The first thing you have to know about Lewis Capaldi is that he is kidding. The Scottish musician, who specializes in pop treacle, is foulmouthed the way a young child is — cheekily and cuddly, without a fleck of harm. He is anti-piety, a bloke on a punchline bender. Almost everything he says is accompanied by a wink.
One Wednesday afternoon last month, Capaldi jumped out of a chauffeured SUV in Times Square, joined by his manager and a handful of associates. Up on a billboard — which one wasn’t immediately clear — was an ad for a documentary Capaldi had released on Netflix that day, and he was there to film some shocked-and-awed promotional content for social media.
The first time the ad rotated in, Capaldi tried a couple of photos pointing up at himself — eh, not so funny. By the third time, after several interruptions from fans surprised to see the global superstar out and about, he’d figured out a mischievous plan.
He hit record. “People over here are having orgasms left, right and center,” he shouted into his phone’s camera, while clips from the film played behind him. He gave the phone a serious, shocked look, then added, “Whenever they see my face.”
He seemed pleased. The next day, he posted the video to his Instagram story, quickly followed by footage of someone wheat-pasting posters over his own ads. “My 15 minutes of fame are over,” he deadpanned.
Those minutes, though — they have been very, very intense. In late 2018, Capaldi released “Someone You Loved,” a startlingly crisp and uncommonly beautiful jolt of nuclear-grade mush. It is lightly schlocky in the 1980s way — ultra-saccharine, hyper-melodramatic — a diminishing resource in the contemporary pop landscape. It has become the fourth most streamed song in Spotify history, with 2.76 billion streams.
Just before his Times Square outing, Capaldi, 26, was nursing a Sprite at an outdoor table at the classic New York City dive bar the Ear Inn, musing over the weight of such a massive hit.
“Such an anomaly,” he said. “I hate saying this because it makes me feel noxious almost. It’s becoming quite an evergreen song. I still hear it as much as I did when I first put it out.” For those who feel that they have been oppressed by the song, he understands: “You get to a point where people might just be like, We don’t want to hear you whine again about something. Can you do something that’s a bit less?”
He was wearing a ruddy brown vintage Carhartt jacket, a black Nike sweatshirt, dark pants and Vans — simple and unglamorous. Around a dozen times over two hours on a block with almost no foot traffic, he was politely interrupted by fans — at one point, a car screeched over to the curb so the driver could hop out to tell Capaldi he’d seen him perform in Philadelphia the previous night. (“He jumped out his car, just like I told him to,” Capaldi joked.)
“It’s fine if that’s my song forever, and I kind of expect that to be” — at this moment, he was interrupted by a young girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, and her mother, asking for an autograph.
“What name should I put on it?” he asked. “Just your name,” the girl replied, and Capaldi guffawed.
Capaldi’s nominally less scarred second album, “Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent,” will be released this month. Not every track on the album is a laser-targeted assault on the emotional stability of the listener, but the best ones are. Whether he’ll be able to unmoor his adoring public to the same degree he did the last go-round remains to be seen.
Either way, Capaldi remains sanguine. “I went into releasing ‘Someone You Loved’ going, ‘This probably isn’t going to do that well.’ I’m going into this going, ‘This probably isn’t going to do as well as “Someone You Loved”’ — that’s a very big jump,” he said.
Capaldi has a scorched cannon of a voice, and it’s best deployed on songs about anguish. To date, his career has lurched forward one vocal bloodletting at a time. His debut single, “Bruises,” in 2017, was viral for that era. His debut album, “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent,” was released in 2019 and featured “Someone You Loved” — which topped the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a song of the year Grammy — and also “Before You Go,” another howling and deeply moving catalog of despair.
While all of this was happening, on the internet and in the media, he was a relentless jester — hilariously self-deprecating on Instagram and, later, TikTok. (“In the U.K. it’s like, This [expletive] guy again,” Capaldi said of his musical success there, whereas in the United States, “There are people here who just know the TikTok.”)
Capaldi has had umpteen small moments in which his comedic persona has been as loud as his songs. At the Grammys in 2020, he had an Andy Kaufmanesque face-off on the red carpet with an unsuspecting Ryan Seacrest.
“I was throwing a baseball at a brick wall, so there was no recoil,” Capaldi said of the appealingly peculiar interaction, adding that he’d been enjoying the fruits of Grammy weekend partying. “It was like, oh, this is so bizarre. But then in my head I’m like, this is even funnier.”
