Splendour Interview: Lewis Capaldi (Scotland) on developing as a songwriter, and the master of hilarious banter amidst sad songs, Scott Hutchinson

While backstage at Splendour over the weekend, we sat down with Scottish singer/songwriter Lewis Capaldi, who describes himself as “a chubby guy who sings sad songs” (in fact it’s how he introduced himself to us when we sat down), as he made his Australian debut. We talk about developing as a songwriter, The Beatles, Frightened Rabbit, how he balances out his sets filled with said sad songs, banter and cover songs – and more!

I do like how you introduce yourself, it’s that little bit self deprecating, but also descriptive of the music you make.

I’m nothing if honest. I think … People always say that, like “Don’t call yourself chubby.” I get people tweeting me. I’m not like sad about it, it’s just a fact of life. And if wanted to not be chubby I’d lose a bit of weight, do you know what I mean?

You should probably then put a little asterisk beside the statement, “But I’m not writing sad songs about being chubby.”

That’s the thing, I think that’s the trouble, because there’s a bit of a niche market there. It is probably one I could break into, the chubby sad songs market, just about issues with my waistline and stuff like that. But no, it’s a chubby guy singing sad songs, unrelated to his BMI.

There you go. That’s the title of the first record.

Yeah. What was that 1975 record that had that really long title? I’ll bet them for that title, I’ll do that.

To, at least in Scotland, take the crown.

Exactly, well I think I can do that, it’s wide open there.

Well welcome to Australia! For most here, this will be the first time they’ll be seeing you live. So let’s take things back a bit. From when you first started touring to today, how has the show developed? It’s pretty stripped back by any respect, even with two others up there with you, but at the same time you can hear there’s a lot of work that goes into that performance.

Totally… there’s three today, and there’s usually five in the UK, and Europe. It’s just had to keep evolving, because at the start it was just me to begin with, and then “Bruises”, when that went off, did what it did, that was a piano vocal, and I can’t play the piano. So we were like, “Right, we have to get a keyboard player now.” So it was very much, everything we’ve done has been out of necessity, it’s not been so much … We’ve always been scrambling, like, “Fuck, we need to get a keyboard player now.” Or, “Fuck, we need to get this, a guy doing percussion and guitar now and stuff.” Or, “Fuck we need to get a full band to fill out these rooms.”

Because I think things accelerated a lot quicker than me and my managers were expecting, so we’ve been kind of playing catch up on the live show, because it grew a lot quicker than we were expecting. So the shows kind of changed a lot quicker than… not that I would have hoped, because I’m glad it’s done it as quick as it has, because I like there being more people… but I think a lot faster than I expected at least.

There’s a real beauty in your music when you hear it on record, and you are able to translate that live on stage, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. So when you’re mixing in the songs people know, with some songs that people don’t know, you’re sort of at that awkward stage where you don’t have quite enough music that you’ve released to fill a full set, and you’ve also got to try and maintain that tone of the record. So how much thought goes into that balance and that approach?

Recently it’s been a lot more. What we’ll do now is we kind of add in little bits from elsewhere, we’ll add little covers in the songs. So we’ve got a song called “Maybe”, it’s kind of like this upbeat sad song, sort of thing. For that, for example, we’ll add into the refrain “All these things that I’ve done” by The Killers, “I got soul but…”. So we just add little things like that, just to keep people interested and keep them engaged. Because I think they can definitely, you can see people’s minds wandering when you’re playing those songs that they don’t know. And I think I try and keep the stripped back ballads, where it’s just me and a piano, to a minimum, unless it’s the ones that are out. Because we’ve got loads of them.

If we wanted to go we could go crazy and just do a full set of ballads, but I think… That was again the thought process with bringing a third guy on to do the SPD, the drum pad, and the guitar and stuff. Because it just kind of keeps people a bit more like, “Fuck, it’s a full thing now, and I’m not just getting ballad, after ballad, after ballad.”

Because even my faster songs, I tend to slow them right fucking down, when it’s just me and a piano anyway. So yeah, definitely bringing that extra guy in and just trying to keep it light. And I think in between songs as well, just having a laugh with people. Because I think the songs are quite … at least the ones that have been released are subject-wise quite heavy and all quite depressing, lyrically speaking. But, I think if you offset that with just talking absolute shit in between songs, I think people really like that as well, and respond to that, and I think that’s the best way to do it.

Well we were talking about Scott from Frightened Rabbit before, and I mean there’s never been a better master of the hilarious banter between the heart wrenching songs than him.

