In October 2020, James and I sat on a comfortable sofa in a London pub, very socially distanced, talking about his third album that was just about to release. I remember the day as one of my happiest in the period after the first lock-down had opened, as it was the first time for all of us that we had done a shoot and we were so grateful to simply see people in person. We took an hour's break from the shoot and simply had lunch together in the pub, family-style. So grateful to be amongst other humans and remember what it felt like to be social beings. One and a half years later, late March 2022, and more emails than I can count with his very lovely PR, we're speaking again, this time about an album that took a new shape. Stuff happened. You know. 'Cause life throws curveballs and lockdowns, and in James' case, he created life. Literally. He became a father.
I am dying to speak with him again. I make myself some tea, whilst James spends six minutes answering my first question. I love how serious he takes it. But it's a good one that invites self-reflection and James has been doing quite a bit of it, and I listen with curiosity, eager to learn about what life has been like for him. We're right back into the kind of comfortable conversation you have with a friend you haven't caught up with for a while, and I get answers to everything I was curious about. How the music was reshaped, what it felt like to be a musician and play for empty seats and what it feels like to be a father.
And James is as honest as his third album is, cause this is the most personal you will have heard his music. He is growing and we're learning together about what it means to be human. He shares the story behind his newly released single 'Give Me The Reason', how he writes songs as reminders to himself and what to expect for his upcoming album. "It's a bonkers collection of songs", he says and gets me even more curious. It's exciting to see James becoming braver in his artistry and more open about the lessons life is teaching him. It creates really interesting and even more meaningful music, and I'm here for it. Bring me my best headset please and turn up the volume.
James’s new single, 'Give Me The Reason' is out now, taken from his forthcoming new album out later this year.
PART 1 (October 2020)
I often start interviews going straight in with some self-reflection: who is James?
It's a very open question. I could probably do an hour just answering that. It's good. I am fascinated by art that moves me, and I love theatre and theatrics. I love drama and dynamics in film, paintings, music, theatre and art, but as a person, because it's so much of who I am outward, I am quite tame. I have the capacity to be quite outrageous and outgoing and I enjoy exploring that in my work, but away from those moments I am more quiet and warm, and love affection, familiarity and close friendships. Behind the public version of myself that I offer out, I'm quite concerned and focused, whilst when I get on stage I take the opportunity to play with drama and dynamics. Who am I? I can be both ends of the spectrum if that's an answer.
I guess that's the complexities of being human. It makes a nice balance.
I think most people are an amount of one and an amount of the other and that's okay. I am probably 70% extrovert, but the 30% introvert is often affecting me more. I'm a second guesser and have all the types of paranoia that a creative can have. I crave being able to create and I crave reaction, yet they instil paranoia in me, so I guess I'm as complex as anyone else. I can never quite settle. I can be quiet for a while but then I need to be loud. I'm not often in a situation where someone has the time to ask this question. It's nice.
You've talked in other interviews about wanting to enable people to feel something when listening to your music. In your years of doing this, do you have any moments where you have been able to do this?
That's also a great question. I try to stay grateful that I'm still able to do this and try not to overthink one moment of praise over another. There are many different versions of moving someone, and I think the answer is that whenever somebody comes up to me in the street and say they love my songs or for a crowd to know the words, those are the moments. If I can create something that makes people feel something or feel moved, then that's exciting. I'm trying to keep the more human aspects of songwriting alive. I don't go to computers or make music based on a certain tempo, I'm simply trying to have something honest to say and fit that to a melody. In those moments when I see somebody embody what I've made, whether it is making them cry or laugh, or making them put their arms around their friend or sing it really loud - every single one of those moments are insanely special. The longer I'm around doing this thing it's a difficult thing to maintain, so I'm more and more grateful.
Being in the middle of a pandemic, your journey as a musician has been disrupted, but you've been good at adapting and finding ways to enable people to enjoy your music: your live lessons, the James Corden late-night show and the global live streaming at the Shakespeare Globe. How has this time been for you?
