Metro Weekly

Interview: Calum Scott is On the Rise

Seven years ago, Calum Scott shot to fame on 'Britain's Got Talent.' He soars even higher with his new album 'Bridges.'

Calum Scott -- Photo: Tom Cockram
Calum Scott — Photo: Tom Cockram

Calum Scott’s new, second album Bridges was shaping up to get slapped with a “Warning: Explicit Content” label.

The trigger was “Last Tears,” arguably the most distinctive-sounding song on the album, one that, as Scott puts it, “It’s kind of got a different style to where I would normally go, but it’s cool and it explores a different side of me.”

The explicit issue, however, had nothing to do with the song’s particular style or sound.

“I’m messed up, can’t sleep now,” Scott sings early on in the song. Originally, Scott says, “there was a particular swear word in there. And when I spoke to the label, I was like, ‘I really want to have that in there because it really describes where I’m at.'” But to leave the swear word in would force the issue of a warning sticker, his label managers told him.

Ultimately, Scott decided against swearing.

“It was a very easy fix, and it still gives the wealth of strength to the song,” he explains. When asked the particular swear word, Scott replies in as wholesome a way as you’d expect, “I don’t know if I can say it. It’s the ‘f word.'”

Toward the end of “Last Tears,” Scott sings, “You’re messed up, I see that now.” Originally, he sang “fucked” in place of “messed.”

“It’s nice sometimes to get that frustration out in songwriting, but I’m not an artist that’s explicit,” he says. “I thought it’s probably not going to do me any favors, so we might as well [change it]. Live, I might sneak that word back in. Let’s see.”

It’s been seven years now since Scott first came to attention as a finalist on Britain’s Got Talent, where he introduced to the world his remarkable and astonishing, slowed-down, same-gendered take on Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” That cover would go on to become a worldwide hit for Scott, which he followed up with a well-received debut album, Only Human, and a subsequent world tour.

Even before the pandemic hit, the 33-year-old struggled with putting together his sophomore album, for a multitude of reasons. Accepting the invitation to perform at the Capital Pride festival in 2019 turned out to be a nice reprieve from all of that, it becomes obvious in hindsight. Now, Scott is gearing up for his second world headlining tour, including a stop at the Historic Sixth and I Synagogue on Thursday, Aug. 18, in support of Bridges, which was released mid-June, and included the singles “Biblical” and “Rise.”

Intriguingly, listening to “Boys in the Street” — the powerful latest single released with an even more powerful black-and-white video by Jackson Ducasse — you’d be forgiven for thinking the song continues and deepens his coming out story, first shared in the moving, affirming “No Matter What.”

“I have told my story about when I was abandoned as a kid by all my friends for telling them I was gay, but my mum was amazing about it, so I think that’s the natural assumption,” he says. In fact, it’s a cover of a song written by Scottish artist Greg Holden, one that Scott was introduced to when he was working on his first album. But he wasn’t quite ready to tackle this “beautifully, tragically told story” at that point. He almost put it aside again after struggling with his take until he realized the way to make it work was “to do what I did with ‘Dancing On My Own,’ and just sort of interpret it my own way, and do what I do with everything, which is ‘balladize’ it, where I basically take a song and just ballad the hell out of it.”

Scott considers “it one of the standout songs” on the album, “not only for what it can do for…people who’ve experienced it, but also for people who will just sit there and go, ‘My God, I can’t believe that’s what you have to go through.’ It inspires that compassion from people who don’t have any links to the community. And also, just acceptance in general. Acceptance from your parents, in general; acceptance from others, in general.”

After he’s assured that the song is all but certain to leave practically everyone who hears and feels it in tears at the end, Scott can’t help but chuckle. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I do, isn’t it?”

One might even go out on a cautionary limb to assert he’s a fucking expert at it.

Calum Scott -- Photo: Tom Cockram
Calum Scott — Photo: Tom Cockram

METRO WEEKLY: We last spoke in advance of your performance at the Capital Pride festival in 2019. Which feels a lot longer than three years ago.

CALUM SCOTT: Oh, my God. Yeah, it feels like ten!

MW: How are you in general? How are things?

