— by Chris Harris, with reporting by Matt Paco
Tardiness helped Paolo Nutini land his first big break.
When the soulful Scottish singer/songwriter was just 15 years old, he took his then-girlfriend to see David Sneddon, the British pop singer who catapulted to fame after winning the BBC's inaugural "Fame Academy" reality-TV series in 2002. Sneddon was playing in his Paisley hometown, the place where the distinctive print pattern originated and where Nutini was also raised.
"I used to hate the guy," Nutini confided. "He came back and did a show. They were giving away free tickets all over the place and my girlfriend quite liked him. So we went after school and apparently, he was late."
The crowd began to grow restless as the minutes continued to tick away with no Sneddon. So a local radio DJ hopped onstage and gave an impromptu quiz to keep everyone distracted. The winner, he declared, would be asked to take the stage and perform a few songs in Sneddon's momentary absence.
"The question was, 'What was the biggest-selling album of the month?' which I'd read in the paper, like, 20 minutes before," Nutini recalled, adding that at the time he was donning his school uniform. "I knew the answer, stuck up my hand and the [DJ] picked me first. And I got it right, went up there and sang a couple of songs — like [a cover of a song by] Elton John, and I can't remember the other one."
As you've probably guessed, Nutini was a hit with the audience, which included a man who'd eventually become part of the singer's professional team. "He asked if I'd written any songs, and I'd written one song — one actual song. I'd written a lot of poems and stuff, but only one actual song with my music teacher at the time. I sent it to him, and he's now my manager."
Nutini, now 19, released his Atlantic Records debut, These Streets, in mid-July. He said he's always known he wanted to play music — even long before Sneddon's delayed arrival. Raised on a steady diet of legends like Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Ben E. King, Sam & Dave and Otis Redding, Nutini wasted no time getting his career off the ground. Soon after meeting his manager, he was introduced to drummer Jim Duguid of short-lived indie band Speedway, and Duguid is now a full-time member of Nutini's band. Nutini left school and hit the road with Speedway, writing material along the way and serving as the band's roadie, merch man and opening act.
"My mom and dad were like, 'If this is what you want to do, then go and do it. But do it. Don't toy around with the idea. Just give it all you've got,' " Nutini remembered. "And that's what I've done."
In the span of just four years, Nutini, who has drawn comparisons to Joe Cocker, has achieved the kind of success some artists spend a lifetime chasing. His song "Last Request" has already climbed to the top of the British singles chart. He was personally invited by the Rolling Stones to open for them — not once, but twice. He has performed on the stage of New York's famed Carnegie Hall and dazzled audiences at Austin's South by Southwest festival.
And of course, he put together These Streets, an LP he said was inspired by relocating at the age of 18 from Paisley to London. "It's about moving from the home I knew, from this smaller town, to London," he said. "I was alone and it was scary. It was just a change. It was huge. I didn't have anybody to help me out so I was feeling quite sorry for myself. It's sort of a diary of the last three years of my life, although I don't keep a diary. I just write tunes about it."
No matter what happens to Nutini from here on out, he said he'll never abandon the heart he threw into his first outing — regardless of what people think.
"I think the thing you've got to do is just be yourself," he said. "You can't be a nice guy all the time, it's impossible. You can't keep everybody happy. You just have to do it — but if you're going to do something, do it with conviction."
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