BOSTON — Lewis Capaldi is the ugly-cry balladeer of 2019.
Standing onstage recently at the Royale nightclub here, the singer from Glasgow with the rough-edged voice delivered only a few lines of his chart-topping “Someone You Loved” before nearly every member of the capacity crowd took up the song, hungry for the catharsis to be found in bellowing Capaldi’s words about the emotional cost of a loved one’s departure.
“Now the day bleeds / Into nightfall,” hundreds of them roared, all but drowning out the 23-year-old behind the microphone, “And you’re not here / To get me through it all.”
When he finished the stately, methodically paced tune — virtually inescapable on U.S. pop radio over the past few months — Capaldi took a minute to let the energy settle in the room. He seemed to know that he’d unleashed something powerful — that when you close a show like that, people need to reacclimate to the here and now before you disappear from in front of them.
Over breakfast in Boston that morning, he’d said there’s a section in the middle of his live show in which he does three slow songs right in a row; the third, “Headspace,” has a lyric that pleads, “Sing me a song and send me to sleep.”
“And every night I always look around at that point hoping no one heckles me: ‘You’re doing a good job of it!’” mock-hollered the singer, who looks like a slightly doughier Paul McCartney circa “Rubber Soul.” Dressed in a T-shirt and rumpled windbreaker, he ran a hand through his tousled hair and grinned. “I’m like, I need to get Trippie Redd on this just to spice it up.”
An unvarnished confessional with a yearning sing-along melody, “Someone You Loved” spent seven weeks at No. 1 in the U.K. Here, it’s reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, propelled by countless radio spins and more than 750 million streams on YouTube and Spotify — highly unusual numbers for a stripped-down ballad at a moment when the Top 40 is crowded with busy hip-hop tracks by the likes of Post Malone and Travis Scott.
“Look at the records around it on Spotify, globally or in the U.S.,” said Capitol Records Group chairman and CEO Steve Barnett, who traveled to Boston from L.A. to present Capaldi with a plaque commemorating the song’s latest sales achievement. “There’s nothing like it.”
Now “Someone You Loved” — the key track from Capaldi’s debut album, “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent” — is in the running for January’s Grammy Awards, with music-industry insiders speculating about its chances of being nominated for song and record of the year. Capaldi himself is tipped for a best new artist nod.
The Recording Academy, which will announce nominations on Nov. 20, has a proven historical weakness for this type of nakedly sentimental material, particularly when it comes from young Brits with show-stopping voices — see Ed Sheeran, Adele and Sam Smith, all of whom have won song of the year with tunes that might have been composed decades ago. (Worth noting: Barnett ran Columbia Records during Adele’s breakout, then moved to Capitol just in time to shepherd Smith to stardom.)
Yet the ascent of such an old-fashioned tune feels especially remarkable today given how quickly pop has been moving of late; 17-year-old Billie Eilish was virtually unknown when Adele cleaned up at the 2017 Grammys, and now she’s even more of an awards frontrunner than Capaldi is thanks to songs that pull freely from rap.
Like many in his generation, Capaldi, whose aspiring rock star of an older brother led him to start playing music in grade school, was discovered by a manager after he posted homemade recordings online. His meal ticket of an instrument, though, sets him apart as much as his attraction to classic arrangements does. Where artists like Eilish and Khalid do “this super-cool kind of mumbly, vibey thing,” as one of his producers, Malay, put it, Capaldi uses his powerful chest voice to reach the cheap seats. In the weathered grain of his singing — rich with echoes of Otis Redding and Daryl Hall — you can hear a performer capable of turning pain into beauty.
“There’s just not that many people out there who can do that right now,” said Malay, who’s also worked with Smith and Frank Ocean.
What’s striking about “Someone You Loved” — and about the rest of Capaldi’s impressive album, which he made quickly after an early single took off on streaming services — is that his stories often resist the type of emotional grandstanding for which his voice sets you up. Yes, the feelings are big and often raw. But Capaldi describes breakups the way they happen in real life — not necessarily “an explosion of trauma,” he said, but the sad, relatable experience of two people slowly drifting apart.
Indeed, Capaldi is on sufficiently good terms with the ex-girlfriend about whom he wrote most of his songs that, as he worked on them, he’d send them to her to see what she thought.
“She’s one of the only people who could tell me if they felt true or not,” said the singer, who now jokes frequently on social media about his hit-or-miss use of Tinder.
Backstage at the Boston show, which Capaldi’s parents had also flown in for, he faced some more fact-checking from his mom regarding his usefulness as anything but a musician.
“Couldn’t even do a dish,” she said, to which he shot back, “I f— washed dishes!” At that his dad laughed heartily while his mother winced at the F-bomb. “The swearing’s his fault,” she said, gesturing toward her husband. “He thought it was funny when Lewis was young.”
“Get your 8-year-old to say ‘F— off’ in front of your whole family,” Mr. Capaldi advised in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s funny, you’ll see.”
These days the singer’s father isn’t the only one laughing at the foul-mouthed antics that provide an intriguing counterpoint to Capaldi’s ultra-sincere songs. On Instagram he’s become something of a sensation among his nearly 4 million followers with hilarious videos about Noel Gallagher’s harsh opinion of his music and about the time he, uh, clogged a toilet in a Los Angeles hotel room. (“I’ve got someone coming here to put makeup on my face later on,” he says in the clip with perfectly pitched alarm. “I’ve been told it’s a lady.”)
If all the wisecracking seems at odds with his tortured-romantic persona, Capaldi insists it’s no less a product of his real life than his music. The other day his publicist got a call from a reporter who’d heard that he employed a comedy writer, which blew Capaldi’s mind since he doesn’t consider himself all that funny — definitely no funnier than his family or his old pals from home.
“It’s just where I’m from,” he said. “If I’m sat having dinner with my mom and dad, we’re all taking the piss out of each other. It’s how we show affection.”
In 2019, he pointed out, “People like to know where they’re getting their meat and their fruit and their coffee.” It’s the same with pop songs. “You hear something you like, you want to know where it came from.”