With his new single just released and an album on the way, Notion chats with singer-songwriter James Arthur about introspective reflection and mental health check-ins.
When the UK public first met James Arthur, a 24-year-old from Middlesbrough, back in 2012, he took to the stage of a familiar tv talent show and intrigued us all with his husky vocals. Almost a decade since that appearance, and he has amassed over 30 million streams, collaborated with the likes of Rudimental, Sigala, Marshmello, and Anne Marie, and is about to release his fourth studio album, coming this autumn.
“I’m happy to be someone who’s sort of came from nothing and managed to make something of his life and hopefully that inspires other people that come from places like I do,” James says when we speak over Zoom.
He’s incredibly humble, a trait that makes him a pleasure to speak to and engage with. An artist without a front who was prepared to delve deep into conversations about life in the music industry and how sometimes being honest and vocal about your troubles can be the best medicine. It’s a dream to chat to him about his life so far.
Recently signing to Columbia Records, James’ forthcoming record ‘It’ll All Make Sense In The End’ is promised to be his most personal work to date. A back-to-basics route into his indie-rock beginnings, his newfound fusion of rap with emo and trap have all contributed to the exciting combination of sounds on the new album.
Even though all his successes so far are hugely impressive, something tells us that James Arthur is not slowing down any time soon. With a hell of a lot more to come from him – he even says that he’s only just getting started – we’re hoping to see his name in lights for quite a while longer. Plus, if manifesting things really does work… BRIT Award anyone?
Firstly, after the past year or so, things have been a bit abnormal. So, I want to start by asking you how are you doing and how has the year been for you?
Thanks for asking! It’s a good question… how has the year been? I feel like it’s flying by. It’s been a little bit uneventful, to be honest, I made the album in 2020 and it’s been a lot of preparing for the release. I’ve released a couple of songs so far from the record which has been exciting. But you know, it’s been unusual doing an album campaign during these sorts of times I suppose. I’d normally be travelling around a little bit more, promoting the record [but] everything’s been kind of remote. It’s been challenging, to be honest, I’m ready to get back on tour and go out and play music. That’s my purpose. That’s the thing I enjoy doing the most; it’s going to be coming up to two years before I get back on tour so I’m more than ready to do that.
It’s almost been 10 years, which seems crazy, since you won the 9th series of The X Factor. Can you tell us about the journey you’ve been on since that win?
It’s been very up and down. That’s the best way I can describe it: it’s been very up and down. Obviously, I’ve had a lot of highs and a lot of lows in this game. I’ve been lucky I’ve had a couple of hit songs and I’ve managed to get to a point now where I can do arenas in this country, and I’m still being played on the radio in the UK so yeah, it’s great. I mean it’s mad, [these] 10 years has flown by but I’m quite happy with my achievements so far. But I also feel like I’m just getting started. But yeah, it’s been well documented that I’ve had a lot of highs and a lot of lows in this game since I won The X Factor, I suppose that’s part and parcel of being someone who was kind of plucked from obscurity and put into the limelight. I’m just a normal guy from a working-class town who’s just trying to make his way in the music industry, and it’s been fun, but it’s also been challenging.
So, you’ve got a new album coming out on the 8th October called ‘It’ll All Make Sense In The End’. Can you tell us more about the album?
It’s an album I made during a weird year in 2020 in lockdown. A reflective time for me [so] it’s quite an introspective album. In terms of the style musically, I kind of experimented a little bit with some of my rap influences and rock and things like that. It was just fun to make and I sort of wanted to do something slightly different. And ‘It’ll All Make Sense In The End’ is kind of a title that I came to all because I was going through – I think you’ve probably heard this from a lot of creative people or artists – we were allowed a time to reflect, it’s been non-stop usually and to just be able to focus on one element of the business was good. I did a lot of soul searching and ‘It’ll All Make Sense In The End’ just kind of fell into place and it’s sort of what I would say to my younger self if I had the opportunity to do that.
Did you find writing the album cathartic? With that title, I feel like you’ve definitely honed in on trying to figure things out. It feels like you’ve had an outlet to express yourself.
Yeah definitely. I’m not really one to sit back and take stock or pat myself on the back or anything but being forced to be introspective and just having a kind of stillness during the album-making process, during the writing, a lot of personal stuff came out and I’m proud of it.
You’ve made some really great dance-pop records, the ones that are perfect for radio. But with your recent singles “Medicine” and “September”, they both really feel like you’ve found your true artistry. Does the indie, rockier, and rap influences make you feel more at home?
