The 23-year-old Brit, whose much-anticipated second album, ''x,'' is out now, talks about inking himself for Bon Iver, emulating Eminem, and why Justin Bieber gets a bad rap
The First Album I Was Obsessed With
The first one I vividly remember is a Van Morrison album called Irish Heartbeat, which he did with the Chieftains. My dad used to play that all the time — this would have been literally from the age of zero. My mom, I think, had one CD, and it was Shania Twain. I don’t know any moms that don’t have the Shania Twain or the Adele CD.
The First Albums I Bought With My Own Money
The Offspring’s Conspiracy of One. I had that and Linkin Park and Green Day and Limp Bizkit, Hoobastank, Hole, Tool. It was very much a peer-group thing at school. When I turned, like, 11, I really started to get into stuff on my own, and I got Damien Rice’s O, and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. That’s when I started playing acoustic guitar and writing songs. There’s only so much a white British guy from a rural countryside town can achieve being a rapper. [Laughs]
The First Song I Ever Performed In Public
”Layla,” by Eric Clapton. I did the Unplugged version. I come from the generation after Unplugged, so the bad ones have kind of been filtered out, but the Clapton, the Lauryn Hill, and the Nirvana one, I’ve got all those, and they’re all great.
The Album That Reminds Me Of My First Love
The first Bon Iver record came out when this girl — the one my whole first album is about — and I first got together, and the second one came out right around the time we broke up. [Frontman] Justin [Vernon] was playing a festival 15 minutes away from my house that my friend was running, and at first I didn’t really want to meet someone whose work has that much relevance in my life. But my friend was like, ”Trust me, he’s a cool dude.” So I went and spoke with him and had a smoke, and he wrote down the lyrics for ”re: stacks,” and I got them tattooed on my arm.
My Favorite Soundtrack
When I saw 8 Mile, that’s when I realized that rap battles exist, and I started looking them up on the Internet. When you can watch people literally make up lyrics on the spot, it makes you try the same sort of thing. For instance, the song ”Give Me Love” — none of that was written down on paper. It was just going in a microphone booth and freestyling. It’s a very different thing from a rap battle, but it’s along the same lines, and it all dates back to watching 8 Mile. You know these Jay Z and Lil Wayne documentaries where they’re not writing anything down? I’ve seen the way they work. They do it faster than I do. [Laughs]
The Songs I Wish I Had Written
There’s one every month, to be honest. This month’s is ”Stay With Me,” by Sam Smith. It’s so simple but so genius at the same time. I’m glad it’s out there and getting a lot of love.
The Song I’m Most Proud Of
”The A Team” opened up every single door for me that needed to be opened. I wrote it in 2009 when I was 18, but it didn’t break until I was 20 or 21, so I performed it for three years to pretty much complete obscurity. I played a lot of R&B clubs and soul gigs and hip-hop nights, and that was the one song they’d like…. [But] if you asked me in 2009 what was my best song, it would have been, like, 15th on the list.
The Music I Love That Might Surprise People
I had all the Slipknot records, and Mudvayne and Mushroomhead. And Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera — Back to Basics, the one with ”Ain’t No Other Man.” Two other records that were quite important in my growth were Revolutionary Vol. 1 and 2 by [Peruvian-born rapper] Immortal Technique. I did a tour as a guitar tech when I was 15 for this folk hip-hop band, and when I left, the lead singer’s gift to me were these two albums. He just said, ”Listen to them both straight through.” They’re aggressive, but very intelligently put together.
My Karaoke Jam
I’ve been to a couple of karaoke nights. I did ”Pony,” the Ginuwine song. That’s a great one.
The Songs I’d Love To Cover
There are many reasons I can’t cover Chris Brown’s ”Loyal,” not least of which is the subject matter and definitely the words used in it. But I think it’s a great, great urban song. I’ve found that about Justin Bieber as well. His last album [Journals] is a fantastic R&B record, and I don’t think anyone really took notice of that. I think that happened with this last One Direction album, too. The song ”Story of My Life” could easily have been sung by a band like Mumford & Sons, but people take it less seriously because of who they are.
My Favorite Love Song
I’d probably just go with a classic like [Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’] ”Up Where We Belong.” That’s another song I remember from my childhood, making me feel warm. Or [Elton John and Kiki Dee’s] ”Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” If I start delving into love songs, we’ll be here all day.
The Song I Want Played At My Funeral
”The Parting Glass,” an Irish folk song I covered on my first record, but the best version of it is by a singer named Cara Dillon, a folksinger from Ireland. It’s basically just a farewell song, and she sings it so perfectly. It’s been in my life in one way or another since I was born. The first lyric is ”Of all the money that ever I had/I’ve spent it in good company/And all the harm that ever I’ve done/Alas, it was to none but me/And all I’ve done for want of wit/To memory now I can’t recall/So fill to me the parting glass/Good night and joy be with you all.” It’s a very nice sentiment, like, ”I’ve f—ed up in life, but I’m off.”