From hitting the high notes in the music industry, to the crushing blows of singles falling flat, and being diagnosed with two brain tumours in the past seven years, John Newman has been through a hugely emotional, and testing journey. Here, the singer-songwriter shares how he’s turned the biggest mistakes in his life into the greatest lessons he’s learned along the way
Two days before Happiful meets John Newman in a glass-walled office at the Universal Music Group HQ in north London, the singer-songwriter was on a coach travelling through Siberia, Russia.
“We’d just done a gig and everyone else was sat on their phones, but I was looking out the window, glued to the landscape outside,” he recalls. “I’m now completely more present, more appreciative. I don’t take anything for granted. It’s about smelling the roses.”
For John, 28, who was raised in Settle, North Yorkshire, by his single mum Jacquie, it’s been a profoundly transformational two years.
In 2017, the year after being diagnosed with a brain tumour – the second of his life – John found himself musically lost following a series of disappointing chart performances, which sabotaged his self-confidence and left him on the verge of quitting the industry.
Thankfully, though, John has come full circle. Last August, he wed former flight-attendant Nana-Marie Bergqvist, and says he has since been inspired to write “some of the best music of [his] life”. He’s also embarked on therapy for the first time.
Ahead of the release of his eagerly-awaited third album, John reflects on his evolution, and pinpoints the seven life mistakes that have taught him the most valuable lessons of all…
Holding on to the past
I was bullied as a teenager, because I was vulnerable, or because I didn’t have a dad, or because I was a bit different for dreaming of being a musician. When I turned 18 I enrolled at Leeds College of Music, I always felt at risk – like somebody was going to start a bad rumour about me.
I’ve forgiven the bullies but I still dream about that time. I dream of my childhood in loads of ways, including my best friends Ben and Tom who died in a car crash when I was 19. I dealt with my grief the wrong way, by skipping college, drinking too much, and smoking a lot of weed.
About a year ago I went to see a therapist for the first time, because I was doing addictive things in terms of eating and smoking. It was amazing to sit and talk to somebody without an opinion. It’s a weird world we live in. Every time I talk to someone about my problems, I feel the response is ‘man up’. What is ‘man up’? What’s wrong with a man expressing his emotions?
Not being selfish
‘Blame’, which I recorded with Calvin Harris in September 2014, obliterated Spotify and was the biggest record globally for a month. By the end of the year I was living in LA, flying all over the world, and the success felt amazing. I wanted to give that success to others, so I started signing artists and writing for other people, but I was working so hard that every time I stepped inside a studio for myself I was burnt out.
Last year I ripped out my studio, sold all the equipment on eBay, and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. Feeling under pressure to create a huge music empire just caused me stress and anxiety, because I wasn’t focusing on the thing that got me here in the first place – my own music.
Believing I had to change
I know what I want, I know how to get it, I’ve got clarity
Calvin inspires me hugely, and once advised me to ‘do something different’ musically. It played on my mind so much that every time I thought of making a John Newman-style record, I backed away from what felt authentic, and lost myself in the process.
Meeting my wife, Nana, was an epiphany moment. She started giving me advice about my career, from an outsider’s point of view and said: “You’re overthinking everything.” Even talking about this now makes me feel horrible inside, because it takes me back. Now I’m writing music that feels true to me, but I still experience anxiety. I put a thing up the other day saying: “Please stream my songs so I can stop shitting myself.”
Forgetting Chris Martin's words of wisdom
A few years ago, [Coldplay frontman] Chris Martin advised me to ‘stay cool, stay humble, stay simple’. But then I moved to LA and got too big for my boots. I didn’t like the person I’d become.
I was living my dream, working on my second album with incredible musicians, but mistakenly presumed it would do well. As a kid I’d stand in front of my bedroom mirror in our council house, dreaming of success and singing to thousands of people. When I achieved that, I dreamed higher, and when the album didn’t chart as well as my first, I felt like I was in a nightmare – looking up, trying to grab success while falling.
Last year, when my single ‘Fire In Me’ failed to chart in the UK, I started to question my future. I called my manager, saying: “I think I quit. What’s the point of all this pressure, stress, and emotion?” The second I realised I could do that, the pressure was lifted from me, because I now knew I had a choice.
Breaking boundaries as a kid
My dad was always overpowering me, putting me down and telling me ‘don’t do this and that’, so when my mum and dad split when I was four, I got a taste of freedom because he was no longer there to control me. Mum never told me what to do; she gave me the freedom to let my mind experiment.
She let me play in the countryside and get into fights to work out what I shouldn’t say to people.
I’ve learned from my mistakes. But I got it out of my system at the right time. When I have kids, I’ll let them do the same.
Overthinking my health
In 2012, the year after signing my first album deal, I started going blind, and doctors found an egg-sized tumour in my brain, which was later removed through my nose. In 2016 I discovered the tumour had returned and, as it stands, it’s stable. It’s still in there, but they don’t believe there are cancerous cells in it. Day-to-day, I’ve learned to not overthink the fact I’ve got a brain tumour, because there are people clinging on to dear life out there, who need urgent medical help. I don’t. I’m very, very fortunate.
Wondering whether marriage was for me
After the demise of my parents’ relationship, I questioned whether I wanted marriage myself, until I met Nana. We got engaged after a year, when Nana was still living abroad, so we didn’t know each other that well, but it felt right. Now we live together, we’re best friends, and know everything about each other. I was so right to trust my instincts.
I 100% want children. Right now, we’re not planning to, and we’re not planning not to either, but my mind is focused on work. I know what I want, I know how to get it, I’ve got clarity. Now I’m going to go and get it.
Get tickets for John’s ‘Out Of The Blue’ tour from johnnewman.co.uk/live