Lewis Capaldi Expands on the Triumphs and Tragedies of ‘Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent’
Lewis Capaldi is a rare example of a singer-songwriter who captures unabashed emotion in ways that are both authentic and refreshingly original. It’s no surprise that his debut album, “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent,” has struck a chord resonating worldwide, leaving fans in eager anticipation of the live performances to come. The record is commonly described as a “breakup album,” although this hardly does it justice, conjuring tired cliches of endless, sappy sobfests. Capaldi instead explores universally relatable themes from a variety of clever angles, and with an unhinged emotion that makes for an exceptionally gripping effect.
Fortunate enough to have shot up to stardom in a flash, Capaldi is fresh with the effects of such a rise, and the experience makes its way into his songs. Capaldi spoke with Entertainment Voice to expand upon the processes by which the tracks came together, and the stories and sentiments that inspired the ideas behind them. Along the way, he divulged some rather surprising musical influences and tastes, dipped into the intricacies of fraught relationship dynamics, and ultimately gave an insightful portrait of the personality behind the music.
Your debut album “Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent” has a striking title. As hellish as the circumstances that gave rise to songs may be, it seems they must have ultimately been “inspiring,” Will you expand on the meaning of the title?
So the title comes from a line in a song that was actually supposed to open the album. The song is called “Figure It Out.” What I found while I was making the album, no one really tells you how fucking stressful it is making a record. Everyone always says, “You know, I really found myself, and it’s such a transformative experience.” I transformed from a carefree man to a stressed out, fucking mess over the course of making this album, so I guess it was transformative in that regard. But what I found was there was a period when I had released a couple of songs and was doing what people around me had hoped they’d do, if that makes sense, and that’s when I started to get a bit down on myself. I felt like I wasn’t writing songs that were good enough. Then I felt like I was always just falling short of my goal of what to achieve.
The song that didn’t make it in the end, the open line was “Broken by desire to be heavenly sent / Divinely uninspired to a hellish extent,” and that was me just saying, so often I think you’re broken. You want to be fucking really good at what you do, whether that’s working in an office, being a lawyer, a fucking fitness person, or as the case may be. And I think about how about the time that desire to be good at something can be quite fucking debilitating because sometimes you’re like, “Fuck, I just wish I was better at this.” So for me, when I wrote that song, that’s what I felt. And then I thought it would be kind of nice to come from that point when I was like, “Fuck, I’m shit at this!” to get to finish an album. I didn’t want to make the album some sort of title where it was like, “Oh, everything is great, and this was a carefree experience.” I wanted to really put across how I felt, at some points, making the album, and that was fucking “divinely uninspired to a hellish extent.”
Your song “Bruises,” expresses a choice to retain painful memories because of how much you cherish the good bits. Would you say that memories are always worth retaining?
I think so. I think no matter whether it’s a memory that you regret or a memory that’s painful or maybe a bit traumatic — that’s coming from a guy who’s virtually never experienced anything too traumatic — but it kind of eventually makes you who you are, at the end of it. So I think it’s important. I think you need to have those memories of painful times because it makes you appreciate the good.
Your heart-wrenching outpourings sometimes get to the level of yelling. Is there possibly any hardcore punk rock influence behind this? If not, where does it come from?
Well, there first bands I was into were like Slipknot and heavier rock bands, Nirvana and stuff like that, these kind of rockier voices. I always find it weird when I read reviews of my stuff, and people say that I have a “soul” voice because I don’t feel like I do. I grew up loving indie rock, so after Slipknot, bands like the Arctic Monkeys and Oasis and stuff like that. I wasn’t ever listening to much soul until later in my life. So I think that’s where it comes from in terms of just that, kind of, yelling. I like when people connect to you like that. But at the moment, who I love — her music is incredible — is Donna Missal. And I think the best thing is when she does that song “Keep Lying,” and her voice is fucking glowing, and it’s right at the top, and it’s so fucking loud and so powerful. It feels like being punched in the face, in the best way possible. That’s the kind of feeling I had with those bands that I was listening to earlier, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to replicate. Another person, Glen Hansard is really good at just standing with a guitar and just fucking belting, and I love voices like that, that kind of make you go, “Fuck me!” And I would like to sound like these people, and I’m still yet to do that (laughs) but I’ll keep striving for more of it.
There’s been much talk of how this is essentially a “breakup album.” What would you do if you find yourself in the ideal, stable relationship? Would you call it quits, search for new sources for angst, or just write happy songs?
Oh I don’t know, I think there’s always something to be miserable about (laughs). I never really thought about it, because at the time I didn’t think, “I’m going to write this song about my breakup or this girl that I used to go out with.” I never, ever sit down and thought, “This is what I’m going to write about.” I start writing a song, and I look at it and think, “Oh fuck, this is where it’s going,” and then just naturally end it that way. I’m never in search of “What will I write about today?” And I think naturally, you will write about what’s going on in your life. So yeah, I don’t know, if I ended up in a stable relationship, I’m sure she’d still hate me on some level, even if we were together, do you know what I mean? Happiness is just a veil for hatred (laughs). I’m sure there’d be something to write about, some turmoil.
