Calvin Harris is a phenomenon, writes Douglas Wight, whose biography of the Scot has just been published (read an extract below). A Dumfries lad who wrote and produced his first album from his bedroom while stacking shelves in Marks and Spencer, he is now the most successful DJ in the world and the go-to producer for some of pop’s biggest names.
He first came to my attention in 2007 when posters started spreading around London heralding a precocious new talent who claimed ‘I created disco’. The ‘fly eye’ shades he made himself were everywhere. It was a refreshingly ballsy and somewhat surprising publicity campaign for a previously little known Scot.
When a good mate then raved how Calvin had rocked an event on Skye it struck me that there might be more to this artist than quirky hits like ‘Acceptable in the 80s’ and ‘The Girls’ suggested. So when the number ones started mounting and records started tumbling I became intrigued to find out what made Calvin Harris tick.
I spent a few days in Dumfries-shire approaching friends and former colleagues. Some were happy to speak to me, others weren’t. The overwhelming response I received though was that people only had good things to say about Calvin – or Adam Wiles, the name by which he is still largely known in Dumfries.
People are clearly proud of Calvin’s success and find it amazing that someone from such humble beginnings could become such an international success story.
The book is unauthorised, meaning Calvin was not involved in its writing. However he has been so prolific in interviews, particularly in his early days, that there is no shortage of opinion from him.
The more I researched the more impressed I became with this singularly determined and talented individual.
As I write in the book, what I really liked was how, in the carefully polished pop world that trades on image and perfection, here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to show his workings. From the stars who turned down his music to the backroom deals, and from trade-offs between talent to spats on Twitter, celebrities snubbing him or what he spent his money on, he was like our insider, revealing the tricks of the trade and what really went on behind the scenes.
Inevitably, perhaps, as his status has grown and interest in him has spread, his interviews have dried up. Therefore I wanted the book to give fans a chance to read Calvin’s story, largely from his own words, or from those who had an insight into his life.
Calvin has reacted to the news of a book on his life with suspicion, perhaps understandably. However I hope, if he reads it, he will see that this is a celebration of success, and not a hatchet job.
Words: Douglas Wight
by Douglas Wight
THE lights dim momentarily but the first chiming beats of ‘We Found Love’ ignite a flash of colour, sparking frenzied cheers from a grateful crowd.
High up on his huge riser Calvin Harris extends an arm into the air, his other hand clutching headphones to his ear. It is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. It is April 2012 and he has his audience where he wants it, judging the pitch of the room and controlling emotions like a conductor with an orchestra.
The arrival of Rihanna, whose vocals turned Harris’s near-perfect fusion of house and pop into a worldwide chart smash, sends the crowd into an even greater frenzy. Now all Harris can see are hands extended into the air and the lights of camera phones, everyone desperate to capture this surprise moment lest their own memories fail them.
As Harris expertly builds the tempo, lifting the audience as one to a higher plain of ecstasy, something catches his eye. It’s not Rihanna bouncing maniacally along the stage below him. Another figure is emerging from the crowd, and only as it is carried along on a sea of hands does Calvin see that it is Katy Perry – another pop superstar who would move mountains to try to work with him.
Harris pauses. As all hell is breaking loose around him he takes a moment to drink in this scene. ‘This will never happen again,’ he tells himself, ‘so remember it for all time.’
Even in the crazy life of Calvin Harris – one that has presented a host of Kodak moments like this – he knows the importance of taking the time to appreciate every last second.
This night, at Coachella, he is a DJ – a superstar one at that – having ditched his band for an altogether more dynamic live performance.
But to label him only as such – or brand him a ‘knob twiddler’, as some unkind journalists do – is to misunderstand completely his contribution to modern music.
Producer, musician, songwriter, singer, performer.
He is all of these things, ruthlessly exploiting innovations in sound and technology to bend an at times archaic industry to his will.
How has he done it?
By his own admission, for a man who has stated provocatively ‘I Created Disco’, the 6 ft 5¾ in. artist is ‘not good at interviews’, ‘not good at dancing’ and ‘not good at looking like I’m having fun’.
‘Luck,’ he would say. Being in the right place at the right time.
“It takes more than
luck to smash
But it takes more than luck to smash Michael Jackson’s twenty-seven-year record for the number of top ten singles from one album.
The nine gleaned from Harris’s 2012 album 18 Months beat the seven Jackson scored from 1987’s Bad and from Dangerous, released in 1991.
After that success he announced that having spent the previous two years ‘intensely f***ing working to try and make singles and hit records’ he was planning a change of direction and was working on ‘dance music that probably won’t get into the charts’.
What happened next? His 2014 album Motion spawned six hits, three of them number ones.
