To live simply is the dream for Northern Irish singer-songwriter JC Stewart. This is something that becomes clear quickly upon meeting him, where he tells me his ‘happy place’ is home, the north coast: “it's freezing and there is sideways rain and wind that will knock any hat you've ever had off your head. It's the best place in the world.” With 12 million streams on his recent single ‘I Need You to Hate Me’, a writing credit on Lewis Capaldi’s hit album (to name but one), and nearly 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify, it’s fair to say this is not a typical ambition for a 23-year-old musician. On paper, at least.
However, JC is not a typical artist. Without any musical contacts or background, at 15 years’ old JC decided he wanted to become a songwriter, learning his craft and building connections within the local industry from the ground up until he had saved enough money to move to London. It’s a journey that puts an interesting spin on things, as he explains every day that he wakes up with a job is another day he’s blagged it in the industry.
‘Understated’ and ‘human’ are the defining characteristics of JC and his music: brought to light in this stunning series by the lens of photographer Sophie Mayanne. Tucked away in an independent east London arts studio, JC is photographed freely amongst paint-splattered walls and graffitied iron fences. Stylist Nathan Henry blends luxury prints with streetwear staples. A reminder to expect the unexpected, and that rarely do expectations ‘on paper’ match up to reality. This is a boy whose soul runs deeps and there are layers that the world has yet to discover.
You’ve recently returned from touring Germany and the Netherlands! How was that?
The Netherlands was crazy. I did a bit of a promo tour and I've never had a song that's been on the radio much in any other country before, so I got to do breakfast radio - which is tough because you have to get up at like five in the morning. They're like "Sing a cover!" and I'm like 'I don't even know where I am right now'. But it was amazing. We did Amsterdam for a few days; we did Cologne, Belin, Munich. We drove all around Germany, it was great.
It must have been a totally different experience to anything you could have expected with everything that’s going on and social distancing.
We couldn't do a lot of what we wanted to do. Amsterdam was more chilled, but Germany was so strict. You couldn't leave your hotel room without a mask, every time you stand up to go to the toilet in a bar you have to put your mask on. It's pretty crazy but it was good. I'd just been waiting to get out there. It felt really strange seeing different cities again, it was like I was there for the first time again.
Have you had much of a chance to take your music beyond the UK before?
I've been really lucky that Asia is quite a big place for me. I've never been there yet but we are hoping to go. Europe, in general, is really good for me too, and because I'm from Ireland, that's always been my start. So the UK is almost a new thing as well. It's pretty fun doing it that way round.
I wanted to talk about your upbringing. You grew up in Northern Ireland as part of a four-generation strong family. In what ways has that experience shaped the person you are today?
I think it makes you very grounded. My family had a tea shop called ‘JC Stewart’ since 1870-something, which was one of the first places to sell tea and then grew into a supermarket, essentially. I grew up with my dad, JC Stewart, running that business and he sold it a few years ago. I had always been just been called Callum but when that happened, I was like 'I should probably take the name!'. It's a very simple life, which I love. Going back over lockdown, I really got into that again. The whole London life - going out, having a good time - it's great but it's hectic. Chilling at home? I love it. So, it has definitely shaped my attitude towards a lot of things. I think keeping me grounded is the main thing - in the best way, it helps you figure out what's important.
Do you think that has influenced your musical style in many ways?
Northern Ireland has this massive history, from Van Morrison to Snow Patrol and Two Door Cinema Club. It's a weird vibe of music. It all has similar strands. Obviously there's the traditional music which you get brought up into; you don't know much about it, it's just there all the time. I think Snow Patrol and all that has definitely influenced me because that's all there was. If you didn't like that, there was nothing else. You had to.
Who is JC Stewart?
Very good question. I'm just a guy who's winging it, is the main thing! I don't really know what I'm doing very much. I always knew this was what I wanted to do and I just blagged my way into having a job out of it. From 15 I was like 'I'm going to be a songwriter' - didn't really even know what that was. None of my family do music or really know anybody in music. We knew one local musician and then found a producer in Northern Ireland, who I worked for for a while and he helped me out. I just worked through the levels. I don't really know! I've just always blagged my way into it and learned and figured out as I've gone along, and it's now gone a bit too far.
Well, it's pretty successful blagging so far… You’ve song written with Lewis Capaldi, for start.
Even that, again, was just about being mates. Like 'ah come on, let's write a song together,' and it just turned into something which ended up on the album. Through brilliant personal relationships is always how I've done things. Being based on Northern Ireland I didn't really know anybody; I had to start from nothing - and also a bit later than other people, as well, by the time I'd got to England because it took a little bit of time to save up to get over here. I'm really glad I've done it that way, the slow way, I suppose. It's still the slow way, and I love it.
