PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Wallman
I have been chatting with James Walker…
about his new single, 2009. He tells me more about the new album, English Bones, and the times that inspired its creation; some of the issues faced along the way; how his sexuality plays into his music; some of the artists he grew up on – and what we can expect next from him.
Walker tells me more about his idols and the sounds he was exposed to; what he is planning for next year; working with producer Sam Winfield – and what he would tell new artists of the moment.
Hi, James. How are you? How has your week been?
Hey! I’m really great, thank you.
My week’s been a little manic, actually. I released a record last Friday; turned twenty-five on Monday and have spent the first few days of my year locked away in my bedroom writing new songs - and rehearsing for next week’s tour.
I feel like I haven’t seen the light of day for a while…
For those new to your work; can you introduce yourself, please?
Sure. I’m James Walker; a singer/songwriter from rainy Reading (in the U.K.). I primarily write Indie/folky - and slightly melancholy - songs inspired by artists such as Leif Vollebekk, Jeff Buckley; Turnover and Tigers Jaw.
I’ve spent the last two years writing and touring my debut record, English Bones - which came out last Friday!
PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Wallman
English Bones is your new album. What sort of ideas and themes are investigated within the album?
The record is a collection of songs that were written over an eighteen month period of my life. Eighteen months is a long time and, in that time, I occupied many headspaces. A lot of events - both in my personal and professional life - transpired that gave way to the creation of these tracks; though, primarily, there is an overarching theme of identity and belonging - that takes place in the narrative throughout the record.
Retrospectively, I look back at the lyrical content of the record and can recognise that there is a great amount of internal tension and struggle I felt at many points over the writing process. At the beginning of creating this album, I had just fallen out of a long-term relationship and it crushed my ability to feel like I was enough. Unfortunately, at the same time, I had just released a mediocre debut E.P.; been out on some remarkably unsuccessful tours and generally just felt as though I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to. A great deal of that negativity was channelled and embellished in the text within this record.
Thematically, though, there are many stories that are tackled and presented in the album; although, if I were to give a general gist, would be love, loss; recovery, identity and celebrity stalkers.
PHOTO CREDIT: @uppekkha
Sam Winfield produced – he has worked with Supergrass and Dry the River. What was it like working with him?
Working with Sam is always a dream...
I met him a few years ago when I was recording piano on Adam Barnes’ record - and he runs a great ship over at Studio 91 in Newbury. His experience in production and open-mindedness to new ideas really allowed me to shape the record in the direction that I wanted it to go. In an ideal world, I would have spent a little more time on a few of the songs you find on English Bones - but budgets are low when you’re just starting out.
There was one dreary Wednesday afternoon - where I was recording vocals - and just couldn’t get the take I wanted - and he suggested we switched focus to something else. We changed tracks to Weathered and he asked me to just sing some ad-libs over the introduction: no real focus on what you’re saying, what you’re pitching - just make some noises. After six or seven takes of feeling entirely weird, he called me back into the control room and said: “Give me a second”. Ten minutes later or so; he took off his headphones and played back some wonderfully ethereal choir-pad-sounding layers - which we incorporated throughout the final mix of the song. I know that Weathered specifically wouldn’t have been anywhere near as sonically interesting without Sam’s input. He’s a wizard and worth his weight in gold.
Studio 91 is actually (just) having a massive overhaul and expansion - and I’m so excited to see what happens next (for Sam and the team). Hopefully, I can squeeze some time in there next year.
2009 is the latest track from you. Can you tell me more about it and what compelled its creation?
2009 is the song that almost never was...
It was one of the first songs I ever wrote for myself - and was written back when I was living and studying in Brighton. I was conflicted living there as I loved the city but was having a terrible time. I was living in a student house - complete with the stereotypical housemates coming home at 6 A.M. on coke - kitchen filled with mould; no personal space and no money.
I couldn’t deal with it and moved in with a friend of mine and his folks. It was such a strange demographic to be around - as I’d moved away from home a few years ago and felt as though I had parents to answer to once again. It definitely limited my freedom; no matter how liberal and open they were.
A friend of mine from home, then, also moved to Brighton - and the three of us started a little American Football/twinkly emo band called Cityview (that never launched). We had written a collection of songs together - 2009 being one of them - but never had the time to get in the studio and release anything. We wanted the song to tackle vague ideas of nostalgia; being in bands back in the day; past relationships. Nothing too deep - but it was a lot of fun to write and produce.
