"I don't like boxes," says Daniel Bedingfield. "Human, male, heterosexual, Christian stop there." But people don't, especially with the 23-year-old singer's music. Though his debut album Gotta Get Thru This sprawls from garage to pop to rock, it's the syrupy ballads that stick in the minds of critics. Lyrics like "If you're not the one, then why does my hand fit yours this way?" have won him a label he loathes: "cheesy pop star."
Certainly the star part is true. Gotta Get Thru This has racked up 1.8 million in sales since its debut 15 months ago, and it's still high in the U.K. charts. His first five singles all reached the Top 10 in Britain, and the sixth single, Friday, came out last week. Next month, he kicks off a European tour. But don't judge yet, he pleads. What we've heard so far "is such a narrow view of who I am."
His story is the kind publicists love. The New Zealand-born Brit records a track in his bedroom, in his underwear, in anonymity. He sends the track to radio stations, and a London-based DJ picks it up for his gigs. Gotta Get Thru This, the single, "was raw, it was original-sounding, it was very edgy and it had a lot of impact," says DJ EZ, who includes it on one of his popular Pure Garage compilations in 2001. Then the doors swing open: to a big record deal and chart success in the U.K. and U.S., where Bedingfield's the only Briton to have scored two Top 20 singles in the past year (take that, Robbie Williams).
The musical superlatives mask a major part of Bedingfield's nonmusical appeal: his averageness. He looks like a plumber, not a pinup. He laughs (often too) loudly. He talks openly about his struggles, such as attention deficit disorder and his occasional need for others to jolt him out of self-absorption. He's a romantic who seeks "the one" woman. And he feels no need to hide any of it. "We're like billboards. Everyone's life is advertising who they are," he says, and his reads i'm like you.
His songs are shaped by experience. Friday, the new single, deals with the peril of obsession. In the song, it's a woman. In real life, it was music. At 18, "I was working seven days, 100 hours a week," writing songs. "Everybody said, 'Dan, you're working too hard,'" he recalls. "I was addicted." He quit cold turkey, "picked up a backpack, went on a tour of Europe, saw my family and friends," he says. A year later, he got back to writing, but vows, "I am not doing that again."
Bedingfield isn't shy about the Christian faith that grounds him. He sings of lifelong love, not lustful flings. And his favorite song on the album is Honest Questions, an echo of the Bible's psalms. ("And streams will flow from the dust of/ Your bruised and broken soul.") "I'm in the tradition of the bards," he says. "The idea is to make music that satisfies your soul in the writing, and in the singing elevates others' souls.
"It's going to take me a few albums to make the collage I'm trying to make," Bedingfield says. The pieces on his next album, due next year, will include shades of reggae, folk and hard rock. He knows it's risky; what fans call versatility, critics deem inconsistency. But he has his own standards of success, and one is to have the freedom and discipline to explore creatively. He may not escape others' attempts to label him, but he's happy to defy them. "My whole life," he says with a grin, "is an effort not to be pigeonholed." So far, so good.