The goal is to reach people, whether there's a pandemic going on or not. We live in a time surrounded by social media, and what that has afforded everyone is creating a sense that everyone is together as often as possible. It's like dropping in with each other as often as possible, that's what the live lessons were about. Particularly throughout the height of the first lockdown in the UK, I accepted fairly quickly that this was how it was going to be for a little while, and I was able to be quite constantly available. Instagram Live and then uploading to YouTube means anyone has access to be in the palm of somebody immediately through their phones. Everyone was pretty bored in lockdown and using their screens to stay in touch with each other and the world. I was able to stay in touch with everyone by giving them me as a musician, with a guitar in my hand, showing people how I play my songs in a very informal way. While someone will argue the importance of quality on social media, which is fine, it felt vital in this period of lockdown where everyone felt shut away from everyone else, and simply being with each other was key. I found over the time I did live lessons, it became very fluid through the informal atmosphere and nature of those live streams. It was a lovely way to combat the anxiety of being locked away from one another.
And what a lovely thing to do.
This has been a slightly extreme phase, and desperate times call for desperate measures, as the saying goes. I'm pleased if I can do anything to make anyone feel a bit better. I'm not a doctor or a politician, so I can't do anything in those arenas. I'm just a musician, an entertainer and a performer and I'll give what I can in that capacity.
Music is so powerful, we shouldn't underestimate the impact of it.
Oh, absolutely! It can be so much more powerful than facts and stats - it can be such an important therapy. Absolutely.
What would you say brings the most colour to your life?
My relationship with my girlfriend. We've been together for 13 years and were teenagers when we got together. I can't begin to describe the colour and variety of kind of colour that comes with that. We've grown up together in many ways and been through so much together. Lucy and I have been on such a journey, but we've been on this journey together. We are as strong as ever and it is the most colourful experience imaginable to me. My experience in front of crowds and music fans over the last few years is the other thing.
What was it like to perform at the Shakespeare Globe to an empty theatre?
Something just came to mind. We're talking in person in the same room together and it's wonderful. I don't know how much throughout lockdown you've done a Zoom call? A lot, right? It's fine. Let's be honest, it's not. It's not a disaster, but given the choice, which one are you going to choose? Every time, you're going to want to be in the same space as someone else. The unexplainable magic that occurs when you are in a room with an audience as a performer. If I can't have the audience in the room, I'll do something like the globe show. Do I want to be just me on stage in a phenomenal venue without a crowd? No, I don't want that at all. When I shot the Globe performance, it had been over a year since my last performance with my band on the stage in front of an audience. I appreciated and understood that we couldn't have a crowd, because we had to be kind of COVID safe, so we did the show and in many respects it was wonderful. But I don't want to have to keep doing it like that. I cannot wait for a real crowd to be in the room.
I want to talk about your third album. You have described it as the happiest album you've written.
I was worried about putting something so personal out in the world. I've been in a relationship for 13 years, and this is the first time I've ever really talked about my relationship with my girlfriend. I'm quite a private person and I talk about my music and myself as an artist, but I don't talk about what happens when I go home, shut the door and sit down in my house. When you sign a record deal and start to release music publicly, you sign up for this life where you'll do interviews and people say things about you. But Lucy didn't sign up for that, so I've always wanted to be very careful about risking putting her through that. Yet, here we are 13 years down the line, and I recognized, in hindsight, because I wrote songs and realized what they were really about. I can't do the opposite and act like she doesn't exist. That's not nice. And although she never felt that, I recognize that I can't go so far the other way. She is a huge part of who I am. So in honest, I was quite excited to offer something very positive. I'm saying quite personal things about how important this relationship has been to me and how special this person is to me that I've never gone into detail about in my music before. I've looked at my own struggles or emotional difficulty in my songs very naturally in the past. There was this kind of struggle in songs I was writing for this third album, and then there was this triumph in each story, and I realized that the struggle was me fighting with myself and Lucy's support was the triumph. So I wrote a lot of songs about how special that triumph is and how special she is. It ended up in a very personal space, and I'm surprisingly okay with it.
