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#NextUp: Watch John Newman Discuss + Perform Songs From His Breakthrough Album ‘Tribute’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEOS]

John Newman’s aesthetic is as distinct as his voice. A pompadour with a defiant streak of blonde sits atop his towering physique, which is sleek and tailored in all black. His olive eyes light up at the mention of Motown, which he listened to on countless nights after losing two best friends when he was only 16. From Otis Redding and James Brown to Jackson 5, Michael Jackson and Prince, Newman attributes soul music (and those artists) as his biggest influence, which is evident on his latest release, ‘Tribute.’

“I know when I listen to a song on headphones which studio in Motown it was recorded in due to the drum position and stuff like that,” the 23-year-old, who was exposed to the genre by his mother, tells PopCrush at his #NextUp shoot. “And that’s how much I looked into Motown, because I love the songwriters and [Motown label founder] Berry Gordy — the whole concept of how he made it and what they did in terms of the racial divide and bringing it together and just… making music. “

His ‘Tribute Tree’

Having an ear for nuances and slight variations should come as no surprise. Newman writes, produces, remixes and plays all of his music, which started as a DIY project as a teen when he turned a storage area under his family’s staircase into his own miniature studio. His love for Motown and Northern Soul led to listening to hip-hop moguls Jay Z, Kanye West and Ludacris, as well as U.K. act Dizzy Rascals. [Editor’s note: He gushed and was almost lost for words when we asked him about meeting the mix master and Roots member Questlove.] All of these acts are creatively fused together as a montage at the start of his record, in which Newman vocally lists off all of his inspirations. He deems it his “tribute tree.”

The rest of his album expands off of that, mixing and pulling from dissimilar genres to create a distinctive sound. People will want to compare him to Otis Redding, talk about how he has a soulful, I don’t give a f— vibe like Amy Winehouse or even deem him the male version of Adele. But to him, there’s a major difference between sounding like someone and having an inspiration. He takes all of the references as a compliment, and is well aware that these influences are what let him “express himself” in a way that sets him apart from other current artists. But at the end of the day, he says, “I just want to do my own thing and enjoy it.”

Concept Behind ‘Tribute’

As a concept, ‘Tribute’ could be just that – a reference to all of his inspirations. But lyrically, Newman calls it a “breakup album.” “I was going through a period where I was so happy and then problems came in a relationship. And this is a relationship that was so strong and it kind of blew my mind and I needed to express myself and put that down,” he explains.

“At the start of a relationship, you often find that if both of you are too busy, you kind of get yourselves involved in a certain area or a house or a location of something. In this particular situation, we’d kind of moved in together in this house and everything had become ours in the house. When that goes after some ferocious fight and some mess of a month and you’re kind of left by yourself for nothing, it’s a different world. The song ‘Out of My Head,’ kind of smashes that right down the middle and that was the song I wrote at that time.”

Watch John Newman Perform ‘Out of My Head’ Live in Our Studio

His other hit song, and first U.S. single, is ‘Love Me Again’ — a plea to his loved one to take him back after he does something unforgivable. The lyrics are somber, but the melody gives the listener and protagonist a sense of hope; and the particular percussion has elements of breakbeat and house — which makes you want to you jump up, dance, and declare your love for someone special.

Watch John Newman Perform ‘Love Me Again’ Live in Our Studio

Working With Rudimental

The elements of house and electronic influences are no coincidence. Before Newman worked on his debut album, he had written and voiced two of the biggest dance tracks in the U.K.: Rudimentals’ ‘Feel the Love’ and ‘Not Giving In.’ The pair-up may seem unusual, but Newman confesses that it was “really natural.”

The story is also a bit surreal. He moved to London, worked at a bar and met a girl. That girl ended up being the sister of Piers, one-half of Rudimental. He and Piers were playing and writing music so frequently that he ended up moving in with the family. “I met the rest of the boys and we went in the studio on a Sunday and made a song called ‘Feel the Love’ — just literally having a laugh and having a drink.”

Watch the ‘Feel the Love’ Music Video

Childhood + Now

It seems that everything in his life happens not by chance, but just… organically. Take, for example, his exposure to music. Where he grew up in a tiny town called Settle in North Yorkshire, everyone was a mechanic. Newman was completely unaware that one could make a living off of singing and performing. “In England you get a record of achievement at school and it’s basically you write down what you aim to do and what you’ve achieved. I looked at it [recently] and it said ‘In 15 years, I want to run my own car garage and customize cars,’ and it almost brought a tear to my eye.”

Going to Leeds for a year at 16 to just “try it out” changed his entire perspective: “Once I got there I realized that music was something you could make a job out of and everybody lived their lives off of in the area. I was working in a bar that was playing soul music all of the time. I was going to college and making music. I’d go home and make music with my friends. We’d all get together and go out to nightclubs and listen to music. Music became my life.”

Now with a No. 1 album and a No. 1 single in the U.K., Newman has his eye on establishing himself as an artist, and hopes exposure in the U.S. will get him there. “I want to get rid of that hype [that I’ve been riding off of in U.K.], and I want to become an artist that, I want to release records in the future and [have] people buy them because they’ve bought into me as an artist. I think that’s a really hard job to do.”

Next: See More Artists to Watch in 2014

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