Yeah, 100% percent. I’ve always said I’ve been chipping away trying to get back to that indie-rock frontman. I’ve got those kind of pop-punk and emo influences, like before X Factor I was in bands, that’s what I did for 10 years before auditioning for the show and obviously it’s not mainstream. For guitar music, the radio is quite scared of that it seems, so I’ve tried to incorporate my influences and try to strike a balance over the years with that and I just kind of went a little bit more all out on this record. I haven’t tried to cater too much to radio playlisting and stuff like that, but yeah, I definitely feel more at home making this kind of genre of music.
Can you tell us more about your new single “Avalanche”?
To be honest, it’s one of my favourite songs from the album. It might be the only acoustic record on the whole thing. It’s just a song I absolutely love. There’s not really much more to say about it. It’s a bit of a departure from the other two songs in the sense of it’s acoustic and it’s the most organic, stripped back song on the whole album. The rest of it is quite bells and whistles and “Avalanche” is just a moment on the album that I wanted to share with people and I wanted it to have its own moment really and it’s quite cinematic. I feel like you could hear it synced on a movie or something. And I liked the idea of painting a picture of people in this avalanche and all these metaphors that come with life I suppose
I guess with releasing any new music there must be a part of you that’s nervous about how fans are going to react to it. But when you’re putting out a whole project that’s so personal to you, do you put more pressure on yourself for them to like it?
Not really, I think because I love it and I feel like I can stand behind it, I am not as concerned about whether people, or like the mainstream, receive it in a positive way. I don’t know really. I think I’ve got to a point where… you know the music industry is a weird place these days, you never know what really is going to work and what isn’t… I’ve kind of stopped caring cos it takes too much of my energy. I’ve just got to make sure that I make music that I can stand behind and that I’m happy with personally. I feel like I’ve pushed the boundaries on this one so I’m happy that I’ve done that. I’ve not really compromised anything.
You’ve been a big advocate for mental health and always being honest with your fans and being open and encouraging people to speak out if they need help. How has your mental health been over this past year? I can imagine you have better coping mechanisms now than at the start of your career. Is that the case?
It’s been testing you know. It’s been challenging like I’m sure it has been for everyone. I’m someone who likes to have structure in my life and obviously, it’s difficult to have that or has been difficult to have that over the past year or so. And I’m not talking about a 9-5 or being super routined, but when I’m on the road touring, I definitely feel just that sense of purpose. Sometimes the days over the past year or so have been a bit unpredictable and whatever, and that’s been a challenge I’m not going to lie. It’s definitely tested me but as I try to say to all of my fans, you’ve just got to be good on the bad days and keep talking about how you’re feeling and like you said, I’m a big advocate for speaking up and talking about your mental health and that’s definitely my coping mechanism as well.
You’re playing a live show at Lafayette in London in September, how excited are you to get back to playing live?
I’m really excited to get back to it. It’s going to be so much fun to be back in a room playing live music again and connecting with fans. I’m just very, very excited about that. It can’t come soon enough for me. It’s been way too long; I don’t think I’ve ever been out of gigging for this long.
Are there any artists you’re keeping on your radar at the moment?
I love Miguel. I listen to Miguel a lot. I’ve just been going back to be honest, because I made an album that was kind of a little bit influenced by the pop-punk and emo bands that I loved. I kind of delved back into the Blink archives and Brand New and Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance. As well as listening to hip hop which I always do. I’ve been loving the kind of rock-trap wave that we’ve had recently that kind of JuiceWRLD and that style of music has been fun to put my own spin on. I’ve taken inspiration from the likes of JuiceWRLD and Post Malone and guys like that.
I want to go to back to the album title again ‘It’ll All Make Sense In The End’. What milestones do you want to reach before whatever the end is?
That’s a good question. Although I said I’m not super concerned with what people are thinking about this body of work, but before my time is done, I would love to have another couple of hit songs. Leave another couple of number ones on my legacy; I’d definitely like that just because I like the idea of reaching as many people as possible with my music. I’d like to write more songs for other people and try different genres and keep evolving as an artist and as a musician. I’d love the recognition of a BRIT Award maybe at some point. That’s the kind of thing when you’ve been in the game for as long as I have now, I guess that’s one thing to tick off for me. Like a Grammy or a BRIT Award, something just to put the icing on the cake I suppose.
Finally, we all first met James Arthur in 2012, but James Arthur today sounds like a very different worldly-wise person. What’s one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
‘It’ll All Make Sense In The End’… No, I’m joking. I was all over the place as a young man, someone who was very confused. So yeah, as cliché as it might sound, I would tell him to enjoy the ride and try to stay in the moment. I did a lot of looking back and looking ahead and I think what I’ve learned with experience is that all that does is create stress and anxiety and doesn’t serve you very well. So, try to soak up every moment because life’s too short to be stuck in your head. That’s definitely something I’m still working on, and I would advise other people to think about.