DDW sat down with musician James Smith to talk all things musical inspiration, sound and collaborations.
Hailing from the vibrant East London music scene, James Smith is a musician garnering attention. His latest singles “Common People,” and “Why Don’t You Want Me” released earlier this year and on the 29th of September respectively, offer an intimate look into Smith’s musical odyssey.
With a distinct and intimate sound, James’ music touches upon familiar themes, particularly with “Common People“. Reflecting on the song’s significance, James expresses, “I see the term ‘common’ as a beautiful thing. It gives me a sense of community and peace. ‘Common People’ is a song for the working-class people – to unite us all.”
DDW sat down with James Smith to talk all things musical inspiration, sound and collaborations.
Can you share a bit about your musical journey? What inspired you to pursue a career in music, and how did you journey as an artist begin?
I think my journey as an artist began when I first start singing which was when I was about 7 or 8 and we used to go to caravan parks every year in Clacton. There was actually a big karaoke competition between all the caravan parks in the area and I actually got up once and sung an Elvis song. I was a big fan of Elvis growing up, I used to find him really cool like I used to love how his hair was and how he used to dance on stage and stuff. I remember seeing that at like 5 or 6 and that was my first memory of seeing a singer on telly and my Nan used to watch him and I sort of picked it up from her. There were no singers in my family so as soon as they found out that I could hold a note, they were like ‘Get the fuck up on stage!’. They bought me a little leather jacket and stuff. I got up on stage and just started shaking my legs and stuff like Elvis, and I was like 7 or 8 so it was really funny. Yeah, that’s sort of where it all began. I think that I just loved being in front of people and I love performing and making people scream and all that. That’s sort of where it began and from there I got into a lot of soul music which eventually led me to learn how to play the guitar and the piano, and when my dad was at work on the market stalls sometimes I’d get up and have a little sing song. I started writing around the age of like 14, and I didn’t really take it seriously until I was about 17/18 when I left school. That’s when I really took my artistry seriously, but it’s only really in the last couple of years that I’ve felt like a proper artist, you know? I think I was just writing a load of bollocks at the beginning but now I feel like I’ve got something really important to say, for the first time ever actually. So, yeah, it’s always beginning and ending and starting and what not.
Every artist has a unique musical identity. How would you describe your signature sound, and what elements or genres have influenced your style?
Well, I would say that I’m pretty much like a basic long haired indie pop singer and I think there’s millions of me, like young boys that play the guitar and sing about their feelings. But I do think the thing that makes me unique is my love for soul music and the sort of soul-y element to my voice and the melodies that I choose as well. I do think that my musical knowledge of a lot of older music in general is quite good – I would say so myself – I think that that’s really influenced my sound and my playing. That is what makes me special!
Walk us through your creative process. How do you typically approach writing and composing new music? Are there any specific rituals or habits that fuel your creativity?
I’d say that generally I start by sitting down at an instrument on my own, like I don’t really like to be around anyone when I start an idea. But I will just sort of sit there and see what comes out of me. It’s usually, you know, I’ll start with some chords and then I’ll sing some melodies over it, and I tend to get a lyric just out of nowhere. I’m not really one of these songwriters that has a notebook and writes a load of stuff down. A lot of my lyrics just sort of come out of nowhere when I’m singing a melody which is quite cool, I suppose, but sometimes can be super frustrating if it’s not coming out. I do find that that works a lot of the time. I think that my melodies sort of represent how I’m feeling at the time and therefore just naturally generate a lyric. So yeah, that’s what I tend to do and then once I’ve sort of got half of a song I’ll go to a studio, and I’ll produce it up. I’ll either do it at my home studio at my Mum’s house or I will go into Hoxton at my manager’s studio and I’ll just sort of get a rough demo going and then I tend to get a band in to help me play the final parts and that’s pretty much it. The only other time it’s any different is if I’m in a co-writing session and, you know, I come into a session being like ‘listen, this has just happened to me, I wanna write about this particular experience’ and that’s where songs come from. It’s different every time. I do love it very much, I think it is my favourite part about being an artist is just making something out of nothing.
Music is a dynamic art form. How have you evolved as an artist since your early days, and what pivotal moments or experiences have contributed to your growth?
Well, I signed a record deal super young, meaning that I was writing songs that were about a young person’s experience of the world which is totally different to how I feel now. So obviously I look back at some of the old songs and I think ‘oh fucking hell that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s a bit shit’. But I suppose for the time and my age, they were great. I suppose where I’ve grown is what subjects I’m talking about now and how real it is to me and how authentic everything I’m putting out now is to me. When I first started writing music I was just trying to impress a lot of people, whereas now I’m sort of just doing it for me. I think to sum it all up, I’ve become more selfish as an artist as I’ve got older and that’s really helped me to grow. I’ve also lived a lot more life and I’ve had my heart broken a couple times and I’ve experienced losing family members or gaining family members and, you know, like falling out with you friends or making new friends whatever it is I think that my relationships have become more complex as I’ve got older and I tend to write a lot about relationships whether it be a loving thing or a friendship thing or, like, my relationship to physical things – that has all become a lot more complex as I’ve got older.
