"The rain came through that sports car and I’d get fucking soaking wet, sitting in your passenger seat! Great experience Craig, but can we go under cover, I’m getting soaked in your Ferrari…” As his manager finishes spinning yet another yarn, Craig David’s body is bent near double with laughter. “Ha! Yeah, the rain came through on Colin! Oh man!” he says, elated at the memory.
Colin Lester and Craig David are reminiscing about the now famous ‘wilderness years’ the singer spent in Miami between 2010-2016, where he moved to pursue the fast cars and lifestyle he’d always dreamed of as a vinyl-obsessed teenage songwriter and DJ in his Southampton council estate bedroom. After his chart-topping debut Born To Do It (1,912,366 sales, OCC) and 2003’s Slicker Than Your Average (531,332); David’s records began to suffer diminishing returns. The Story Goes…, from 2005, has sold 309,459, 2007’s Trust Me 102,784 and 2010’s Signed Sealed Delivered 35,723. His ascent as an arena-ready, caramel-voiced R&B star had stalled, and he was adrift in Miami. They can laugh because those days are long gone. Much has happened since Lester signed the singer to Wildstar Records as a teenager.
When Music Week arrives at Lester’s JEM Music Group HQ in North West London, which is festooned with David’s Noughties remix 12”s and other memorabilia, we’re greeted by an artist and manager on the up. David is dishing out a huge bar of Dairy Milk – sweet things are his trademark – and they’re bathing in the glow of 2016’s No.1 comeback album Following My Intuition (143,843 sales, OCC). It was the focal point of a campaign that began when David’s TS5 DJ sets in his Miami penthouse were picked up by Kiss FM in 2012. It soon stretched from a viral slot on BBC Radio 1Xtra with Kurupt FM, to covering Justin Bieber in the Live Lounge, The O2 and Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
Now, the pair are looking ahead to follow-up The Time Is Now, out January 26. When we meet, glitchy single I Know You, featuring Bastille’s Dan Smith, has just dropped and Lester gleefully sends it booming out around us. David has since performed it on Sounds Like Friday Night and Strictly Come Dancing. The campaign is ramping up. “This song is like Rewind back in the day,” David says, referring to Artful Dodger’s garage masterpiece on which he provided vocals as an 18-year-old. “It’s not the kind of excitement where you’re looking for people to tell you if it’s good or not, it’s not an ego thing. When you’re in the right place and you do you, it goes right.”
Not for the last time, David shows his spiritual side. Lester has one too, and it’s clear that their united worldview is a cornerstone of their relationship. That and the electric combination of David’s talent and Lester’s fearless entrepreneurial wizardry. For instance, take his story about seeking out Sting to guest on 2002’s Rise & Fall (David’s first ever DVD single, would you believe).
“That was surreal… Being in the studio and saying, ‘Sting, do you think you could just flip that and sing it like that?’ And Craig saying to me, ‘Is he really coming to the studio today?’ I loved that,” he says. “When I said, ‘We’ll get Sting’, I had no idea, but that becomes your mission, you go away, make it happen and then you’re there… I could never be locked into a masterplan, I’m a free spirit in that sense, you have to be…” And so we continue, for two happy hours, as this remarkable duo map their near-20 year journey, touching on A&R, songwriting, sacrifice and revival…
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first meet?
Colin Lester: “I heard Rewind on a pirate station called Lush and loved it. I’m a great believer in Bashert, or ‘meant to be’. I got a call from Craig’s then-publisher saying, ‘Have you heard this guy Craig David, would you like to meet his manager?’ They came in and played me three tracks on cassette: Human, Walking Away and one called Cocoa Butter. I remember when he first walked into my office in a Burton suit, I said, ‘Are you a footballer or a singer?’ Walking Away really blew me away, because he wrote that when he was 16. I thought, ‘If a 16-year-old can write that lyric, he knows what he wants in life, he’s serious and clearly a great singer. I then offered Craig a development deal, and as it progressed he came in again and played me Fill Me In and 7 Days. I was like, ‘Forget the development deal this is fucking amazing!’ So I signed him to Wildstar.”
Was there other label interest?
CL: “I had no idea Sony and BMG were sniffing around. Then I got a call from his manager saying, ‘Craig would love to sign with you’. I was absolutely elated, the rest is history. Then came Rendezvous and all those great tracks. I was working with a driven artist who was incredibly talented, so off we went.”
When I said, ‘We’ll get Sting’, I had no idea, but that becomes your mission, you make it happen
Craig, why did you choose to sign with Colin?
Craig David: “His office didn’t look how I expected a record label to, but the way Colin spoke to me resonated from a different place than a lot of the people I was meeting. Colin was speaking about a career, and allowing me to be creative, whereas Sony and BMG weren’t quite sure what to do. Colin was the only person to have a deal on the table. He came down to Southampton and met my mum and grandma, and he was like, ‘I can’t guarantee success all the time but I promise that I will protect him.’”
CL: “What I actually said is, ‘I can’t guarantee he’ll be successful, but I can guarantee that me and every person that works with me will work absolutely beyond anything to try and make this happen for you. If I promise you something and I don’t deliver it’s unfair, but I promise you that we will work our bollocks off to try and break your son as a recording artist.’”
CD: “There’s something that I recognised when I first went into that office, there was something about Colin… I feel like he gets me, it’s a beautiful thing. Intuitively, something was telling me that.”
When did management come into the equation?
