Craig's a soul trader now
Craig David went from being Britain's top R&B star to a figure of fun on Bo Selecta, but it's his new album that he'd rather talk about says Brian Finnegan
There's an elephant in the room with Craig David and me. Out of pure politeness I'm only mentioning it in veiled terms and without blinking an eye, Craig is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge its presence The elephant, of course, is called Bo Selecta.
Ten years ago, at the age of 18, David became the youngest solo male artist to reach number one in Britain, with the song, Fill Me In. A slew of hit singles and seven million album sales later (with Born to Do It) he was Britain's most successful R&B export of all time, hitting the American Billboard top 10 with the single, 7 Days. However, if the peak came early, it was not to be repeated. Although David has gone on to sell another six million albums in the intervening years, he's never regained the crown he once looked set to wear for a long time.
How instrumental Bo Selecta's relentless lampooning of David was on his fall from grace is unquantifiable. But there's no doubt the hugely successful comedy show left its mark. Mention Craig David's name to anyone and they'll immediately come back with an impression of Selecta's northern drawl version, and David once went on the record to say it was "hurtful beyond belief".
The caricature turned David from a cool R&B brand into a figure of fun and while Bo Selecta has come and gone, he still sits on David's shoulder.
David is here to talk about his new album of covers, Signed Sealed Delivered, the first from a new deal he's signed with Universal and he's clearly made a decision not to veer off that conversational track, no matter how gently I nudge him.
"Did you feel kicked around in the mid-90s?" I ask, to which he replies just as obliquely: "It's been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. But for every down, it made me appreciate the better times more. I've had confirmation that I can write hit songs and I'm very blessed to be still out there, performing and signing this new deal."
"But how were those years personally for you?" I say and David replies with one of his frequent football analogies.
"It's like when you're a team that's won the FA Cup. It's when you've won that the game really starts. There's a point when you plateau and you end up third in the league. You find your fighting spirit to come back to the top again.
"I love the fact that my first record sold seven million copies. Let me be the person who does that again. You are always one hit single away from being at the top of your game. You can always blame a million other people, but a hit song is a hit song."
The "seven million albums" assertion is repeated several times during our interview. David is here to talk about moving forward, but in the unmentioned shadow of Selecta, he constantly feels the need to remind me about the glory days and his status as a serious songwriter, a fact that's indisputable.
Before Bo, when David was smoothly crooning, "I'm walking away, from all the troubles in my life," on CD:UK, he was universally acknowledged as one of the best songwriters in Britain.
He was awarded the Ivor Novello award for Songwriter of the Year in 2001 and has consistently been able to churn out quality songs on the three studio albums that followed his debut.
So, why has he decided to go the way of a covers album now that he's returned to the fray with a big new record deal?
"It's an album I wanted to do for many years," he says. "But I felt I wasn't in a position in my career to do it. I believed I wasn't established as a songwriter yet, really, even though I had an Ivor Novello in my hands. I could easily have had the ego, but I still didn't feel confident that I could consistently pull it out of the bag when I needed to. Over the last year my feelings have changed and I've realised that I'm able to do that. I feel that I've grown more comfortable in my own skin."
The album features covers of iconic soul numbers like Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me, and I Heard it Through The Grapevine and Stevie Wonder's For Once In My Life, along with the title track. David admits that taking on such well-known numbers was daunting ("kind of like when David Beckham went to play for Real Madrid and had to step up his game").
"I decided to approach recording this album like Al Green or Otis Reading or Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder would have. They would have been in the studio recording whole tracks with a live band. So, I did it that way. An imperfection in my vocal might be the thing that makes the track special. I didn't want to sound like I was doing identical versions, though. The performance had to break through, because if that wasn't there, it would all sound like karaoke."
The result has, at least, gotten the thumbs up from Stevie Wonder, who is usually unforthcoming about the myriad covers of his songs. "I gave the record to Stevie's manager," says David. "He played it for Stevie, who came back and said, 'Tell Craig I love his version of For Once In My Life'. I was pleasantly surprised by that."
For David, this is not only a covers project. It's a mission statement. "I want to make albums where people listen to every track and enjoy every one of them," he says.
"I want people to want to buy the whole album on iTunes rather than just one song. I want to go on recording albums where each song is of the calibre to be released as a single. The greatest pop albums in history are all about consistency."
Craig David's Signed Sealed Delivered is currently on release