Musical multi-tasker Taio Cruz is the next big thing. But as he tells Andy Welch, he never doubted that he had what it takes.
Lots of us were given a nickname at school.
Many got off lightly with a shortened or easier-to-say version of either our first or last name.
There are others, however, who were forever haunted during their formative years by an embarrassing incident from which their moniker sprang, or were teased because of a distinct characteristic.
Then there’s Taio Cruz.
“People used to call me The Wonder Kid at school,” says the 23-year-old, who attended a public school in Sussex, before transferring to London’s Stanmore College.
“Sometimes it was just The Kid, and now some people call me Rokstarr as that’s the name of my company, or simply The Cruz, which I like a lot.”
Since Taio, who is performing in Birmingham tonight, began making waves in the musical world, he’s been picking up nicknames all over the place, perhaps none more apt than
“The New Babyface”, which was given to him by American super-producer Dallas Austin.
The original Babyface is multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, musician and producer Kenneth Edmonds, who brought the world TLC, Toni Braxton and Bobby Brown, as well as carving out hits for Janet Jackson, Mary J Blige, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Mariah Carey.
It’s a lofty comparison, but spend a little time with London-born Taio – pronounced Ty-O – and you get the impression he could achieve anything he wants. The phrase “self-assured” doesn’t come close to describing him.
How he came to be working in America with Dallas Austin to show off his talents is another story.
“I’ve always wanted to work in America,” says Taio, who has a Nigerian father and Brazilian mother.
“I’ve directed myself and aimed to get there, because the people in America are the people I’ve idolised since I was a kid, those artists, those producers.
“I guess subconsciously when I meet people and get new contacts, I’m filtering out people who can’t help me achieve what I want.
“My publishing company had links with Dallas Austin and Tricky – not the Bristol-based, former Massive Attack member Tricky, a different one.
“They flew me out to work on a different project, actually, but I was hanging out with Dallas one day and playing the guitar. He thought I was this crazy kid from Britain, but then I started singing and playing the piano too,” he continues.
“He was amazed I played guitar, piano, sang and produced. That’s when he said I could be the next Babyface.”
To date, Taio has written songs for and produced the likes of Mercury Prize nominee Nitin Sawhney and Will Young, with whom he won a Best Single Brit Award for co-writing the Pop Idol winner’s 2005 hit Your Game.
“As much as I love performing, I probably prefer writing and producing,” he admits.
“When you’re writing, you can really express your creativity, without judgement.
“You can make whatever you like when you’re faceless, which is why a lot of dance acts have the right idea. They don’t appear in their videos and things like that.
“When people see an artist, they make assumptions about how their music should sound, and decide what box they need to be in. But if they don’t see the artist, they can do whatever they like,” he adds.
“Look at Timbaland, he does loads of stuff with hip hop and R&B artists, but he’s also working with Ashlee Simpson and a load of rock bands, which is amazing. If he wanted to stick on some skinny jeans and start rocking out, though, people wouldn’t be too sure about it. You can be more creative when you’re behind the scenes than in front of it.”
We’ll be hearing a lot more from Taio in the not-too-distant future. He’s been busy in his studio working with Shayne Ward and Leona Lewis at the request of Simon Cowell, who earlier this year described Taio’s debut album Departure as one of the best things he’d heard in years.
Sugababes, Justin Timberlake and, if the rumours are true, Britney Spears will also be benefiting from his songwriting skills soon.
“When I work with someone, it’s always good to meet them first, get to know them and figure out what direction they want to go in,” he explains.
“A lot of producers might listen to an artist’s first album, or a particular album, and then assume that’s what the artist wants to do again, but usually they want an evolution, and you can’t tell what that evolution is unless you meet and talk to them.
“Not a lot of people would have been able to guess that after doing Justified, Justin Timberlake would have gone all electro, with a rave influence for his second album, unless they’d spoken to him and found out about the techno music he was into.”
Such wisdom from a 23-year-old is a rare thing, and despite Taio’s old head on young shoulders business acumen – he’s keen to follow in the footsteps of hip hop mogul Jay-Z – and precocious talent, he remains down to earth.
He’s also a sensitive soul. For proof, look no further than new single She’s Like A Star, which is released this week.
“I wrote that song towards the end of the album recording, so mid-2007. It’s just about how you would feel about your child.
“They’d be your everything, wouldn’t they? I know people who’ve got children who can barely sleep at night because they’re so excited to see their kids in the morning, so the song is about that.
“Do I think about children of my own? No, not really, but occasionally it hits me and I wonder what it would be like. But then I see kids crying in the park and making a noise and think ‘You know, I’m probably all right!”’
* Taio Cruz plays the Carling Academy tonight in Dale End. For more information ring 0844 477 2000. His latest single, She’s Like A Star, is out now.