A semi-finalist on TV talent show. The Voice of Holland. A former soldier. A record-breaking Portuguese with a heart condition. A Ukrainian singing about Stalin’s wartime deportation of 250,000 indigenous Crimean Tatars for alleged Nazi collaboration…
Tonight, in a private members’ club on Shaftesbury Avenue, the UK media and music industries will gather in the hope of answering one simple question. That is — to the disparate ranks of the past four winners of the Eurovision Song Contest, is the UK about to add a burly, tattooed Yorkshireman with a meet-me-at-McDonalds haircut?
More specifically: in Rotterdam in May, will James Newman, a singer and Brit Award-winning songwriter for the likes of Ed Sheeran and Calvin Harris, do what no one has done since Katrina the Waves triumphed in Dublin in 1997? This evening, The Century Club will witness the unveiling of Newman as this year’s UK hopeful, singing a fist-pumping stadium belter called My Last Breath.
“We wanted to create something that sounded like an anthem,” says Crouch End resident Newman of a song with a hearty, singalong, folk-pop chorus worthy of late period One Direction.
“If you can imagine an arena of 20,000 people going ‘woah-oh-oh’, it’ll make everyone feel great — they can all sing it together. We went for that, for the simplicity of the lyric, and the simplicity of the structure of the chorus.”
— BBC Eurovision🇬🇧 (@bbceurovision)February 27, 2020
Eurovision #65, here we come, and this time we mean business, with a song co-written by four British writers who, between them, have crafted hits for the aforesaid 1D, Little Mix, Dua Lipa, the country of Azerbaijan and Newman’s chart-topping brother John.
Clearly, stranger things have happened in a contest where a Finnish heavy metal outfit (take the knee, Lordi) can win. This is especially true when we consider the 21st-century performances of Royaume Uni at the world’s biggest song contest.
We’ve come a long, sad way from the glory years of Sandie Shaw and Puppet on a String (1967), Lulu and Boom-Bang-A-Bang (1969), Brotherhood of Man and Save Your Kisses for Me (1976) and Bucks Fizz and Making Your Mind Up (1981).
In the past 20 years we’ve managed only two Top 10 placings; one entirely nul points ignominy (Jemini in 2003); and three wooden spoons for coming last, most recently in Tel Aviv nine, short painful months ago.
“The result last year, which was disappointing for everyone, gave us a real period of, um, renewal,” says Mel Balac, Creative Director for BBC Studios. “We could build from the experience.”
So, for 2020 the BBC — whose broadcasting rights mean it will decide who represents the UK — has changed the selection criteria. Feeling that the great British public is perhaps slightly deaf when it comes to deciding which songs best represent us against 40-odd other countries, this year the BBC has abandoned the vote favoured in recent years. Instead it invited the professionals at UK record labels to tender for the job of tune selection. BMG, who also have a hugely successful song publishing arm (Lewis Capaldi is one of theirs), submitted the winning bid.
“We started with an approach of just finding a great song,” says Alistair Norbury, BMG UK’s President of Repertoire and Marketing. “And because we have a publishing relationship with James, he was one of the writers we went to in terms of [hiring] the very best of British songwriting.”
Last month the musician participated in an annual creative retreat in the Scottish Highlands with fellow songwriters Ed Drewett, Adam Argyle and Iain James. All have major hit-making CVs. James even has serious Euro form. He co-wrote Running Scared, which won for Azerbaijan in 2011. As Newman told me when we met in a discreet King’s Cross recording studio two days before tonight’s Big Reveal, that triumph resulted in the writer being renamed “Iain Azerbai-James” by his jealous-not-jealous mates.
After a few days hiking in the hills and swimming in a loch, the four writers got down to work. Well, they put the TV on.
“We started watching a documentary about saturation divers,” explains Newman, who won the 2014 Brit Award for British Single of the Year for co-writing Waiting All Night, the hit for Ella Eyre and Hackney ravers Rudimental. “They go down deep to fix oil-rigs.” Huge pressure, then. Which turned out, funnily enough, to be an appropriate creative spur. “A diver got stranded down there, but he got saved. So we came up with the idea of what you’d do for someone you love if you were underwater in the middle of the sea: I’d give you my last breath.”
My Last Breath poured out in three hours. As well as that stompy chorus, it has a message about “standing together, and what people will do for people”.
Obviously, then, it’s a mischievously anti-Brexit Eurovision entry. “It’s nothing to do with Brexit,” Newman replies. “It’s not a political song. Eurovision is not a political competition, it’s a celebration of music and people coming together over something they love.”
Well, he says that… Historically, there have been rumours of bloc voting to make a diplomatic point. Or of certain countries expressing, say, a trade beef by refusing to, as it were, import our pop singers. So, what if the EU 27 vote against this island nation as revenge for the result of the 2016 referendum, leading to us crashing out of Eurovision? “This is a subject that’s been discussed at length,” admits Norbury. “But this is a great European pop record. And we hope that when it’s [played], we break down some of those barriers. But we’re completely aware of the way these voting shows can work.”
All that said: for James Newman, how risky is using Eurovision as the launch pad for a solo career? After all, look what happened to Michael Rice. Who? Exactly. “Not worried,” he shoots back.
What if Europe doesn’t share host Graeme Norton’s patriotic enthusiasm. Not because the song is merde — it certainly isn’t — but because the Disunited Kingdom is punished by peevish Euro-voters since BoJo (allegedly) Got Brexit Done. How would James Newman feel?
“As long as I’ve tried my best and put every last bit into it, I won’t be upset. I’ll have stood on stage in front of millions of people and showed them what I can do. And hopefully that’ll be enough to at least get a few fans. Otherwise I’ll be doing the pubs and clubs again!”
And what about those who say Eurovision is a cheesy relic of a bygone age? “It’s about to change. Watch this space.” My Last Breath? Let’s hold our breath.