With a platinum-selling debut, six million single sales worldwide and collaborations with the likes of Rudimental and Calvin Harris under his belt, the Yorkshire powerhouse did the unthinkable and took a break from his career to take stock.
In the near two years he's been away from the spotlight, in between dealing with the news that his brain tumour had returned, he travelled to Thailand and Japan, got engaged and packed in LA for the Kent countryside. 'The main focus was to get back in my bedroom and start making music there, instead of posh studios that were costing me a fortune' he tells M.
Thankfully, as of now, he's 'very healthy and regularly monitored by the fantastic neurological department of the NHS', while the soul-searching time away has clearly ignited a spark. Comeback single Fire In Me is an assured dancefloor banger that finds him singing about returning to his old ambitions, marked by those distinctive raw vocals and uplifting hooks.
Co-produced by Mark Ralph (Clean Bandit, Years & Years, Hot Chip), the track was recently treated to a remix courtesy of Sigala, who John first worked with alongside Nile Rodgers on the 2016 hit single Give Me Your Love.
Up next on the to-do list is to play Wembley by 2019, an aim-high goal that he hopes will become a reality as his next few singles start to unfold. 'They’re gonna be the ones that will start pulling people in thick and fast,' he promises.
Here, John tells us more about his time away, what he's learned about fame and his biggest songwriting lessons...
Good, it was much needed to take a break. I felt like the quality of my music was starting to deteriorate a bit. My headspace was going into ‘I’m shit and nobody wants to buy my records anymore.’ When you start losing a bit of success, you start losing people around you. As someone that goes to all the parties and corresponds with all these people that get called ‘famous’ – when they start going sour on you, it really affects you. Then my health wasn’t great. There was just loads of stuff that made me go, right: I’m in a really bad place mentally and professionally. I need to stop to get myself out of this. Thank god I did, because I’m coming back now with a totally different mental attitude and focusing on what I want.
What did the time away teach you about the direction you want to take musically?
I went to Thailand, rode a scooter around and cut my hair really short and I went to Japan and got engaged. It was, ‘right, time to stop worrying about this shit and whether there’s a chauffeur driving me and whether I’ve got a number one’. That’s not the vibe. I was like, how do I get the musician that I used to be, back out of me? And fall back in love with music and not the scene? The way to do that was to come back from LA, because it was destroying a northern, Yorkshire pudding-eating guy into some slick wanker, quite frankly.
What was the Yorkshire pudding situation in LA?
Non-existent and that’s why I came home! The main focus was to get back in my bedroom and start making music there, instead of posh studios that were costing me a fortune.
In Fire In Me, you sing about getting back to your old ambitions – what does the song mean to you?
Old ambitions were to play to the biggest crowds, let as many people as possible hear my music, to release the rawest music and what felt right to me. When I was 16, I used to sing pop songs down the phone to girls to charm them. Then when I found Otis Redding and my two best mates died, I started making really raw music. But gradually I feel like it started slipping into making music to impress people, or impress girls, and singing cheesy lines like Ole. It just felt like I needed to get back into that raw place where I started from. Wanting to move people emotionally, not just impress them.
I think it’s got to be a higher volume of output and it’s got to be better quality. With my first and second album, I’d find a hit with one song and then the album would rely on that. I think we live in a different world now where each song has got to be the level of those first songs.
With Fire In Me, it felt like the right thing to come back with. I know that the next few singles I've got up my sleeve are really exciting and they’re gonna be the ones that are gonna start pulling people in thick and fast.
As a songwriter for other artists, how does the process differ from how you approach writing for yourself?
I had to adapt my songwriting for me and for others. I did a session with Steve Mac on my first record and I was being a stubborn little shit, like, ‘no, it needs to be this, this and this.’ What Steve was saying was, why don’t we just write songs? It doesn’t mater who it’s for or what it’s about. And I was like ‘no’, putting restrictions on it.
A few weeks later, I was taking in what Steve had said. He just meant take the pressure off, because I had put so much on myself. A whole door of songwriting is unlocked when you remove that. I'm due to give him a huge apology and a massive thank you because he made me change my mindset and go, do you know what: let's just write songs. I’ve just written a song now, which when I went into the studio, I thought sounded like it could be a Little Mix song. But now it could be my third single. As soon as you adapt a song to yourself, production-wise, and get a vibe, then it's fine.
What have you been listening to lately? Was there anything that inspired your new material?
One important song for me was Lorde's Greenlight because it was quite off the cuff and quite left. I think it should have been the biggest song of the year. It’s basically the John Newman formula and that’s what I'd forgotten. It sounds like an absolute party anthem but what she's saying is, 'I just want my things out of my house and I want to let go'. It’s so relatable but covered up so well. That’s what I wanted to do and it’s what I did for a long time but I started forgetting that.
How do you think your sound is evolving? Is there anything different you're doing now to when you first started?
I think it became too much of an attempt at pop music for radio. How it’s evolved now is it’s literally coming from what feels right. That’s the most exciting thing about it: I'm free to make music that I want to make because I've released that pressure.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself as a songwriter since starting out?
Never to put pressure on yourself: it will kill your career. My friend Max Wolfgang is a really big songwriter and we had a session together. We were struggling so we went for a drive around Hampstead, down Bishops Avenue and past all the fancy houses and were saying, 'how do we get a house like this'? We were talking about what’s on the radio and we were like: it’s just got to be so simple. It can’t be overthought, it’s got to come out naturally. That's a big thing I've learned. You listen to Sam Smith and it’s so natural and open with simple hooks. Even Love Me Again, one of my biggest songs, was just me pouring it out; it was such a simple line. Simplicity and no pressure is what I’ve learned.
It’s good to enjoy the ride. Just step back and maintain who you are. Some people hang around with the next hot thing and then they’re not interested. Just keep doing what matters, which is the music. It’s quite an amazing mindset to have. You end up having a better time instead of trying to be liked. I’m liked by my fiancé and my fans and that’s good enough for me.
What's coming up for you next?
Singles, singles, singles. If I want to get to Wembley, I’m going to have to go into a few different corners of the room to get people on-board. The best albums now have great variation so I think that’s the key. Get loads of new people on-board, loads of new fans, get me back in households and release the best music that I can.
Fire In Me is out now on Island Records.