SCOTT: Good, man. Obviously, the second album’s out now, and the world tour is announced. There’s definitely lots to look forward to, lots to be apprehensive about. As we get closer to the world tour, I’m more and more nervous about delivering these songs, because it’s been a while. It’s been a minute since my world tour in 2018. But I’m sure as soon as I get into the swing of it again, I’ll be fine. I always appreciate the fact that I’ve got nerves still, because it just shows how much I care. So I feel very mixed emotions.

It’s one of those situations where, if you go back to 2014, I was sort of doing music on the side, but was working in a 9-to-5 job and dreamt of doing what I do now. So I would get mad at myself if I suddenly started going, “Oh this is boring,” or “This is losing the magic.” Luckily, there’s never really been a day where I’ve looked back.

MW: Have you been able to perform live at all during the pandemic?

SCOTT: Yeah, I did a brief two-and-a-half week period in America, touring with The Script on the U.S. leg of their world tour, just because of my relationship with [The Script’s lead singer Danny O’Donoghue]. I wrote “Bridges” with him, the title track. And I saw that they had confirmed their UK support artist. So I texted him and said, “You’ve got to bring me into this American run, Danny.” And then I got a text the next day from my agent, “Do you want to support The Script in America?” So I did that at the beginning of this year, and it was amazing going back out, playing venues again.

I’ve done odd shows here and there since the lockdowns especially, but that was the most consistent tour I’d done since my own tour. And it was amazing. I was very lucky, I had a standing ovation almost every night, and a ton more [new] fans come through. It was such a big honor to support a band that I listened to growing up, but then to have fans already in the room and people traveling for hours, telling me that they came to see me. It was lovely.

But there’s nothing quite like having a room full of people that are there to see you. That’s what I’m really excited about, and going to all these different states in America, then all the countries across UK and Europe, and then into Asia, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, all those places. It’s just going to be so incredible. I’m an emotional guy. I don’t think I’m any less emotional than the last time we spoke, so all these things are quite overwhelming for me. Having that kind of support there, and having those members there. It’s very overwhelming.

MW: You mentioned the pandemic, and I was wondering how you weathered that personally as well as professionally. And as far as your music goes, I know it helped inform your second album, broadly speaking, but were any of the songs or lyrics inspired by or in response to the pandemic?

SCOTT: Well, we’d written a lot of the album in 2019, and even that carried its own challenges. Having that kind of tranquility to [work on] an album, I’d not [had] before. Even before I was signed, when I was on my Britain’s Got Talent journey and all that kind of stuff, since I started releasing my own music, I had been darting around all over the place.

Come 2019, when I’d finished my world tour, the label was like, “Why don’t you just start work on the next album? You’ve got all this time now. It’s the end of the campaign, the album’s done incredibly well and you’ve done your world tour. Now’s the time to go away and write an album.”

And that was lovely for a little while. And then my brain went into that sort of, “How come I’m not going out to do a show? How come I’m not going out to do a promo? How come I’m not doing festivals?” It was just peace and quiet that I was not used to. I was second-guessing myself a lot, I was being more critical of my music, and less in the moment, and over-analyzing, and all that kind of stuff. That was tough, but then I got through that period and wrote some really beautiful songs.

And then at the top of 2020, I was like, “Right, two more weeks in L.A., two more weeks in Nashville, and we’re done.” We had a big bulk of the songs by then. And I’d gone to L.A., I’d spent two days there, and then President Trump, at the time, was talking about closing the borders. So I wanted to go back home so I was closer to family in Yorkshire, because it just seemed so terrifying, what was happening. Which meant that then I was on my own in isolation.

Calum Scott -- Photo: Tom Cockram
Calum Scott — Photo: Tom Cockram

MW: Was that tough?

SCOTT: That was tough. I think that was probably the downfall of the motivation for the second album. I just lost all my inspiration, all that momentum I built up to write the album, it just disappeared. Because I just thought, “There’s so much more going on in the world now than me writing an album.” All’s I could see was the death toll going up, and people losing their jobs and their livelihoods and businesses. I just thought that was not the right time for me to be sitting writing an album.

So I turned my back on it a little bit. Because obviously, we didn’t know when [the pandemic] was going to end. It was a scary time, and I don’t complain too much. I know a lot of people lost more than I did, but it was tough.

