Calvin Harris may never sing lead again.
“It’s a shame, in a way,” the Scottish-born producer/singer/songwriter says, calling in after DJ’ing to a jam-packed crowd at Chile’s Lollapalooza as his biggest solo hit to date, “Feel So Close,” climbs the Billboard Hot 100. (The single rises 14-13 this week, its ninth on the chart, and has sold more than 500,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) “Now America seems to like the song, and I’m getting offered things like ‘Letterman’ or whatever. Two years ago I would’ve been there in a shot, but now I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the man in the front with a microphone.”
Even in today’s explosive electronic dance music (EDM) scene, with cult favorites becoming superstars ( David Guetta, Skrillex, Deadmau5) and emerging producers becoming arena headliners ( Avicii, Swedish House Mafia), Harris’ ascent is unique.
A vocalist-cum-producer, Harris first made noise with his 2007 Columbia U.K. debut, “I Created Disco,” on which he sang lead on self-produced electro-dance cuts like “The Girls” and “Acceptable in the 80s.” The cover of the album was featured as part of a multicolored 2008 iPod nano campaign on TV and in print in the United States. The project shifted 250,000 copies in the United Kingdom, according to the Official Charts Co. That success secured him touring slots with fellow electronic acts Faithless and Groove Armada, led to studio time with artists like Kylie Minogue (“In My Arms”) and Dizzee Rascal (“Dance Wiv Me”) and, eventually, a U.S. deal with Ultra Records.
His first Ultra release, 2009’s “Ready for the Weekend,” yielded the Dance Airplay chart hits “I’m Not Alone” and the title track (Nos. 23 and 15, respectively), but didn’t quite match the same commercial success stateside as his debut — “Ready for the Weekend” has sold 16,000 copies domestically, according to Nielsen SoundScan, compared with 18,000 for “I Created Disco.” He spent the coming year handling a handful of remixes for the likes of the Ting Tings (“Great DJ”), Shakira (“She Wolf”) and Katy Perry (“Waking Up in Vegas”), touring as a solo artist and building a reputation in the EDM scene as an electro-pop production whiz.
But shortly after his “Ready for the Weekend” tour wrapped in mid-2010, Harris found himself at a crossroads-should he pursue his still-burgeoning career as a vocalist, or take his talents to other artists as a producer? “I want each track to be as good as it can possibly be, and that usually means me not singing on it,” Harris says. “I thought I’d exhausted every avenue [on the two albums] and it takes a long time to make me sound good, which is why I stopped singing live as well. I’d like to think of someone who’s better-looking, a better singer, better dancer to be the frontperson for the song.”
Mark Gillespie, a founding partner of dance-artist management company Three Six Zero Group and Harris’ manager since 2006, says, “Everything he’s ever done has always been a minute ahead of its time.”
That all changed in late 2010 when Harris accepted an offer to tour Australia with Rihanna, a deal struck between Gillespie and Roc Nation co-founder/president Jay Brown that eventually led to a formal partnership between the two companies in January 2011. Before heading out on the road, Brown pushed Harris to bring his “best beats,” as Harris remembers it, to his client Rihanna.
“It took me about eight months to get it together and give her something that was good enough,” Harris says, but when he did present it to her, while Rihanna was on the road wrapping her 2011 Loud tour, Harris was suddenly at the right place at the right time. The song was Rihanna’s smash “We Found Love,” which Harris wrote and produced. (He receives sole credit.) It appeared on Rihanna’s “Talk That Talk” and spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 on its way to selling 4.2 million downloads so far (according to SoundScan) and becoming Rihanna’s biggest chart hit to date. Another Harris collaboration, “Where Have You Been,” will be “Talk That Talk’s” fifth single.
Much like “We Found Love,” “Feel So Close” showcases Harris’ skills as a topline writer and producer-making him a one-stop shop. Ultra Records founder Patrick Moxey likens Harris’ talents to those of Pharrell Williams, whose band N*E*R*D he signed to Virgin Records in 2001.
“There are a lot of guys we work with in dance and electronic music where if you try to make their stuff pop or cross to the mainstream it just sounds wrong and contrived,” Moxey says. “But Calvin effortlessly makes records with credibility that are embraced by all kinds of people. He’s just got a natural feel of the organic sense of making feel-good, successful records.”
