The Big Read – Lewis Capaldi: “I make jokes because I’m comfortable with who I am”

The breakout star of 2019, Lewis Capaldi has the midas touch and the world at his feet – but he still likes talking about his pubes and dreams of meeting a girl who'll break his heart for real. NME Deputy Editor Dan Stubbs meets the cocksure 23-year-old in Dublin for a Buckfast sesh and quickly discovers a legitimately hilarious talent who's far from the “big fucking annoying cunt” he thinks he is.

Lewis Capaldi is miming a range of sporting activities. He bounces an invisible basketball around the stage. He boots an imaginary football into the crowd. And after some minutes of this, he poses with an imaginary dart in his hand. Every time he mimes pulling back to throw it, he changes his mind and walks over to take a sip of Guinness instead – to the delight of the crowd. When he finally throws the thing, they roar with approval, before goading him into downing the rest of his pint. And of course: he does. 

It’s November 21 at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. So far Capaldi has spent 10 minutes playing three songs and 15 minutes doing what, in the most affectionate terms, can only be described as dicking about. It shouldn’t be this funny to watch, but it really is. And the price of witnessing this spectacle? Depends when you got your tickets. A tout offered to take NME’s off our hands for €500 outside the venue. 

A year ago this may have sounded like madness, a sign that the world was heading to hell in a handcart and we’d be closing out the decade in a post-apocalyptic new reality, eating boot leather and watching jesters for entertainment. But in 2019, Lewis Capaldi has proved, conclusively, that what the world was waiting for was a pasty-faced, pasty-loving, 23-year-old Scot with an act that’s 50 percent heartbroken balladry and 50 percent improv comedy. And it is a worldwide thing – Capaldi is a global hit, a bona fide phenomenon. A superstar whose first encounter with NME is backstage, hurtling along the corridor clutching a handful of items. “Got my passport, my acid reflux tablets and my water – and that’s all I need!” he says, whizzing past. “And now, I’m off for a small pish.”

Lewis Capaldi

When listing Capaldi’s many 2019 achievements, they start to lose meaning, like contemplating distances in space, or making sense of the costings in the Labour manifesto. But here are a few: The Brits’ Critics Choice award. A Number One album with ‘Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent’. A Number One single with ‘Someone You Loved’ in much of Europe, the US and the UK, where it spent seven weeks at the top. The hardest touring artist of the year, playing over 250 shows. A scene-stealing Glastonbury appearance.

If you’re to believe the stories in the Scottish tabloid press, Capaldi’s music can practically cure leprosy. He’s even had a beef with Noel Gallagher, once a mark of honour, but now a tussle with adversary so easily shot down it’s a bit like watching the moment someone first beats their dad in an arm wrestle. 

Yesterday brought news that Capaldi been nominated for Best Song at The Grammys, which in early career terms is the equivalent of being up for the Best Actor Oscar for your school production of Macbeth. “I’m up against Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Lizzo, H.E.R., Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift…” he says. So he’s in there representing the men? “Yes, at long last!” he jokes. “At long last, straight white men finally have representation.”

“If I’m being honest, I did think ‘Old Town Road’ would be nominated,” he says, being serious now. “Maybe if I win I’ll Kanye myself. ‘This should have gone to ‘Old Town Road’! (But I am going to keep it)…’”

 

Capaldi is an expert at shrugging off his achievements. His unfaltering humility is a huge part of his appeal but even he concedes it’s starting to seem a bit forced. “When I read my interviews back, I always think if I wasn’t me I’d think: ‘you’re full of shite’,” he says. “Like, stop saying you can’t believe it. You can believe it! But it is so surreal and it seems like almost quarterly it kicks up a notch. Like, yesterday with the Grammys, yet again all this shit’s getting more and more mental, more beyond belief.”

Capaldi watched the Grammy nominations on his laptop, which was resting on his chest with the screen close to his face – a set-up he describes as his “home cinema” – and he admits he did get properly excited at the news. Mostly, though, he tends to find himself reacting to things how he thinks he should. 

“I’ve got a very bad way of being like, So you’re supposed to feel this way in this moment,” he says. Like when someone passes away? “Exactly, yeah. Like, four months after my grandma passed away, I’m like, ‘Fuck, my grandma’s died,’ and I’m in Somerfield or something. I mean, not in Somerfield, because it’s not been open for fucking years.”

Capaldi even plays down the success of ‘Someone You Loved’, the song that scored him the Grammy nod. In his eyes, it’s just “one of my songs that’s doing a little bit better than the rest”, but it’s already become a popular standard to sit alongside Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’ or Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’, one of those tracks that will be soundtracking marriages and burials for years to come. Which of those would he prefer it be used for? “Burials,” he says, with no hesitation. “Don’t start falling in love to my fucking music, right? See if I see people kissing at my shows, fucking stop that! These are sad songs, you bastards.”