Collaboration often leads to exciting new musical directions. Are there any artists, producers, or songwriters you dream of working with? How do you think a collaboration might impact your music?
I am a big fan of collaborations! I would love to work with literally anyone because I find myself, as a producer, writing with a load of different artists everyday and its something that I really love to do so anyone that fancies collaborating with me is always a bonus. But I would say if I could collaborate with anyone it would just be someone with loads and loads of money and followers, haha, so I could just jump on the bandwagon. That’s half a joke but that’s half serious. I would love to collaborate with like Ed Sheeran, or I’m a big Kiwanuka fan, I love Paolo Nutini. In terms of producers and stuff I’d love to work with Mark Ronson. I think that we’d make something really cool together with him as a feature. I’d love to do dance records, I’d love to do indie records, like whatever. But yeah man I think it would just elevate my music, you know? It’s the same with touring. When I tour with a new artist I usually gain a load of new fans from that artist, and I think that it would be the same with a collaboration.
Your lyrics often delve into unique themes. Can you discuss the concepts or emotions you enjoy exploring in your songs? What messages do you hope your audience takes away from your music?
Lyrics-wise I tend to write a lot about love and, you know, knowing that everything’s gonna be alright. I’m a big lover myself, I love people, I love humans, I love my friends, I love my family, and I don’t tend to talk about that too much as a person. Like, I’m not very open with my friends and family about how much I love them, even though they know that I do love them so much. But I suppose that my songwriting helps me to put that message out basically.
A big theme in my upcoming album is growing up and experimenting through lockdown and stuff. There are a few themes of drugs and falling out with people and all that sort of shit because you know as you get older you do some stupid stuff and I’ve definitely been a bit of a fucker in my day, haha, and I have spoken a little bit about that in the album. Also, how I’ve been fucked over by record labels and things like that. I’m just trying to be as open and as honest as possible in my new music and just dive a bit deeper than your classic relationship song.
I hope my audience take away from my music that, you know, life’s too short to hold grudges and be an idiot. We’ve just got to fucking live this life baby!
Live shows are a significant aspect of an artist’s career. How do you approach translating your music to the stage? What do you enjoy most about performing for a live audience?
I love playing live. I’ve recently done a few support tours over Europe, I just done a tiny little headline in Camden, and I’m about to go out to America for the first time which is very exciting. The thing that I love about playing live is the fact that I have to win people over. I know that within my first song there’s always a couple people talking and stuff but I know that it’s my job to get everyone listening in the room at some point and I usually get that done which is really exciting. I love, also, the fact that the songs are different every single night and they’re not like the record, they have a different meaning and a different feeling every single time that you play them so that’s really exciting. Really, I just love playing acoustically because it’s just a nice way to hear my music, I think. But yeah, live shit is the best.
Fans often feel a personal connection to artists through their music. Are there any stories from fans that particularly touched you or highlighted the impact your music has had on their lives?
I’ve definitely had a few songs that have really resonated with particular fans which is crazy to think about. I’ve actually had one fan reach out to me and tell me that a particular song saved her life, she listened to it on a day where she was feeling really shit about something and was gonna go to the extremes but a particular lyric sort of got her out of that headspace. I’ve gotta say I’ve not really been more proud of anything that I’ve done than to hear that I can help people like that. Not to say that I’m, you know, a fucking hero but it’s really special that I can just help change one person’s life with my music. I’ve also had fans reach out about getting over breakups. I’ve had a recent song come out called ‘Introverted’ and it’s all about trying to knock smoking weed on the head and I’ve had a few people reach out to me and say ‘You know what, I heard your song and I’ve now been sober for a little bit’ or whatever. So all this shit is really special and I feel very privileged to have helped people.
Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations as an artist? Are there any new directions you’re excited to explore in your music, or any milestones you’re aiming to achieve?
Well, I aspire to be a big artist to be honest. I would love to have a lot of great selling albums, I wanna play huge shows, big arenas, and just continue to enjoy what I’m doing. I know that I’ve got the ability to create great music, I’m just waiting for that one song to just go and once it does, I’m just gonna chase it like anything. I really do believe in myself and I do think that I have the ability to get there. I just wanna do as well as I can and reach the highest of my ability and I do believe that is pretty fucking high, do you know what I mean? But yeah, all the big ticks, all the big arenas, that’s the goal. And do you know what? I just wanna make loads of money as well so I can just buy myself a little studio somewhere and just continue to make music that I love. That’s the goal! Maybe pop a few kids out at some point as well.