All the while, his health was precarious. Last year, he announced that he’d been given a diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome — for Capaldi, it manifests in physical tics that arrive at random and can be made worse by stress. Sometimes, they happen when he’s onstage — at one recent concert, the crowd finished the songs that he couldn’t. But the tics subside when he’s at ease: When fans came up to him outside the Ear Inn to chat, they all but disappeared.
“This sounds gross, but it’s become part of like a marketing strategy,” he said. “Every piece of content or thing I see with my name next to it is closely followed by Tourette’s. Which is mental, ’cause then I’m like, Billie Eilish has Tourette’s, and she doesn’t bang on about it like I do.”
He continued, “It feels dirty. It feels odd.” Then he added with a laugh, “Whatever sells the records!”
Capaldi’s diagnosis and the management of his illness is a major theme of his new documentary, “Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now,” which was originally intended to capture him wrestling with how to navigate a musical answer to one of the biggest songs in recent years, but ended up also documenting a much darker and more worrisome stretch of events.
The cameras hover over Capaldi at his most awkward — false starts in the songwriting room (“My insecurity was so sky high”), cold sores on his lips, his manager fretting about whether any of the songs he has recorded are a worthy follow-up to “Someone You Loved,” his parents critiquing his songs. And also the tics that have been a feature of his life since childhood, which he now understands are attributable to his Tourette’s. He talks about going on the medication sertraline, which gives him diarrhea and erectile dysfunction.
The film ends on a lightly triumphant comeback note, but the original ending was more somber. Capaldi said watching it was disorienting: “I was like, ‘Do I die? Is this posthumous?’”
The day after Capaldi’s Times Square adventure, he was performing at Radio City Music Hall. Backstage a few hours before the show, in between playing putt-putt and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, he remarked that he was planning to take omeprazole pills before his upcoming appearance on the spicy wings challenge talk show “Hot Ones,” a booking that fulfilled what he called in a 2018 tweet “ma life long dream.”
In this country, he is both very, very popular and, somehow, a bit of a cipher. Onstage at Radio City, he joked about how much smaller the room was than the shows he’d recently played in Europe. “Every minute I’m up here I’m losing money,” he said. “It’s really not worth it.” (The show was still his biggest American concert to date, a quirk of blowing up just before the pandemic.)
Near the end of the set he played “Wish You the Best,” a song that is the logical inheritor of “Someone You Loved” — cataclysmically depressing, but somehow triumphant and engineered for universal acclamation. The video is primally gut-wrenching, if you’ll allow for it; on TikTok, Capaldi has been cheerfully reposting fans’ clips of themselves weeping uncontrollably at its ending.
But he chose not to release it as the first single from the new album, because he wanted a bit of freedom from the success he’d earned for himself. “I mean, I would love to work with, like, the Thom Yorkes of this world, but unfortunately, I don’t think he’d answer the call,” Capaldi said. Lately he’s been listening to the Mount Eerie album “A Crow Looked at Me,” an anti-pop grief purge that arrives at the same affect as Capaldi’s music with absolutely none of the bombast.
“There are ballads on the album for sure, and I think maybe the easy thing to do would’ve been to put them out first,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that I was trying not to be put in a box. I just felt it weird to come back straight in: Here’s a ballad. Again.”
In the documentary, you see Capaldi and his manager grappling with the follow-up pressure. In the SUV heading to Times Square, Capaldi needled his manager for having a “major label mind-set.”
He understands, though. “There’s so much on the line,” Capaldi explained. “I totally get why people are nervous and jumpy.”
Capaldi closes the album with “How I’m Feeling Now,” an acoustic confession of his insecurities. “It’s like ‘The Elephant Man’ — ‘I am a human being!’” he said, emphasizing that he’s more than just a ballad automaton. “I wanted to suck the air out a little bit.”
At Radio City, though, there was little sign that Capaldi was unhappy with his lot. “New York!” he shouted. “It feels so good to be inside of you!” At the merch stand, he was selling country-and-western-style T-shirts that read “America’s Sweetheart Returns: Stealing Hearts in Every State.” The Jonas Brothers joined him onstage for a song, and Capaldi shouted to the crowd about how … aroused he was.
Before “Before You Go,” about the death of his aunt by suicide, he solemnly proclaimed, “I want to thank you, Pat, ’cause it made me a lot of money.” And during “Lost on You,” he playfully chided the crowd for singing along too enthusiastically — “The song’s not finished, shut the [expletive] up.”
He paused, then gave the crowd a rascally grin: “It sounds much better when I sing it.” Everyone cheered.
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