Calvin Harris is a music producer, singer, songwriter and DJ who, according to Forbes magazine, earned US$66 million last year – making him the highest-paid DJ in the world. He’s written charttopping dance hits for Rihanna (including 2011’s infectious “We Found Love” whose video has had more than 440 million hits on YouTube) and the peppy “I Need Your Love” featuring Ellie Goulding. Now, add fashion model to his list of accomplishments, as the Dumfries, Scotland-born music impresario, 31, blows up the blogosphere with his sexy underwear ads for Emporio Armani. When we caught up with him in Beverly Hills, we found the mediashy Harris to have a disarming, lowkey and almost self-deprecating cheekiness about him.
THIS IS YOUR FIRST TIME AS A MODEL. HOW DID IT COME ABOUT?
It was a call out of the blue to my manager. They asked if I was interested in doing a campaign. It took me a long time to decide whether I wanted to go down that road – I’ve never done anything “fashion” before. In the end, I realised it was a bit of fun, something different. We went to see them in Milan. The first thing they asked me was what I wanted to wear, thinking we’d do a campaign with a suit. I told them I wanted to do underwear. They were surprised. I figured if I’m going to do this, aim high. So I went from having almost zero media exposure to standing in a room full of people in a pair of underpants. I liked that element of surprise.
YOU LOOK PRETTY FIT IN THE ADS. DID IT TAKE A LOT OF WORK?
There was loads of preparation for four months beforehand. I had to eat a lot of good food, and then I worked with a trainer every day, then twice a day in the final couple of weeks. It gave me some fitness goals to aim for. It’s like a personal reward, and the pictures are a bonus. I’m very pleased at the reaction the campaign’s been getting.
YOU’VE JUST LINKED A DEAL WITH GLOBAL NIGHTLIFE BRAND HAKKASAN. WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I’ll be doing lots of gigs for them, primarily in Las Vegas. Everybody comes to Vegas to have an amazing time, and as a DJ what you’re ensuring is they have a great soundtrack to their amazing night out. Hakkasan is the best-looking club in Vegas, and its Omnia club in Caesars Palace is the biggest dance floor in Las Vegas. People are going to be going crazy.
YOU’RE INVOLVED IN SO MANY THINGS. HOW DO YOU SEE YOURSELF PRIMARILY?
I like to be thought of as a producer because I make sounds sound good. I also write songs and I DJ. But nowadays I’m trying to think of myself as a human being who can do other things too. I want to try and push myself. Since I was 15, I’ve only done one thing – music. But now I’m at a place where it feels like there are options. Things have come up in previous years and I’ve said no straight away because I was focused on music. Now, it’s a good time for me personally to look at them again – especially if they go alongside what I’m really good at, which is music.
YOU MUST HAVE HAD SOME DIVERSE MUSICAL INFLUENCES GROWING UP. WHAT WERE THEY?
Jamiroquai. Nirvana. OutKast. Timbaland. Missy Elliott.
AND YOU ALWAYS KNEW YOU WANTED TO BE IN MUSIC?
Definitely. I just wasn’t expecting that I was going to do well at it. I wasn’t very good at school. I’ve got a problem remembering facts and figures. Math is my worst subject. Equations? Forget about it. I passed two subjects in my exams, music, and something else that was irrelevant to my life. When I came out of school, I was the only one of all my friends who didn’t go to university. I went to work in a fish factory for a year to save money and move to London and try and meet people in the industry, which didn’t work. I was doing a very bad job of trying to get into the music industry. I was living in Golders Green and got up at 4am every day to take three night buses to my job at Marks & Spencer in Clapham South. For dinner I had a Marks & Spencer sandwich. I was making no music. I did that for a year until I ran out of money and got a company transfer back to Dumfries.
BY THAT POINT, HAD YOU GIVEN UP?
Yes. I decided I would live a more regular life where I could earn a bit of money and try and get something like a girlfriend, hang out, go out and have a drink sometimes. I realised I’d wasted enough time and all my money doing music. I just wanted to live for a bit. I worked at Marks & Spencer in Dumfries – on the sales floor, in the warehouse, on the tills, stocking shelves. I showed people where the corned beef was and date-rotated the yogurt. I know a lot about expiration dates now. If people go to the store with me, I’ll tell them how to pick the yogurt from the back. If it’s been correctly date-rotated, you’ll get a month to eat that thing.
BUT EVENTUALLY MUSIC FOUND ITS WAY BACK INTO YOUR LIFE.
I’d stopped for a year – and then started doing it for fun again. I joined MySpace and decided to try and get a record deal with my fun music, although I wasn’t really trying very hard. I had my big brother’s Amiga 500 Plus computer, a microphone that I borrowed from my school’s music department that I’d never returned, and a keyboard I’d gotten for Christmas one year from my mum and dad. I started making sort of electric dance music on the computer; it was a bit weird, a bit strange and awkward. But even then I was aware that I had to fit in somewhere in order to move forward. The first rule of marketing is identify your audience – and I needed to fit in with a certain group of bands that were already successful.
AND EVERYTHING HAPPENED FOR YOU ON MYSPACE.
This was in 2006, when people were still looking for music on MySpace, and enjoying it. I would search for names that I would recognise from record liner notes – songwriters, DJs – and I would send them a message to check out my music. I was basically spamming them. One of them was a promoter named Mark Gillespie who used to book DJs and run festivals, and another was Felix Howard who had just started a job at EMI and was looking for music. They both got back to me. Mark knew two managers who looked after DJs and suggested we all have a meeting, and Felix signed me to EMI. Mark is still my manager and EMI is still my publisher. Everything happened in that one week. It was crazy. I was literally on the shop floor at Marks & Spencer and got a call that EMI was offering me £30,000 for three years. I put the phone down and remember thinking, “What am I going to do?” I was earning £20,000 a year and I was thinking if I should really leave. Thank God I did.
LOOKING BACK, WOULD YOU SAY EVERYTHING HAPPENED REALLY QUICKLY FOR YOU – OR WERE YOU ONE OF THOSE OVERNIGHT SUCCESS STORIES A DECADE IN THE MAKING?
I was trying to get signed for seven years. Once things started happening they happened quickly. But because of what I’d done beforehand, I was ready for it. It wasn’t like I picked up a guitar, wrote a few songs, got signed and then ended up on a [major talk] show. But it did happen when I wasn’t really trying. Imagine what would have happened if I did try.