In March 2020, just before the UK went into lockdown, Lewis Capaldi played the biggest gigs of his career, a string of shows around Britain’s arenas. The tickets had sold out in 60 seconds: sometimes demand was such that he ended up playing the country’s biggest venues two nights on the trot. It was supposed to be the crowning glory of an extraordinary 12 months during which Capaldi had rocketed from the ranks of earnest, dressed-down, acoustic-guitar-toting singer-songwriters who had proliferated in the wake of Ed Sheeran’s success – “the ordinary boys”, as this publication called them – to become a huge star.
His single Someone You Loved entered the charts in 29 countries and spent seven weeks at No 1 in Britain. His debut album, Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, became the UK’s biggest-selling album of 2019, a feat it would repeat in 2020. He won two Brits and was nominated for a Grammy, Someone You Loved having also gone to No 1 in the US, making him the first Scottish artist to top the US charts since Sheena Easton in 1981.
I met him in Chicago at the end of 2019, and he talked about what had happened with the forthcoming shows in a tone of disbelief. “I’ve gone from doing two nights at Barrowlands in Glasgow to 4,000 people,” he said, “to two nights at a 16,000-capacity arena.”
The arena gigs did not turn out as expected. Capaldi had panic attacks on stage, an experience he characterised as suddenly “feeling mental” while performing. He started to develop a twitch that, at its mildest, caused his left shoulder to jerk upwards and, at its most extreme, made his whole upper body twist around. It was subsequently diagnosed as Tourette syndrome.
“When I look back on it, it makes sense,” he says now. “I’m like: of course you were terrified – they were the biggest shows of your life. I was seeing how big things had actually become, and I was like: ‘Oh fuck.’ And the first two nights of the shows were at the [Glasgow] Hydro. It doesn’t get more stressful than that: two home town shows to kick the thing off. If you stand in the middle of the Hydro, it’s a fucking coliseum.”
In fairness, Capaldi had regularly talked about experiencing anxiety before, while he was promoting Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, even setting aside a space at his gigs so that others at risk of anxiety or panic attacks could attend in relative comfort. But perhaps it got overlooked, crowded out by the alternately bluff and self-deprecating persona he projects online and on stage – where what he calls his “blether” between songs can last noticeably longer than the songs themselves.
By common consent, he is the most skilled practitioner of social media among modern pop stars, his Instagram and Twitter feeds unfailingly hilarious subversions of the heavily retouched perfection peddled by influencers (recent posts: Capaldi posing coquettishly on a bed with the trophy you get when your single goes to No 1, naked except for a pair of underpants and his socks; Capaldi shovelling pizza and beer into his mouth with the caption “hit 20m streams in less than two weeks on Spotify and also lost my virginity so tonight we celebrate”).
This time, however, the Tourette syndrome made his anxiety visible. He struggled to play guitar. A reviewer at Wembley Arena noticed it – “he is deeply weird, a fidgety misfit” – and so did fans online. The general consensus was that Capaldi was off his head on cocaine. “Someone was tweeting: ‘He was definitely on drugs, the way he was moving and the way he was talking.’ I’m like: I’m already an anxious person. Do you really think I’m going to smash loads of cocaine before I go and stand in front of 12,000 people? This isn’t the fucking 70s. I’m not Tommy Lee. I can’t handle that. And people on cocaine are usually bodily quite chilled. They just chat shit.” He laughs. “I mean, I do that a lot as well.”
He says the announcement of lockdown came as a strange relief. After the arena gigs, he was supposed to tour the US, supporting former One Direction star Niall Horan, then play a series of festivals and he “didn’t want to go”. Instead, he returned to his parents’ home in Bathgate in West Lothian, and started writing songs for his second album, Broken By Desire to Be Heavenly Sent, which is due out next May.
I meet him in an annexe to a plush hotel in Motherwell, where he and his band are already rehearsing the album for the world tour to accompany its release. He is, as he puts it, “cautiously optimistic” about its chances, his mood buoyed up by the fact that the first single from it, Forget Me, entered the charts at No 1.