Riding the momentum from “We Found Love,” Ultra launched its campaign for “Feel So Close,” which had been available digitally since August 2011, on Jan. 1. The strategy was helmed by Moxey and Richard Palmese, a veteran marketing executive at RCA and Arista (now a consultant for Front Line, whose parent company Live Nation also owns Roc Nation), and centered on a major artist-integration program with Clear Channel that featured Harris talking about the song in custom spots. The spots aired on 104 mainstream and rhythmic top 40 stations from March 4-18.
“Calvin wasn’t here to do television to do ‘GMA’ or make an appearance on ‘Glee’ or something, so one of our concerns was we needed to identify the song to Calvin,” Palmese says. The campaign delivered close to 15,000 spots and 51 million on-air impressions, according to Clear Channel national programming platforms president Tom Poleman, which helped yield a major sales spike from No. 54 to No. 13 on Hot Digital Songs during the course of its two-week run.
“What’s interesting was that people started to respond not to just the song but to Calvin Harris,” Poleman says. “It was really instrumental in putting that face to the music.”
Still, after singing lead on every track of his first two albums, Harris is happy to leave the vocal duties to a growing roster of superstar guests for his upcoming third album, tentatively slated for a late summer release on Ultra. But his newfound credibility as a solo artist could also turn him into a superstar producer/DJ on par with Guetta.
“Calvin can make hits either way,” Moxey says. “It was very exciting to have a record with his voice on it, but it’s also equally exciting to hear him working with Ne-Yo or the other records he’s making for this album.”
Though Poleman thinks “Feel So Close” could climb well into the summer, videos for Harris’ upcoming single “Let’s Go,” featuring Ne-Yo (out April 30), are already logging hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Harris says he’s “two-thirds” complete with the new album, and hints that there are at least three more single-worthy tracks featuring “some of my ultimate pop star idols,” none of whom he would confirm.
Harris also recently collaborated with Cheryl Cole and Scissor Sisters on tracks for their respective next albums. In addition, rumored ex-flame Ke$ha reportedly has several Harris-helmed tracks on her upcoming third LP, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Guy Berryman reportedly tapped him for a new single.
How Harris’ next album is distributed remains a question mark-Sony is prepping a global push through Columbia U.K. (where Harris also has an A&R role through his Fly Eye imprint), but Ultra is expected to play a key role in the U.S. rollout.
“They get what we do,” Gillespie says of Ultra. “As far as electronic independent labels go they’re probably the best in the world.”
But one thing isn’t up for debate. Singing or not, Harris will tour the festival circuit well into the summer beginning with a high-profile slot at Coachella on April 15 and 22, and continuing with gigs at Apache Pass in Austin (April 27), Elements Music Festival in Edmonton, Alberta (April 28) and Landstreffet in Norway (May 5). He’ll also make a few stateside appearances at the VIP grand opening of Atlantic City, N.J.’s new Revel Casino (May 19), Electric Daisy New York (May 20) and WIOQ Philadelphia’s Springle Ball on May 22, and he was just announced as a featured DJ at Lollapalooza in August.
Perhaps most notably, he’s the top-billed DJ at iHeartRadio’s first Ultimate Pool Party at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel (June 29-30), which should further boost his name recognition among pop audiences on a bill that includes Enrique Iglesias, Maroon 5 and Flo Rida. He’ll also make frequent trips in between gigs to Las Vegas, where he’s scheduled to play 30 dates throughout 2012 as part of his ongoing residencies at nightclubs XS and Surrender. Beyond that, plans for a proper headlining tour are on hold until at least the fall as Harris’ recording schedule shows no signs of letting up.
But even as Harris finds himself at the forefront of today’s pop-meets-EDM moment-with Nicki Minaj packing her new release Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded with several Ibiza-worthy singles from producers like RedOne, and Poleman pointing to Usher’s upcoming work with Swedish House Mafia as potentially massive-he aspires to be less David Guetta and more Norman Cook. Best-known as Fatboy Slim, Cook can still jump from projects with collaborators like David Byrne to spinning for massive crowds at electronic music festivals nearly 15 years after his “Rockefeller Skank” heyday.
“Nobody knew what he looked like, but every song kind of sounded different,” Harris says of Cook. “He made this kind of catchy dance music where there was vocals in it, it wasn’t all instrumental and still had an identity. There just wasn’t necessarily a human face that you attached to it.”