My mental health took a big dip, and I started ripping up some of the songs that I’d been writing for the second album. “People won’t wanna listen to this. People won’t wanna listen to that. Nobody’s going to wanna listen to me when I come back. Are we ever going to come back? Will we ever perform in venues again?” All those kinds of questions. I was just really demotivated. And luckily I’d stayed close with one of my good friends and writers, who I wrote with on “You’re The Reason,” and then “Biblical,” “Run With Me,” “Half A Man,” and “Bridges” off the second album. Jon Maguire is his name.

He reached out to me on FaceTime, and he said, “Look, I know you’re down. I can see it written all over your face.” He was like, “Just do me a favor. I know you don’t want to be singing right now, but just listen to this project, one I’ve been working on with James Bay and a couple of other guys. I think you’ll really love it.” And I put it on and I just heard those lyrics, “I want to have it all with you.” And that was just what I needed to hear in a time where I’d been weeks on my own, not seeing family and friends, not knowing when I was going to see them again. And missing fans as well.

As an artist, your fans and going to do live shows and stuff, like that is your barometer really, of, “Are you doing the right thing? Are there people who like what you do still?” With that being taken away, that’s kind of what made it even harder. [But] I’d heard this song [“Biblical”] and totally fell in love with the lyric.

So I jumped on and started helping them finish the song on Zoom. Which, I wasn’t a huge fan of, because I’m just a people person. Trying to talk over Zoom is sometimes the most difficult thing in the world. When the lag’s there, and you’re like, “Oh, oh, sorry.” “No, you go.” “Oh, oh sorry.” And it’s a horrible, awkward lag. Imagine trying to do something creative and emotional with instruments that way. It’s just so terrible, in my experience.

But we managed to do it, and we wrote that song and that started the engines again. I started doing regular meetings with my label on Zoom, and we started picking songs that we felt were strong for the album.

And then [in] the next chapter of lockdown, when I was just feeling so frustrated and I was beyond the emotion of that, I was just fed up and angry. I was like, “I don’t even know if what I’m doing is right, I just want to get back out there and do it.” And that’s what inspired “Rise” — “‘Cause I’ve got my best suit on, and I’m ready.” So then we managed to finish the album in lockdown. Those two specific songs, “Biblical” and “Rise,” were written in lockdown, the rest were finessed and finalized during lockdown.

MW: “Rise” may just be my favorite song from you so far. It is timeless-sounding. I particularly love the word-painting that you do with the song, with the lyrics expressing exactly what is also happening musically, with your voice and instrumentation, all of it, constantly on the rise.

SCOTT: There are some songs that I’ve written on this album that are a little bit more poetic and a little bit more beautiful. Like in “Run With Me,” — “We’ll build, we will build a home, and we’ll watch all the flowers grow, until our bones, until our bones can’t hold.” I think that’s a gorgeous way of saying, “I want to be with you for the rest of my life.” But then you’ve also got songs like “The Way You Loved Me,” which is — “I love the way you loved me, I hate the way you don’t” — very literal, very on the nose, very conversational.

I tried to demonstrate on this album that I’ve developed as an artist, and I didn’t want to take that to where it’s like I’m so hellbent on showing people I’ve developed that I’ll change who I am or how I write. It was more sort of learning and developing and growing from my experiences.

I believe in myself more on the second album. On the first album, even though I took it really seriously and I believed that I was a professional back then, I still think I didn’t believe in myself enough. I had a lot of imposter syndrome. My life had changed overnight when I’d really started on my own as a singer, and after that we had “You Are The Reason,” and that was taking me across the world and all. My life had gone from human resources officer to international recording artist, and that was really hard to adjust to, and really hard to believe, I think, for a while.

And then when making the second album, and I had those worries and concerns to overcome, I realized, “Actually, I’m stronger than I think I am, and I should probably give myself more credit, be less hard on myself, and just have a little bit more self-belief.” I was giving myself a little bit more room to grow, really.

