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Craig David: The comeback kid

Seemingly a farfetched notion not all that long ago, Craig David is at the top of his game again. As he releases The Time is Now, the artist reflects on the path his career has taken 

"This is not about how many records you sell any more.” ~Craig David

Utter Craig David’s name in the company of 30-somethings, and you’ll conjure fond — possibly amused — nostalgia. The pop star sold 7.5 million copies of his 2000 debut album, Born to Do It, and songs such as Fill Me In, 7 Days and Re-Rewind defined a generation’s adolescence. But as quickly as David became a superstar, he then became a laughing stock, courtesy of comedian Leigh Francis. Francis named his surreal, celebrity-skewing sketch show after one of David’s lyrics, Bo Selecta, and his rubber-faced, incontinent pastiche of the star became its most famous character.

Now in its third act, David’s career has reached a remarkable — and unexpected — pinnacle. Over the past two years he has engineered one of pop’s most astonishing comebacks. In 2016, Following My Intuition, his first album in six years, went straight to number one; he sold out an arena tour and, six months ago, he became the unlikely hit of Glastonbury 2017: 100,000 people gathered to watch him deliver an infectious, joyful, bombastic set of peppy R&B and dance music on the Pyramid Stage. Perhaps most surprisingly, he never stopped recording: David released his seventh album, The Time is Now, in January.

"This is not about how many records you sell any more.” ~Craig David

It’s a rebound that could well explain the sunny spirituality that has come to define the new, millennial-friendly David. He is engaging — not to mention tactile, company — although the meaning of his words has to be unravelled from the cod-philosophy that cossets them.

To David, everything happens for a reason. Many things are “amazing”. “Feeling” motivates him more than figures — he says. He has a rich seam of anecdotes about fans who have “met to [his] music, married to [his] music”. They’ve convinced him that “there’s a bigger play to all of this. This is not about how many records you sell any more.” 

Sometimes he just explains what has happened to him by saying: “And I was like, ‘Aren’t these all the moments?’”

He’s now 36, but there’s something of the eternal child about him. David’s immaculately groomed facial hair lies with the same precision it did when he was a teenager, and he tends to keep sweets around. When we meet, two 1kg bars of Dairy Milk are within close reach.

David’s maintained his positivity in spite of bleak misfortune. After Bo Selecta cast him out into the wilderness of pop culture parody, his music became increasingly irrelevant. In 2010, still pumped up on earnings from Born to Do It but without a label deal, he bought an extravagant Floridian bachelor pad and decked it out almost entirely in white leather. The luxe furnishings, however, failed to fill the artistic void: “In that break, I questioned a lot of things,” he says. “I thought Miami was supposed to be living the dream. Why was I not feeling completed?”

His productivity was destroyed by months oscillating between the club and the hangover. For a while he became disturbingly fanatical about bodybuilding; photos show a man short on smiles but big on muscle definition, jogging along Miami’s beachfront. He stopped, he said, when it left him “gaunt and drained”.

Over the past two years Craig David has engineered one of pop’s most astonishing comebacks. In 2016, Following My Intuition, his first album in six years, went straight to number one; he sold out an arena tour and, six months ago, he became the unlikely hit of Glastonbury 2017: 100,000 people gathered to watch him deliver an infectious, joyful, bombastic set of peppy R&B and dance music on the Pyramid Stage. 

It took his Ferrari breaking down, in the rain, outside a fancy restaurant, for a fittingly extravagant epiphany to arrive in 2014. “I remembered playing an arcade game where you drive around in a Ferrari on streets with palm trees. I looked at the yellow badge with the horse on it and I became super emotional,” he says, with utmost earnestness. “I owned the car I dreamed of as a kid, and had a flashback to my music career and everything that had gone on.”

He touches my arm. “I realised at that point that if I couldn’t be grateful for what I had, I would never be grateful in my life.”

He looks deep into my eyes. “I just got it. And from that moment everything just fell into place.”

David moved the party from the club to his house, playing an infectious — and eclectic — combination of floor-fillers at what became known as TS5 parties. It was no dalliance: he went about it with a scientific perfectionism, adjusting elements by trial and error to create the perfect club night. Such serious emphasis on sheer musical fun paved the way for his Glastonbury performance.

“TS5 became the go-to place in Miami,” he says. “It encapsulated everything I wanted people to feel like.” 

DJing in his house gave David the opportunity to perform. With it, he says, came “a whole new lease of life”.

He still owns the Miami house, although when I call him there, a few weeks after we meet, David says it no longer feels like home. “It feels like it did when I first came over,” he says, excited to get on stage. “London feels like home now.”

During his self-imposed exile, the UK was learning to re-appreciate garage, the genre that made him famous. In 2015, David appeared as a guest on a BBC Radio 1Xtra set, and the footage of him singing Fill Me In and rapping over a Justin Bieber sample went viral. His talent — rapid freestyle verses and a smooth glissando — proved still intact. No longer a hilarious pop culture footnote, David suddenly found himself a credible figurehead in one of the UK’s most exuberant subcultures.

“I had to accept that I was a brand-new artist, who had to work hard and prove myself,” he explains. “I had to not become heritage. Because I could have done a Born to Do It tour; I could have done a few little venues,” David says, a glint of business sense shining through that philosophical patina, “… but I started working with up-and-coming guys like Sigala. All of a sudden I was part of a new wave, rather than just being back.”

It was a shrewd move. David has managed to find a new audience among today’s teenagers while also luring back those misty-eyed mid-lifers who loved him in the early 2000s. He’s worked with new artists again for his new record, such as the DJ Kaytranada, grime artist AJ Tracey and singer-songwriter Ella Mai.

Such a resurgence has also ensured David’s return to the gossip columns, mind. Days before the interview, supposed details of his sex life proliferate on one website, while separately, he has dismissed the rumours about his sexuality that have persisted throughout his career.

When I raise the issue of the tabloid speculation, a near-imperceptible flinch interrupts the warmth he’s radiated every time I’ve met him. “It is what it is,” he says. “I can’t take the pen and write the thing for somebody else.” 

Ask him about his love life and David releases the same vague, optimistic statement pop stars have for eternity: “I’m not in a relationship at the moment, but my heart is very much open, so whenever the time is right it will be so obvious. It will be a moment of serendipity.”

He maintains that he would tell his younger self to “do exactly as you are doing because you have no idea of the journey you’re about to go on”, but David later says he would treat the press less kindly were he starting out again. 

“When I was growing up I was more aware of it,” he remembers. “I’d question it. Now I don’t feed into it. I can’t entertain it, and I won’t allow it to become part of my world.”

Instagram has allowed him to dictate his own narrative. While even rising stars have label-employed staff to assist with their social media accounts, David is, unusually, firmly in charge of his own. Nobody is denied a selfie, and he gets a gleeful kick out of replying to fans who share their enjoyment of his music online, saying he “[loves] the full circle of it.”

Instead of maintain the glossy image that landed him in mockery as a teenager, David now prefers to make someone’s week by sending them just a simple tweet; he has chosen kindness over cool. In an age when authenticity rules the internet, and pop culture’s biggest stars are those that make their fans feel like best friends, it makes sense that now, 17 years on, he should be so well-liked. 

Perhaps he’s right — perhaps this really did all happen for a reason. 

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