Your song “Fade” is a collaboration with the producer Malay, a long-time associate of Frank Ocean’s. As someone in a strikingly different genre of music, what is it, in particular, that appeals to you about the music of Malay and Frank Ocean?
I just love it. No matter what genre of music it is, if it triggers some sort of emotion, evokes some emotion in you, plays on some of your emotions, that’s fucking brilliant, and I think Frank Ocean does that exceptionally. Songs like “Bad Religion” and off “Blonde,” songs like “Self Control.” And it’s no matter what genre it is. And Kendrick Lamar songs. As long as it has shit in some way. And that’s why I said, like with Slipknot when I was really young. And even, fucking, I don’t know, the girl group Little Mix in the UK, I fucking love, and that’s like pure pop. Their tunes are fucking big, and I just fucking love them, and it hits me in a different way than like Slipknot or Frank Ocean or Kendrick Lamar or Donna Missal, but as long as it fucking makes you do something, I think then that’s a big deal.
The closing track, “Headspace,” was written when you were only seventeen, yet fits with the conceptual arc of the whole album. Was it mere coincidence, or an early expression of a recurring phenomenon, or something different?
I don’t know. It was unintentional, but I knew no matter what the album was, that song was going to be on it, and it was going to be the last song. That song always stood out, and I just think, for me, subconsciously informed this album. I’ve been unlucky in love for as long as I have.
One unique angle to a breakup song appears on “One,” inspired by a poem in which the speaker thanks his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend for breaking up with her. It’s an intuitive idea, yet one hardly explored. Tell us the story behind this song.
Basically, I had kind of written as a jilted lover, and I think about my ex-girlfriend telling me about her ex-boyfriend, and me going, “My fucking god, he was such a dick,” and for me it was just an interesting thing. It was just a different angle and stuff. It wouldn’t have excited me as a couple of songs, but being it just one song, that just kept it a bit fresh and exciting. It’s like the opposite side of that song “When I Was Your Man.” He said, “I should have bought you flowers, I should have held your hand,” all these things I should have done when I was your man, that sort of thing, and I’m on the opposite end, going, “Fucking yes man, I’m so glad you fucked things up because now I get to spend time with some great person.” (Laughs)
Your song “Hollywood” is a standout, cheerful in sound, although actually dark in subject matter. Did you have any specific inspirations for this track, and what do you think in general about matching sad stories to cheery melodies and vice versa?
Yeah, and I think Smashing Pumpkins do it quite well. And for me, I had all of that energy for that song, and I just couldn’t get myself to write about something happy. I couldn’t find my way in on it. The song is quite jaunty, and somewhat cheerful, and I think if I would have written really happy lyrics, it would have been sickly sweet almost, like, “Give me a break!” So for me, the way of keeping it interesting was about me having a bad time in L.A.
That could be a title in of itself.
(Laughs) There you go. Album two: “A Bad Time In L.A.”
“Fade” is about the anxiety that comes with falling in love, as loving someone can be coupled with the fear of losing them. This idea recalls the impairment of “perfectionism OCD” in which people avoid tasks altogether because they’re afraid they would never reach their standard of perfection. Has this ever been a factor in songwriting for you, or only as it relates to a relationship?
Em, that’s a good question. I think maybe when I wrote that song about being “divinely uninspired to a hellish extent,” I think maybe that was a point when I was getting really too bogged down in that idea of like, “What’s the point of even doing this is if I can’t achieve?” That’s exactly what that line means — like I want to be like the best at this, and I know that I’m not and I never will be, so that was, kind of, getting me down, and that, kind of, informed the tale of the album. But now, I don’t think of it as much, because if you think about it, it does kind of stifle your creativity. (Laughs) And relationships are a fucking prime example.
You seem like a singer-songwriter who generally wears his heart on his sleeve. Brutal honesty in songs can be relatable but also distancing. Which of these tendencies do you think wins out overall?
Yeah, I think people are more receptive to hearing about what you think about them personally, or what you think about a situation that you were never involved in, in song form, to be honest. In song form, it’s nice (laughs) so people will just enjoy it, but if you say to someone what you’re saying in a song, it might be a bit tense. They’ll take offense. But I think you’ve got to be as open as possible. I think a tendency should be more relatable because everyone goes through the same stuff. I think there’s no point in not being honest with people in your songs.
Your summer North American tour is already mostly sold out, and you have a new leg of fall dates. How does the raw emotion of your music translate to the stage, and what can fans expect from the show?
I think it translates well, I would hope (laughs). People always ask me, “How do you perform those songs every night about really emotional times?” but I think you don’t really think about it as much when you perform. The main thing you do is just watch people react. It would be a very sad show if I came up and did the songs, and was like, “This song is about a girl that broke my heart. This song is about people in my family who have died.” I try to keep it as light as people. I don’t know man, I just want people to come and have a good time and forget about what’s going on in their lives for a fucking hour and a half. I just want people to come and have a laugh, and then hopefully they don’t ask for a refund. That’s my hope (laughs).
“Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent” is available May 17 on Apple Music. Lewis Capaldi’s North American leg of his tour has summer dates from June 1-12 and fall dates from Sept. 17-Oct. 13. Tickets are available here.