I felt like I was earning it a little bit more. And I thought, “If this is the only other album I ever write, I need it to be the best I’ve ever done.” And I feel like that kind of confidence and hope made the album what it is. I kept saying to the label, “I’ve never felt more Calum Scott than I do these days.” And I mean that more as an artist, as a person, as a human being, as a gay man, as a son. I just feel more than I’ve ever felt before, if that makes sense.

MW: When I interviewed you three years ago, you said, about people attending a concert of yours, there’s an 85 to 90 percent success rate that they’ll be in tears at some point of the evening.

SCOTT: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s not really changed. It’s one of those things where I’ve just kind of accepted that I’m not your Justin Bieber, your Billie Eilish kind of cool artist. I’m somebody who’s going to make you cry, essentially.

MW: Yeah, but happy tears.

SCOTT: Yeah, exactly. And even when it’s not happy tears, even when it’s painful and could bring back pretty heavy memories, like with the title song, “Bridges,” that’s about a time when I was in a really low spot in my life. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell, but never really had the bravery of being able to tell it. I just look at how the first album [affected] people and how people will message me, even these days, hundreds of messages a day, just saying how much my music helps them, or used it in their videos or their wedding songs or whatever. And I just think that kind of pushed me to put a song like “Bridges” on there, because I was proper to’ing and fro’ing about “Am I giving too much of myself away here? This is a time when I felt suicidal. Is that really something that I want to be sharing with people?”

Seeing how the songs had resonated with people before, especially “No Matter What,” or “You Are The Reason” and “Only You,” and some of the personal songs in the album, it just made sense. I just thought, “I have to be personal. I’ve almost got a duty now to carry on writing these songs, because some people need it.” And music’s not only just to be enjoyed casually in the background or at a festival or in terms of feel-good. Music has a place to heal people as well. I feel like that’s why I went back to the tear-inducing songs. It was just because they feel natural to write, and they’re kind of the songs that my heart desires.

And I just think that makes this career so enjoyable for me, because I get to do something I love, and I get to write about things that really mean something, so when I sing them, you can see that a mile off. Because the worst thing ever is singing songs that you end up getting sick of. Luckily that’s never happened to any of the songs I’ve written so far.

Calum Scott -- Photo: Tom Cockram
Calum Scott — Photo: Tom Cockram

MW: I know that mental health awareness is important to you in addition to LGBTQ advocacy. I assume that was true before, but probably strengthened as a result of the pandemic.

SCOTT: I’ve always struggled with my mental health, and that’s partly due to me suppressing my sexuality when I was younger, after the experience of losing my friends after telling them I was gay. I’d faced a lot and that had affected me.

And as you know, I’m a very sensitive, emotional boy, and these things get to me. And after the story that I tell in “Bridges” — it had happened when I was younger, in my early twenties — I vowed to myself to go and get help and to not stop until I never felt that way again.

And so I went to see a therapist and started having regular sessions. And just the benefit of speaking to somebody impartial who could help you see things in a slightly different way, in a slightly more positive way to recontextualize where you are, just to help you break down your own boundaries that’s preventing you from growing and leading a happier life. Just knowing the power that that has, I’ve always been an advocate for mental health.

And then as an artist, that’s given me a platform to be able to intensify that advocacy. I just think it’s so important, those two things that I care deeply about. You’ve got your LGBTQ+ community — I talk openly about what I faced and the challenges, and all that kind of stuff, which really resonates with the community. And mental health as a topic, it impacts everybody within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community. You only have to look at the news, the statistics, and figures on mental health.

It hurts me to know that people feel so down, because all I’ve ever wanted to do is help people. And you can see that through what I do with my music, what I do with my platforms and my influence. So it’s always been quite close to my heart, and I think in lockdown, in some ways I kind of punished myself, and my mental health took a bit of a downwards turn, but people were also looking to me to make themselves feel better. So I had to get back on top and set an example.

Calum Scott -- Photo: Tom Cockram
Calum Scott — Photo: Tom Cockram

MW: I know you feel pressure to be a role model or a good influence, but I’m sure there are certain times or topics where you feel, “I’d rather not put myself out there about this.” There are certain things that we all do or think that we don’t want the world, or even our friends necessarily, to know about. I’m assuming you have those kinds of struggles, too.

