Paul Lester unwraps Newton Faulkner: 'I'm never going to be cool'

He's had a platinum album, praise from Jimmy Page and now a Brit nomination, but he's still strangely anonymous. Paul Lester unwraps Newton Faulkner

We were aware from his debut album of mellow funk-lite folk, Handbuilt By Robots, the fourth best-selling LP of 2007, that Newton Faulkner was laidback, but we didn't know he was quite this blasé.

It is 8.55am at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto, Canada, and the singer- songwriter from Reigate in Surrey has just woken up. His nomination at the Brits on Monday in the category of Best British Male Solo Artist barely registers, and he has no idea who he is competing with.

So I tell him he's up against Mika, Mark Ronson, Jamie T and Richard Hawley. He shakes his ginger dreadlocks, rubs his goatee, pulls on his crumpled brown flares, white T-shirt and brown striped shirt, and manages to muster some interest.

"I suspected I'd be nominated," he says, stifling a yawn and preparing to order breakfast. How did it feel when he heard? "Amazing," he says, sounding anything but amazed. "The whole year has been completely insane. I'm kind of getting used to it." What does he think of his rivals? "Wicked. Pretty hardcore. Jamie T's definitely cool. I've got the Mark Ronson album but not the Mika one. I don't need it - I hear it everywhere I go! Even in America."

Apart from in the States and Canada - where he is currently playing to audiences of around 200, armed with just two handcrafted guitars - the casual virtuoso, who provides his own syncopated accompaniment by tapping and patting both strings and soundbox, is everywhere himself: the Mika of rhythmic, acoustic balladry. Even though he was unknown this time a year ago, 2007's breakthrough troubadour sensation has become accustomed, with wry detachment, to wowing big crowds, while his music has achieved daytime radio ubiquity, not to mention platinum sales and the approbation of no less a guitar-wielding authority than Jimmy Page, who invited Faulkner to perform at a garden party last summer.

And yet, perhaps because of his awkward name and the absence of any photographs of him anywhere on his album sleeve (apart from tiny ones on the foldout), he remains strangely anonymous; strange because, beneath the nonchalant exterior, he's quite a character. And Faulkner - a fan of Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and Monty Python, who delights audiences with surreal banter as he tunes his guitar - isn't quite as po-faced as you might expect from his coolly crooned, lilting lullabies about failed ambitions and thwarted desires, clumsiness at sex and social ineptitude (oh, and the one about extraterrestrials).

"How did I get my name?" The artist, born Sam Newton Battenberg Faulkner 22 years ago to a hippy mother and children's author father, considers the question. "No one knows. My dad's side is very Scottish, with lots of lighthouse keepers, but the Battenberg bit is from my mum's side, and it's got something to do with a prince who slept with a chambermaid. But that was a very long time ago." Does he have royal blood? Was Lord Mountbatten close to his family? "Nah. I would have to kill a lot of people to take my place in line for the throne."

Faulkner is no assassin, although he was implicated in an arson incident at his primary school ("There was a small fire - let's leave it at that"). A former pupil of the Italia Conti stage school, he went on to study at Guildford's Academy of Contemporary Music (whose alumni include Amelie Berrabah of Sugababes), where he got a Btec in - wait for it - rock.

"It was mostly playing, with lots of theory, but we didn't have to write essays on Eric Clapton circa Cream or whatever," he says. "That's partly why I was there."

After that came a stint in a Green Day covers band, a far cry from the mellifluous music he currently purveys. "I still rock out now," he insists, unconvincingly. "I give my dreadlocks a good shake. They've got bits of metal in them, you know. It can get quite dangerous."

After a further spell in a local outfit called Half Guy in which the musical prodigy touted a pink guitar, he recorded the songs that would propel him to stardom, albeit of a reluctant, shadowy kind: 2007 saw him win over the demographically crucial (according to the publicity) UK south coast surfing community - like Jack Johnson before him - even though he doesn't surf, reach No 1 in the album charts and eclipse allcomers in the singer-songwriter stakes. He even got a bigger standing ovation than Chris Martin or Lily Allen at Jo Whiley's Mencap show.

Not surprisingly, mention of his soul-baring peers, James Morrison and Paolo Nuttini, with whom he's toured, hardly boils his blood like it would with some. Nevertheless, he would rather listen to what he calls "strange guitary things"- idiosyncratic players such as Django Reinhardt, for example, whom he considers "an absolute genius", or Leo Kottke. Of the musicians he's been compared to - and they have been varied and numerous, from Paul Simon to Joan Armatrading - the one he's most pleased with is Bill Withers.

How good a guitarist is he, then? He's been lauded for his complex finger-picking and virtuoso pyrotechnics. "What an amazing phrase!" he almost gasps. "I can do that stuff, but I still have lessons. My teacher is really frustrating because he can do everything." So what does he bring to the table? "I try and combine elements of all the greats," he says. "Singing, playing ... Jeff Buckley was the last guy who did that."

That momentary burst of hubris aside, Faulkner, who sings on his album of being neither cutting-edge nor cool, is relentlessly unassuming and modest, well-spoken and polite. Does he not feel obliged to be a bit more rock'n'roll? A bit of rampant egomania would be nice ...

"I think that stuff might be in decline," he says, not offended. "Daniel Johnston, now he's a proper nutter," he adds unexpectedly. "He's brilliant, really sweet, and touches on the romantic notion of the crazy, depressed artist. But I'm not tortured. Or if I am, I do it secretly. Really quietly. I hide it in really happy songs."

What he is, is self-deprecating: "I need something to believe in because I don't believe myself," as he sings. But is this just a technique he uses to meet women?

"That's why music exists, isn't it?" he replies. "To get laid."

However, Faulkner, who is so into performing that he recently played a gig in a hot air balloon above the Swiss Alps, is not in it for the shagging or the drugging. He really is the quintessence of that cliche about doing what he wants and if anyone else likes it, it's a bonus.

"I never intended to be successful," he concludes, looking forward to watching Planet of the Apes on TV. "I like gigging and playing and writing, and I still want to be doing all three in 50 years' time. But I didn't set out to have major commercial success, and I certainly won't be disappointed if I don't win a Brit."

Well, the Brits are hardly the key signifiers of cutting-edge and cool, are they? "I'm never going to be either, am I?" he laughs. "It's not part of what I do. Come on, ginger dreadlocks? Do they make you cutting edge and cool?"

· Hand Built by Robots is out now on RCA


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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