If getting ahead in the music business is about who you know, then no-one told Callum Beattie. The 28-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter recalls a brush with rock royalty as a young musician on the make in London.
“It was a Monday night open mic night at a pub in Putney. There was no-one there. But this guy comes up to me and says he liked my set. We had a drink and got talking, and I asked him: ‘Are you into music yourself?’”
Beattie’s burr pauses down the line from Edinburgh, limbering up for the payoff: “And he was like: ‘Aye, I was the lead singer in Iron Maiden’. I didn’t recognise him without the hair!”
Networking nous aside, Beattie is riding high. His debut album, People Like Us, dropped in 2020. And over Christmas, he joined Radio 2’s A-List of new music over Christmas. His music was used on EastEnders, and he has racked up a clamorous fan base on Instagram and Twitter.
The success of People Like Us, which switches between fighty pop anthems and rawer, Dylan-esque meditation, took him by surprise. “I’ve been working on these songs for years,” he says. “Things that I’d imagined are starting to become reality now. It’s a nice feeling to know you’re not crazy.”
Beattie grew up just outside of Edinburgh. His parents separated when he was eight, and he was brought up alone by his dad, an electrician. “It was a struggle, we didn’t have much money at all,” he recalls.
But his dad kindled an early love of music. “After work, he would come home, crack open a bottle of red and play me all these fantastic records from Elton John to Pink Floyd. I begged him for a guitar, so he brought me a second-hand one and a chord book. He said: ‘There we go, there’s a thousand chords, so start there.’ I kinda panicked.”
The experience of growing up with a single father fuelled his creativity, too. “Although [the divorce] was very sad, it was almost the best thing that happened to me. It made me a songwriter. I had stories to tell. Music became my escape.”
One summer, Beattie’s dad scrimped together some cash and presented his son with a choice: a camping holiday in Tenerife or a road trip to London, sleeping in the car, and hitting up as many gigs as they could until the money ran out. Beattie chose the gigs.
“We got tickets to see Roger Waters and The Who in Hyde Park. I looked at the stage and thought: ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
A couple of years ago, Beattie was back in Hyde Park. This time, he was looking out at the crowd himself. “I was invited to play on a side stage to Robbie Williams and The Killers. It was only half-eleven in the morning, but it didn’t really matter.”
This formative moment surfaces on the single Some Heroes Don’t Wear Capes, a lyrical, confessional tribute to his dad. “I know you had it rough/ you felt like giving up/ but that’s alright with me,” it runs.
There’s a lot of growing up on People Like Us. One song, Salamander Street, imagines the life of school friend who was forced into sex work. Another, Easter Road, is a testament to the hardscrabble area where Beattie came of age – and got his first taste of performing.
“I started playing pubs when I was around 10. My dad would put a wee ashtray on the floor and ask me to sing Elvis and people would chuck money in it.”
He laughs: “I used to play the roughest bars imaginable. In one – I won’t tell you which because they’re good people and I don’t want to dob them in – a prostitute used to come and sit right in front of me. And she would spread her legs whenever I played The Beatles. I was quite a young lad, so I thought: ‘Woah, okay’. You never knew what you were going to get there.”
But how do you go from serenading the toughs of Leith to having an album spend 12 weeks on the Radio 2 playlist?
“After I left home, I moved down to London and got a job washing dishes in a posh pub,” Beattie recalls. “But I got sacked after about three weeks – I think I was too common for them. But I was writing songs and performing, and I decided to try to find as many Scottish people in the industry as I could.”
He hooked up with Jim Duguid, a drummer and producer who worked with Paolo Nutini on his first album. Duguid gave Beattie studio time, and in 2017 he released his first single, Man Behind the Sun. Though he didn’t have a manager, and the song had scant marketing, it became a sleeper hit. Beattie knew he was on to something when he heard it on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show. “It was crazy, I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” he says.
As with many up-and-coming artists, the pandemic has been a drag anchor at a crucial stage in his career. Beattie’s sold-out tour of People Like Us has been postponed three times; it’s now pencilled in for November.
“Performing is my medicine, my release, so to not have that is really difficult,” he reflects. “It took me two years to produce this album, and now I won’t be able to perform it for another two.”
But he says: “I know we’re making these sacrifices for family and friends, so that helps me keep on.”
In fact, People Like Us shines in these darkened times. Its celebration of family and community – those we are born with, and those we choose – is wonderfully done. Its resonance hasn’t gone unnoticed: Beattie recently shared a fan-made video of his single Don’t Walk Alone which features care home staff boogieing with residents and kids diving-bombing grandparents. It’s hard not to see it as an anthem for our socially-distanced age.
“We need people to look out for each other now more than ever,” he explains. “And if a song can provide a bit of escapism, then that’s a beautiful thing, a saving grace.”
This fierce pride in who he is, and where he comes from, feeds into Beattie’s politics. His 2019 Boris Brexit Song, uploaded as “a wee joke” by his friends at a BBQ to Facebook, racked up more than 5m views. Its scurrilous lyrics – “When the pound is in decline/ he’ll have caviar at breakfast time” – make for a gleefully catchy protest song, magnificently set off by Beattie’s grin as he strums away in his shorts.
Now though, the larky days of that hot summer of EU protest seem a world away from Britain’s winter of lockdown discontent.
“I’m not a politician,” says Beattie, with a politician's ability to pick their way through a thorny question. “I didn’t go to Eton. But it’s clear we would be better protected if the government had acted quicker at the start. Boris and Matt Hancock – it’s Laurel and Hardy.
“Being Scottish, it’s hard to think of anything nice to say about the Tories. I don’t think Boris has ever been to the kind of estates I grew up in. Don’t think he’d be very welcome either.”
I nudge him towards Scotland’s simmering independence debate.
“Nicola Sturgeon and Boris, in terms of leadership, it’s night and day. Everything’s in such a mess at the moment, [independence] feels like a million miles away. But I think people like me will come out of this feeling pretty p--ssed off with how things were run in Westminster.”
For now, he’s tramping down those political decisions, and focusing on his new music and his too-long-awaited forthcoming tour.
“I’m looking forward to meeting those people I’ve encountered online, giving them a hug when this is all over and having a pint. Aye, sharing the love.”
Beattie’s new single Tears In My Eyes out now. For tour dates go to: callumbeattie.co.uk