Naughty Boy: From Watford to number one
- 16 August 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
He's Emeli Sande's best friend, he's working with Britney Spears and he won £44,000 on Deal Or No Deal. His name is Naughty Boy, and he wants to "move pop culture forward" with his new album.
He's also a little nervous.
"Interviews are something new," says the 27-year-old. "It's never something you know how to handle."
"I'm trying not to think about the fact I'm speaking to a corporate news organisation."
The Londoner is putting himself through this ordeal in service of his debut album, Hotel Cabana, which marks his first step into the limelight after becoming one of the most in-demand producers in the world.
He's speaking from the safety of his studio, a small room on the Ealing Films complex that has played host to the likes of Rihanna, Cheryl Cole, Lily Allen and Tinie Tempah.
The humble, darkened room is also where he and Emeli Sande wrote the bulk of last year's best-selling album, Our Version Of Events. A disc marking one million sales hangs on the wall.
Directly opposite, across the car park, they're filming the fourth series of Downton Abbey. "I could take you on the set," he says. "We'll just sneak you in".
Born Shahid Khan on New Year's Day 1985, Naughty Boy grew up in a terraced house in Watford.
He shared a room with his sister Saira, who remembers his growing obsession with music: "We had a little tape recorder that we bought from a car boot sale.
"Dad used to take us to Southall or Luton once a week and we'd buy so many cassettes, Bollywood stuff, and we'd dance around."
Harbouring dreams of becoming a songwriter, Shah taught himself the piano and began putting together songs on his PC, using free software he'd found on computer magazines.
"I was a bit shy about that side of me," he says. "No-one around me was making music, so I didn't want to say 'I've learned how to play the piano' because everyone was playing football."
He was reluctant to share his plans with the family, too - especially after dropping out of university.
"Mum and dad... didn't understand what he was doing," Saira said - in a documentary to be aired on the BBC Asian Network.
"For any typical Pakistani parents, they wanted their child to become a professional. To go into the music industry? Mum and dad didn't take it well.
"He had to lie about his degree at University and I knew all of it. It's all out now, though!"
Out of education, Khan took several jobs to fund his dream, working in Watford General Hospital and delivering pizzas for Dominos.
"I was always late! Two hours late! It was a real moment when I realised, 'I am no good at this!'"
And so he wound up on Deal Or No Deal, filming 26 shows before it was his turn to stand next to Noel Edmonds and compete for the jackpot.
"They take you into this room at the back, and it's got lavender candles and it's all dark to try and relax you," he recalls. "I didn't need relaxing. I'd been there so long that I was ready to play."
Calm and collected, Shah out-witted the banker, turning down an offer of £35,000 to win a £44,000 prize.
"I wasn't expecting to win a penny - but some people got depressed when they didn't win. I just thought, I came here with nothing, even if I go home with nothing I've been in the Marriot for three weeks having drinks with all the winners every night."
The money, along with a £5,000 grant from the Prince's Trust, set him on the path to success.
Already calling himself Naughty Boy ("there's something very British about the word naughty," he says), he successfully pitched songs to urban artists like Bashy, Chipmunk and Taio Cruz.
Then came a chance meeting with Emeli Sande at a showcase for unsigned artists in 2009.
"He approached me when I'd just come off stage and said 'I've got some music do you want to come and hear it in my car,'" Sande remembers.
"Usually, I would have been a bit wary but he's just a very genuine guy... The thing that stood out for me was how passionate he was about the music he was making.
"It had nothing to do with the charts, no one was telling him that it was great - he just knew it was great."
For his part, Shah simply says: "I knew I needed to work with this girl."
Neither musician had a record deal, but Shah used his Deal Or No Deal money to put the Scottish singer up in a B&B, and the first songs they wrote included future chart hits Daddy and Clown.
"A lot of the songs on Emeli's album, they're the original vocal recordings," he says.
"We really wanted to take it back to the basics - simple writing and great songs - to remind people of the simplicity of music and the vulnerability in music. Which kind of worked, because it was the biggest-selling album of last year."
He's taken a similar approach to his own album.
Two years in the making, it's themed around the idea of a luxury hotel where the well-heeled clientele include Ed Sheeran, Wretch 32, Professor Green and, naturally, Emeli Sande.
"Everyone on the album is a friend," he says. I've chilled out with them, or whatever."
Shah hints that the album is a morality tale about the trappings of success. His role, as manager of the hotel, is "making sure everyone's learning their lesson".
Life, he reckons, "is not about having money. It's more about inner struggle and trying to understand your real purpose."
Hotel Cabana is an out-and-out pop record, albeit one shaded with brooding orchestral flourishes and delicate Bollywood inflections.
But Shah says the key to the record is its simplicity. It was written on piano, and recorded with live instruments. "Just the basics. What they would have had in the 70s."
He notes that the biggest albums of the last decade - Adele's 21 and Amy Winehouse's Back To Black - have both shared those qualities.
"They've got a sense of vulnerability and they connect with the people before anything else," he says.
"I think people have forgotten how powerful music has been in history - and what it has been able to do. Now we're in this age of the internet, where you can do so much more, but music's at its least powerful and its most throwaway.
"That's why I'm willing to try things. I want to be part of moving pop culture forward. As big a task as that is, that's what I set out to do."
So how does that square with his role as a producer on the next Britney Spears album? After all, she's more known for processed vocals than stripped-back songwriting.
"She does use the vocoder," he acknowledges. "I think how we want to approach [working with] Britney, who's the biggest pop star in the world, is to do something different, that doesn't sound like the old Britney.
"That's how she's going to stay relevant. So I'd like to think it's going to be different."
A special documentary about Shahid Khan's career - The Naughty Boy Story - will be broadcast on BBC Radio 1Xtra on Sunday 18 August at 21:00, and on BBC Asian Network on Monday 19 August at 17:00.
Hotel Cabana is out on 26 August.
Additional reporting by Hermeet Chadha and Catrin Nye.