Life according to Daniel Bedingfield

JUDGE AND JURY: Daniel Bedingfield in trademark checks with fellow judges Stan Walker, Melanie Blatt and Ruby Frost, and host Dominic Bowden (centre).
JUDGE AND JURY: Daniel Bedingfield in trademark checks with fellow judges Stan Walker, Melanie Blatt and Ruby Frost, and host Dominic Bowden (centre).

"I'd like to write some papers on social theory, anthropology, developmental psychology, neuro-physics. There's a deep fascination that I have with the world between Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics."

The X Factor NZ mentor, singer, award-winning director, resident eccentric Daniel Bedingfield is exactly as you imagine he would be. But he's also nothing like you imagine him to be. We've watched for months, mouths gaping, as he dishes the crazy on the television singing competition. The outlandish comments. The awkward jokes. The tartan. But away from the cameras and competition, how much of Daniel Bedingfield is a man stuck in a tornado of weird, and how much is someone sniggering at just how gullible his audience has been?

The neuro-physics stuff is completely serious. The surprising desire came tumbling out of him during an interview conducted in the backseat of a car, a response to a general wondering: could he ever be happy away from the spotlight? He's had a lot of practice over the past eight years, after all. After a string of international chart-toppers, starting with 2001's Gotta Get Thru This, the Kiwi-born, England-raised, now LA-based, singer found himself stuck in record-deal-gone-bad hell, unable to get his music out.

Rolling changes at the top of the label meant three finished albums were left collecting dust in the vaults, while he faded off the radar completely."The new bosses couldn't smell their pee on the record, and every boss has to pee on the record, just to know that it's theirs." He's understandably angry, and a little bitter. He describes balancing his distaste for record labels and his X Factor NZ work as akin to being a "double agent": working within the machine that tried to destroy him, and digging to find and nurture new art.

"It's a very conflicting feeling - you know when you are eating something incredibly sweet and disgusting at the same time and you're not sure how you feel?"

But on a mid-winter Tuesday, he is all smiles and greetings of "sweetheart" to anyone who crosses his path. Sunday is spending a full day with Bedingfield. Pinning him down hasn't been easy - as today will prove, he's a very busy man. Our encounter is three weeks before we will know The X Factor NZ winner (the live final screens tomorrow night), but this mentor and judge has his eyes on the prize.

A driver delivers him to a three-hour recording session with contestant Cassie Henderson at 9am and his day will end almost 12 hours later, rehearsing with his own band. The chance to really talk to him only comes as we are being shuttled between recording and TV studios.

PERFORMANCE PLUS: Daniel Bedingfield performing at Auckland's Juice Bar earlier this month.
PERFORMANCE PLUS: Daniel Bedingfield performing at Auckland's Juice Bar earlier this month.

It might be lunchtime, but Bedingfield won’t take a break today, not even for a sandwich on the run; there are just five contenders left on the show that brought him back into the public eye and things are getting serious.

The night before our day together, Henderson was almost kicked out of the competition so, initially, it’s all a bit tense. Bedingfield is obviously feeling for her − he still doesn’t know how, at just 14, she is coping with all of this. How any 14-year-old would be able to.

“I would’ve though,” he says with a cheeky grin, looking younger than his 33 years. His hair is styled in what can only be described as a one-sided mullet and his face is lightly dusted with a sandy-coloured beard. Later, when stuck in a make-up chair, he strokes it with some pride − he doesn’t usually have this much growth and he quite likes it.

In the studio with Henderson, there’s talk of getting a good “save song”. She’ll have no need for it – she is voted off less than a week after this session – but her off-the-cuff version of Coldplay’s Fix You makes Bedingfield cry. For all his bluster and bravado, he’s a bit of a softy, really. He also knows exactly what he is doing in the studio: no guesses, or ‘this should work’ hopes. It’s all part of a calculated plan.

Today, the plan is proving more of a challenge with contestant number two, Jackie Thomas. Something’s not right with the West Coast singer, and Bedingfield can’t drag it out of her. It’s obvious, as the hours tick down and the pressure of getting the “guide tracks” mounts (the guide tracks are the songs the production team work from to provide backing music), he’s getting frustrated. And panicked. When he’s happy, Bedingfield sings, often and loudly, peacocking a voice that is better than remembered.

When he’s stressed, he paces. And right now there’s a lot of pacing, backwards and forwards, while he thinks out loud for a way to get what he needs from Thomas. At one point the two of them are both semi-collapsed on the room’s leather couch, both texting on their phones. “I’m tired, Jackie,” Bedingfield says. “I’m really tired.” She just nods.

Whatever he might think of the competition, The X Factor NZ has had its benefits. He obviously cares about the two women he’s working with, and the show has reminded New Zealand who he is. Every cent he has made from the show has been spent on finishing his newly released EP and passion project Stop TheTraffik - Secret Fear, and videos, but Bedingfield insists he doesn't give two hoots about making money from his music any more.

"I tried being rich and it was fun but it got old really fast. I have no need to make that much money ever again. Boring. I like to be financially secure, but past that, the world is better when you are backpacking; it's better when you're couch surfing... I believe in friendships and land."