When it came to recording English Bones, this song was always in the back of mind. It felt a little bit like closure to get this song tracked and out there and I knew that I wanted to play a little guitar solo somewhere on the record! I wish that Oscar or Zak were the people playing on the record alongside me - but life got in the way.
Oscar moved to Wales and Zak started working in a different industry - and playing with another band on the side. I still miss those boys and that city, though.
How much of your experience of the L.G.B.T.Q. community enforces your music? How interwoven is your sexuality and music, would you say?
Music is a catalyst for self-expression. Over the years, I’ve seen an increase in artists who embrace their sexualities and met many unashamedly forward-thinking people in the industry. The openness of some of today’s larger figures - like Frank Ocean, Sam Smith and Troye Sivan - seems to be informing a more ‘gay-OK’ attitude in the popular music consumer population - which is wonderful. There is still a long way to go, though, and constant need to reaffirm everybody’s acceptance.
My shows are always safe spaces and everyone is welcome. I have seen an increase in the amount of gender-fluid/non-binary people at my shows - and in my Spotify demographics recently. I’m not sure why or where that has come from but it is incredibly welcomed and appreciated. I struggled a lot growing up and coming to terms with being gay: creating and listening to music really was a lifeline. The thought that my songs are helpful to others in any way is an honour and a privilege.
I wouldn’t say that there’s a great deal of L.G.B.T.-specific tracks on this record: I think that my experience of love and heartbreak is akin to anyone else’s but there are definitely issues present on the record. For years, I felt ashamed of who I was and a lot of the darker material on this record is focused on that feeling. The song, Waiting, particularly, is about a very specific feeling of being with someone in a sexual relationship - but feeling like it’s wrong; feeling like you’re dating the wrong person (and repressing that).
My personal life is definitely informed by the L.G.B.T. community. I have only felt proud of who I am for the past few years and I wish that I had come to terms with it earlier on. It’s my prerogative to make sure that everyone knows they are loved and appreciated - and made to feel welcome whenever I meet them. I feel so proud and warmhearted when I see younger people at my shows who are embracing themselves more than I did at that age…hell; I still feel conscious wearing nail polish.
I believe you have a rare heart condition. Is that something that dictates how active you are in music?! What impact and effect does that have on your daily life?
I did! I was born with a blood-clotting disorder that, over the past thirteen years, has resulted in me needing two lots of open-heart surgery. I had multiple pulmonary embolisms that resulted in pulmonary hypertension - requiring a complicated surgery called a pulmonary endarterectomy in 2013. It’s a rare procedure in which they put you in hypothermia and take the blood out of your body (!) in order to operate on the lower bronchi of the lungs, via the pulmonary artery. In a way, you are in some form of suspended animation; there is no brain activity, blood in your body; respiratory effort. Nothing. The One Show did a wonderful piece on it, which you can find on YouTube, and they interviewed my surgeon, David Jenkins.
It’s a wonderful thing to be able to type this down but the last surgery I had was curative and I no longer have pulmonary hypertension. On the basis that I remain treated with blood-thinning medication, there is no reason that the clots should return - and I should be able to live a normally-active life with no limit on exercise tolerance or life expectancy.
I would be lying if I said it didn’t impact my daily life, though. It’s not that I’m not well but just that I get incredibly anxious. There are times I find myself obsessed with my health - especially at times in which I’m home or in-between tours. I find myself thinking too much about death or that I’m getting ill. I’ve convinced myself many times that I’ve got lung cancer or I’m having a stroke - or falling ill - and I’m not noticing it. I guess that it’s natural given the experience of trauma I’ve had, especially as a kid, but it’s something that’s definitely present and something that I’m learning to work on…
I feel a million times better when I’m out and on the road, though, as I’m distracted by all of the beautiful new cities, people and experiences I’m having. When I get home, I feel as though I’ve got too much time to think - my brain catches up with me and gives me two months’ worth of worries all at once! I’m working on teaching myself C.B.T. techniques and have been attempting some guided meditations in the last few months.
I feel like I’m getting better and accepting that I’m okay - but it’s a process that will take a while...
Which artists have been most impactful in your life? Who do you look up to?
Music has had such a big impact on my life. I honestly don’t think that I would be the same person I am today if I hadn’t have listened to what I did growing up – and if I had a different set of artists as the soundtrack to pivotal moments in my life.
I vividly remember listening to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism and William Fitzsimmons’ The Sparrow and the Crow when I was in the I.C.U. - after my surgery when I was fourteen. I also recall being a huge fan of bands like Brand New, The Manchester Orchestra and Lydia as a late-teen. I once played in a Metal outfit and still find myself putting on Opeth or Lamb of God in the car from time to time. Bright Eyes have been a huge influence on me over the years.
