Newton Faulkner on Dubai, covering Bohemian Rhapsody and Bananarama

What the multi-platinum selling artist told Time Out when he visited the UAE

If you were one of the one million passengers who passed through the corridors of Dubai International Airport on the final weekend of June, you most likely came across one of the many performers who took to the stages dotted around Terminal 3 as part of a special, one-off ten-hour busking festival.

Three Dubai-based acts, including Stephon LaMar, an artist who received a highly commended award by Time Out Dubai at the 2018 Music & Nightlife Awards, singer-songwriter Richard Kennedy, plus a three-piece traditional Arabic band, were supplemented by the multi-platinum selling British singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner for the event.

They put on a special busking performance in Concourse B late in the evening of Thursday June 28, entertaining passengers through the airport.

For Faulkner, playing in the middle of the world’s busiest international airport is up there as one of the more unconventional gigs he’s played.

“It’s really interesting doing this busking festival,” he says. “I had a little crowd forming while I was doing my sound check, and I had to clarify that this wasn’t the actual gig, just in case.”

But, he says, it’s not the most unusual.

“I just came over from South Korea where I was playing in a military base – it was totally mental, probably the strangest place I’ve ever played. I played in a hot air balloon once, too – that was pretty odd. It was a 16-man balloon, minus some space for equipment and stuff. It was a bit unnerving, but really cool."

Having performed in front of tens of thousands of fans at major festivals in the UK, Faulkner chats about switching between major headline gigs and smaller, intimate shows – like his gig in South Korea.

“I love that fact I get to do a bit of everything, really,” he says. “I can do some huge festivals in the UK, and I can do little, 300-person venues in Europe. Then there are bits of America where I can do tiny bars and other times where I can do proper gigs. It’s a real gift to be able to do all kinds of things at all levels, because it means it’s constantly exciting and it’s always a challenge.”

It was an intimate gig at PizzaExpress Live in Business Bay that brought Faulkner to Dubai’s shores, and having been here before, what is it that keeps bringing the songwriter back?

“I’ve been here a few times now, it’s a fascinating place, really. I was last here in 2012 I think, I played here at Sandance festival a while ago. It’s my manager’s first time here, so I was thinking about all the things I’ve done before that I’d like to do again. So we’ll be going to Atlantis, and I was reading about the ice café – in Time Out Dubai, actually. It appealed to me because it’s getting pretty hot? Not a climate for us gingers.”

With an illustrious career to date, the 33-year-old is in the midst of touring his latest album, Hit The Ground Running, his sixth to date. So what can we expect from his latest album, released ten years after debut album Handbuilt by Robots, the record which brought us Faulkner’s breakthrough track Dream Catch Me? The album feels more personal than those before it, as Faulkner discusses the freedom he’s gained from completely self-producing his record.

“[The album] is my first ever fully independent release, so it was the first record I’ve released that’s not been influenced by a separate team,” he says. “For me it felt so much better, and it’s always been a bit of a battle of mine. Because I’ve had pop success, labels have always been a bit like ‘can you be a bit more pop? Can you do more pop?’ and I’m thinking it’s not actually where my head’s at in a lot of ways. For me, especially vocally, this album really stepped up a notch. The title track, Hit The Ground Running, goes higher, vocally, than I thought was ever possible for me.”

Taking things back to his early days, as an amateur guitarist learning to play, Faulkner regails one of his strangest anecdotes from his time busking.

“I was starting out, learning to play guitar just plugged in on the streets, because I quite enjoyed the pressure,” he says. “One day this busker, called Paul, came over to me and gave me all of the money he’d made for a whole day. When I asked why, he said ‘well I feel a bit bad, because you’ve slowed them down, and because of that they’ve stopped for me, so I’ll give you this. And I thought ‘dude, that’s not a normal thing to do’.”

If you’ve not heard them, go and YouTube Faulkner’s covers of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody – which he closed his set at PizzaExpress Live with – and Massive Attack’s Teardrop, two epic renditions of beloved tracks. So what possessed him to take on two imperious anthems?

“They both came out of pretty bizarre questions. With Teardrop, I was thinking ‘what should you not cover? What, if you go near and don’t do well, you’re going to get flamed?’. It’s such a cult classic thing, touching it is dangerous, and that appealed. With Bohemian Rhapsody I wondered ‘what could I never do?’, and there’s nowhere to go from there. I peaked pretty soon with that song, and it taps into everything I love about music – that pure nostalgic joy it brings.”

And it’s joy it brings to Dubai’s music lovers – and airport travellers – too, who will be hoping he’ll be back again soon.

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