‘I always tend to write from a personal perspective. It’s the only time I get to be vulnerable.’
With his beautiful release ‘District Line EP’ arriving last month, Ella McLaren chatted with singer-songwriter James Smith about the impact music has had on his life, the incredibly personal nature of his tracks, and what he’s most looking forward to in 2021.
Hey James, thanks so much for speaking with us today, let’s dive right in! When did you know that music would be such a part of your life?
Hey! I sort of always knew really. It’s a weird one with creatives – I don’t know many artists that haven’t always wanted to be involved in art! A lot of kids change their minds when they’re asked what they want to do when they’re older, but I was always certain that I wanted to do music. We used to go to a caravan site every year in Clacton-on-sea, and even when I was only about four I would get up and sing to everyone!
How did your experiences growing up in East London impact you and your music?
Looking back, I think it actually made a huge impact on my music. The area I grew up in was a very ‘old-school’ working-class environment, full of traditional cockneys! There was never any modern music playing, we never really listened to the radio. But, there was always a lot of classics playing on repeat, and I think this influenced my style of songwriting massively. I’m always trying to write classic songs!
Looking back, what’s your earliest musical memory?
Seeing Elvis Presley on the TV at my nan’s and dancing so hard to Jailhouse Rock.
I understand you initially had a turbulent time in education. How did music help shape the changes in your approach?
Yeah I did… I got kicked out of school when I was 14, and couldn’t find another school that would take me for a number of months. So I had to go work on my dad’s market stall and it was around this time that I discovered my love for songwriting, it helped me get through that tough period. When I got back to school, I worked so hard on music and it kept me out of trouble! I owe everything to music.
If someone hadn’t listened to your music before, how would you describe it to them?
I’d say I’m an old-soul singer-songwriter. Prepare to cry a lot along with some simple storytelling haha.
Your 2018 release ‘Tell Me That You Love Me’ recently broke the 60,000,000 listens mark. How does it feel to know your music is connecting with others to that level?
It’s honestly mind-blowing. I can’t even fathom that amount of people. I’m super grateful and I count my blessings every day.
‘I wanted the EP to say both ‘this is what I’ve got’ and ‘this is who I am’.’
Who have you been listening to recently, and what do you like about them?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Madisson Cunningham. She’s an awesome writer and guitarist. I also have been listening to a lot of Brazilian Jazz. There’s something that they do over there that really resonates with me. The lyricism is so straight forward and ‘say it how it is’ vibes – which I find so effective.
Turning to your new release, how does it feel to have ‘District Line’ EP out there?
It feels great! I’ve lived with it for a while now so it’s nice to have the project out so that I can focus on my next move musically.
‘District Line’ is composed with such autobiographical and heartfelt tunes, what prompted you to take this personal approach to the EP?
I always tend to write from a personal perspective. It’s the only time I get to be vulnerable really. I don’t feel restricted when I write, I’m never worried about embarrassing myself because it’s honest and it’s art!
Can you tell us about the recording process of the EP?
I actually recorded all of the EP at home (aside from the piano, which I recorded at my friend’s place). It was a super chilled process. I played most of the parts and just had a lot of fun with it. I’ve basically turned my garage into a live room now! There are mics everywhere so that I can really capture the sound of the room. Sometimes I have to rerecord parts because my dog will start barking at the postman, but other than that, it’s pretty well set up! The mics I used were mainly between my Neumann u47, Neumann u87, the Shure SM7, and Shure SM7B.
The first half of the EP features tunes with more power and fuller textures. Was there a reason behind the production differences?
Yes! I wanted to start the EP with a bigger impact to say ‘this is what I’ve got’ and then by the end of the EP, it’s more of a ‘this is who I am’. I thought that ending with ‘District Line’ was always the right move because it feels like a cute little goodbye to the songs that play prior to it. Lyrically the songs are all about the same relationship, and District Line says goodbye to that. So don’t worry, I won’t be singing about the same old breakup again! I’m over it now haha.
All of the songs are so intimate, especially in their lyrics with the titular track being particularly tender. How does it feel to share your experiences with so many people?
It’s definitely a bit nerve-racking, especially because I’ve written about quite specific things, but I honestly see it as art allowing me to detach myself from the feeling I had when I wrote it. It’s a really sad song – but I actually have a lot of love for it. It makes me feel happy because it’s nostalgic.
Other than the EP release, what’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you so far this year?
Well, I performed on The One Show which has been my biggest TV thing yet! I was sh**ting myself but it was super exciting and I’m looking forward to doing more of that stuff.
Looking ahead, you’re working on a forthcoming project with Katy B, how did that collaboration come about?
We’re under the same management and she’s been a real mentor to me over the years so it was an honour when she asked me to work on some stuff for her project.
‘Music kept me out of trouble – I owe everything to it.’
Turning to performing, with the return of live music finally on the horizon, which song from the EP are you most excited to play live?
I’m excited to play ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ with a band. The ending is so huge so I’m buzzing to play that lead guitar line live!
Having played all over London’s up and coming venues from Omeara to Dingwalls, what do you love about performing at venues like these?
They are the perfect venues to play new music in! They are so up close and personal and they really allow you to get intimate with the audience. I loved playing new songs there because people really listened in those venues.
And finally, you’ve recently announced a tour with New Hope Club. What are you most looking forward to about going back on tour?
Well, those boys are a laugh, so I’m looking forward to perhaps a few boozy nights haha. Their fans are great too so it will be amazing to meet them all in person!
Thanks for speaking to us James!