James is passing each threshold of his own, and truly breaking through every moment to create more space for not only himself, but others as well. These spaces are steady and rhythmic like the chambers of our hearts, and nothing is as strong as the beat of James’ own heart. It spills into every lyric, every chord and harmony, as he embarks on a new and electrifying solo journey with his music. Through his new EP, Manabi, released on November 10th, James creates a road like no other, filled with silken cadences accompanied by intricate beats, transcending in soul-stirring nostalgia.
James’ lyrics float the listener into undiscovered atmospheres, with each song holding such a unique energy, ranging from poignant and evocative to gleeful and sanguine. Each song is its own butterfly effect, changing the listener and giving them a soft place to land between each beat. Though our pasts can be like these ripples, forever altering our present and future, this doesn’t ruffle James in the slightest. A resilience lives in not only his music, but in his day to day life as well.
James holds a grace that is eloquently laced into each word as we speak about his journey with music, the importance of transparent dialogues around mental health, and the constant “learning” he is navigating and exploring with himself and his loved ones. When you listen to Manabi, you’ll find who he is and who he once was. In our conversation, you’ll also find who he wants to be (preferably someone with a nice view whose wife might let him paint in the house).
James’ EP, Manabi, releases November 10, 2023.
What’s a song, or a line from a song, that describes how you are feeling today?
That's actually such a hard question! Today has been filled with quite a lot of anxiety, but the anxiety is met with excitement because my first show went on sale today! It’s really scary not knowing how it's going to go, though. I would say the last song off of my new EP, ‘Dance or Die’ is a good one for today. It’s not necessarily relevant to this anxiety and excitement from my show going on sale, but it's that whole idea of being on a knife edge, where one bad thing puts me in a pit of anxiety, but with one good thing I’m elated.
If you could listen to one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I'm a really big fan of Patrick Droney, a singer songwriter and all round shredder. His album, State of the Heart, is one I absolutely love. Any of Damien Rice, as well! He did an LP, called My Favourite Faded Fantasy, which came out seven or eight years ago, and I love it so much.
What was your very first experience with music? Or at least your first vivid experience?
My parents weren't musicians or anything, but my dad was really into music when I was growing up. I have memories of him playing songs in the car by Del Amitri, who are a Scottish band from the eighties. They have a song called ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, and I vividly remember listening to that song when I was maybe four or five years old. My dad would also play Crowded House a lot, and bands similar to them.
I had three really inspiring moments with artists that are very different, but equally influenced me. Some of the first music I listened to when I was around twelve when I was like, okay, shit, I want to do this, was Damien Rice. He lyrically blew my mind, because I didn't understand the themes and concepts he was speaking about at the age of twelve, but now I’m thirty and get to enjoy his music all over again. Also, sonically, he really stays with an organic quality in the production and acoustics, but then has these moments of insanity with crazy shit going on! It was interesting for my mind in its infancy phase of understanding music - it was quite an explosion.
Then there’s the UK band, Busted, which is around twenty years old now. They were the first band I saw on TV when I was ten that made me think, oh, wow, they’re really cool and I want to do that. They were a bit more pop, more slick, but also sort of rock as well, which interested me.
And the third person was Taylor Swift! When I was around thirteen, her music really opened my eyes to lyrics that are very conversational. I love how you can imagine her writing to herself in a diary or something. It’s a colloquialism of lyricism that was really, really interesting to me. At this early, juvenile phase, I had Taylor whose music still had an element of country to it, but still had good pop influence. Then I had Damien Rice whose lyrics blew my mind, and also made me start to understand how an acoustic guitar could spur and spark emotion. And I had Busted who were the rock, cool kids.
So, you are currently on this very exciting solo journey with music! How has the start of this journey felt both on an internal level within yourself, and externally as well?
I've gotten to the position of thinking that the EP, Manabi, is this five year consequence of my life that has all come to this point. The first three of those five years, I had no idea that my thoughts would culminate in this release. But I've done a lot of learning over the past five years or, really, since the start of The Vamps. But the last five years [in particular] have been a real tangible departure.