Is there much of a difference within the industry, coming from Northern Ireland to the UK? Did you feel that shift?
Yeah, massively. Northern Ireland is the best place ever, and you can have a career there, but I don't know I would have had a career there. You have to come to London and work here. You have to meet people in London in order to connect yourself, that's where everything is.
Pretty much every band I know from Northern Ireland has had to do it that way. So yeah, it's definitely different. But also, you've got your own group of people there. Northern Irish and Irish musicians are in general very good friends amongst everybody, so that really helps with the community. It just puts you in a different state of 'I'm always kind of happy to be here'. Every morning I wake up like, 'well! Another day of doing it!'.
Apart from going viral via Jennifer Aniston’s Instagram, how else did you manage to stay positive during this time? Any significant learnings?
Well, the first two weeks were really tough because my first ever tour got cancelled and it was all kind of bubbling away, and then just went 'whoosh'. I'd literally flown from LA and went straight to planting trees with my dad - which as lovely as that was... I was living back at my parents' for the first time in 5 years being like, did anything in the last five years actually happen? Or am I just writing songs at my parents' house again? I was back to where I'd started. And then I just went back to basics: I cooked and walked the dog, and wrote songs and played PlayStation. Literally what I did when I was 17-18. And I loved it. It was the best few months of my life.
Did you have many projects waiting on the other side to look forward to and keeping you going during this time?
Yes, so we knew we had the release for my single, I Need You to Hate Me, to build towards. In the early days, like everyone else, we set about rescheduling live shows, but when we realised September wasn't going to happen we just had to take a different tack. The traditional route is not going to work for the next few years, and we've just had to plough ahead and do everything we can. Some of it's not working; some of it is. I've really enjoyed that factor of everybody pushing each other to think outside the box and find what works. Because if we can't make this work we might as well quit now because we'll be done for the next few years. It's been really tough and a lot of work, but weirdly I think it's been quite a big positive for me and it's really helped. We've managed to just keep ploughing on.
Will we see any influence of this period in your music?
Massively. I've got songs coming over the next few months and hopefully some sort of EP or collection of songs from lockdown at the end of the year. It will feature a couple from lockdown and some older ones, but is mainly a more stripped EP of songs that won't be a single and probably wouldn't be on an album, but that I really want to release. It's made me really realise that just because some of the songs I write won't be a single, doesn't mean I shouldn't put them out. Some of my favourite songs are amongst those ones.
What does your writing process look like?
I feel like I had it and I've lost it again because life sort of takes over and you lose the flow. I had a little routine of procrastinating for about 10 hours in the day and starting writing at about 11 pm until three in the morning. I'm not a night person, so it was really weird for me. I'd just sit in my parents front room with a little studio set up and wrote some of my favourite songs ever by just hammering out. Like, 'you're not going to bed until you've finished this song'. It's all about having a lyric for me because I can write melodies a lot but they mean absolutely nothing if you don't have a lyric to it, and the lyrics are the hardest part for me.
It's sounds wanky, but I try to read poetry and stuff because I'd never really delved into that and there's a lot of really interesting things there. Getting into your head is really hard to do sometimes. You have so many barriers to yourself which you put in place to make yourself feel happy and you're like 'right, what am I actually thinking about? What am I actually feeling?' It's a scary place to go but it's the only way it's going to work.
Yes - you’re a self-professed ‘professional sad boy’. How did this persona come about?
I've always just written sad songs. I don't know why; I think they're easier to write when you're younger. When I was growing up, all my favourite songs were always sad songs. I actually really love the sort of melancholy to it. I feel like a song is only good if it's real. I just haven't figured out how to write a happy song that is real yet - not because I'm not happy - but just the emotion that I think is heavier, and deeper and more connective is that sad one. I am actually trying to write happy songs at the minute, for the first time ever. It was my sister who gave me the name. She said, "You're happy all the time, you just write sad songs. You're literally just being sad for money."
Though I'm not going to write a breakup song forever. I'm kind of overwriting them, to be honest. Now it's about finding out what I want I want to write about, about me - more about identity and where I've come from, which is again scary.
Are you able to easily talk about feelings?
I think songwriting really helps that because I grew up writing with other people. You block yourself off until you write so many terrible songs that you're like, the only way this is going to work is if I have my cards on the table. Just go in with the mindset: 'I'm probably never going to see any of these people again and it'll be fine'. It's not easy. It's something you have to learn to do, and everyone says this, it's such a cliché that songwriting is therapy, but it really is.
What is the most challenging part of writing/making music?
