If any artist could be said to have an instantly identifiable sound, it would be Mr Hudson. You only have to look at his discography for proof of that.
He has it all — artistry, presence, substance, creativity — and you can’t miss it. When it comes to singing and songwriting, Mr Hudson is not afraid of exposing himself. It’s evident when you listen to his latest single, ‘Step Into The Shadows,’ a dark, sultry, uptempo, trance-inducing track anchored by his silky vocals. The song disguises a dense and emotional subject matter.
It began in the most surprising way, as these things very often do, with an admiration for actor Idris Elba, who also appears on the track. A brief pause before we continue, lest the mention of ‘The guy from The Wire’ spur your darker imaginations. “I got in touch with him and he came round to the studio the next day and he was just so enthusiastic about what I was doing,” explains Mr Hudson. It’s a scenario you would call a true story of friendship— Luther meets the artist everybody’s gunning for. The result being a work of rare music beauty.
The last few years have marked a subtle turning point for the songster, who recently partnered with Smirnoff to mix and incorporate music with a series of cocktails including Moscow Mule and the Bloody Mary.
Does it still surprise a lot of people that you’re a brummie?
Yeah. I probably left Brum around ’96, which actually feels like a million years ago. It’s still home, at the end of the day.
You’re enormously famous for your voice. Do you ever get nervous knowing that so much depends on your singing?
I think particularly when people are listening to you and you’re being broadcast on TV or radio, of course, you’re going to be aware of that. I think the more shows you do the less you stop being nervous, but nonetheless, you’re always aware of it. I have done a lot of shows and I have had a couple of really bad ones and a couple of really good ones, so whenever I go on stage now I say to myself, “This is going to be neither the worst, nor the best performance of my life.” You just survive and do your best. There have been a couple of crazy moments like, going on stage and singing to like, 60,000 people at the Isle of Wight festival with Jay-Z. The other thing that makes you nervous is performing and it’s just you and an acoustic guitar. I think that’s when you’re really exposed.
What do you want people to know about you?
I think the fact that I really love music. I’m not doing this for anything else. I think a lot of people get into music as a way of getting somewhere in life. I fell in love with the instruments and just the power and physicality of music. Before I contemplated having a career, I was in love with music as a child. It was like a toy really, then as a teenager it became a hobby and then a passion. I never really thought about it being a career until I was in my mid-20s. So I would like people to know and remember me as someone who loved music, the music business comes second to that.
Is your life the way everyone imagines it?
Definitely not. I think I live a much more humble and pedestrian life than people imagine. They sort of assume I’m in the back of a Maybach in Miami or something, but I enjoy having a normal life. I think some people want to escape their normal lives and I did for a bit, but now I’m enjoying being back in my normal life — getting the bus, calling my mum twice a day and wondering around the supermarket. I guess after being away for a few years touring, you start to miss all those simple things
You seem to be irresistible to other artists. Can you explain this massive chemistry you have with rappers?
I don’t know what it is. I think maybe artists see a pure passion for music. I’m very much focused and I don’t really tend to think about money. It’s very fashionable in hip-hop to talk about the game, power moves, levels and all that kind of thing. I think people just see me and see this guy who wants to write a song and sing it.
And you and Kanye West have known each other for quite some time.
Yeah. I think that’s what he saw in me, just someone who wanted to do something, someone who wanted to explore music as an artist.
Writing songs isn’t the easiest thing in the world. What’s the secret?
Let it be easy. I think it is easy. For me, it’s just like making dinner. You just get your ingredients and you chop them up. I think the most important thing is to mean it. If you mean it, it kind of doesn’t matter what you’re singing. Even if people cannot understand what you’re saying if you’re bearing your soul and if you mean it, then that can connect with people, even if you’re singing in a different language.
I get the sense that your music come from a personal place of emotional honesty. So, for a song like ‘Step Into The Shadows’—do you, in fact, have a lot of women offering you their cigarettes?
Of course, man, I live in London [laughs.] Do you remember when the smoking ban came in? This new phrase came about called ‘Smirting’ — flirting with a cigarette, like, people would go out in smoking areas to flirt. I think it’s the new way in saying, “Do you want to step outside?”
You say this great line in the song: “She’ll have a Bloody Mary.” Can you elaborate?
I’m quite pleased with the lyric. It doesn’t actually say what the story is about. I think if you put the dots together you will figure it out. The story is actually quite an obvious theme in pop culture at the moment, but the colour of the drink is really important for me. It’s a very kind of visceral charge with all that flavour. It’s a hot drink and some people have a Bloody Mary in the morning like, to knock a hangover in the head. I mean, ‘Bloody Mary’ — it’s feminine, it’s religious, blood is such a powerful, multi-purpose poetic device and I just thought it was a really evocative thing to drop into the story. In my mind, this was someone who was saying at midnight, “I want a Bloody Mary.” So for me, it was a visual thing and it was also an odd drink to be requesting in the middle of the night. I don’t really want to say what’s happening or hit the nail on the head, but just read the lyrics again and see what you get.
Was there some kind of instinctive deliberation that said to you, “Idris Elba should be involved with this?”
This is a crazy one and it kind of goes back to your previous question about why people reach out to me. I actually reached out to Idris. I was sitting in the studio and I pretty much finished the album and I thought, “What kind of personality do I want on this record?” I knew I didn’t want to go for Americans, because that’s what I’m already known for and if I did that again, you’d be like, “Yeah, whatever.” I got back from the states and was watching Luther. I didn’t even know Idris, but I just thought, “This was the person and character.” It’s such a powerful, very British, very London, nocturnal and urban programme, and I wanted to somehow get some of that and his vibe on the record. I had to give it a shot. Approach the unapproachable. I got in touch with him and he came round to the studio the next day and he was just so enthusiastic about what I was doing. I’ve also ended up working on his album as well. It’s really nice to think that someone in his position will pick up the phone to me and offer his energy to my project, and also welcome me into his creative world.
Tell me a bit about The Smirnoff mix it campaign and you bringing together different drinks with music.
I started talking to Smirnoff with regards to doing a show with Idris and launching my album. They then developed a drink called The Shadow and from that — we said, “Let’s do something else.” So, we ended up doing this project, matching drinks to sounds and it’s just snowballed. It’s a lot of fun.
I wanted to ask you about your popularity. Just looking at the Internet you seem to be the kind of person everyone wants as a friend. Did you ever have an imaginary friend?
I’m from a big family and there was always something happening. My older brother’s into music and we were always busy. I didn’t really have time for an imaginary friend.
Have there been any songs over the course of your career thus far that you were offered and didn’t take but wish you had?
I don’t think there’s any that I regret becauseyou don’t know what you might have missed. I mean, there are a couple of things, but you can’t do everything. Sometimes you think you’re going to do one thing and actually something better comes out of it. The first song I sang for Jay-Z didn’t work, but the second was ‘Forever Young,’ so it was all good.
How do you feel when you hear a song you wish you had made?
For a second you think, “Oh, I wish I had done that.” But I think that should really inspire you to pick up the piano, the guitar, or get on the laptop and make some music. I think often that’s how really good art comes about. I mean, a lot of my stuff is inspired by me being blown away by someone else’s work.
‘Step Into The Shadows’ is available on iTunes.
Words: Noel Phillips.