This EP really is all about learning. Manabi translates to ‘learning’ in Japanese. It’s this ‘learning’ of myself, the sort of person I am, and who I will evolve into. For the past five years, I've been reluctant to explore certain areas of myself. But to truly evolve as a person and better my relationships with people around me, I've needed to knock on certain doors. I find myself with the songs I never intended to sit down and be like, right, today, I'm going to write this. I just started writing.
I actually fell out of love with songwriting for a long time, in the middle of the band, when I was so busy with touring and the creation of The Vamps. I didn't have a guitar at home for years. Now, that sounds alien to me, because every day I'll play guitar and start working on something. When I fell back in love with songwriting, that moment coincided with, I don't know…not rediscovering myself, because that sounds like shit [laughs], but perhaps peeling back another layer of myself. The EP is my way to communicate with people who listen to my music, but I think also to communicate with myself, in a weird way. I'm seeing the songs as myself now, but also myself five years ago, if that makes sense.
That makes total sense, and it’s so beautiful! With so much art, you have to at times extract this “inner child” from yourself to dig deeper. How important has a sense of community and support been for you within this new journey?
Yeah, it's been integral. For the whole of my music career, my parents have been really supportive, and I recognise how lucky I am to have that safety net around me. I think it's been hard, definitely hard for my parents, but also for my wife and close friends, to receive this EP. Five years ago, people close to me would have presumed that some of the themes I touch on in the EP wouldn't have been themes in my life at that point. That's mainly because of the fact that I was suppressing certain things, or tried to avoid facing issues by, for example, smoking loads of weed or drinking lots of alcohol, or whatever. Now that the EP is done and out, and I’ve addressed some of those themes so publicly and emotionally, it can be quite shocking for a lot of my loved ones to see me singing about mental health. That’s hard.
It's been very beneficial for my relationships with people, though - especially my wife. We went through a period of time when I was quite reluctant to be vocal about things, despite the fact that I've always been pretty transparent with my emotions and thoughts. But this process, and the conversations we’ve had around it, were really, really vital to our relationship.
These topics are touched on in songs like ‘Dance or Die’ and ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’, which was the first song I released. Even though it's the first song, and ‘Dance or Die’ is the last song, from a chronology perspective, you could flip them. At the start of the process with the EP, I was all over the place, so with ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ being the last song I wrote, but the first to be released, it's almost me looking back across the whole process and saying, this is how I was. That song is sort of an apology to the people around me who I've pushed out for so long.
Yeah, ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ is this stunning, emotional ballad that has a very moving narrative nodding towards mental health. How important do these themes of mental health feel to you in music, and in the media as well?
I've been speaking about mental health for quite a long time. When I first started speaking about it around ten years ago, I remember feeling really lucky I was able to speak about those themes on TV or on the radio, because the people doing it were quite few and far between. I think it's amazing now that there's a lot of mental health conversations happening. There's a percentage of people that still turn their noses up to it, because they feel that it's virtue signalling to say that you have issues. Those people clearly are just angry people, irrespective of how you feel about people broadcasting personal struggles.
For me personally, it was harder ten years ago, especially as a guy, to speak about mental health. And there's still quite a long way to go with these conversations. I heard on the radio last week that mental health in schools is at an all-time low, and it just keeps going down. The more conversations you have, the better.
That being said, though, I didn’t want this EP to be solely encompassing mental health. Even though it’s a huge, huge part of my life, I didn’t want people to listen to the EP and only feel, like, depressed [laughs]. It’s more than that. I think ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ is good for that reason, though, because it’s a song where I am acknowledging those issues and showing that everyone at times needs a bit of help, but it’s in the perspective of being on the other side of it. The EP isn’t all doom. We have to have a bit of optimism!
What about ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ in particular drew you to releasing it as your first single?
