John Newman finds his soulful voice 

Nothing against his Yorkshire, England, birthplace of Settle, John Newman says, but a small town can get a prospective artist only so far. So with high hopes, he left home at 17 to study record production in relatively exotic Leeds, and then ditched school at 20 to roll the dice on London. All the while, he did not perceive himself as anything special in the vocal department. He was a DJ, a producer and composer and sang only when demos demanded it. He didn’t immediately discover his stunning R&B vocal style, as heard on Rudimental’s 2012 single “Feel the Love” and his just-issued debut “Tribute.” It took him time, and tragedy, to emote so soulfully.

Why didn’t you want to sing, initially? I wasn’t into taking on the role of a singer, because nowadays it’s become something different. They want fame and they want to be a celebrity, and the only thing they can do is sing. But I always wanted to be a musician, you know?

When did you first hear your voice on playback? Probably under the stairs in my parents’ house, where I used to play music. When I was a kid, I tended to use vocoders and things like that to cover my voice, because I didn’t think it was amazing. So I just did my thing and made music, but that first stage was equally important, because I did do songwriting and production and enjoyed that first. And in terms of being a singer now, I’ve learned that I can also express myself thoroughly in doing that. So it slowly sank in on me.

Didn’t anyone in Settle pull you aside and say, “Kid! You can really wail”? Well, a few people were like, “Yeah, you should be doing this!” But thank God my brother was the one who said “You should really, really be doing this.” He helped persuade me to go to music college and do it properly, and that’s where my voice really progressed. And where I finally became comfortable with it. I still don’t think I’m a great singer, though.

But just as you left town, two of your best friends died in an auto accident. Was that the turning point? I think it was. We’d all been brought up in a town without any opportunities, but these two guys influenced me to go and do my music, because they were downhill bikers and doing really well at it, professionally. And when they went, it hit me quite hard. That’s when my voice started coming through, and I was able to express myself, because I had a very moving experience to talk about.


John Newman

Where: Popscene, Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., S.F.

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $15 to $17 (sold out)

Contact: (415) 861-2011,

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Tom Lanham

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