I want my songs to be on the radio, so for me, the challenge is writing that song that is the cool, emotional, connective thing but also making it commercial enough that it will appeal to as many people as possible. I just don't want to be that thing where it's really cool, but nobody really hears it. I've got one chance at this, let's try and smash it. It's about trying to find that balance between the pop song and the real song.
How do you get yourself out of a rut?
I just stop writing for a long time. Travel is great for me. Talking to my mates is the best because most of my mates are Irish, but those who have come over here and are in the same position as me, living in London, none of us really know what we're doing. All of us are like "Nope!". So going back home is the best thing. Although, if you start getting too caught up in 'I've got to write a hit!', it's never going to happen.
At the other end of the scale, what does your happy place look like?
Home: Northern Ireland. I just go to the north coast. It's freezing and there is sideways rain and wind that will knock any hat you've ever had off your head. It's the best place in the world. I like to go and chill with the people I love. Simplicity is the key for me, I've come to realise.
Will you settle back down in Northern Ireland eventually?
I think so. I'm thinking more and more about it - and I'm way too young to be thinking about it! The dream is to have a house overlooking the sea with a studio and just to cook and write songs. That's the ultimate dream.
Are there any countries you’d like to travel and take your music to before that?
I've got a bucket list. I've been very lucky to tick off a lot of the things in the past couple of years, but I've never played in America. I was meant to play in March. I've also never done TV in America - those are my two things. Also, I'd love to go to Asia and play there. But honestly, anywhere that would have me. I'm just making the most of it. Any weird opportunity I get, I'll usually jump on and give it a try.
What else is on your bucket list?
Cook the perfect carbonara. I'm just figuring all that stuff out at the minute. I used to have all these dreams of what I wanted to do, but the more I achieved them, the less I liked them. I wanted to go to all these rock star parties and mad shows, and the more I've done it in America, the more I've really not liked it. I don't fit in there, and I don't really like anything about it. Then I come home and I do the simple stuff that I used to want to run away from and I'm like, 'this is it. This was it all along.' None of the other stuff is really real and I just can't really deal with that. That’s one thing I’ve learnt from Corona is that I don’t miss any of that stuff.
You’ve had a lot of traction on social media over recent months. How do you manage your time online?
I love social media and I hate it as well. I'm not very natural at it. I do it, but if someone wasn't really pushing me to do it, I probably wouldn't post for two weeks and I wouldn't really think twice about it. I don't really check Instagram; it's not really my thing anymore. It used to be but it was just bringing me down: you just compare yourself to everybody and that's the last thing I want to be doing right now. I do it for work and I have a lot of people who help me out and I take their advice, but it feels like work in the best way. And I'm very lucky to have that as work. But yeah, I love to switch my phone off and not look at it.
Are you able to easily able to switch off from it all?
No, probably not. As much as I want to. But I do get a bit obsessed with the whole thing and then you start overthinking it. You're like, 'oh, what am I going to be doing in five years?'.
In that same vein, how do you manage your private versus personal life?
It's another weird one. That's another thing I've been thinking about more and more of over lockdown. I don't really want my life to be all over everywhere. I think if you became mega-famous, that would be really, really tough. Knowing some people who have got to that level, it's very, very hard. I'll do as much as I want to and then I'll just pull back from it, essentially. It's kind of trial and error, which is a scary thing but you've got to live and learn with these things and see what it is.
It must also be scary living and learning on such a public platform.
It's mad. You've sort of got to be perfect at all times, and nobody is.
Outside of music, what are you passionate about?
It's really boring. I love history. I've got massively into that and politics. Sports is something I've really gotten into, especially over lockdown because there's been nothing else. I used to play rugby and I was terrible at it, but I've now started working with a lot of football teams and American football teams, and I love it. I feel like I'm 10 years old again. Cooking and hanging out, again, it's really simple stuff. There's nothing too mad - I haven't got a sports car obsession, mostly because I can't afford even sitting in a sports car. But I hated school and now I'm enjoying learning again. My girlfriend will be like “What have you done today?" and I'm like 'listened to a podcast about Neanderthals.' She's like, “No I mean with work?!”.
I would love to have met a Neanderthal.
It’s a podcast called History Hit with the historian Dan Snow. They have their own version on Netflix and it’s amazing as well. This is so embarrassing.
What’s next for JC?
A lot more music. A lot more writing. Figuring out what I want to do in this new landscape that we're all in. Hopefully, getting to play a live show in the next two years. That would be fun because I've always seen myself as a live artist and haven't had the chance to do it as much and prove myself on that scene as much as I'd like to. That's something big for me. I'd like to not be the pop guy that a lot of people see me as. I always say my live shows are far more fun than you think they're going to be, and I'd love to have a chance to prove that. Move back to Northern Ireland and become a hermit. Cook the perfect carbonara.