Lewis Capaldi

Like Lewis himself, a large part of the charm of ‘Someone You Loved’ is its absolute universality, which is not to say it’s banal, more that everyone who has lost someone at some point in their lives – which is most of us – can identify with it. For Lewis, it was the aforementioned loss of his grandmother that proved the catalyst for the song, but he made it more open to romantic interpretation because it felt “too morbid” to write explicitly about. 

And it didn’t come easily. Where other songwriters boast about dashing off huge hits in barely the time it takes to play them, Capaldi admits to labouring over his compositions. Writing songs, he says, is “a massive pain in the fucking arse sometimes”.

“Growing up I read interviews with people like Paul Weller, Paul McCartney – all the Pauls – and they’d say the best songs just sort of fall in your lap,” he says. “After six months at the piano writing ‘Someone You Loved’ I’m like, ‘You fucking lying bastards, that’s taken me fucking ages.’”

Lewis Capaldi

Many of Capaldi’s songs, which he endearingly describes as ranging from “big piano ballads to bigger piano ballads” draw on his first major relationship which – you may have guessed – is no longer a going concern. But it wasn’t a dramatic event. “Adele wrote her album about a relationship breaking up in a bad way, being jilted I think,” he says. “I wrote mine about a relationship that just ended, just fizzled out. I’d love to be jilted by someone, then I could be as successful as Adele.”

Lewis Capaldi

I ask if he worries that – at 23 – he doesn’t have a great deal of life experience to draw on. “I spent my entire life writing this first album,” he says, “but the stuff I’ve experienced in the last year has been much more of a growing experience than living in my mum and dad’s house in fucking West Lothian.”

How about the fact that his next girlfriend, whoever she may be, will be on different terms, it being impossible for her not to know she’s dating Lewis Capaldi the world famous pop star? “Well, I don’t know. It’s not like I’m Justin Bieber,” he says. “Today was the first time I’ve ever got out of the car at a venue and someone screamed. Normally people just shout something at me that I’ve said on Instagram about my pubes. I guess, at worst, my next partner would think I’m one way because they’ll hear the songs and think I seem very nice and level headed, but then find out I’m not.”

What’s the reality?

“Big fucking annoying cunt.”

It’s slightly unfair to question the depth of Capaldi’s life experience, because at the age most of us were familiarising ourselves with yo-yos, pogs or fidget spinners (delete as appropriate), Lewis was embarking on his music career. He began performing at 11, largely in pubs and clubs in the conurbation between Glasgow and Edinburgh where he grew up. The experience of having to hold his own in intimidating spaces at such a young age probably explains much about his easiness around people. 

“I found that at 11 it was, ‘Oh he’s quite cute, he came and stood up here and he’s doing very well.’ When I got to 14, 15 and my voice changed and I lost any remnants of cuteness – which as you can tell have not returned to me – that’s when I started to pick up a bit of the patter. You get to know your way about how to speak to people.” 

Around that time, Capaldi actively worked on changing his vocal style to something more like the wolfy howl we hear today. What was once a ”high and smooth” voice had broken. Inspired by Paolo Nutini and Joe Cocker, Capaldi added some gravel. “I thought it would be a good idea to put a bit of rasp in, to make it sound even more terrible,” he says. 

Lewis Capaldi

For years we’ve been force-fed sensitive young men-next-door with beanie hats, beards or lumberjack shirts singing to us about their problems. In a quest for authenticity, they’ve presented themselves as troubled, serious souls. Capaldi, meanwhile, has given us the sensitive songs with a side order of toilet humour and the kind of prolific, creative swearing worthy of The Thick Of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, as played by his distant cousin Peter Capaldi. 

Stand-up comedians often make a point of referring to the most funny-looking thing about themselves as an icebreaker with the audience, a way of getting them on side. Capaldi has the same trick – there’s not a single thing about his looks or his music you could say that he hasn’t beaten you to. Try and come up something better than saying he looks like “a melting hippo”, we dare you. 

He has zero pretence – he’s a guy who can literally piss himself on stage and laugh it off. “That only happened once,” he says. “And I’ve always been like that, even back in school. If I was meeting someone for the first time I’d be like, ‘Hello, how are you? I’ve got diarrhoea and I could spew or I could blow at any moment. It puts me at ease, being honest.’”

Lewis Capaldi

“People think I make jokes because I’m uncomfortable,” he adds. “Actually, it’s the opposite – I make jokes because I’m comfortable with who I am. I say that I’m a chubby bastard because I am a chubby bastard.”

