It's easy to rattle off facts about Simon Webbe - his first solo album, "Sanctuary," sold 700,000 copies, yielded three hit singles, and established him as one of the breakthrough artists of 2005 - but they don't convey how much he's actually achieved. Put it this way: Simon used to be one-quarter of cheeky R&B/pop outfit Blue – otherwise known as the boy-band's boy-band – and, as everyone knows, former boy-banders don't have successful solo careers. Unless, that is, their names are Robbie Williams, George Michael or, well, Simon Webbe.
Naturally, various pundits are claiming that they knew all along he'd be successful. (that 20/20 hindsight is great, isn't it?). That was more than Simon knew when the 13-million-selling Blue split in 2004. Back then, if you'd told him that, two and a half years on, he'd be promoting his second solo album (which is called "Grace," and it's rather lovely) and that he would have massive international solo success (big sales across Europe and Asia, plus picking up the "Best Breakthrough Act" gong at the 2006 MTV Asia Awards) he wouldn't have believed it.
Around the release of "Sanctuary" Simon readily admits he had "Oh my God" moments when he'd be onstage somewhere and suddenly remember that he was the only one up there. "I'd instinctively put the mic down and wait for the others to come in on the next verse, and then realise that it was just me. It took me a long time to find my solo feet." And now? "Now, as I do each live show or TV or record, my confidence grows."
It helps that he's found a sound that feels right. He calls it "urban folk," because the music reflects both his upbringing in Moss Side, Manchester and his appreciation of rootsy harmonicas and banjos. "Grace" is very much an urban folk record – warm, uplifting and real. "It's not a huge departure from 'Sanctuary'," Simon says, meaning that the arrangements are still lushly soulful, and the lyrics poignant and heartfelt. Of the latter, he says: "I'm an old soul. I've seen a lot, and could understand a lot at an early age."
Funnily enough, he had toyed with the idea of being a rapper or a straightforward R&B sexpot. "I saw myself doing R&B," he chortles, illustrating with a few medically-improbable dance moves. "Then I realised I wasn't the UK's answer to Usher." Usher will probably be relieved to not have to worry about competition from Manchester.
Manchester, or more specifically Moss Side, where Simon's mum and siblings still live, features on "Grace." If he hadn't left, he reckons, "I would've fallen into the same situation as my friends. If you try to get a job, employers see the M16 postcode and they don't want to know. And the attitude is [belligerently]:'Yeah, I'm from Moss Side, respect me'." And so, despite the fact that it was recorded in the south of France, much of "Grace" was informed by his experiences in M16.
For instance, the gospel-scented, semi-acoustic title track is about "my mum, and the way she raised me. I was a bit wild at one point, and she sent me to Nevis [the island where she grew up] when I was 14 to experience life as she was raised. It was like a boot camp. I went a boy, and came back a man." The song's chorus - "You give me grace to say when I got it wrong" – is his way of thanking her.
Then there's "Don't Wanna Be That Man," which was inspired by a teenage relationship with a neighbourhood girl. Over laid-back guitar and strings, Simon recounts the pain of loving someone who can't love back. He says of the lyric: "My girlfriend used sex as a tool, and everyone around me was telling me she was messing with me. I lost two stone over it. The song is about saying to myself, 'You're messed up, mate, you're being self-destructive." (By the way, he got over it. "I threw myself into the gym, and a year later, I won a competition to be the face of Pride magazine, and a year after that, I was in Blue.")
The album's solid-gold anthem, last year's hit single "Coming Around Again," is an utterly infectious folk-tinged number with a strong lyrical message just like Simon's 2005 massive hit "No Worries." Simon says: "'No Worries' seemed to mean a lot to people. It was a massive hit in Asia, and I had people come up to me and say, 'My husband died in the tsunami, and 'No Worries' gave me hope." Similarly, "Coming Around Again" is about good times, and the strength of the human spirit.
"A Love Like That" captures the typically-bloke feeling of not being able to show all the affection he feels, while the delicate ballad "My Soul Pleads For You" is about love from a different perspective. "It's an emotional song about a girl who's the love of your life, and you put her on a pedestal," he says, adding that, technically, it was one of the hardest tracks to nail down, because he was singing at the top of his register. "I had to get into the zone to do that one," he recalls.
"The zone," wherever that is, suits Simon. Now confident of his own considerable abilities, he and "Grace" are here to make you listen.