It makes it very interesting when each album is a different chapter of an artist. You've just released the single 'Chew On My Heart', and I love that there is a piano and vocal version of it as well. That one goes straight on my playlist! What have you learned about relationships and what it takes to keep them growing, keeping in mind yours have been going strong for 13 years?
You have to want to. You have to be very vulnerable. It's better to be vulnerable than to build up walls and constantly have your guard up. I was going to use a metaphor and say that you have to be kind of naked. You have to allow for things that aren't entirely in your control, and as we grow we try and take more and more control of stuff to be functioning independent humans. You have to give up control of certain things and allow another person to be equal to you as you move forward together. It's sort of beautiful, to be honest. Vulnerability is terrifying and historically has not been a show of power. It has been the opposite, but we're finding out quickly how wrong that is. So far, in my relationship, I've shown vulnerability, but I'm still on a journey with it. We both are. Because as you grow and learn about how things in the world work, there will always be surprises in a relationship that you don't necessarily see coming, and it's easy to put all your armour on and hold your guards up. But if you welcomed it, this invulnerability you grow as a couple is so special.
On the upcoming album, are there any songs specifically that is about that kind of vulnerability?
A whole bunch. One of the most special ones to me includes the lyrics: "I've only got one life and I want you in it." That's the first line of the chorus. It's quite a declaration and delivered as a realization. The verses talk about day-to-day life, trying to make decisions together, doing the right thing, struggling to always come to the same conclusion, and how difficult it can be sometimes to see eye to eye. Then there is a pre-chorus, that talks about how helpless I feel if I didn't have this person, and my realisation is at the top of the chorus that I've only got one life and I want you to be in it - and that's all that matters. That's a big confession, quite grand, and it takes a lot of vulnerability to own that and say: "Here's my song. This is what I want to say." There's therapy in it. There is something therapeutic about accessing a degree of vulnerability. I grew up in the 90s, and vulnerability in men was not championed at the time. It was essentially a show of weakness. So it's been a journey to discover my vulnerability, and a big part of the wonderful growth and development is my relationship.
Is this the first album where you feel like you've been able to be vulnerable?
There's a vulnerability in previous songs where I've allowed people to know there's something emotionally difficult that I'm struggling with. It's a typical songwriting mechanism rooted in blues; 'someone done me wrong and I'm so sad. Now my baby left me'. Lots of people write about heartbreak because it's a version of vulnerability that's relatable and almost popular to portray. I've written songs like that in the past and I will write more songs like that because there's nothing particularly wrong with it. As I've written for this third album, I found that I explored a new kind of vulnerability for me. A vulnerability that says it's okay that I can't necessarily do this on my own. I've got you and you're so special to me, and I really want to have you around. I'd rather be a team with you.
You had so much success with your previous albums. How do you continue that journey and live up to the expectations?
I had no idea if my first album was going to do anything and it went really well. There are lots of different versions of really well, but mine is one. I didn't see it coming. What's so different about doing a second album if you've had a successful first one, is you think you know what doing well looks like and how you got there. I think one of the key things to do is to not do the same thing again. It's lovely that everyone enjoyed it, but let's give them something new as well. Maybe it will work, at least it will be honest. What I found out is that I've got no control. It doesn't matter how honest or incredible I think something is - it's out of my control. There's one thing that I have control over and that is making something that I love. And I did do that, I love that music.
Let's talk about hope. How do we cling on to hope in times like this?
We just have to do whatever way we can. Because as this thing goes on, it's more and more testing for every individual and everyone together - for every industry, every community and society as a whole. So we have to be diligent and take comfort in the simple pleasures and stay hopeful. I want there to be crowds in venues with artists and performers as we used to have it as soon as possible.
PART 2 (March 2022)
It's nice to see you again. It feels like forever!
It was forever. It was one and a half years since we did the first part of this interview.
You know what? It's funny, it's two years today since I came home from the studio in Nashville, and I didn't know at that point that I was only halfway through making and writing the album.
And we thought your album was done!
It's been stretched out across all this time. It's nice and strange at the same time.
