IT’S good to see warm-hearted wandered Juan Zelada hasn’t lost his sense of humour after years spent striving to get his voice heard.
Take the title of his début album High Ceilings & Collar Bones. “It’s about as random as it comes,” he admits before returning to Sheffield on Monday.
“It evokes images of concepts I am very fond of, images everyone likes: the aspirations you can have looking up to owning somewhere with high ceilings and getting excited about the sensuality and appealing nature of a woman’s neckline.”
Fair enough. Then Juan will be first to admit humour has kept him and his band going during three years of mixed gigs in and around the capital.
Armed with his keyboard, he would play at restaurants, bars, weddings, cruise ships, anywhere.
“There is never a pointless gig,” he says, his talents having been recognised by a restaurant manager, Adam Low, who booked him to entertain his customers.
“I had this old piano in one of the restaurants and would book performers through an agency who would play very boring ‘play it again Sam type stuff’,” Adam recalls. “But when Juan came in he was clearly different from the others, with great charisma – getting 100 diners singing along is no easy thing.”
So Adam quit his job with the ambition of breaking Juan and without previous experience self-released material with incredible results.
Début single Breakfast In Spitalfields was A-listed on Radio Two, made Record Of The Week and became the second most-played song on the station behind Adele.
Still unsigned, his second single, The Blues Remain, earned similar attention.
“Maybe the guys at Radio Two just thought it was radio-friendly? I understand people need to pigeonhole us and it’s hard but what I’ve always said is Paul Simon, James Taylor and Ray Charles have always been in my head. These are the artists I try to emulate.”
So not much pondering the record deal from Simon’s label Decca. “The goal has never been a label signing as a finishing line, it’s been about getting the exposure.
“There’s no space or time to celebrate and the deal certainly takes it to the next level, but being signed to Decca, that’s what’s truly inspiring... exceptional even.
“The most credible label we liked, the history they love and represent, the artists they have – Imelda May, Jamie Cullum, Paul Simon... legends.
“It’s a real privilege to be on that label with that talent.
“I’ll just keep doing what I do.”
It also rewards the decision of the former keyboardist in Bryn Christopher’s touring band to step out on his own in 2009. Then he seems to find ‘friends’ easily.
“If you are doing your job well, people come to you, you don’t have to be knocking on doors canvassing.
“Many people might think I am mainstream but I can do ‘folky’ pulling out the big numbers with a brass section.
“Fifty people turning up now means as much as 5,000 people in the future. They need impressing.”
Recorded in three of the nation’s best-known studios and mixed by Danton Supple (Coldplay), the music remains hard to tag, although there’s been the suggestion of Ben Folds Five meets Dave Matthews Band.
Odd, perhaps, when Juan grew up listening to ’60s and ’70s Americana, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, Ray Charles and Billy Joel.
Originally from Madrid, Juan lived in Hong Kong with his folks before attending Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts and then settling in London.
Ahead of his SOYO set on Monday, he adds: “People seeing us and enjoying us is great. They have done that for years, but people coming out specifically is another thing; that’s what I am looking forward to,” he says of the tour.
“But mostly I am looking forward to the unexpected. Anything can happen.”