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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Dubai musician Craig Perry’s journey from Street to Stage competition to studio for A-listers and beyond

Hyped Dubai singer-songwriter Craig Perry talks about the highs and lows that led to debut album Jigsaw Repeat.
Dubai-based singer-songwriter Craig Perry. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Dubai-based singer-songwriter Craig Perry. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Craig Perry enjoyed what you might call overnight success. With just one previous live performance under his belt, the singer-songwriter found himself alone onstage at the final of Rolling Stone Middle East’s 2013 Street To Stage contest. He ­finished second.

A few months later, Perry won Gap’s GCC-wide talent hunt The Recording Room – bagging an all-expenses session at Ireland’s iconic Grouse Lodge. Previous clients of the historic live-in ­studio include Michael Jackson and R E M.

But all that snowballing critical momentum risked grinding towards a halt when, nearly two years later, no release emerged. Eventually, earlier this year Perry, 31, unleashed Jigsaw Repeat to relatively muted fanfare.

The mission now is to get back into the limelight – efforts that include a planned gig at Abu ­Dhabi’s The Sportsman’s Arms next month.

That concert, at a date yet to be confirmed, comes little more than three years after Perry’s first-ever gig. But Perry’s roots in music grow deep. Hailing from the small, quaint medieval city of Norwich, in the east of England, Perry began playing piano at 12, and guitar in his teens, inspired by the mid-1990s Britpop boom.

At 18, Perry turned down a computer science scholarship to study creative music – composition, technology, performance – writing and recording an album as his dissertation. After graduating, Perry returned to Norwich and took a job in marketing – a career path which led him to Dubai eight years ago. “I was bored, I needed to get out,” says Perry simply.

He packed his guitars and shipped a piano over, but it would be another five years before Perry took to a public stage. After checking out the competition, in June 2013 he played a first, short, tentative set at the The Fridge’s Singer/Songwriter Showcase, then aged 28. Why did it take so long?

“Fear of failure,” says Perry frankly. “I never really thought – you don’t sit in your room at home thinking ‘I could make some money from this’.”

Those fears did not last long. A few weeks after Perry’s solo debut, he heard a radio ad for the upcoming Street to Stage competition, and worked up the courage to send in some sketchy YouTube videos. From a reported 1,000 entrants, Perry was among the three finalists invited to perform in front of the judges at Dubai’s Hard Rock Cafe, in September 2013, finishing as runner-up behind rock five-piece The Boxtones.

“It all happened so quickly,” says Perry. “I had zero stage experience – and that definitely showed.”

Following the surprise success, Perry wasted no time, releasing intimate solo EP Small Steps, Big Shoes, and forming the Craig Perry Band before the year was out. Both helped pave the way his early 2014 win of The ­Recording Room.

A little more than six months after his first live appearance, Perry had won a week in a bespoke studio normally reserved for A-listers.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” admits Perry. “At that point, there was no pressure on me, no label – I could have gone to Ireland, recorded a folk song with death metal lyrics.”

Instead he made Jigsaw Repeat, an accomplished set boasting a wide musical palette, from intimate, folky acoustic moments to indie stompers and windswept balladry. Perry describes his style as “poppy/rocky/balladry”, and there is a distinctly soppy side on display. His lyrics are “usually about love – personal experience, or me as a metaphor for someone else’s”.

The release was a long time coming. While initial sessions took place at Grouse Lodge in July 2014, at the end of a frantic week of 14-hour days, only the instrumental parts were recorded. Perry later funded studio engineer John Henry to fly out to Dubai – with two plane tickets, to accommodate the 40kg of pro gear he brought – to record Perry’s vocals in his bedroom. Further sessions were booked in Ireland to record guest vocals, brass and strings on key tracks – arranged by UAE-based composer and violinist Haruka Horii – and the whole thing was mixed in London.

“The album was a massive learning experience – I’m ­super-happy it’s done, I’m really proud, but I see now I made a few mistakes,” adds Perry, who estimates he has several more albums of material already written. “Because it’s been finished in my mind for so long, I’m already looking at the next thing.”

rgarratt@thenational.ae