CL: “It couldn’t have been further from my mind, that came later down the line. When Craig parted with his manager I gave him a list of managers to see. About a month later, he said, ‘I’m not seeing anyone, I want you to manage me.’ It was a conflict with my label, so I went to a board meeting and let them know he’d asked. They were freaking out, now I’m in this meeting and they’re saying to me, ‘You can’t do this!’ So I decided to go and see a lawyer."
What happened next?
CL: “Craig’s lawyer put a Chinese Wall up and gave Craig a list of things that he should do. I said, ‘I’m not being funny, but if you do all that you’ll lose a lot of money.’ They were suggesting 50-50 on records and publishing. I said, ‘I can’t advise you but I think you should absolutely be keeping 100% of records, and everything else will come under the management agreement.’ Proudly, some years later, I showed Craig the calculation of the difference of income and it was substantially more.”
How have you stayed together so long?
CD: “I’d say it’s honesty, we mirror each other and have this common love for music. When it comes to business, I’m fascinated how Colin does it and at the same time he allows me to be creative, If I need time and musically I’m not focused he’ll tell me to take my time. He allows me to be in an environment where I’m in my best creative space.”
What about the business side?
CD: “When it came to renewing the management agreement, he could’ve put any piece of paper in front of me and I would sign it. When you trust someone wholeheartedly it’s beyond renewing, he’s my manager and that’s how it will be. It’s developed into a stronger bond that’s beyond manager and artist, he’s accepted me into his family and always makes me feel like it doesn’t matter what happens with the music, he’s always got me. No one really knows about what went on in the period where I went off the radar; it was then that the bond became stronger because we really had to dig deep. Colin kept things moving, he kept me cool and when the time was right he got me focused and straight back in, he’d always do the right thing. He loves managing, that’s what I love about him, and I love being an artist.”
Colin, what were you thinking when Craig faded from the limelight?
CL: “It may sound completely crazy, but I didn’t even think about it, I just thought, ‘This guy is an amazing talent’. I never thought he was going away, we were still doing shows all over the world. We managed to keep our head above water financially, which was difficult because he made a lot of money and you do go through that period of time when you have those expenses. That was probably the hardest job – to juggle his financial situation.”
How did you do it?
CL: “I tried to protect Craig and teach him to improve the financial value of his assets, but he was having none of it. I wouldn’t say he was irresponsible, but he was incredibly generous and excited to treat other people. On my birthday, Craig sent me a box with a [model] Aston Martin in it. When I opened it properly there were keys inside, I thought he was hiring me a car. I walked down to my garage and there was this beautiful blue V12 Aston Martin parked up. The number plate was personalised, V12 CLB [Lester’s full name is Colin Lester Balsam], that’s when it hit me. What the fuck! Fucking hell, I was in my dressing gown. Here I am trying to stop him spending money... I couldn’t speak.Then Craig jumps out saying, ‘Happy birthday!’ I was shaking. That was the generosity he showed me and everyone. I had to control his spending, it was difficult but we got through it. I never doubted him, as a manager you’ve got to believe in your artists and in turn the artist has to have the same trust in you, that’s how you’ll end up with a long-term career.”
It’s developed into a stronger bond that’s beyond manager and artist, he’s accepted me into his family
How was Miami for you, Craig?
CD: “You start to see people’s true colours. When you’re not getting callbacks from people that you used to, and people start talking to you in a different way. I never hold grudges, you can easily come back and be like, ‘Ah well look now,’ but it’s like drinking your own poison. When Colin got a place in Miami to be closer to me was when we really got closer. All of a sudden, I got through that period and I was like, ‘You know what I’m going to throw a house party [TS5].’ There was a silver lining to the cloud, and when you look back at the puzzle that unfolded to Glastonbury last year… It was all meant to be. That the comeback has allowed a new generation to discover my music is something you could never have written.”
Did you foresee the comeback, Colin?
CL: “I don’t know what the hell I was thinking about how we were going to get back to selling arenas. Craig’s first ever tour was in arenas, if I actually stopped at the lowest point I would have thought there’s no way he’ll get back there. It happened because this industry is a process and if you work with an intelligent artist, you’ll get good stuff out of them eventually. Whilst we were in Miami, Craig would play me songs and I’d say, ‘Craig you’re not releasing that.’ I think the most important thing as a manager is to be as honest as possible. The dark times were created by outside forces that we couldn’t do anything about.”
With the new record coming, what are your targets?
CD: “The sky’s the limit, but I’ve realised over 17 years that it’s always in the moment you get the thing you want when, if you continually project that there’s something more, you’re never able to enjoy it. Me and Colin will always strive for bigger and better, but a song going out and connecting with people, people singing the words back, that moment… It’s not defined by a number. Music was never meant to be like that.”
CL: “The reason I’m a manager is that I have to get up in the morning and believe that I can win the lottery. I’ve got to be able to go out and make something happen, if I come up with a mad idea, I can make it happen. That’s what drives me. When you’re working for yourself, you eat what you kill.”
How long will you stay together?
CD: “Me and Colin are soul mates. I love him as a family member, so that question is completely redundant. There’s not an artist/manager relationship anymore. You talk about the darker times to how it’s played out, you look back and think, ‘Were they dark times?’ On paper [yes], but they were necessary, those things have put you in a position you wouldn’t have been in. It’s a blessing.”
CL: “If I fell out of love with the job I do, I would still manage Craig, assuming he wants me to. Craig’s family to me. It’s always been that way, it’s personal. Obviously it’s a business and I’m commercial, but Craig is family, I never think in terms of how long will I continue being the manager. I’ve got no plans to ever stop managing Craig.”