James Newman has produced the UK’s best Eurovision entry in years – but will that be enough?
The 31-year-old, whose younger brother is Brit Award nominee John Newman, has already written for Ed Sheeran, Jess Glynne, Calvin Harris and Little Mix.
He got a Brit Award and a Grammy nomination for his work on Rudimental’s song Waiting All Night. On the other hand, he co-wrote Ireland’s 2017 Eurovision entry, Dying To Try, and got knocked out in the semi-finals.
In May, he’ll head to Rotterdam as a solo artist with a mid-tempo banger called My Last Breath. It’s short and direct, with the sort of “woah-oh” hook that would make Chris Martin envious.
“That was definitely intentional,” says the singer, who wrote the song in January. “We wanted to create an anthemic post-chorus that makes everyone feel involved.”
“Can you imagine 20,000 people in the arena going ‘woah-oh-ohhh‘? It’s something you can sing along to without knowing the lyrics.”
Newman’s selection comes after a dismal run for the UK at Eurovision. Last year, Michael Rice’s Bigger Than Us came last, scoring just 11 points.
As a result, the BBC scrapped the public’s role in the selection process and invited music company BMG to help it find this year’s entrant.
“We started with the sole aim of changing the perception of the contest,” said Alistair Norbury, the company’s president of repertoire for the UK.
That’s all well and good – but the perennial argument is that Eurovision’s voting system is broken, with the UK being “punished” for everything from the Iraq war to Brexit.
Countries do vote for their neighbours and allies – but the winner needs pan-continental support to rise above the pack. Songs that come last tend to be boring, unconvincing or poorly-performed.
So how does My Last Breath compare with the competition?
Here’s a quick guide to some of the contenders – with the caveat that some of Eurovision’s big hitters, including Sweden and Russia, are yet to reveal their entries.
Lithuania: The Roop – On Fire
An early favourite with fans, On Fire is essentially a trance remix of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, performed by Right Said Fred.
It’s better than that makes it sound, though, with a catchy chorus and squiggly synth line that quickly lodge in your head.
The choreography is weirdly compelling, too: Singer Vaidotas Valiukevičius looks like he’s been allowed to watch all the Fortnite dances once, then tried to recreate them from memory. Voters will lap it up.
Can James Newman beat them? He has the better song, but The Roop are classic Eurovision crowd-pleasers.
Albania: Arilena Ara – Shaj
Eurovision wouldn’t be Eurovision without a windswept ballad or 12, preferably sung at top volume by a woman with too much hair.
On that front, Arilena Ara more than delivers. Her song is literally called “scream” and she belts out the high notes with all the subtlety of a klaxon in an elevator shaft.
But the song’s cleverly constructed around those big moments, breaking down to a quiet string section in the mid-section before ramping to the final chorus.
Arilena has the experience to pull it off, too. Since winning The X Factor Albania in 2013, she’s become one of the country’s biggest stars, with more than 1.1 million followers on Instagram. Her single Nentori has also been a hit in Russia and Romania, which means she’ll be familiar to voters there.
Can James Newman beat her? No. Shaj is an early favourite amongst Eurovision-watchers, and looks set for a top five finish.
Latvia: Samanta Tina – Still Breathing
Samanta Tina has been chosen as Latvia’s Eurovision contestant on her fifth attempt; and heads to Rotterdam with a strident hymn to female empowerment.
It starts well. Tina’s vocals sizzle with attitude and she seems to be building to a killer chorus. But then she deploys the “pop drop” – swapping out the melody for a distorted, heavily-filtered synth.
It’s a technique that arrived, peaked and outstayed its welcome in the space of about six months in 2015; and completely kills the momentum of this Gaga-indebted bop.
Her rap in the middle-eight doesn’t improve matters; and the whole enterprise eventually collapses like a soufflé that’s been poked by Paul Hollywood.
Can James Newman beat her? If there’s any justice, yes.
Australia: Montaigne – Don’t Break Me
Australia take Eurovision very seriously – ending up in the Top 10 four times in the last five years – and this year is no exception.
Their entrant is Aria Award-winner Montaigne whose song, Don’t Break Me, is a dramatically-spun story of tortured love. Driven by pounding drums and soaring chorus (“You thought I was elastic / But maybe I’m just made of glass”) the track sounds distinctly like the work of another Australian pop star, Sia.
The singer’s stage presence is as striking as her song. She wears Elizabethan ruffles in reference to the humanist philosopher Michel de Montaigne (after whom she’s named), while her complex choreography will keep Eurovision’s camera crews on their toes.
Can James Newman beat her? Unlikely.
France: Tom Leeb – The Best In Me
France hasn’t won Eurovision since 1977 and Tom Leeb’s not about to change that fact.
Best In Me is as grey and uninspiring as dishwater, with an insipid lyric about someone being the “air I breathe”.
It even won the disapproval of France’s culture minister, Franck Riester, who criticised the song’s English-language chorus for damaging the country’s “pride”.
“It broke my ears,” he told parliament earlier this month.
Can James Newman beat him? Yes, but maybe he should sing the bridge in French.
Czech Republic: Benny Cristo – Kemama
Professional jiu-jitsu competitor Benny Cristo has a successful sideline as a musician in the Czech Republic, scoring four number one singles and selling out Prague’s O2 arena since he emerged in 2009.
His entry, Kemama, is a joyous celebration of life, even in the face of prejudice. “I don’t care if they don’t like me, I just came to dance,” he sings over a funky pulse of Afrobeat.
But Cristo, whose father is Angolan, admitted the song had made him the target of further abuse. “Racism is far from over even when you try to represent the country you were born in,” he wrote on Instagram, while announcing he intended to re-record Kemama in Kenya “to take the song to the next level”.
It could definitely do with some work. The current version just sits in the same groove for three minutes, bubbling along pleasantly without any real breakout moments.
Can James Newman beat him? Both songs feel destined for the bottom half of the results table, but James’s track still has the edge.
Belgium: Hooverphonic – Release Me
This could be the contest’s dark horse. Hooverphonic are one of Belgium’s biggest bands, scoring nine top 10 albums since they emerged as part of the trip-hop scene in 1995.
Release Me has the sound of a vintage Bond theme, all sultry strings and descending chord sequences, as singer Luka Cruysberghs moodily pleads to be cut loose from a doomed relationship.
“It’s not right to make me stay,” she sings. “All the lies and all the pain / Only you can make them go away.“
It’s almost too good for Eurovision, which probably means it’s doomed.
Can James Newman beat them? In a perfect world, no. At Eurovision, yes.
Norway: Ulrikke Brandstorp – Attention
Ulrikke Brandstorp had to fight 24 other contestants to be selected as Norway’s Eurovision entry – and her progress through the competition was wrought by controversy after the voting system crashed, leaving a back-up jury to decide who made it through to the final.
But the bumpy journey will stand her in good stead when it comes to Rotterdam, as will her TV experience from the Norwegian versions of Pop Idol and The Voice.
Her song is another lovestruck ballad, but it takes a quiet approach – with Brandstorp conveying delicate vulnerability as her vocals flutter up the octaves.
It’s not as immediate as some of the other songs, but could easily pick up fans during the semi-final stages.
Can James Newman beat her? Probably not – but as one of the co-writers is Christian Ingebrigtsen of the British boyband A1, we could claim it as a partial victory.