Lewis Capaldi
Pop

How Lewis Capaldi Became An Unlikely Pop Star With 'Someone You Loved'

This June, Lewis Capaldi’s face was plastered along the walls of London’s Underground stations. The ads, promoting his debut album, Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, ­featured an amusingly unflattering photo of the Glasgow-born singer, his head wrapped in a towel, tossing up a peace sign, and read “The ­Scottish Beyoncé on a London Underground billboard. Finally famous.” By that point, he was, at least in Britain: His single “Someone You Loved” had held the top spot of the Official U.K. Singles Chart for seven nonconsecutive weeks.

What Capaldi didn’t realize then was that five months later, he would be pretty famous in the United States, too. “Someone You Loved” -- an anthemic ballad about burning heartbreak -- hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late October and held the top spot for another two weeks in November. (It also reigned for multiple weeks on Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and Radio Songs, and it topped Adult Contemporary for one week.) Yet it was by no means an obvious international hit. It wasn’t propelled to viral popularity through a TikTok clip or meme, it boasted no big-name feature, and Capaldi -- a ginger-haired 23-year-old with no heartthrob aspirations -- was an unknown stateside and, by his own admission, an unlikely pop star.

But to Capaldi’s team, the reason for the song’s success was fairly simple: Its emotional content deeply resonated with a ready and willing audience, thanks in large part to the talent and commitment of the artist himself. “The American public always has had a strong connection to heartbreak songs,” says Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, who led the effort to launch Capaldi in America (along with Virgin EMI/Vertigo in the United Kingdom and Universal Music Group Central Europe). “And it had been a while since a song like this has been as big as this. Lewis did it brilliantly -- and very much in 2019 style.”

Of course, both Capaldi and Barnett had some help. Here’s how one of 2019’s biggest No. 1s came to be.

 

Daniel Lieberberg, president, Sony Music Entertainment, Continental Europe and Africa; formerly of Universal Music Group?I signed a lot of international artists to [UMG’s German sector] because if you want to find international talent in Germany, it’s quite limited. I knew Ryan [Walter, Capaldi’s manager], and he had a new artist, Lewis. I was lucky to be the first person he sent the music to. I spent a week with the demos, and I was so convinced of his vocal ability. We had meetings with Spotify, and we told everyone that Lewis was a real priority. We got huge support from Spotify Germany, which was really instrumental. They pushed him to the rest of the world.

Rosa Asciolla, head of artist and label marketing, North America, Spotify: There was a lot of excitement around Lewis. Globally, he was someone that we wanted to take a chance on in 2017. There was magic in the marriage of his voice and the music and the unassuming pop star [he was]. That was really compelling for us.

Lieberberg: The confidence was there -- his personality, the way he handled social media. When you hear him perform, you can tell that this is somebody who can convey his emotions in a unique way, touching people around the globe.

Frank Briegmann, president/CEO, UMG Central Europe and Deutsche Grammophon: We had a lot of excitement among Capitol, Virgin U.K. and us, and we knew from the beginning that the collaboration would not be a sprint, but a marathon.

Ted Cockle, president, Virgin EMI: There was nothing more than a hunch and a belief that something about the way this chap sang felt a little bit more special than most. People were super conscious not to miss any steps, to make sure that he wasn’t put under any undue pressure to become famous overnight, and we just kept releasing music. The amount of work that was done in 2017 in Glasgow to make sure he was hailed as their man from their city was enormous. He released “Bruises” in May 2017, and that connected [enough] for the streaming partners to take him seriously.

 

Lewis Capaldi, artist/co-writer: I never saw myself as someone who would have a big single. I kind of still don’t. I always saw myself as someone who would make an album -- my goal once things started to kick off a couple of years ago was to get a top 10 album. I didn’t really have any grand plans to take over the singles charts. To be honest, I was shitting myself that the album wasn’t good enough [when I wrote “Someone You Loved”].

Cockle: I don’t recall anybody believing it was going to be as career-defining as [it has become]. But people thought it was a really strong song. It was on-brand for him, and the sentiment of it was great, so it was nicely positioned. The moment we went out with it, it very quickly [got a reaction], and then it did not stop in its growth.