Ah, it's funny, actually, I had no intention of releasing that song on my first EP. It was meant to come out on the second EP. I finished everything for this EP, and I was going to release ‘Dance or Die’ first. ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ came to me late in the game. I think if I had released ‘Dance or Die’ first, it would have been this epitome of these dark depths, where I was during that process. I didn’t want that. With my first message, I wanted to say, yes, mental health is really important, I've gone through a lot of weird shit, but I'm alright and this is me reflecting on that period. It's nice to have ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ come out first, from a sonic or melody perspective, as well. It's a bit more approachable and, melodically, a bit more obscure and has a singalong feeling to it. I didn't want my first thing to be the depths of my despair.
Was there an initial energy or aura you wanted the EP to encompass?
So, this is the first thing I've ever really produced. Even in The Vamps, I never really produced, mainly because the other boys are much better producers than I am. For Manabi, what started off as limitations from a production standpoint, turned into a world of production I really got on board with. It's been funny, too, because I've had industry people reach out and say they love the production! In actuality, I made those production choices and sounds because I had some hindrances. I've written more songs with this production in mind, though. It's helped me hone in on exactly the sort of music I want to make. At the start of this process around two years ago, I didn't have any influences or sense of direction. Now, I’m really aware of what I'm doing. I want it to be organic. I want people to feel like they can see me playing the instruments. I want it to be rough around the edges.
I hope that translates to me feeling approachable and personable as an artist. Now, listening back, there’s a sense of honesty and pride knowing that the production is basic, and I really liked the fact that it's me. I didn’t bring in a massive producer to make this record sound really slick like on the radio. I get a sense of satisfaction and excitement knowing that with every song I produce, I’m developing my skills, which means when the second EP comes next year, I’ll hopefully have come a bit further along as a producer. It’s that learning thing again, in every aspect.
I know all the songs on the EP are your babies, but is there one that felt particularly visceral while creating?
Yeah, you're right, each song has such a special place. From a songwriting perspective, just sitting down with a guitar and writing lyrics, ‘Blood and Bones’ is one I'm really happy with. Lyrically it’s simple, but it hits the nail on the head with what I wanted to achieve. At the other end of the scale though, you've got songs like ‘30,000 Feet’. From a musician's perspective, it was nice to kind of throw the kitchen sink at it and do a harmonising guitar part, and the big drums with more energy in the vocals. If I had to say what my favourite song of all was, it’d have to be ‘Blood and Bones’.
And do you think one of the reasons it feels so close to you is the aspect that it's about your wife and your connection?
Yeah, I think so. I've written loads of songs over the years about us, but this one seemed to really resonate with me in a way that others maybe hadn’t. There aren’t many words in ‘Blood and Bones’ in particular, and during the process of creating it, we went through every word with a fucking fine tooth comb. I originally wrote the song about 18 months ago, and the only thing that stayed the same were the lyrics, time after time. Everything else was different. That process was really difficult to unpick, with certain melodies or lyrics that had been embedded into my brain for 18 months. But now, I'm so proud and grateful we did that, because I can't see myself in 20 years being embarrassed to have ever released that song.
That’s definitely a great feeling to have! As an artist, there’s a level of intuition that comes with creativity. How do you feel this aspect of intuition affects your mode of creation, especially in the writing and production of music?
At the start, I was quite conscious of the commercial viability of songs or the formulas that I'd used with The Vamps that had been successful. I got tied up in the stress of marketing a song in a particular way. That stuff is still important to me, but I threw a lot of those rules out the window in the end. With ‘Blood and Bones’, it’s around five minutes long, and even that in itself is a bit crazy in the music world. A lot of songs now are getting to fucking two and a half minutes long, even shorter with social media audios and stuff. So, there was a definite moment where I was like, you know what, I'm going to write the song how I like it. I'm going to extend the intro if I want to. That felt intuitive to an extent.
I'm always conscious that I want to write songs for people, I don't want to write songs that are completely alien to people. That’s probably the Taylor Swift influence. With melodies, I think a lot of them are quite calm - it's just about how they're dressed up. So, you know, you can listen to Taylor's Folklore album and those songs are really lovely. I'm trying my best to still write melodies that aren't awkward to listen to, but there was definitely a period where I needed to park all these habits and tendencies that I picked up over the past ten years working in a pop band. I love what we do with The Vamps, I can't wait to do the next album! But for my project, I wanted it to be quite far away from that. I didn't want to have to play by certain rules that you have to do to be commercially successful.