Absolutely. Frightened Rabbit are the perfect example, so to play a song like “Floating in the Forth”, which is probably one of the rawest songs you’ve ever heard in your life. It’s like when you listen to it on record it fucking punches you in the chest, you’re like, “Fuck!”

So, to be able to play a song like that live you need someone like Scott was, to offset that with a bit of hilarious banter in between songs. It’s a bit more like, right, we can bring it back down, and stuff. I think, yeah, absolutely fucking … I never knew him or anything, but fucking terrible, all that that happened with him, and it’s a shame for the Scottish music, and obviously everyone that’s ever listened to his music.

But, yeah, I think people who write these ballads … Adele does it as well… people who write these fucking songs are always, in between songs, like, “fucking hell!”, because they have to sing them every night, do you know what I mean? So they’re like, “right, I need to offset this… to keep my sanity I need to take the piss a bit more than just sing these type of sad songs.” Otherwise it’d be a lot of singing a ballad and then going, “This next one’s about how I feel like this, and this, and this.” And you’re like, “fuck off!” I’ll do that when I go watch people, if they start telling me what the song’s about I’ll be like, “fuck off, who cares?” Do you know what I mean? Just sing it.

I like the words, I have my own perceptions of what the song’s about, I’d rather you didn’t tell me on stage what it’s about. I feel like it’s very self serving to be like, “this is about my fucking travels in the wilderness, and finding out who I really was.” It’s like, just have a laugh, take the piss a bit, do you know what I mean?

If you’re Paul McCartney you can get away with that, because everyone wants to hear the stories. But otherwise…

If I started doing it, I’d be like, “Who does this guy fucking think he is?” Do you know what I mean? My friends would probably be like that as well, “Fucking shut up!” And my band would be like that as well.

Play your music.

“What the fuck are you talking about? Just sing the song.” Do you know what I mean? But, yeah, if I ever get to Paul McCartney level, don’t worry, I’ll bring the sad songs out and I’ll be like, “This song’s a metaphor for my relationship with my mother.” *laughs*

The Beatles, early in their career they were giving songs away to other bands like The Rolling Stones. With the sort of music you write, do you ever write something and you go, “This isn’t for me, buy maybe I’ll find someone else who wants to sing it?”

Absolutely, yeah. I tend to write a lot of … In the last couple of years, writing this album and stuff, that’s coming up, I’ve wrote just fucking tonnes of songs, and most of them I’m like, “No, it’s not for me, that’s not for me.” And my managers will be like, “This is a fucking great song.” And I’ll be like, “No, it’s not for me.”

Yeah, that’s something I do want to do, it’s just it’s hard to give songs to people. I feel like it’s good as well to not always have to write something for you. He gets a lot of shit, but what I like about Ed Sheeran is that if he writes a song and someone else sings it you go, “Ed Sheeran wrote that fucking song.” And if Sia writes a song, you go, “Sia wrote that fucking song.” And I think to do that you have to be fucking good, to do that, and I think that’s a level I’d like to aspire to, and I think all songwriters should aspire to. Without you singing it people go, “that’s an Ed Sheeran song, that’s a Bob Dylan song.” He’s another one.

So yeah, absolutely. I’m the kind of person who will just, if I don’t feel a connection with a song right away, I’m like that, “Right, give it to somebody else. Great song but fucking, not for me, blah, blah, blah, blah.” In the early days I wrote a lot of just pure pop, like drops and stuff like that. And I’m like,. “this isn’t my type of of music at all.” Yeah, we’ve offset a couple, but yeah, it’s been good.

So if there was one artist, that you wanted to sing your music, who would that be?

She doesn’t need my music, I’d love to hear Sia sing one of my songs, just because her voice is fucking incredible.

I’d love to hear Sia write a song for you too. That’d be cool.

I’d like to wrote a song with Sia, that’d be pretty good, then we could both do it. No, it’d fucking sick, but that power she’s got in her voice is incredible. Is she Australian?

She is Australian, from Adelaide.

Fucking on brand man, fucking see that.

There you go.

Fucking knew that. Yeah, she’d be incredible. Camila Cabello would be incredible as well. Just anybody that’s going to make me a lot of money. *laughs*

Lewis Capaldi plays the Oxford Art Factory in Sydney tonight and then heads to Fuji Rock, Lollapalooza and Osheaga Festival. To keep tabs on Lewis Capaldi, visit his official website. Photo by Larry Heath from The Great Escape.