His star shows little sign of waning: he spent the week before our meeting cutting a distinctive swathe through a succession of high-profile live television appearances, a string of apologies from their hosts for his famously robust language trailing in his wake (Capaldi is, by some distance, rock music’s premier swearer, a state of affairs that, it should be pointed out, has nothing to do with Tourette syndrome). “On The One Show, they apologised for me saying I was ‘chuffed to buggery’ about the single doing well. I didn’t even know that counted as swearing,” he says with a frown. They got off lightly: the last time I interviewed him, he said the word “fuck” 243 times in 90 minutes.
“I do feel pressure, I absolutely feel it,” he says of his return. “I felt it a lot during the recording and writing processes of the album but, at the end of the day, I think I have to just cut myself a bit of slack: all you can do in this situation is write the best songs you can and kind of remember this is supposed to be fun. I know there’s money at stake now and the label are kind of keen to make money off the record, and there’s people who are watching and waiting for this album. Even people who think you’re shite are waiting for it to come out so they can be, like: ‘I fucking told you he was shite all along.’ I’m trying to go easy on myself a little bit with it.”
He is also bullish about the fact that its contents largely fit with the formula that made his debut such a success: Forget Me is upbeat, but for the most part, it deals in big, heart-rending ballads, along the lines of Someone You Loved. “All in all, the album’s the same. I like making this music; it’s done all right in the past,” he says with a shrug.
“I don’t have this sort of artistic desire to go off and reinvent myself. Not at all. I feel like the same person, so why would I be searching for something new? I was very conscious about not writing an album about being famous, being successful. No one wants to hear: ‘Oh, I’m famous and my life’s shit and I’m crying in my big house.’ I don’t want to inflict that on people, especially now, when people are actually going through some real shit: complaining about being famous, ‘Oh, my fucking Bentley has a flat tyre.’
“When I was writing the record, Covid was happening, everyone was in their houses, so my lived experience at that time was the same four walls, with my family, stuck in the same place I grew up – I was quite literally right back where I was on the first record. If anything, getting famous and all the rest of it has made me sort of run back to my home town and my family and friends and stuff, all these sort of grounding things.”
Indeed, Capaldi, 26, looks more or less the same as he did when I met him three years ago: he is a little stockier, his hair is longer, but whatever he has been spending the proceeds from his debut album on, it visibly isn’t a designer makeover. He says his friends are still essentially the same people he hung around with before his success, people who have nothing to do with music: Kyle the joiner, Michael the gravedigger, his flatmate Niall, and Conor, who it turns out is in chart-topping dance duo LF System, but “used to be a roofer”.
When Capaldi’s career started to take off, Sheeran took him aside and offered a succession of dire warnings about fame. “He said: ‘Has your family started getting weird yet? Have there been any sort of fringe members of your family started to get weird with you?’ I said no. And he goes: ‘What about your friends?’ and I said no, and he goes: ‘That’ll happen.’ It was like the most doomsday conversation I’ve ever had in my life. Cheers, Ed – that’s really pepped me up. He said: ‘Fame doesn’t change you; it changes everyone around you.’
“I have experienced that for sure, but it’s obviously not been as intense as it was for him. I’m very suspicious of people anyway. It comes from my father.” He laughs. “My dad hates everyone until they prove themselves: ‘Ah, I like him.’ If I’m going on a date with a wee girl, he’s like: ‘What does she do? Why’s she going out with you?’ He’s very cautious and protective and it’s kind of bled down to me.”
In fact, he says, dating is one area of his life that fame has made a bit weird. He got kicked off Tinder because someone thought he was impersonating Lewis Capaldi. “Yeah, they thought I was catfishing. If I was going to catfish any celebrity, it wouldn’t be me. You can’t get many bites on a Lewis Capaldi Tinder account, and I know that, because I own one. I just try to be as normal as possible with it. Being on Hinge and being on Tinder – a normal 26-year-old guy would be on Hinge. So, for my own sanity, and to meet people, I need to be on these things. But then you have to worry about this sort of power imbalance. I have to assume that most girls my age, in the UK or Scotland at least, have a passing familiarity with who I am, even if they’re not into me, so that makes things weird. It’s an odd dynamic, where they’ll at least have an idea of what I’m like, but I know nothing about them.