SCOTT: Yeah, of course. Like I said, with “Bridges,” the title track, that topic of conversation hasn’t come up with many of my close friends. It’s something that I was worried about with the stigma of, “Would it make me look weak? Would people think differently of me for thinking that way, for thinking that dark? Would I ever recover from it?” All that kind of stuff. And I think that’s why I put the song out there. It’s because I needed to hear a song like that back then, to not feel embarrassed or ashamed. Because that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to take away that stigma of mental health, as a whole, anyway, and just encourage more people to talk more often and to do what they need to do in order to have better mental health. Because the time we’ve got on this planet is so small. It’s like, you don’t want to spend all of it sad or doubtful or anxious.

The good thing is that there’s a lot more hope on this album than the last album. I want to be a beacon of hope to people. Through [sharing] my own experiences, I want to help people. That’s what I always want to do with music. I wanted to be a counselor at one point, a therapist, and to help people who were at a low point and make them feel better. And music is giving me that, tenfold.

But all that being said, I struggle with putting that weight on my shoulder. And I struggle with people looking to me for the answers because I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I probably don’t have any answers. All I’ve got is experience and a little bit of wisdom and the will and the need to want to help people, whichever way that comes in. That can be a huge responsibility.

Sometimes I’ll get people in my DM saying something like, “I’m 14, and because of where I live and my community, I’m never going to be able to be openly who I want to be. What do I do in that situation?” And it’s tough because, as much as I want to help people, I also feel the pressure of being that role model and being that shoulder for people to cry on. And I take that responsibility very seriously, and do as much as I can with it.

But to answer your question, yeah, I’m a human being at the end of the day. I feel that pressure just like anybody else would, but all I can do is what I’ve been doing and continue to do — raise, whether it be awareness or money or whatever, all I can, to help causes, charities, and organizations that are able to genuinely help people, and to be part of a bigger thing than myself.

MW: When it comes to LGBTQ rights, in the U.S. we’ve encountered a huge backlash from conservatives trying to chip away at the progress we’ve made politically and culturally over the past decade especially. Are there similar kinds of pushback going on over in the UK? Do you speak out or get involved in any way in those kinds of things?

SCOTT: I always struggle with current affairs, politics, all that kind of stuff. I heard a quote the other day: “My mother told me never to talk about religion or politics in company that you like.” It’s one of those situations that can be so divisive, and people have different opinions and beliefs. People are entitled to their opinions, but I think for me to comment on them, I’m just an artist, I’m just somebody who tries to make good with what I’ve been given. So I’m in no position to comment on the political situation or anything like that. My heart goes out to people that are affected by it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that happen, whether it be here or overseas, that have shocked me. Whether I agree or disagree with it, I think the wrong thing for me to do at this point, in my personal opinion, is for me to go on and tell what I think about it, because I’m so conscious of my following being very diverse, in terms of what they believe in and all that kind of stuff. And I just don’t want to upset anybody.

So unless I feel incredibly strongly about something, and I feel educated enough, I just keep my opinions to myself. It’s terrifying how people will take what you say online as gospel in some situations, and I just don’t want to add to any confusion. So if there’s something that I don’t feel well-educated on or well-versed in, then I just go to the studio and try and make use of it that way.

MW: If you really break it down, you’re much more focused on helping the person, and looking to psychology and the psychological aspects, and not society, or the sociological or cultural developments that can weigh on a person. It all starts from within.

SCOTT: I feel like that’s a much fairer and a much clearer way to say it than I did. I think what I try and do is help the individual, is be that voice of support or reason for hope or strength, or even just relatability. I feel almost like my music is designed to be listened to as an individual.

There are some songs I’ve written, don’t get me wrong, that I’d love to play out to a stadium of people. And let’s try and manifest that to happen at some point. But I understand that probably most of my music is going to be listened to in somebody’s headphones, in their own mind, in their own space, and I’m totally cool with that. As long as I can make a positive impact on that person and they feel good about themselves or how they feel or what they want to do with their lives, then I’ve done my job.

MW: Back to the effects that your songs can have on people, I imagine you’re really looking forward to seeing how crowds react and respond to your new songs when performed live. For starters, I’m thinking “Rise” will probably get a rise out of people.

