an hour, a female police officer arrived to escort him to safety, but only on the condition that she, too, could get a photo with him.

"The whole fame thing is scary," he says. "And nobody prepares you for it." He recalls, shortly after, attending a premiere of a Harry Potter movie. Halfway through the film, he nipped to the loo. A girl in the audience clocked him, and screamed. He brought a hand to his face, convinced he had a nosebleed. "But, no, that was just her reaction to seeing me. Me. It was... odd. To be honest, it still is."

After the X Factor arena tour earlier this year ("like cabaret", he says), Cardle entered a studio to record his debut album. He didn't have much time in which to complete it given that, for marketing reasons, it needed to come out this month, at approximately the halfway point of the latest series of X Factor. Called Letters, it is a plush, widescreen effort that places him firmly in Take That territory (Gary Barlow has penned his new single "Run For Your Life"), and is full of strident, heart-on-sleeve power ballads that rather beg accompanying videos to be shot in grainy black-and-white, and slow motion. It all comes drenched in the kind of over-production typical of any singing-show graduate, but impresses through the power of Cardle's voice alone. Nowhere on the record, though, is evidence that the singer remains a heavy-metal fanatic who, just two Christmases ago, was jubilant when Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" beat 2009 X Factor winner Joe McElderry to the coveted number-one spot.

"Maybe not," he concedes, "but I gave up singing metal years ago. It was ruining my vocal cords. I'd been working on making my voice easier on the ear long before I auditioned for the show, trust me."

We meet on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of September, in the café area of his west-London-based record company, Sony. Cardle has never done a "proper" interview before. Until now, it's all been tabloid news stories and TV snippets. I'd expected, perhaps unfairly, a freshly media-trained automaton whose individuality had been crushed by SyCo, Simon Cowell's label, the better to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. But in the flesh he is refreshingly down-to-earth and likeable, a proper sweary bloke, and although he smells like the counter at the Body Shop, all aloe vera and cocoa butter extract, he is palpably less airbrushed up close than he appears in photographs.

Now 28, and clearly fond of late nights, he looks crumpled, and yawns continually while glugging on a fruit drink that, suggests its label, is high in multivitamins. "I was out late. Came home spannered."

He is relieved, he says, that the album is finally out, and that people can at last start judging him on his music rather than the show. Aside from the Gary Barlow track, Cardle co-wrote everything, alongside a selection of industry songwriting veterans, including Adele collaborator Eg White. "That was important to me. As soon as I could, I played my new management the music I'd been working on for the past few years. I'm sure if it had been fucking wank, they'd have found a way to tell me, but they didn't. They liked it."

In other words, he was given a free rein, something not all previous X Factor graduates can claim. But Cardle is bracing himself, because while it is surely bound to be a commercial success, it is just as likely to be mauled by critics who consider the show from which he sprang to be everything wrong with the industry today.

"I was at the [heavy metal magazine] Kerrang Awards recently," he says, "and I was in my element: Slipknot on this table, Korn on that table; bands I love, singers I hero-worship. But all anybody could say to me was, 'What the hell are you doing here? You're that X Factor dude.' I suppose that's not about to change, is it?"

Matt Cardle was 13 when he wrote his first song, and just 14 when he sent his first demo tape to the label that, in 2010, would pay him an advance of £1m. "It was very grunge," he says, "very Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I actually got a letter back from Sony saying, 'Well done, nice try, keep at it.' So I did, pretty much ever since."

He grew up in Essex with his mum, a housewife, his dad, in logistics, and one older brother. At the age of 11, he acquired four unofficial step-siblings after his mother's best friend died in a car crash. "We never adopted them, nothing like that, but they basically became part of the family; brothers from another mother," he says. He liked school well enough, but was never going to bother with university because all he ever wanted to do was, in his words, "make music, hang around skate parks, smoke pot and get wrecked".

He held down a succession of jobs throughout his twenties, as labourer, roofer, postman and milkman, but hated them all. "I just wanted to make enough money to buy studio time, and make more music." He fronted several bands – Chlorine, Swales, Darwyn, Seven Summers – and even landed an Arts Council grant at one point, which encouraged him until he realised that, "anybody could qualify for an Arts Council grant. It meant nothing."

It was with his last group, Seven Summers, that he began at last to generate a little local interest. They were about to record their second album when X Factor came along. Convinced he would stand more chance as a solo act than as part of a band, he promptly ditched them. "I did, but the rest of the band had proper jobs, careers, and lives," he reasons. "I had nothing else going for me at all, nothing."

Given his perpetual lack of success over the years, one wonders why Cardle had never auditioned for the show before. "I never really watched it. It wasn't my thing," is his answer and, true to form, he claims not to have seen any of the current series, either. He entered last year only because a friend of an ex-girlfriend sent in a video of him singing in a pub to the show's producers. He was then invited to the TV auditions. Presumably, he owes this old friend everything? Frowning, he says: "Actually, we've fallen out." Why? "Well, things got a bit weird. I think the friend may have been gearing up to sell stories."

And this wasn't the last time that his new-found fame was to interfere with old friendships. "I suppose it must be odd seeing your mate on the telly," he concedes. "I'm sure it would be odd for me, but I don't think that I would be nasty if it happened to a mate of mine." Old friends have been nasty to him? "In some cases, yes. I suppose they just couldn't relate to me any more."

He says that a distance sprang up between them when he began referring to the show's host Dermot O'Leary and his mentor Dannii Minogue by their first names. "But what was I supposed to fucking call them? They were people I knew; people who had become friends." He shakes his head. "By the time I was singing on the show with Rihanna, it all got really awkward. It was easier just to leave it, to walk away, you know?"

And then he suffered sustained ridicule for finding fame via the same route that Jedward and Chico and Wagner found fame. The music press was quick to glean Biffy Clyro's verdict on his version of their song ("We think it's surreal, and all quite funny," they said), and Cardle, crushed, apologised to them, and later to Scottish fans when the X Factor tour reached Glasgow.

All new pop stars have to acclimatise to the tricksy conditions of fame, of course, but poor Cardle seems to have had it harder than most. Does he ever feel he has sold his soul in pursuit of his dream? "Look, nobody pushed me on to that stage," he says. "I walked all by myself. I've made my bed. All I can hope for now is that the album proves to people there is a little more to me than some think, and that I might just be worthy of respect after all."

And who's to say that he doesn't deserve it? It's not his fault that a television programme now exists to make singers' long-held ambitions overnight realities, and it's not as though he didn't pursue every other avenue first before giving the show a shot. Should he really have to continually apologise for proving popular, for winning? He's hardly emerged as a pop puppet, after all, and he bristles at the very idea that people might consider him little more than a representative of Cowell Inc now and forever more.

"I'm not representing anybody but myself," he insists. "Of course, if I was ever pictured with a crack pipe hanging out of my mouth, I'm sure [the producers] would be in touch to tell me that it didn't reflect well on them, but then it wouldn't reflect well on me, either."

When Will Young won Pop Idol a decade ago, he wasted little time in distancing himself from the dark lord of light entertainment, and the more he did, the more respect he seemed to earn. Is Cardle likely to do similar?

The X Factor winner of 2010 smiles, and then he laughs, his eyes lost to crow's feet.

"Unfortunately, I have no grounds for complaint yet," he says. "Simon is a really lovely guy, really clever, and really busy. But he has let me go away and write an album the way I wanted it to be, and, I'm sorry, but I can only thank him eternally for that."

Matt Cardle's debut album, 'Letters', is released by Columbia on 17 October