Not bad for someone whose intention was never to be behind a microphone or front and centre onstage, or even to be a DJ. The young Calvin Harris harboured dreams instead of becoming a policeman, out of a desire to preserve law and order, or a professional footballer.
How things changed for the unassuming Scot, who was once so shy performing that he hid out of view. Playing live now, he strikes a familiar pose: one hand casually hovering at waist height, attending to the controls on his decks, while the other punches the air in time with the beat. If you ignore the ubiquitous set of headphones, the image isn’t a far cry from that of the one he might have pictured in his dreams as a young boy – arm raised aloft, taking the applause from an appreciative crowd. The only difference is that the acclaim is for making music rather than for scoring a match-winning goal.
And it’s worth noting that such is his success that his earnings have also taken him past those of the world’s finest footballer, Lionel Messi.
Harris’s is a remarkable rise to fame – a biochemist’s son who launched his music career simply by asking people to follow him on the now outdated social networking site Myspace. He only posted his music there because ‘everyone else was doing it’.
He entered Myspace as humble Adam Wiles, then only eighteen but already weary of and jaded about the music industry after a succession of rejections, but emerged as Calvin Harris, a cocksure performer ready to take on the world.
Since then he’s enjoyed unrivalled success, with a list of collaborators and beneficiaries that reads like a Who’s Who of pop, from Kelis, Rihanna, Tinie Tempah, Florence Welch, Dizzee Rascal and Example to Kylie Minogue and Cheryl Cole.
At some point a strange metamorphosis took place, after which Harris’s life has seemed to exist online, as he expertly uses burgeoning video sites, blogs and social media to further his cause. Yet for a persona that was born in a digital age this is hardly surprising.
What is surprising is that many people still don’t know what he actually does. Calvin has said, ‘The large majority of people don’t really know what I am or what I do or why my name is, like, first on the record when I’m not singing.’
His own family might not even appreciate exactly the influence he carries in the pop world. In his native Dumfries, a historic and bustling town in south-west Scotland, there’s a lovely story of how his father, David Wiles, upon hearing a proud mother tell of what an accomplished musician her son had become, offered a nugget of insight into his own son’s achievements.
‘My son is also a musician,’ he is said to have replied. ‘But I don’t think you will have heard of him.’
‘Mr Wiles,’ the woman apparently responded, ‘the whole world has heard of your son.’
Calvin himself sometimes even seems unsure of his place. After accepting the Ivor Novello Award for ‘Songwriter of the Year’ in 2013 and announcing it as ‘easily the greatest achievement of my entire life’, he went on to say, ‘I can’t believe I was even let in the door of this whole ceremony. It feels like I shouldn’t be here.’
That he is here is something for which we should be grateful.
Not only does he come up with banging good tunes and throw one hell of a party but we should also applaud him for the insight he gives us into the music industry. Calvin might fiercely guard his privacy when it comes to relationships and personal matters, but when it comes to the business in which he operates anything is fair game.
In this carefully polished world that trades on image and perfection, here is a guy who isn’t afraid to show his workings.
From the stars who have turned down his music to the backroom deals, and from trade-offs between talent to spats on Twitter, celebrities snubbing him or what he spends his money on, he’s like our insider, revealing the tricks of the trade and what really goes on behind that green curtain in the magical world of Oz.
On Calvin Harris’s right arm are tattooed the words ‘Enter with Boldness’, taken from Law 28 of The 48 Laws of Power, a book by American writer Robert Greene and a cult classic that since its publication in 1998 has crossed over into the mainstream, selling over 1.2 million copies in the United States. Greene’s early research was inspired by Julius Caesar and his decision to cross the Rubicon River to shape his destiny and that of Rome, and the book examines the traits shared by many of today’s power elite and influential figures throughout history.
Curiously, it is popular with celebrities and the prison population alike (it is one of the most requested titles in penitentiary libraries in the US). This book could be a metaphor for Calvin Harris in that it too found a niche market but later broke through into the nation’s consciousness.
What is most telling, however, is the rule Harris chose with which to mark his skin. Law 28 states: ‘If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution.
Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness.
Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity.
Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.’
For Adam Wiles to succeed he had to cross his own Rubicon and become Calvin Harris.
Met with rejection at every turn, he had a decision to make. Hide in the shadows or step forth to claim what was his.
‘It was never my plan to even be onstage,’ he said. ‘I was meant to be a producer.’
To those who have witnessed him onstage, holding an audience in the palm of his hand, which would argue that he was not born to be there?
His is a remarkable story of how to succeed in the modern age.
Adapted and extracted from Calvin Harris: The $100 Million DJ by Douglas Wight, published by Black & White Publishing at £9.99.