I don't think I've ever had a situation like this for an interview where I've finished the interview after one and a half years. But this is the strange world we are living in right now. The only thing to do is to embrace it.
What's interesting as well about that day, is that everybody felt like we were through the pandemic and things were on the way to open up. We opened up and closed down so many times since then. I've got so much to say about this album, as it's been a journey since then!
So much has happened in one and a half years, you're a father now, you created life!
Literally created life, haha.
That's very impressive.
It's been incredible. Lucy and I have been together for a long time, so it was sort of on the cards and we had wanted to do it. We had a baby and it has been absolutely incredible, we're five months in. She's a little girl called Ada, and it has been the wildest rollercoaster ride of all. She is five months old and is an incredible little human. At the same time, I'm putting an album out and trying to tour it and hopefully have a long campaign. I'm not prepared but celebrating what I want to do of the madness of it all. The album is a mad, brilliant collage of a lot of time passing, and me as a writer reacting to that time. Half the album was recorded in Nashville in 2020, and the other half of the album was written and recorded over Zoom.
Let's talk about that, 'cause the album was ready to go. How did this time and new recordings change the album?
Yes, I wrote the 'Give Me The Reason' six months ago, a year after I first spoke to you. I went to Nashville in February 2020 with 12 songs to record and turn into an album - that was the intention - and I came home 21st of March having achieved that. On the 23rd of March, the UK and a lot of the world went into lockdown properly. It was very much Boris Johnson telling us not to go outside and not leave your sofa, please. It was weird and scary, so I started to ask myself: "how do I do my work now and what does this mean for the album?". I thought I'd first mix and master it, release it by the end of 2020 and start touring. But what the situation really meant was that I wasn't going to be able to and that was hard to accept. I did put a song out in 2020 called "Chew On My Heart", that we talked about last time, but then the rest of 2020 passed and as the start of 2021 arrived, my whole team and I accepted that it was going to be difficult to know when we could start properly releasing the music in the way we wanted to. So the only thing that helped me was to do more writing.
Throughout 2020, writers and artists had not enjoyed writing with each other over Zoom. You'd be there with your instrument and I'd be here with mine. If you and I tried to play in time, we couldn't, as there is a second or a half a second delay, which makes it hard to do. But it was the only way, so I started to write with people online for six months and a load of great songs that I just couldn't deny going on this album started to form. The most honest thing was to accept the mad collection of songs that had created itself over a mad period of time. So that's how it went.
Also, since 2019, I had felt unsure of who I was as an artist. Even when I went to Nashville, which was this time when I was going to find myself, I had still been fighting with myself. And throughout all the crazy times we've now lived through for two years, I was able to accept myself, highly impacted by Lucy, who is my complete and utter anchor. And having a baby has been an amazing experience, I feel more settled in myself and who I am, both personally and professionally. It reassured me that I can be the kind of artist that I want to be as far as identity and sound.
I guess it's big changes like this, that brings you into the next chapter of life.
The interesting thing is that the professional chapter has been going for a long time, constantly evolving - it's a separate piece of time that moves in its own way. I was 20 something trying to do 20 something stuff, and now I'm 31 years old and there is a next chapter in that respect.
Did becoming a father impact this album in any way or is that something that may impact what comes next?
Maybe the next? It's such a personal and intimate thing. Becoming a parent, I'm not sure yet how that will manifest in my writing. There are ways in which a number of these songs do apply to the feelings of becoming a parent. Some of them are about my relationship with Lucy. I've never gone to those kinds of places with my writing before, and that was quite a boundary I pushed on this album.
We talked about this being the most personal album you had written. Is it still?
Yes, it still is, and it may apply even more. I had been trying to be more of a tough guy, so I was a bit afraid to go to this personal and more intimate place with my writing. I was comfortable saying: "I need you" and "I love you", but for this album, emotions and notions have come through in a way they never have before. There are still a bunch of sad songs, even in this more positive album. A few things have been happening in my life that has inspired these songs and one of them is having felt so lost and struggled with feeling quite worthless. In ways it got quite dark, and out of that came this beautifully positive energy when I recognised and appreciated again what people like Lucy are to me. This is the biggest emotion that comes off the album.