SCOTT: [Laughs.] I see what you did there. To be honest, it’s been such a good song to sing live, [which I did] when I was with The Script. It just has such a powerful, hopeful message and is joyful, and joyful isn’t how I would normally describe my music. I think “Rise” and “Run With Me” and “I’ll Be There” and “Bridges” and “Boys in the Street” — even if they’re borne from some sadness, it all carries the same message of hope across the album that I want to present live as well. And have people walk away feeling empowered or feeling represented or seen or heard, and going, “That was worth every penny.”

MW: And I can see people getting married to “I’ll Be There.”

SCOTT: I feel like the frontrunners at the minute have been “Biblical, “Heaven” — the songs that kind of carry the very obvious sentiment of it. But then I’ve had other people come to me and say “Last Tears” is their favorite song.

MW: You’ve also strayed beyond your own material to do some collaborations here and there recently. Most prominent among them is “Where Are You Now,” your collaboration with Lost Frequencies — which is another song that is not in your typical style.

SCOTT: And it’s ended up being huge everywhere. I think it was even having a little moment there in America for a second, but yeah, everywhere it’s been mad. We were in the charts over here for 12 weeks in the Top 40, which is a lot less than what you guys have, but in terms of the British industry standard, that was pretty significant. And then we performed it on The Script tour. I’ve got it in suggestions for my headline tour. It’s just been such an amazing song to sing, and, like you said, it’s not a typical song I would normally sing.

I made peace with myself after the lockdown that there’s a versatility in my voice that I should celebrate rather than run away from. Instead of being like, “Oh, well, I kind of always want to do the emotional heartfelt stuff.” My experience of this second album and the collaborations I’ve done either side of it have opened my eyes to the possibility that I shouldn’t try and base my career on Adele, as much as I love her.

I’ve got to celebrate what makes me, me. In the last few collaborations I’ve done, I sang in Portuguese with Portuguese and Brazilian artists [Bryan Behr’s “Da Primeira Vez (From the First Time)”]. I’ve sang with Nat King Cole on the [A Sentimental Christmas with Nat “King” Cole and Friends: Cole Classics Reimagined] album, and then with Lost Frequencies on a dance record. It just shows you the diversity that I can bring.

I’m really proud of it. “Where Are You Now” is a monster of a song. We’ve gone all over the world with it. We’re about to perform at Tomorrowland, the huge festival in Belgium. I’m doing two of those shows with Lost Frequencies, and we’ve been in Ibiza, in Belgium, in France, and all these massive festivals. And it was borne as a passion project. Lost Frequencies was going to do a remix of “Dancing On My Own” back in the day and it didn’t work out, and then fast forward five, six years later, and we’ve got a hit together, which has just been so amazing.

MW: Do you see that as part of your future? More collaborations?

SCOTT: I don’t see why not. My heart is always going to mend to the stuff that I produce. The “You Are The Reasons,” the “Heavens,” the “Biblicals,” those kinds of songs are what my heart just beats for. I don’t think in terms of my core fan base there’s any worry that I’m suddenly going to change the kind of music I make, but I am a lover of making magic with music. And I think sometimes you just have to put two artists together and see what they could cook up together. I’ve always been really inspired by the David Bowie and Freddie Mercury duet that they did — “Under Pressure.” That was such a cool duet. And I think, yeah, I’ve been looking for that with a male artist for a long time — but then would do something as totally different as me and Doja Cat, or something. You know, something just totally out of the realms of what people would expect, because it’s like putting chefs in a kitchen and throwing ingredients into a bowl. You don’t know what you’re going to come back with. Definitely up for more collaborations in the future. But yeah, the classic Calum Scott will always be there.

Calum Scott performs Thursday, Aug. 18, at 8 p.m., at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. Tickets are $29.50 in advance or $34.50 on the day of the show. Call 202-408-3100 or visit www.sixthandi.org.

For more on Calum Scott, his latest album Bridges, and his Bridges World Tour, the 25-date North American leg of which kicks off Saturday, July 30, at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle and includes stops in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston after D.C., visit www.calumscott.com.

Follow Calum Scott on Twitter at @calumscott.

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