“On the other hand, we’ve seen so many men take advantage of their positions of power and their positions of influence. I don’t want to take advantage of my position in that way. I’m happier being used than using someone, do you know what I mean?”
A tight bunch of old friends, aware of his celebrity but unaffected by it: Capaldi seems about as well-adjusted a twentysomething multimillionaire pop star as you could wish to meet. There is just one problem: his Tourette’s is still visibly raging. He thinks he has always had it, but just didn’t realise. “When I was four being tucked into bed, I would ask my mum if she’d locked the door, over and over again. I don’t know what four-year-old is that concerned with home security. But I never used to go to sleep because I was so worried about it. When I was a wee kid, I used to think I was ill all the time. I was convinced I had a brain tumour all my life. When I look back now and see things I did that kind of came and went, I realise they were tics.”
Recently, he has played a few gigs and they went fine; at the moment, interviews seem to bring it on, “which is strange, because before interviews were fine. After we do this, I’ll probably have a lie down in a dark room for 20 minutes, do some breathing and I’ll be grand.” When it is at its worst, he says, it stops him sleeping “and then when I’m tired, it’s worse, and when I’m stressed it’s worse. Sometimes it’s not stress, but the anticipation of something. When I’m doing TV it’s really bad. Waiting to go on, I’ll think: ‘Fuck, I can’t handle this – I need to leave.’ Then I go on and it’s fine. In traffic: fucking awful – it’s the worst. It’s just the fucking maddest thing.”
He has tried everything, to no avail. “I’ve got medical cannabis, sertraline for my anxiety, I’ve done CBIT therapy [Comprehensive Behavioural Intervention for Tics], where they try to change where your tic is to something less invasive or more obstructing. But for me, so far, none of it has worked. I’m still learning a lot about it: I don’t know too much and that’s on me – I need to do my due diligence a bit. But right now, I don’t want to take on too much about it. Because if learning about this fucking thing is going to make me more stressed about it … I mean, I’ll tell you what works – eating well, exercising, therapy, not boozing as much. I need to be mindful of that.
“And, to be fair, I go through phases: I’ll do two months, no booze, eating well, going to the gym and I’ll lose a bit of weight, feel grand and then think: ‘This is boring – I need to blow off some steam.’ So I go out at the weekend, and then the week after, think, ‘I don’t feel like I really got it out of my system’ and have four weeks where I go out every weekend. Which is normal, but for my body, it doesn’t work. What I need to do is find some balance in my life.”
There are moments when he has wondered if he would ever get on stage again – “and I still get that from time to time now. I’ve got two shows in Switzerland the week after next and I’m thinking: ‘Fuck, I hope my twitch just doesn’t kick in.’ It’s always at the back of my thoughts.”
Under the circumstances, it’s hard not to wonder aloud if all this – a new album, the expectations around it, interviews, a world tour – is really the best thing for him. The thing is, he says, he would probably be like this even if he weren’t a pop star. “It’s been a big contributing factor with my anxiety, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the same insecurities, fear of not living up to something, impostor syndrome, which my friends have who work in finance or whatever. So it is to do with success, but you can boil it down to these really human feelings and thoughts.”
Besides, he insists, it is not as if anyone is forcing him. He would have cancelled the US tour in March 2020 even if the pandemic hadn’t happened. If it gets too much, he will do the same thing. “I have no qualms whatsoever about pulling the plug on things like that, and neither does anyone around me. If I’m on stage twitching and having a panic attack, it’s not just a traumatic experience for me – it’s more traumatic for the people around me. So I feel massively supported. I don’t feel obliged to just fucking push through, you know what I mean?”
Lewis Capaldi’s Broken By Desire to Be Heavenly Sent is out on 19 May 2023 on EMI.