Some of the songs are about a fallout with a close longtime friend of mine. Sometimes, as you grow up, you grow in different directions, and it was a very difficult thing to accept. You realise that you can't always fully fix something, and we don't get along in the same way now. That, at a time when I was feeling a bit lost and unsure of myself, my dealing with this fallout comes through in some songs. Although they are essentially sad songs, they move towards a positive place and were also a way for me to tell myself to look after myself a bit more. I've always written songs to myself, which is an interesting place to write from. In the face of a friendship that is falling to pieces, I wrote 'Give Me The Reason' from that perspective, saying: "this can't be it, we can't be over. We have been so much for each other, just give me one reason to not walk out the door'.
Ah, so 'Give Me The Reason' is you reflecting back at this friendship?
Yes, it does. But there's still this positive twist on it, as I'm not quite willing to accept that the relationship is completely over. We've got too much great history.
That's so interesting and part of the journey of life. I think, the older you get, the more you realise that life is not black and white. There are so many complexities, and to have awareness of and accept those are some of life's lessons.
Yeah, you stand in your own corner more and more as life goes on. I think, one of the beautiful things about being younger is that you're malleable. You'll get on board with other people's ways and it will help shape you, but as you get older, I understand that I can't swing away from my morals and what I believe in. The lines are harder. 'Give Me The Reason' comes from a place that says that these harder lines exist. It's a big and very emotional song, about the heart beating fast in your throat and emotions running wild.
Will you cry on stage when you sing it? Have you ever done that?
I've cried on stage a few times actually, but I think I've blocked those memories out. I get so excited to be on stage and pretend in my head like I'm Bruce Springsteen, but perhaps halfway through the song, when I remember what it's about, maybe I will, haha.
I really thought this song was about your relationship, and I was curious why you were writing about a break-up when this album feels like a big love letter to Lucy. But now I understand, and thanks for sharing this back-story, it all makes sense now. I like it. There are many kinds of love, and friendship is one.
I completely understand why you made that assumption, and you're right, there are many kinds of love.
One thing I was really curious to talk to you about today was how it felt to play to a live audience again after playing to an empty room during the pandemic?
That was one of the times I've cried on stage! I talked to lots of artists, friends and performers through the heaviest lockdown moments, and we were all saying that when we get back on stage one day, there will be tears everywhere, the best tears ever. And when the tears got me as I went back on stage, it was a shock, because everyone was so instantly warm and it was even better than I imagined. It felt like: 'We are back. We've got James on stage and we, as the audience, are where we want to be'. The tears of joy caught me off-guard. I got all choked up and had to control myself before I started just blabbing.
And now, your single 'Give Me The Reason' is releasing and the album is to follow this year. Exciting!
Yes! And I will be touring as well. It's all very exciting. I started this year with a very cool, little tour of solo acoustic performances, which is the way I started performing. A brilliant way to start this year, after two years without being in front of a live audience. Then we have a spring tour in April and May, slowly building to bigger venues, being a bit gentle about the reopening we're still feeling is happening. So yeah, much more touring to come. I hope it all happens.
Ultimately, whether I liked it or not, the gap I had and the waiting I had to do for 18 months or so affected me as an artist. I'm proud and pleased about how I tackled it and that I carried on writing. This album is a collage of music and this time passing. Hopefully, there will never be another moment like this in my life as an artist, but all the songs across the album is a great time capsule. I can't wait to release it!
What legacy you would like to leave?
That's huge. A big question. Legacy... I hope that way after I'm gone, my music is some of the music that helps inspire people to dive even deeper into the emotion when they are writing. To dive just a bit deeper into the kind of honesty of the lyric and the emotion. I hope mine is some of the music that can help inspire good lyrics, that it will help other songwriters to push harder, to be better. We can always dig a little bit deeper and you think you've dug as deep as you can into the emotion of a lyric in a song. The closer you get to the core of honesty and emotion, the longer it can exist.