I put it to him that, possibly, he may be the first body-positive male icon – an important thing given Capaldi is part of a generation of young men who feel under enormous pressure to have an Insta-chiselled body. “I don’t know if I can accept that, because I probably don’t use the correct vernacular,” he says. “It’s probably not good to call yourself a chubby cunt, but it’s never been something that’s bothered me. I’ve been a very slim man, I’ve been a man who’s gone to the gym, but even when I’ve done that someone calls you fat anyway, whether it’s your ma, your da, your best pal.”

Lewis Capaldi

Capaldi hasn’t, as of yet, had any sort of pop star makeover. He still looks like a kid who’s moved out of home for the first time and is stacking up the washing to take to mum’s. He does, however, have a personal trainer on tour and has been exercising every day. “It’s more of a mental health thing,” he says. “It gives me energy and keeps me happy. I mean, when I’m actually doing it I fucking hate it so much, but it feels better after.”

I ask how his mental health is bearing up to his new everyday reality, an extraordinary experience for anyone to process. “That’s what I think about taking the piss out of things,” he says. “I take the piss out of doing things on stage and how mental it is because you have to, because it stops you getting caught up in it. Summer last year I started having massive panic attacks. I was supposed to do Austin City Limits but I had to cancel because I was just having panic attack after panic attack, and I thought I had something seriously wrong with me, because I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. And I went and got a fucking MRI scan. But they said I was just anxious, just recalibrating to this new fucking lifestyle. So I said, right, cancel everything for three weeks, and no one gave me any shit for it.”

Lewis Capaldi

At showtime, the atmosphere at tonight’s gig offers a glimpse of the bubble Capaldi is living in these days. The Olympia is a grand old theatre and Capaldi could probably have sold it out 50 times over; the reaction from the crowd is something like Lewmania. 

Afterwards, we head backstage again, where I’m ushered into a room containing about a dozen members of Capaldi’s family. I’m plonked on a chair right in the middle, handed a massive wine glass full of Buckfast by his cousin and grilled by his dad, a fishmonger and the very driest of wits, about my intentions for this article. He’s seriously proud of his boy, having supported him since the very beginning, even playing the supportive parent role when Lewis auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent aged 12. 

The afterparty moves to a private room at a nearby pub. Lewis’s hulking great cousin – the one who brought the Buckfast – is getting the shots in. His auntie is looking on, concerned, as two girls chat him up at the same time. “He’s only a wee one,” she mutters. While his friends and family enjoy the party and a certain NME journalist accidentally smashes the first of a series of glasses, feeling the effects of downing that Buckfast in an ill-advised attempt to curry favour with the family, Lewis makes his final rounds then politely excuses himself, looking a bit hangdog about it. He has another big show tomorrow. Sad to leave your own party, you imagine. 

Lewis Capaldi

At points in the interview, Capaldi had been making a short, forced coughing noise, which he shrugged off as nothing. But the next week, he cancels a number of shows on health grounds, having been warned by his doctor that he risks losing his voice altogether if he doesn’t take action. In the end, he plays just four more gigs of the UK leg of the tour – in London, Edinburgh and twice in Glasgow for the homecoming finale. All further activities are cancelled by management, including a follow-up NME interview, but he is sent to complete the year’s touring commitments in the States before heading home for a well-earned few days celebrating Christmas with his family, which he says typically involves plenty of booze and lots of piss-taking. If you think you’re feeling ready for the break today, spare a thought for Lewis.

Next year looks to be just as busy as this one. He is, right now, just about the most in-demand young man in the world. At some point, he’ll have to start thinking about his next album too. “I don’t know what the fuck it’s going to sound like, I don’t know what the fuck it’s going to be,” he says. “Ballads, havin’-it tunes, I don’t know. I’ve got voice notes, melodies, stuff like that, but that’s just me and an acoustic guitar.” 

Considering what he said about his hypochondria, it’s likely the idea of losing his voice is weighing heavily on Capaldi’s mind. But he’s already decided there’s a backlash coming anyway. “You do get warned, as you’re coming up: ‘By the way, everyone’s gonna turn on you pretty soon’,” he says. “I guess I’m always just kind of waiting for it. I’m very doomsday. Like, if it’s not happened yet, it’s gonna come. And I can’t wait for the downfall!”

He might be surprised. People have plenty of different reactions to Capaldi’s music, but it’s pretty much impossible to find someone who doesn’t think he seems like a bloody great bloke.

And besides – if he ever finds he can’t sing, he’d make a killing at The Fringe as a physical comic. 

The extended edition of ‘Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent’ is out now