I think the music I create today is a culmination of all of the influences I’ve had over the years and, with each new song I write, I feel as though I’m finding out more about who I am - and who I want to be as an artist.
At the moment, though, I very much look up to Noah Gundersen and Leif Vollebekk. They are just stellar examples of artists who, over the course of a few albums, really honed and developed their sound. Within both of their latest records; there is such a strong sense of individuality. They aren’t writing to a brief; they’re not creating music in order to be radio playlisted - and they’re certainly not creating for anyone other than themselves. I like their fearless sense of ‘I’m creating what I want’ and it’s a mantra I want to embrace the further I get down the line.
Are there any tour dates coming up? Where can we see you play?
I’ve actually just wrapped up a two-month tour of Europe with Matt Phillips and Judy Blank (who co-wrote and features on a couple of the tracks on English Bones). We were out on the Horizontoer, in the Netherlands, and performed a series of dates after that all over mainland Europe. For the past few weeks, I’ve been at home organising the next steps.
I’ll be out on the road with Adam Barnes from next Monday, as an opening act for half of the shows - and as his pianist for all of the dates. He’s a good friend of mine and I’ve been touring and performing with him for around seven years now. It’s been a great experience to see him grow and I’ve learned a whole bunch about how to do things from watching him at arm’s length. It’s an honour to be able to open some shows for him and have him involved in my sets, too. He’s even going to playing piano on one of my songs on this tour - so; it’s really like my years of touring as his piano player has come around full circle!
So; I’m out with Adam for November and the first part of December. When I come home, I’m looking into a few local U.K. shows - in the London area - with my friend Josephine Zwaan. After that, I am heading out on a Germany/Netherlands tour in January (for three weeks) with Josephine Zwaan and Youri Lentjes - then heading out once again with Adam Barnes in February. Following that, I’m off to America to record a bunch of new songs in March/April and possibly look at performing at a few shows over on the East Coast. There is also another month-long tour in the pipeline for July/August, 2018.
Yes; we’re already looking that far ahead. It’s scary.
You have just completed a two-month two with Matt Phillips and Judy Blank. What was that like?
It was incredible. I can honestly say it was the most fulfilling, rewarding and reaffirming tour I’ve ever been on. The audiences were wonderful (in thanks to Judy having been a contestant on Dutch national T.V. show, De Beste Singer Songwriter); the songs were well received, the money was decent but, more importantly than all of that, it was a fantastic opportunity to network. I met so many wonderful people on this run - thanks to all of the effort that Judy put in on the Dutch side of the dates. She really pulled out all the stops in making sure that I was playing some lovely venues and, in return, I offered her what I could in the U.K. and Germany. She truly is a wonderful woman who deserves a whole bunch of credit. She’s currently over in Nashville recording her sophomore album - and it’s sounding so wonderful. Definitely; one to keep an eye out for!
I also have to give a huge amount of credit to Matt Phillips for being the kindest man on planet Earth. Being cooped up in the car with me for two months must have been a challenge and I learned so much from his approaches to life; his attitudes towards touring/being an industry professional - and I’ve come to respect him, his companies and everything he does so much. He is a true advocate that good people do live in Southern states - and a man who stands up for what is right. He runs a collective over in N.C. and curates a whole bunch of great stuff in Chapel Hill - and, one of his aims for 2018, is to have every show of theirs featuring one non-cis or non-white (or non-straight act). I think it’s wonderful. There are many great things to be said about that man.
I can’t wait to see him again.
IN THIS PHOTO: Matt Phillips
Who are the new artists you recommend we investigate?
I have to represent my friends here!
I met some wonderful people over the past year who all make such wonderful tunes. Honestly; they are all worth listening to…
IN THIS PHOTO: Judy Blank
Here’s a brief list of some of my pals, peers and recent favourites I’ve come across in real life: Matt Phillips, Judy Blank; Josephine Zwaan, Youri Lentjes; Adam Barnes, Loud Mountains; Joe Hicks, Chris Ayer; The Brazen Youth, Nick Urb; Kira Dekker; Joseph & Maia, Front & Turner.
IN THIS PHOTO: Adam Barnes
Some favourite artists from outside my friendship circles at the moment are: YEBBA, Tedeschi Trucks Band (I think Midnight in Harlem will forever be a favourite); Hiss Golden Messenger, The Wood Brothers; Phil Cook, Mogwai; Anderson.Paak, Tigers Jaw; Turnover, David Bazan and Kevin Devine.
