"I've just got to Tweet this," says Lebanese-Canadian singer Karl Wolf, sat at the (not-yet-open) bar of a Dubai nightclub where he’s shooting the video for “Awel Mara Atgarak,” his collaboration with Egyptian singer Sandy. “Tough life!” he types. It’s accompanied by a picture of Wolf sitting on one of the club’s sofas surrounded by a posse of models.
These days, Wolf’s life is pretty sweet. He’s had hits in North America and the Middle East, travels the world playing his club-friendly, feel-good pop (meeting a bunch of beautiful women on the way) and has landed himself several awards from Canadian music associations and MTV Europe, among others. But, not that long ago, his ‘Tough life’ Tweet wouldn’t have been a joke.
Wolf had to develop a thick skin early on in his career. From taking over as the singer for the Canadian pop band Sky in 2002 (“I knew it was going to be tough shoes to fill – people were going to hate on me right away. And sure enough they did”) to numerous rejections from labels as he tried to push his solo work. “They’d tell me they thought I had a good voice and image, but that I wasn’t ready,” Wolf says. “Then they’d be like, ‘But could you write a song for my artist?’ I was completely flabbergasted at how they would have the guts to ask me that.” Still, he did it. “You know, I’m Lebanese, I’ve got that business-savvy thing.” He laughs. “I was very pissed off, but it was probably the best thing for me. No one’s ever helped me out, so now, if I’m out on my ass, I know I can get by.”
It wasn’t until Wolf took a big risk – blowing his last $5,000 on a radio promoter to get airplay for his cover of Toto’s “Africa” – that labels were finally forced to take notice of him. “It went quadruple platinum [in Canada],” he says. “EMI called me back: ‘Karl, we were wrong. Forgive us. Do you want a record deal?’ ‘Yes. I do.’ Ever since then my career’s been golden. But people think I just arrived on the scene. No. I was so close to losing it.”
And now he’s ready to take another chance. His upcoming album, Wolf says, will be his “last record [in this style].”
“I’m done,” he says. “I feel stagnant. I’m like, ‘Where am I going?’ I’ve spoken to the record company and after this run, in August or September or whatever, that’s it.” He’s turning to the artists he loved as a kid in the Eighties for inspiration; Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams, even Phil Collins. “Even though my music is more on that R&B or house tip, I’m a songwriter to begin with. It’s just this is the style I currently have,” he says. “I guess I became this type of artist because of my DJ background [Wolf started out as a DJ and producer]. I like to please people, and I got to know what music people like, what was a hit. A lot of songwriters get really introverted. I love a lot of those artists, but they make beautiful music for themselves. And then people get into them.” For Wolf, it was always a case of making music that he knew people would be into. But for his new direction, he says, “I really want to show what’s inside of me.”
Wolf says he doesn’t think he could have started out any other way than with his pop music. “I’ve created the artist now. At this point, I can take [my fans] on a journey. I always thought, ‘Why would anyone want to listen to my introverted stuff? Me playing the guitar by myself?’ It might not be the exciting Karl Wolf everyone wants – you’ve seen my character: ‘Yo everybody, let’s go!’ – but I think I want to go back to the drawing board and start over – music, image, everything.”
Those who fear Wolf might be withdrawing into solitude shouldn’t worry. His music might become more low-key, but he’s unlikely to ever be the shy-and-retiring type. At the moment, negotiations are underway with Much Music (the Canadian equivalent of MTV) to license a reality show – Wolf Pack – based on Wolf’s day-to-day activities with “my crew.” He also hopes it will be picked up by MTV Arabia.
The pilot has already been shot, and Wolf says he was very clear with the director (Canadian comedian and YouTube star Paul Telner) that he didn’t want to play a character. “He was trying to sell me on it for two years,” Wolf explains. “I was always saying, ‘No way dude. I don’t want to do a reality show. I don’t want to be part of that. It’s not me.’ But finally – after I broke up with my girl really, because I didn’t want that side of my personal life to get involved – I was like, ‘Here are the rules: I gotta be real, it’s gotta be me, and it cannot affect my career and my progress. You guys want to follow me around and see what I do, no problem. But I’m not going to act it, there’s no script, just leave me alone.’
“I didn’t want to have to stage scenes or whatever,” he continues. “I’ve got work to do, I can’t just mess around.”
The pilot, he says, is “really, really funny. It’s actually a comedy show. It makes people laugh. So now I’ve got cozy with it.”
But, he adds, if the show doesn’t get made, “I don’t care. If it happens, it happens. It’s not my baby.” It’s his new musical direction that remains Wolf’s focus. “It’s not about selling records anymore. It’s about creating something that’s going to inspire people. I can’t wait. I’m so excited.”