Taio Cruz Last November 29 Taio Cruz played the final date of his first UK headline tour. It was a grand finale to an 18-month period that saw the London-born singer, writer and producer graduate from a backroom boy writing songs for others to a star in his own right, standing right on the precipice of hugeness. He’d written and released a gold selling album and five hit singles, won a Brit, stormed the Top 10, then toured to thousands. All this by the age of 26 – he’s two years older than you might read elsewhere and Wikipedia won’t let him correct his own entry as he’s an untrusted source.
The end of that 2008 tour should have been a time for Taio to put his feet up, but on November 30 he was on a plane. LA was the destination and in Taio’s hand luggage were the ideas he’s been working on during the tour. Album two was already underway. Of course, it would have been rather too simple if Taio’s immense new album ‘ROKSTARR’, and its electronic, pulsing lead single ‘Break Your Heart’, were the result of this jaunt to LA, but that’s not quite what happened. What in fact happened was that Taio worked with a handful of people, then he came home. “I don’t want it to sound bad,” says the politest man in pop, “but I ended up doing what I usually do which is coming back to London and producing most of the album myself.”
The results will push Taio into the bigtime. The rave-tinged, pervoramic ‘Dirty Picture’ is an anthem-in-the-wings while ‘Falling In Love’ is – don’t judge it til you’ve heard it! - R&B Coldplay. On ‘TWO’ the songwriting is even deeper and more confident than on predecessor ‘Departure’, adding even more weight to Cruz’ status as an in-demand writer and producer whose talents have been enlisted by Leona, Britney, Justin, Usher and Anastacia, as well as British acts like Sugababes and JLS. He also co-wrote and featured on Tinchy Stryder’s Top 3 single ‘Take Me Back’ then returned to help Tinchy out on the Number One single “Never Leave You”. Taio’s is a songwriting spark that inspired Dallas Austin to call him ‘the new Babyface’ and meant that, prior to his UK success, Cruz was working the original choice of singer for Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ when writer Tricky Stewart earmarked the track.
One of the people Taio did work with was longterm collaborator Fraser T Smith (Craig David, Tinchy Stryder) - “a fantastic person” Taio says, “and we’ve done loads of records together, as well as me doing some of them on my own. In the end, we kept it British.” The bond Smith and Cruz seem to have together is a great boost for this album, and with the LA sessions cancelled the reduced travelling at least reduces his carbon footprint and secures this album’s green credentials, although when asked to name the album’s spiritual colour Taio first plumps for dark blue, then revises his choice to clean white. Its shape, he adds, is that of a Coca Cola bottle and it smells of something expensive, he says, like Harrods. If it was a breed of dog, he decides, it would be one that looks like a wolf.
And how does it sound? Well, that’s the clincher. “I felt that in the early sessions I was being pulled in a more cliched American R&B direction,” he remembers, “but I was listening to Keane and Coldplay. So I just came back to London and started telling people about what I wanted to do, and they sort of went, ‘yes Taio, good luck with that’ and left me to it.
Then I came back to them and played them what I’d done and they’d go, ‘oh, now we get it’. I tried to walk the line - the last album was walking the line of hip hop and R&B. This one walks the line more with dance and big electro tunes, along with some rocky influences and R&B. I think throwing in elements of things that are a little bit obscure helps keep the record sounding cool but I think the actual basis of the records, the bones and flesh of the records should be about pop, and that’s what I do. I make pop music.”
They’re songs about love, he says, but they’re also songs about the fantasy of love. “I sometimes write about imagining what love should be,” he laughs, “rather than the reality. I take events and fantasies and just let it flow...” The album’s sensational lead single ‘Break Your Heart’ is a good example of Taio’s sometimes funny observational songwriting. “It’s not about me being a bastard!” he announces. In spite of its chorus of “I’m only gonna break break your break break your heart” it is, instead, Taio says, “about men, y’know, and how we just can’t help ourselves sometimes. The song is trying to tell the woman that I’m going to be me and I’m going to do my best but I might break her heart because it’s unfortunate that men are stupid but that’s what we do sometimes.” A massive copout of a song, then. “I’m trying to help all the men out there who’ve ever broken a girl’s heart.” He pauses. “Me myself, I haven’t done that… Not to my recollection anyway.”
The secret of Taio’s sound is found in his inclusive, wide-eyed approach to his music. He’s a fan. Ask him his favourite acts, and he’ll tell you that “I’m a fan of music.” On his iPod, he says, he listens to “hit songs”. His is an attitude so refreshingly at odds with the underground-obsessed, tastemaker-led world of the alternative that it makes total sense that his songs all sound so big. In fact, if you ask Taio his favourite type of hit songs, and he’ll say “big ones”. “Proper songs,” he says. Then he goes back to love: “I think the album sounds like love should.” Mention to Taio that love, of course, sounds like lots of different things, and he’ll nod and say, “yes - love sounds like I might hurt you. Love sounds like I want to be with you forever. Love sounds like I don’t want to see you today. Love sounds like I can’t wait for you to send me a naughty picture on your mobile phone. Like I say, the album sounds like love should.”
Taio’s obsession with pop, and his excitement at somehow having found himself right at the centre of it both in the UK and across the Atlantic, means that this sparky Londoner still doesn’t feel like he’s going to work when he immerses himself in the creative process, whether it’s producing music for himself or putting pen to paper for tunes that’ll ping halfway across the world and into the mouth of another star. And while he’s spent a fair amount of time in LA there’s a clear difference between Taio and many counterparts on the pop scene: he’s ambitous, but politely. You might say he’s very Britishly ambitious, although the power of a hit record still stops him in his tracks. Faced with the choice, for example, of selling a thousand copies of a song by himself or a million in the hands of Usher he’s unusually honest – “give it to Usher!” – so the fact that he’s kept his new album’s worth of songs to himself gives you some idea how confident he is that something big is around the corner. And he’s there in all his tunes, in the melodies, the sounds and if you read between the lines the lyrics too. “I don’t want to be obvious in my songs,” he says. “I’m in there, but sometimes you have to look a little deeper...”