Craig David remembers the good old days. In early 2001 his debut album, Born to Do It, was on its way to selling a head-spinning eight million copies worldwide, propelled by number one singles Fill Me In and 7 Days. That year, the pop/R&B star from Southampton won three Ivor Novello awards for songwriting. Aged 19, he was also nominated for six Brit Awards.
“What made the Brits even more spectacular,” he says of that February evening 16 years ago, when he performed alongside Coldplay and Destiny’s Child, “was the fact that, I’m sitting at the table, watching Elton John walking on stage and saying: ‘If there’s a better singer in the UK than Craig David…’ Wow, Elton John!” exclaims David, hands clapping and eyes popping. “Then topping that was Bono going up and singing [U2’s] One and segueing into [my song] Walking Away. I’m like: ‘My work here is done!’”
But Craig David remembers the bad days, too. Barely 18 months ago David was viewed as an early noughties relic, hiding out in Miami and best known – if known at all – for being the butt of comedian Leigh Francis’s mockery on Channel 4’s Bo’ Selecta! – which was named after David’s debut 1999 hit single Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta) with Artful Dodger. But now he’s once more a proper pop star.
The Brit Awards 2001
Last autumn Following My Intuition, his sixth album, entered the album charts at number one. The CD booklet features two and half pages of closely typed thanks. Family, friends, record labels, DJs, fans, self-help authors, personal trainers – everyone gets a shout-out. His gratitude to all those who have helped him bounce back after a decade in the wilderness is detailed and boundless, a mark of both his default niceness and of the unlikelihood of his triumph. And to top it all off, this month he’s at the Brit Awards once again, nominated for British male solo artist.
Where, then, did it all go wrong? And where, more remarkably, did it go right?
David is in his manager’s office in north-west London, dressed in his habitual black – a layered mix of designer sportswear and streetwear, with his goatee as manicured as ever. But he’s no poseur. The 35-year-old’s ultra-sweet reputation precedes him, he’s naturally friendly and solicitous (“Thanks so much for coming… do you want a water?”), and readily given to crediting others – his manager, his mother, his housekeeper, the universe – for any part they might have played in his up-and-down-and-then-up-again career.
“The first thing I did was buy my mum a house,” he says recalling his initial success. “I grew up in a two bedroom council flat, which was very, very small but perfect for me knowing no different. But having seen my grandma having a little garden in Southampton, I aspired to that for my mum. Forget London and Miami, I just wanted to get a garden.”
He only treated himself to a home – a place in Hampstead – after 18 months in a London hotel. The silly cars, he adds with a smile, “only came later, in Miami. Here my first car was a Peugeot 206. Then I upgraded to the one with the convertible roof, which I thought was amazing.”
His caution came, in part, courtesy of his manager, an industry veteran who still looks after him. “He said: ‘Enjoy this moment. But you can’t sustain this. Any career, whether you’re Elton John or Frank Sinatra, is gonna be a rollercoaster ride.’ So he had me prepped from the off.”
Indeed, that stellar early success wasn’t to last. As the sales tailed off and his profile faded, David began spending more and more time in Miami, where he’d bought a penthouse apartment. He was still making music, and DJ-ing, but few beyond his immediate circle were listening. What was noticed much more widely was his enthusiasm for bodybuilding, the pictorial proof of his super-muscles served up on Instagram with accompanying feel-the-force mantras.
“It went back to my childhood,” he explains. “Up to the age of 14, I was quite overweight. So I wanted to take it to the other extreme; I had the fear of going back to that place… But as much as my body was getting sculpted, I was getting so old in my face. Man, when you lose fat from your face…” he winces.
True to form, David looks for the positive in the experience. “Now I can be an advocate for people to find balance and health. If you want to eat pizza or a burger, cool, the six-pack is underneath; it’s just underneath a couple of layers of fat. It’s not going anywhere!”
And despite Miami being a bolthole, it also became a springboard. Five years ago David began hosting weekly house parties. “I was thinking: ‘I’ve got this beautiful apartment, but what’s the point if you don’t share it? It’s great having everything all nice and perfect – but, man, let’s live. Let’s vibe it.’”
Vibe it he did. Ten or 20 people round at his place to listen to some tunes became “40 or 50, then 100”, with David singing, MC-ing and DJ-ing. He titled the night TS5 after the luxury block in which he lived, began broadcasting a live set from his apartment on UK radio station Kiss FM, and expanded the club brand to venues in the UK and Ibiza.
With interest stoked among a new generation of dance music fans, in September 2015 David made high-profile appearances on Radio 1’s Live Lounge and on 1Xtra. He signed a new record deal, performed on the 2015 X Factor final and, last February, achieved his highest-charting single in nine years with When the Bassline Drops. He was very much back.
David humbly insists he didn’t plot any comeback; he wasn’t yearning for another shot at fame. If it hadn’t worked out, he says it would have been no big deal. He’s been making music since his mid-teens and will never stop.
“If I wasn’t at the forefront as a singer, I’d have happily played music as a DJ, or been a producer, or sat back and wrote songs for other people,” he beams. “I’m just very grateful that I’ve been able to perform my songs again.”
It’s the music, he insists, and not chart success, that moves him, and obsesses him. So there’s been no time for a relationship – “I’ve yet to meet someone where it doesn’t feel like I’m being dragged away from what I love” – and no time for a home. He’s spent much of the last year living in the Heathrow Airport Sofitel, a stoutly practical solution to the rebooted jet-set demands on his time.
“All the material things start to fade,” he says with a sagacious smile. “I’ve not been back to Miami for eight months. I’ve got a Lamborghini sitting in a garage there. I don’t know if it even starts any more.”
Surely, though, the Brit nomination is a nice validation? Craig David shakes his head.
“More than my ego – and it is always there and it tries to rear its head but I’m not having it! – it’s a great story. Forget winning a Brit. It’s about being able to say to a 14-year-old who’s an aspiring singer/songwriter: ‘Listen, this is what happened to me, this rollercoaster career. But because I stuck in, 16 years later I am back up with a best male nomination.’ That’s a real story. That’s been the best thing about all of this.”
The Brit Awards are on tonight at 7.30pm on ITV