Eurovision hopeful James Newman on why he hopes to compete again in 2021
After years of disappointment, James Newman was billed as the UK's great hope at the Eurovision Song Contest. Following the event's cancellation amid the coronavirus pandemic, he talks to Alex Green about his current disappointment and desire to compete in 2021
JAMES Newman was driving to the supermarket when he heard the news. For the first time in its six decade history, the Eurovision Song Contest was cancelled – another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Back in February, the 34-year-old was revealed as the UK's latest entry, after Michael Rice placed last in 2019 with Bigger Than Us. He was tasked with turning around the UK's fortunes at the event.
But just two months before he was due to travel to Rotterdam to compete at the city's Ahoy Arena, it seemed that his journey was being cut short.
"It was literally a few hours before they released their official statement," he recalls from the kitchen-turned-office of his London home.
"I was driving to the shops to get some food and I had to pull over because I was like, 'Oh my God'.
It was a big moment to hear it had been cancelled and I had to take a minute to reset myself."
The songwriter and brother of the hit singer John Newman was due to perform My Last Breath.
And unlike many recent UK entries, he was a proven hit-maker. Newman, from Settle in North Yorkshire, helped write the Brit Award-winning Waiting All Night by Rudimental and Ella Eyre.
He also wrote Lay It All On Me by Rudimental featuring Ed Sheeran, and Blame, performed by Calvin Harris featuring his brother John.
"I definitely knew it was coming," he sighs, sounding more than a little deflated.
"At first there were people saying that maybe Eurovision could be in a closed studio, or in the arena with no-one there. But the more and more time went on, you realise that nothing like that would be possible.
"Everyone just had to hunker down. We were waiting for them to say it really. It's so important for people's health to not have gatherings – so a massive gathering, with 20,000 people and all the other people in the city, it wouldn't be the greatest idea."
There was a palpable sense that the UK might improve its standing at Eurovision this year. Entrants have largely failed to finish in a high-ranking position in recent years, and a number of times have come in last place.
The last time the UK won Eurovision was in 1997, with Katrina And The Waves' Love Shine A Light, and the UK has not finished in the top 10 since its 2009 entry, Jade Ewen's It's My Time. This year, BBC bosses scrapped the public vote and teamed up with the record label BMG to choose the singer and the song instead. Newman, who is signed to BMG, came out top.
"It would have felt weird singing to an empty room," he adds.
"You see the previous years and the vibe in the arena and the energy – you want the audience there to play off it."
At Eurovision, staging is everything. A good song can flounder on an underwhelming light show or clunky dance routine, while a mediocre entry can soar with just the right amount of strobe lighting.
Newman had already committed to an impressive stage production based on the music video for My Last Breath.
Inspired by Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, a Dutch extreme athlete known for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures, he wanted the stage lit up like "an icy tundra".
"We were going to have a big cube of water and all the water was going to disappear on to the screens," he explains excitedly.
"It was going to be a big tidal wave. It was going to be epic. You get the plans and you think 'I can't believe they're going to actually make that', so I was very excited to see it all come together. But obviously, that's not going to happen now."
The question on everybody's lips is, of course, will he compete again? So far, the contest's producer, the European Broadcasting Union, has confirmed that Eurovision will return to Rotterdam in 2021.
On top of that, this year's song entries will not be eligible next year, but artists may re-enter with a new song.
Newman is keen to have another stab at success, but must await the BBC, who hold the final decision, along with BMG.
"I feel like I need to finish what I started," Newman asserts.
"I have learnt so much through the Eurovision community, and it's such an amazing world. I want to carry on what I have started. But it's up to the BBC and what they want to do."
Despite the contest being absent from our lives, Newman is riding high off the back of the promotional campaign for the Eurovision that never was. He has a new single out, the soaring ballad Enough, and an album in the works, which he is working on over Zoom.
"I'm literally so busy without even having to leave the kitchen," he laughs, sounding genuinely surprised.
He also featured in the BBC's replacement Eurovision coverage, Come Together hosted by Graham Norton, where the public voted for their favourite entry of all time (Abba's Waterloo came out top, obviously).
He also secured screen time during Shine A Light, which was organised to honour all the 41 songs which would have made up this year's contest, in a non-competitive format.
His brother, best known for the track Love Me Again, has been a guiding presence throughout.
"My brother was like, 'Keep going. In the music industry nothing is guaranteed anyway'."
Newman may be disappointed, but he's philosophical about the realities of his situation.
"I might not be in Rotterdam but I'm still so busy. It's a really nice feeling because it's almost like... all is not lost."
:: James Newman's new single Enough is out now.