Man…there’s so many.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Wood Brothers
If you had to select the three albums that mean the most to you; which would they be and why?
Only three?! That’s tough!
I think that William Fitzsimmons’ The Sparrow and the Crow will always have to be in my top-three…
It’s a record that really helped me through recovery from open-heart surgery and something that never fails to move me. I spent most days in hospital listening to that record - as there were themes in the lyrics that just resonated with me - and Fitzsimmons’ whispery delivery just touches my soul.
It’s a beautiful record.
It is the record that really introduced me into the slightly left-of-centre side of contemporary Folk music - and informed a lot of the choices I made when I was learning piano and arrangement. It’s a really great record and accompanied my later teenage years alongside bands like Okkervil River and Pedro the Lion.
Not sure if it belongs in my top-three but it came to mind first – so, it’s got to have some significance!
Jeff Buckley’s Grace
It has to be in there too; just because of how much of an impact it’s had on the music I listen to today - and the music I aspire to create.
What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?
Be the best you possible.
Don’t waste time on trying to emulate another artist - because there’s already someone doing that. I often see band-bios in which artists say that they sound like someone else, which I don’t really understand. Sure; you might sound like Coldplay…but Coldplay already sounds like Coldplay and, chances are, they do a much better job at sounding like Coldplay than you will!
For me, it’s about staying genuine to who you are and creating art that you are content with. If other people can listen to what you create and find a meaning of their own within it, great: if they can’t, then there’s a million other artists out there who they will enjoy and will listen to…
I think it’s important to realise that, if you’re making music to impress people or to win people over - or to get playlisted or make the radio - then you’re probably not going to make the best and most satisfying art that you can.
Take your time: there’s no rush to get anywhere. I’ve seen people pick up the guitar and start learning at twenty-four; only to get signed at thirty-two. This is album one for me…literally the first step. I’m not expecting any major breakthroughs, or anything too different from the small shows I’m playing now, for a good few years yet - and that’s fine. I’m willing to constantly work on finding the next opportunity but I’m not counting on life to give me a big break. There’s fun in the graft. There’s joy in the small successes.
Take your time and enjoy everything today.
Christmas is not too far away. Do you have plans already - or will you be busy working?
I’m home for Christmas!
Really excited to see my family - my little sister has just gone off to university and I haven’t seen her in a few months. I miss her sassy sense of humour and her stories. I’m excited to see her. We are heading to my grandpa’s house - who is eighty-six this year (and still in wonderful shape!) - and we’ll be having a family afternoon with aunts and uncles (and far too much food).
It’s going to be a wonderful time and, just before December kicks in, I’ll be in Switzerland - which means a whole bunch of Swiss chocolate-themed gifts will be brought home with me.
PHOTO CREDIT: @bscholz_photography
Are there any plans for next year? What goals do you hope to fulfil in the coming year?
As I mentioned before; the first six months are pretty much filled with touring! During this time, I hope that I can focus on eating well, staying healthy; toning up a little bit and just treating myself with a little more care.
I’m looking forward to recording the next set of tracks. In the spring, I’ll be Ashlawn Recording Studios in Old Lyme, CT (U.S.A.). It’s an old farm that’s run by my friends in The Brazen Youth - who are the most switched-on bunch of twenty-year-olds I’ve ever come across. Charlie inherited the land from his family and has converted it into an ‘arts farm’ - and lives there now with his band-mates and friends; creating art and videos every day. It’s pretty off the grid and on 300 acres of farmland. I’m hoping to head over there and co-exist/create for three weeks or so in April. I’d love to rework some of my songs from English Bones and, also, start tracking a few new ones, too.
I’m hoping to record new music in many different places next year: a few of my friends are wonderful producers and I’d love to release a record that is a collection of songs that I wrote, recorded and produced with different people over the year. Alongside Ashlawn and Studio 91; in Amsterdam, my friend Josephine Zwaan runs a studio that is owned by her dad - who is a famous Ghanaian singer. I’d love to record there and get her influence on a track or two. Also, Matt Phillips knows some wonderful people in North Carolina who I’d love to record with, too. There’s (just) a whole world of opportunity and people out there - and I can’t wait to experience the next few years and see where they take me.
It’s a wonderful thing to be alive.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
Slip into this pool of calm….
Midnight in Harlem by Tedeschi Trucks Band. What a voice, what a guitar player…what a band.
Thank you so much for having me - and for the insightful questions. See you soon!
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