It seems as good a time as any to bring up what you might think is the elephant in the room. Bedingfield is the judge who told Moorhouse to use auto-tune, who wanted to shoot Gap 5 with caffeine darts and who told New Zealand there was a party in his pants. On the show he's been portrayed as... a little crazy.

"I though tI was?" he cuts in, sounding a little hurt someone might not believe it. "I'm as outrageous and oddball as you've seen on the show. This is New Zealand - I'm not faking. I think it's pretty damn oddball. It's not always funny,but I'm having a laugh with myself."

He says he wants to not care what people think of him (fellow judge Mel Blatt, for example, has openly criticised him in other media reports), but he's still learning just how to do that. He's recently taken to blocking Twitter trolls, eliminating everyone who tells him to "f*** off", but making sure to keep constructive criticism."

'Your album sucks' - nah you keep that one in. 'I think you're a terrible judge' - keep it in." It's fuel for his fire. It's obvious Bedingfield likes to take command of a situation. He refused to sit still for any photos for this story - he says he hasn't done a newspaper shoot for two years and static doesn't fit his "brand" - but he was more than happy to jump over and over a couch for a shot.

Rehearsal with his band that night (his much anticipated X Factor NZ performance is scheduled for a week after this interview) was an exercise in repetition until perfection - but when it was finally right, the other musicians had praise poured over them.

"I'm 100 percent a control freak," he beams. For him it's a badge of pride. "I've made sure my life doesn't intersect with anyone else's life in a way that they could have any control. So apart from my friendships, I'm the boss of absolutely everything that happens in my life. And so no-one can control anything because they don't have any say in my life. Everyone I work with works for me and they do what I want or they walk."

It's not said in an aggressive, arrogant way, it's just that he's sick of people saying things can't be done. He reckons it's downright Kiwi to ignore what everyone else might be saying and just do it anyway. "I love it, and I love that I have [that trait]. I love getting my hands dirty. I love making mistakes."

The whole tartan palaver is part of this, too. You could hardly miss him in a crowd, especially today,with two holes bursting from the seams of his rather snug checked pants - he says he's got chubbier thanks to New Zealand's milk and good food. He recently bought a sewing machine to tailor his own clothes, but "it's not working very well". At least the mismatched tartan shirt and tie distract the eye.

Bedingfield says the outfits, once again, come down to branding: If you can't do a caricature of an artist's clothes, and instantly know who it is, it's not good enough. He spent years searching for a look that was 'Daniel Bedingfield', finally resorting to a full week of shopping, buying everything he liked. And what he liked, what excited him, was everything that broke the rules. "But more than that, [clothes] make me happy and express me. And if it's messy and it's uncontrolled, then obviously that's me. If it's a little over-creative, and a bit narcissistic, if it's just that kind of self-centred dress, then that's perfect, because that's how I make music. I create my own world in my head and I record it, and you hear it."

Narcissist. It's a funny word to use about yourself, but Bedingfield mentions it three or four times during the day. Early on, he says he's struggled balancing the needs of other people as an X Factor mentor. He blames it on years of working alone, and his self described narcissistic tendencies. (He might be joking, but it's hard to tell.) It's well documented he was prescribed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drug Ritalin at the age of 18, but stopped taking it a year later; that his parents are both counsellors; and that he almost died after rolling a four-wheel drive in Northland in 2004.

He says he loves therapy. In his words, it's talking to the smartest person you can find about the most interesting topic of conversation ever. "It never gets boring - a narcissist's dream, only a real narcissist wouldn't want to be found out. True narcissism comes from insecurity, not from thinking you're awesome."

Bedingfield is a combination of supreme confidence, an admirable 'don't give a shit' attitude, juxtaposed with an obvious yearning to be liked. He beams when he hears you know about his random hits in Jamaica, and that you've watched him rolling around wet and naked with an equally unclothed female friend in his award winning, self-directed music video for Secret Fear.

He talks a hundred miles an hour, randomly jumping from how much he reads (usually 10 things at a time, but it used to be four books a week), to how many languages he speaks (eight: English, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Mandarin, French and sign language), to the latest goings-on of his pop star sisters Natasha and Nikola (new album and writing a song for a big, unnamed star, respectively).

And it's all peppered with mentions of a girlfriend who, when pushed, he says he can't talk about. His enthusiasm for life and his music is infectious. He is a supremely positive person, and it's easy to almost become immune to some of the crazier things coming out of his mouth the more time you spend with him.

Is he happy though? "I am alternately happy and stimulated... And that's what I want my music to do -I'm singing about what I want to experience, what I imagine, and then it almost happens by some kind of gravity pull. It pulls the thing you imagined into place. There are a lot of cheesy people who say it a lot of ways.

"[Every day] I focus on making sure what I do next puts me in a positive space. I can't create from negativity... I think that's the only way through - life's f***ing hard, and then you die. And if you don't create the world you want, you'll live in everyone else's world- and it's a shitty place.

"So if I, at any point, let myself believe that I can't do it, I won't. Every day I have moments where it's pretty obvious I'm not going to make it [but] it can't be an option - music is the way I interface with the planet."

Daniel Bedingfield performs at The Studio, Auckland, on August 1 and The Opera House, Wellington, on August 4.

Sunday Magazine