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INTERVIEW: James Walker

Hi James, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Hey! I’m doing great. I’ve been little hectic actually; the record came out on Friday, I turned 25 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 with Adam Barnes. I feel like I haven’t seen the light of day for a while.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “2009″?

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 6am 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.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

I don’t think it came from a particular event, just more of a culmination of everything above!

Any plans to release a video for the single?

Not this time around, and definitely not for that song. I don’t necessarily feel as though it’s a track that matches the direction I want my art to head in, nor do I think that it’s a good enough track to have a video made for it.

I think that the most successful videos are an extension to the significance of the lyrics in the song, or an accompanying piece of film. Loyle Carner is great example of someone who currently is creating great videos alongside his releases; they make you think, they really get you actively involved in consuming the art.

I don’t think that I could create something that enticing to this song. There are other tracks on the record that I’d love to make videos for, but I’m waiting for the right time to come along. It’s on the cards, and I’d love to shoot a video or two soon, but it’s not something I can do right now.

The single comes off your new album English Bones – what’s the story behind the title?

English Bones is a record concerned with identity, with place, with belonging. Identity and headspaces

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 EP, 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.

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 LGBT-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 focussed 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.

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.

How was the recording and writing process?

Recording English Bones was such a joy. Sam is a good friend, a wonderful influence and an all-round good guy. He’s running something truly great at Studio 91 in Newbury, and has produced some really stellar tunes.

I spent a little under a month in the studio creating English Bones, tracking all of the instruments, playing around with arrangements and mixing. It was a little less time than what we needed, but I had a limited budget as I was funding this record entirely by myself. I had no label or investors or really any interest then, so it was a little bit of a gamble to head in for so long. But I’m thrill with the end result, even if there are a few tracks which I feel would have been better had we have spent more time on them.

One of the highlights of the recording process was getting my good friend Judy Blank over from the Netherlands to record some harmonies on the album. I had been touring with her a whole bunch in the Netherlands and Germany earlier in the year, and we actually co-wrote Lullaby together in a little tea shop in Köln. To have her fly over and sing on the track in the studio was a wonderful experience, and to see the joy on her face when we listened back to the mixes in the studio was so precious.

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.

What was it like to work with Sam Winfield and how did that relationship develop?

Sam’s a joy. He’s a really funny guy, too. It was definitely a period of complete delusion, in which all of the days blurred into one. We were both so focussed on getting everything done that we just were in full-on work mode. I don’t think I’ve ever drank that much coffee!

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 etherial 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.

How much did he influence the album?

The songs were taken into the studio in basically the same form that they ended up being on the record; Sam just provided a layer of polish and shine to the ideas that I already had.

For the most part, I wrote these songs alone in my room or in the car or with friends on a piano or something. They were very stripped back. I asked a few friends of mine if they would be interested in figuring out some full-band arrangements before heading into the studio, and after a few weeks’ practice we started tracking with Sam. His input primarily was focussed on capturing the best tones, the best takes, and providing extra insight that I couldn’t give to myself.

There were examples like I just mentioned about Weathered in which he would suggest things that could improve the overall sonic, or create an extra layer, which is something that I wouldn’t have thought about in as much depth as him.

What aspect of nostalgia and identity did you get to explore on this record?

I got to revisit a lot of tough experiences in creating this record. In some respects, it wasn’t an easy record to write or record. A lot of the lyrics come from points of contention and conflict within myself, and a lot of the songs structures and instrumentation were a reflection of that. There was a lot of reminiscing on loves that have got away (Weathered), family members who have passed on (Kreuzberg), and my mum looking over me in the Intensive Care Ward after my first open hear surgery (Lullaby).

It’s a relatively heavy record in that respect, but it was a cathartic process to write record and tour over the last year. I’ve played over 150 shows in the last twelve months, and got to share these stories and struggles with a group of strangers. It’s really helped me understand these issues, and see that there are many other people who can resonate with that and who can open up to me as a result. The amount of conversations I’ve had after shows about real deep topics has been an eye-opener, and being able to create music in an environment that encourages that has been a blessed opportunity.

Any plans to hit the road?

I just wrapped up a two month tour of Europe with Judy Blank and Matt Phillips, who are wonderful people. For the month of October, I’ve been taking a break!  But I’m heading out next Monday with Adam Barnes to Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. I’m opening half of the shows, and playing as his session piano player on all of the dates. He’s an old friend, and it’s always a great pleasure to hangout with him and share evenings together, and create new memories. We went to college together nearly ten years ago, and still are making music together!

After that, I’m heading to the Netherlands and Germany once again with my friends Josephine Zwaan and Youri Lentjes who are both from a national Dutch TV show called De Beste Singer Songwriter, who now are pursuing music careers of their own. They both create very unique and very different art and I can’t wait to share the road with them in January.

In February I’m out again with Adam Barnes performing on his album launch tour, which we’re all so excited for. He’s playing a bigger variety of venues, St Pancras Old Church in London, Paradiso in Amsterdam, etc. It’s going to be a blast.

Then, I’m heading to the US to record and play some shows on the East coast in the Spring and will be coming home to play some UK/EU shows in the Summer. I’m hoping to get on some small festivals too, but they’re just in the pipeline. Nonetheless, the first half of next year is pretty much already planned out!

What else is happening next in James Walker’s world?

Lots of writing! I’m trying to be as productive as possible with my downtime in between these tours, so I’m working pretty consistently on writing new material, practicing for Adam’s shows, and generally trying to stay healthy. Lots of eating well, exercising when I have the time, and staying focussed. Christmas is coming, too, which I’m super excited about.

Listen here

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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