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“What I’m into at the moment”, says Calvin Harris, “is the idea of stadium dance. Playing football stadiums with massive riffs, big hands-in-the-air rave anthems. The whole ‘minimal’ thing has passed, for me.”
A bold ambition, but such boldness is justifiable, coming from a man who ascended from the bedroom to the big time in the blink of an eye. At least, that’s how it appeared from the outside, back there in 2007.
He may have barely turned 23 when he first hit the charts, but Calvin Harris had been making music, legend has it, since the age of 15 on an old Amiga computer in the Scottish town of Dumfries, when he wasn’t stacking shelves at the local Marks & Spencer.
“It seems like I came from nowhere” Harris admits, “but it didn’t feel like that for me. I had a successful record after having lots of unsuccessful records…”
These early recordings, for the benefit of trainspotters, include the single “Da Bongos”/“Brighter Days” under the name Stouffer on the Prima Facie label in 2002, and a track called “Let Me Know” with singer Ayah (on the Unambombers’ Electric Soul 2 compilation) in 2004.
It was when Harris hit upon what would become his trademark sound – irresistibly infectious dance-pop tunes built from juicy staccato synths and squelchy electro basslines – that he caught the public imagination, first with breakthrough anthem “Acceptable In The 80s” (given a release in March 2007 by Sony, who had clocked his growing popularity on Myspace), then the even bigger follow-up “The Girls”, and then his non-stop houseparty of a debut album, I Created Disco.
And that’s where the trouble began. If only he’d slipped a modest ‘Some’ between the third and fourth words of the album’s title, he may have deflected some of the haters. Instead, Calvin’s attempt to bring a little playfulness and wit to the dance music scene was misunderstood as arrogance, and his tall tales of womanising with females of every shape and race and living the high life in Las Vegas were taken literally, despite the fact that they were written in his Scottish shelf-stacking days.
“A lot of people thought I was cocky, but it was just a bunch of songs that were entirely fictional. With songs like ‘The Girls‘, I think people thought I was trying to profess that I was actually doing those things. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case…”
Of course, once Calvin’s career took off, those lyrics became self-fulfilling prophecies. Up to a point. “I’ve never been to Las Vegas! I’ve performed in Miami, that’s as close as I’ve got. The songs were made before I had a recorddeal. I never thought ‘These songs are going to propel me into this stratosphere, by making a song about this…’”
Plenty of people, of course, did get I Created Disco. Over 100,000 in the UK alone, in fact (earning it a gold disc). Among his growing legion of admirers were Dragonette, who recorded a slyly affectionate cover of “The Girls” (“The Boys”), not to mention the scores of imitators who wanted that Calvin Harris sound.
The smart way to get it, of course, was to go straight to the man himself, which is exactly what a certain Antipodean pop goddess did. When Calvin Harris got the call to meet up with Kylie Minogue with a view to a collaboration, he decided to calm his nerves with booze. “That’s when I was in my Jack Daniels phase. I only had a couple. It didn’t work. It just made me a little bit drunk, but equally nervous. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
Two of the Calvin-produced tracks, “Heart Beat Rock” and the single “In My Arms“, made it onto Kylie’s album X. Tantalisingly, several other songs from the sessions remain unreleased. “For a while,” Calvin admits, “I was going to use some of them on my album, but I decided it was probably more trouble than it’s worth. I haven’t reused any of it. It’s old to me now.”
Other artists seeking Calvin’s console wizardry have included Example, The Mitchell Brothers and Sophie Ellis Bextor, as well as “something I’m not allowed to say,” Harris cryptically adds, “…but it’s really good.”
One Calvin-produced track, however, cannot go unmentioned. “Dizzee texted me”, he recalls, “saying he’d done this a capella over someone else’s music, but his verse was too good for their music, so could he do it with me instead?” He laughs at the memory of the Rascal’s cheek. “So I spent a long time on it, to make sure it lived up to his expectations. I sent him the track, and he called me at 2 in the morning to say it was amazing, so I knew it was good.”
Good enough to top the charts for four consecutive weeks and become one of the biggest selling singles of 2008, not to mention Calvin’s first No.1 record. “Dance Wiv Me” came in the middle of a year when he bagan to write the as-yet- untitled successor to I Created Disco. “My second album was supposed to come out in 2008, but I realised I had about a week to do it. So I decided not to do anything.” Rather than rush things, Harris locked himself away, “in the dark in a small purple room for the best part of a year and a half. He has, he says, written over 100 songs for the as-yet-untitled successor to I Created Disco. “Not the words – words are not my strongpoint. Music is. Music comes naturally. And I’m not a natural singer, so I spend a lot of time working out what I can get away with singing over it, without getting into the autotune thing.”
He even considered abdicating vocal duties entirely. “I don’t want to be the front man for much longer. I’d rather be a Groove Armada or a Basement Jaxx, but I
don’t know if that’s an unattainable dream now. I thought about using guest vocalists on all of it, but after sending various tracks to various people I realised people in general are an absolute nightmare, and – usually – if you want something doing properly, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Which, as we’ll shortly hear, is exactly what he did.