Capaldi: The song came out on a Wednesday [in November 2018]; I played it in Newcastle [England] on Thursday and in Glasgow on Saturday and Sunday. It only had been out for a day when I was in Newcastle, and people were singing every word. That was the moment I was like, “This feels like it could be quite big here.”

Briegmann: It started in Ireland, then made its way through Switzerland and Sweden to Norway before hitting major markets and the big time in the U.K. in December.

Asciolla: This song was one of those rare instances where he built this fan base, he was connecting with his fans. We see these indicators, and we’re like, “Let’s try it.” We put it in Today’s Top Hits in November 2018, and it just activated everyone.

Shayan Asgharnia
Lewis Capaldi photographed on June 11, 2019 at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

Barnett: The first thing we had to do was to get him [stateside]. He played his first show [of 2019] in America in February. That’s when the whole thing started to gear up. April 1, we pushed the button across every single area: Spotify was very helpful, and then traditional radio started to kick in; Pandora was very early; Sirius was very early. But we had to consolidate everything so it was really a combined plan, and that’s what we were able to do.

Briegmann: We shot a video especially for the U.S. market, which had a very positive impact on airplays and streams.

Cockle: In my experience, British acts -- whether it’s Amy Winehouse, Mumford & Sons, Florence + The Machine -- work in America when the excitement and energy from the U.K. is enormous. We’ve always really had to prove our value in the U.K. for [an artist] to arrive in America as a concrete hero. Before the album was out, we were putting on arena shows [in the United Kingdom]. Seven weeks at No. 1, that’s comparable to “Uptown Funk!” and the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.” At that point, Greg [Marella, Capitol Music Group executive vp promotion] and Steve knew they could say to everybody, “We’re coming to you with a song.”

His Irving Plaza show [in New York] on June 4 was proof of the concept for Lewis as an artist in America. It felt like the equivalent of when we reached Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London the year before. We were all sitting there wondering if this humor of his was a transatlantic humor. He did a 10-song set, and [upon] hearing everyone sing back and the room laughing [at his jokes], Steve and I looked at each other and thought, “This can really work.” It was such a crucial baton pass between the U.S. and the U.K. He had some grass-roots support, even if media were unimpressed by this chubby Scottish man that didn’t quite look like John Mayer.

 

Asciolla: [Capaldi] very much has that FaceTimey, selfie-type of vibe going on, whether it’s on his Instagram or his videos. That’s why we thought that it was really important, whenever we had the opportunity, to get him in front of people. When he was in New York, we rented a tour bus for his top fans, and he narrated the history of New York, but in his own Scottish way.

Briegmann: Our biggest asset was Lewis himself. He was on the road tirelessly in the United States. He was down for everything, and in all the madness he never lost his down-to-earthness, humor and cheerfulness.

Capaldi: Getting to meet everybody at radio stations and play shows [in the United States] made a really big difference. Everyone tells you stories of how Ed Sheeran went to every single radio station. I didn’t feel like I had to make these guys want to play my song more -- I was going there to say, “Thank you,” and express some gratitude for playing it so much, and to Spotify and Apple for putting it in so many playlists.

Cockle: Lewis thinks of himself as a lottery winner. He walked into every room in America knowing that he was at the very start. He was happy to show that he wanted to be loved by American people.

Capaldi: We landed in Dallas [in mid-September], and I got a notification from Billboard tagging me: “Lewis Capaldi has his first top 10.” That was the moment I was like, “Oh, fuck -- this is serious.” Then I played the shows, and when it got to “Someone You Loved,” it was just fucking next level. Even then, I was like, “Fucking job done, we can all go home happy.” But everyone else was like, “Oh, no, we keep going now.” I did feel like there was a level up a bit.

Barnett: Lewis was not open to doing any remixes -- he wanted it to be purely authentic, and we supported that. It happened because of the audience, but he was his best advocate. Who possibly other than Lewis would anoint himself “America’s sweetheart”?

Capaldi: I don’t think of myself as a pop star, but I’m a heartthrob for sure. (Laughs.) Right now, I still consider myself to be a one-hit wonder. We’ll see where we go; perhaps I’ll be a flop star. I’m just singing some songs, and if people like to listen to them, that makes me very happy and pleases me -- both emotionally and financially.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.