A fear of the unknown and uncertainty can at times combat our intuition and self-assurance. How do you navigate these feelings and thoughts as well?
It’s hard. I'd be lying if I said I don't worry about certain things. But I'm really grateful that the Vamps are, like, everything. I'm lucky I'm not doing this EP to pay my mortgage, or I'm not desperate to be a famous solo artist. I'm doing this almost as a test of my abilities as a songwriter and producer. And, I mean, this is a fucking public diary entry for me! [laughs] But, yeah, I don't worry about the same things I would if The Vamps didn't exist. The band is doing shows this year, and next year there's more stuff happening. Overall with this EP, I’m not worrying about getting on the radio or charting with a certain song. It's taken away that pressure and alleviated some of the heaviness you can at times feel. Yes, I got anxious today because this show went on sale and I want people to come, but I know I'm not going to be playing ‘Blood and Bones’ on the Ellen show. And that's fine! I don't need to do that. It is a nice and lucky feeling to have.
I know I personally love being in my little creative bubble, but also really enjoy collaboration just as much. What’s your relationship with both solo creation and collaboration?
One thing for this EP is that I had a very small circle of people I worked with. And that's not because I don't want to share percentages, it's for the fact that it's actually quite hard to find people that truly relate to some of the themes, especially subjects of mental health. Mental health is something that is a massive spectrum. Everyone knows certain dialogues around it, but actually to be able to find people that I feel comfortable to talk with…it's been a challenge. I worked with Amy Wadge who's an amazingly successful songwriter. For a start, with someone like Amy, she's just so brilliant and whenever we work together, we'll have an hour at the start that’s almost a therapy session.
From a creative point, I worked with three people on the whole thing. Moving forward, I would love to find some artists I am a genuine fan of and would love to work with. I’m not looking to do conventional collaborations. I wouldn't be wanting to do, like, a Pitbull feature [laughs]...well, that would be cool. But what I’m saying is that I’d love to work with artists that are in the same sort of lane as me - a little folky. I’d love to work with a female artist, similar to how Damien Rice had Lisa Hannigan on his early stuff. But I'm really open. I've been working with Patrick Droney on the second EP and a few people like that. Again, it’s nice there's no real rush, unlike how I would maybe feel if I were signed to a major record deal. But it also means there's a lot more pressure as an independent artist to keep driving the bus and being, like, let's go.
What stage in life do you feel like you are in right now?
I feel so motivated to do more, and I'm more appreciative than ever before as well. My wife and I are at a phase where, in three years, we'd love to have children if we're able to. We're at this point where we're trying to experience the world a bit more. I've realised that the biggest part of making good music is to be truly living to have stuff to write about. So, the next couple of years are going to be busy, I’m going to try and take this solo stuff as far as I can, as well as doing The Vamps. I have a feeling of almost, like, this self awakening - I’m more open with people than ever before, and that's reflected in my music. People being able to hear my music, for me, emotionally, it is quite a big deal. I've never had songs this personal to me be out in the world, so it's nice that people are seeing new sides and learning more about me as a person.
Speaking of stages, you’ve done a lot of performing and tours in the past with The Vamps. Does thinking about performing these songs live affect the way you produce them?
I don't think about the live performances massively when I'm producing. Well, other than ‘30,000 Feet’, because that song live is going to be great. I'm a bit nervous, actually. We put the show on sale, and that's done, but now I'm like, shit, I actually need to learn the songs! I've never done a full set on my own. There's going to be a lot of practising, a lot of learning and figuring out how I want to present myself. It's going to be very different from The Vamps shows. I've really learned with fans over the past few years, that it's so important to put on the best show possible for people. The thought of people spending money and travelling to see me…they deserve the best thing possible. So, I'm trying to figure out how I can do that. That will take some time, but I'm really excited for it!
There’s a lot of new and exciting things happening in your life right now. How do you take time to decompress and find steady ground to land on?