Another way in which Calvin has been keeping busy, in breaks from the little purple room, has been by DJing. Harris has been spinning tunes in Hong Kong, Australia, Milan, Belgium, “any countries where we couldn’t take a six-piece band“. It’s proven a valuable experience. “It’s nice to be exposed to dance music, to hear what’s going off in clubs these days.
It has changed his approach to recording. “Now I’ve decided the new one’s going to be a big commercial dance record. By which I mean it’s going to sound commercial, not that I’m expecting it to sell loads of copies.”
The first taster of the updated Calvin Harris sound has done precisely that. “I’m Not Alone”, the new album’s lead single, went straight into the charts at the top – this time, he’s second No.1 record. Harris calls it “a big stadium dance tune, somewhere between Snow Patrol, Faithless and Grandaddy”, but it’s at least twice as good as that description makes it sound.
It begins with Calvin himself, fronting the song alone with the words “Can you stay up for the weekend and blame God for looking old?”, his voice naked and untreated. A brave move. “I had no choice,” he explains. “The only way that was going to work was with a really stark beginning. I had to just go for it.”
In contrast to the hard-partying hedonism and exuberance of Harris’ first burst of fame, “I’m Not Alone” allows hitherto-unfamiliar feelings of vulnerability and introspection to creep in: it deals openly with pain and fear, it ponders “If I see a light flashing, could this mean that I’m coming home/If I see an arm waving, does this mean that I’m not alone?”, and confesses that “I can’t do this any more”.
It’s a fascinating case of mixed messages: expressions of self-doubt set against a monumental rave riff. “The whole track’s a light and shade thing,” Calvin explains, “two styles put together. I find it quite hard to write a happy-happy lyric now, for some reason. I don’t know why that is, to be honest with you. Maybe it’s staying in a room for a huge amount of time on your own, and that’s reflected in the lyrics!”
“I’m sure there’ll be loads of dance forums slating it,” he sighs with easy-going indifference, “but that’s how it goes. People who slag me off, most of them are bedroom producers. If I was still one of them – which I am, but I’ve got records out – I’d be happy for me. But they say my bass drums aren’t good enough, or whatever. It’s so tedious…” Some people, alas, are never happy.
A more straightforwardly upbeat track, and a Future single, is “Ready For The Weekend”, featuring the formidable lungs of Mary Pearce (prolific backing singer for the likes of Beverly Knight, Lionel Richie and Chaka Khan), handbag house piano riffs, and the girl-friendly chorus “I put on my shoes and I’m ready for the weekend”. Says Calvin: “Everyone puts on shoes during the course of a night out. I’m uniting all shoe-wearers. That’s what I’m doing there. It’s the happiest, most joyful song I’ve done so far. It’s got a diva on it, and I’ve always wanted to do a song with a diva. It’s the ultimate dance music cliché, but done in a slightly different way.”
“Relax”, an album track which begins with a mention of “panic attacks” and lines like “the spinning lights make it hard to react” but shifts into the positive with the couplet “It’s for the taking/All these girls are waiting”, has a similarly mixed mood to “I‘m Not Alone“, and – unusually for Calvin – includes acoustic guitars. “I always envisaged it for the last track,” he reveals. “A sunsetty thing.”
“Worst Day”, another of the already-completed songs, appears to be about dysfunctional relationship (“My first mistake was letting you into my life…“), and has something of a N.E.R.D./Outkast sound, Calvin’s vocals sharing time with rapper Izza Kizza (from Timbaland’s Mosley Music stable). Again, it prominently features acoustic guitars, which is guaranteed to mess with many people’s expectations of a Calvin Harris record.
“That’s definitely the idea,” he confirms. “I wanted to make something I would be proud of: ‘This is as good as I can do’. So I don’t just have that one album to my name that I’m not particularly pleased with.”
If it sounds strange to hear Harris distancing himself from a record as successful as I Created Disco, it’s a symptom of his perfectionism. “The last one was done before I was signed, so I cut corners and didn’t work as hard as I should have done. I’m pleased that I managed to record it in the circumstances in which I did it, but if I were to re-record it, it would sound pretty different now.”
Before finalising the album – which remains a work in progress – Calvin intends to road-test it. “I’m kind of halfway through it, but I want to see how things go down live before I put them on the record, which is new for me. Last time I made the songs, and crossed my fingers and hoped that they sounded good when played out. This time I want to do a big record that sounds great live, as well as at home or in your car.”
Already, this album has a greater musical range than its predecessor. “There’s more of a range of songs to this one. The last album, you heard two or three songs and you’d pretty much heard them all. This one’s more varied, and more interesting all round. The first album is almost like a concept album, channelled all in one direction. On this one I’ve used as many instruments as I can get my hands on.”
When pushed for a description of the overall feel and mood, he opts for “Classic dance music in a modern environment”. He explains: “The thing I like about dance music is you can borrow from all different genres of music, all different instruments, and turn it into a dance track. In the first place, dance music seemed so varied to me, as opposed to being limited by a band with guitars, like you get with indie and whatever. I’m trying to make dance tunes that don’t seem like they are dance tunes, but hopefully work. I’m trying to make something that someone either hasn’t heard for ages, or has never heard before. Hopefully the latter.”
“I’m excited for the rest of the album,” he adds. “I can’t wait for it to come out.” He’s not alone.
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