I'm still in the hangover phase of the pandemic, meaning that I do the majority of the work from this room, which is great. But it also means that it's hard to switch off. I'm the sort of person that gets hyper-focused. If I know there's a song that’s nearly finished, I’ll start working on it at 6AM and get it done. I'm desperate to get shit done. And, with that, it's inevitably going to be hard on the relationship with my wife at times. I have to remember she has her own ambitions and is her own person. She's not an accessory to my career. It's about acknowledging that she needs her time and my support. But, she's been so great. I think something as simple as putting your phone somewhere else and being present is great. You don't need to be answering messages all the time. It's about trying to build some moderation. It's harder at the start, because obviously this is all new and exciting for me, and it's taking a long time to get my equilibrium back with how personal meets business.
Are there other mediums of art you enjoy practising or exploring?
I want to start painting on big canvases, but my wife said absolutely not in the house. Amy, who does stuff with Ed Sheeran, has a big art piece in her house that Ed made. I would love to do that. But I know it would be an absolute nightmare with the mess. But who knows? If I'm ever lucky enough to live in a big house where I can have a painting room, maybe that'd be good. I'd love to paint my own artwork for future albums.
How does your environment and how you tend to hold space affect your work?
The room I’m in now, where I produced everything, is very dark and very dead sonically, which, ironically, seems to be good for me. Again, though, I have the dream of sitting in a really nice spot to make stuff. I'm going through this phase at the moment wherever I go, whether it be a house or a hotel, I’m always thinking how nice of a studio it would make. But I bring a lot of emotions into this room. When I come in here to start writing, it's because I've sat in my front room writing a song on the guitar, then I'll come in here and make it. So, I don't often find myself in this room searching for songs. This is the work room. I've only got one window so it's quite insular. I've got a lot of The Vamps memorabilia in here as well, and having those achievements on the walls subconsciously pushes me. It makes me look at it and be like, Oh, well done. That's great. Now carry on and try to do that again. I feel a lot of love within here; it's a safe space. I've got a picture from my wedding day, all The Vamps stuff, and sometimes my dog sleeps on the bed in here. It's nice.
It's been over ten years since The Vamps were formed! What would you want to say to yourself ten years ago?
It's hard, because the journey has resulted in where I am now, and it's important to appreciate the journey. But there's definitely times in the early days where I wished I had enjoyed the experiences and thrown myself out there more. It was a different time of course, but even from a mental health perspective, I’d tell myself to be a little bit more honest and open, and to not avoid that knowledge. Even just to say, 'stay out a little bit later', or 'go on holiday with your friends'. You know, I never really did that.
Let’s jump ahead ten years now, can you visualise what you hope to be doing?
I would love to be making music, to keep having music as my career. I'd love to have a space with a really nice view, where I can have other musicians come and play music. I know The Vamps will still be going, which is nice. I don't think there's any worry about that. It's just whether we'll be able to play the shows. But I think we'll still be doing all we can to facilitate that. And, it’s quite a cliché thing, but just to be happy. To feel the satisfaction I have now, with what I've just done with this EP, I'd love to be able to still feel those feelings as if they are new sensations again.
What do you visualise when you close your eyes and think of what “success” looks like to you?
I've realised more and more as I've gotten slightly older, that success for me is being privileged enough to have a degree of financial security. Things like mortgage rates and the price of food have gone up like crazy. I'm so lucky I fall within the small category of people that, at least for a couple of years, are okay. I’m really lucky to own the flat I live in, which isn’t something that happens for people often. I'm very, very lucky. Success is weird, because it sometimes feels like, oh, I've beaten other people. I don't mean it like that. I just mean that I'm very grateful.
Success from more of a life perspective, though, is finding myself in a relationship where I really trust my partner and can be completely emotionally vulnerable with them. Success is having a group of people in my life, like the other Vamps boys, who I can reach out to if I'm struggling. Success is that I’m able to do what would be a hobby anyway as a career. But again, the whole “success” term is hard, because there's so many people that are talented enough to do music as a career. I do think it's more what I'm grateful for, as opposed to what I see as successes.