- Words Aimee Phillips
Musical maverick, Reuben James, opens up about the past year, writing for the likes of Sam Smith and Disclosure, working on his next mixtape, and more as part of Nordoff Robbins' We Are Listening campaign.
Reuben James’ musical skill is so innate that you can almost see it running through his veins. The virtuoso pianist, singer, songwriter, and record label owner has written for some of the biggest artists in the game, yet he always keeps his process organic and collaborative.
Picking up the piano at just 3 years old, Reuben debuted as an artist in his teens. After a classical education at Birmingham’s Conservatoire, the young virtuoso met the late trumpeter Abram Wilson and joined his quartet. It wasn’t long before he won a scholarship to the prestigious Trinity College of Music in London aged 18, before going on to be named Rising Star at the 2014 British Jazz Awards. However, whilst Reuben may have made his name in the jazz scene, he’s since flexed his musical muscles across a range of genres, swimming between pop, R&B, reggae, and more.
Reuben James is taking part in UK music charity Nordoff Robbins’ new campaign, We Are Listening, dedicated to the impact of music therapy on those living with a disability. The ten-part series kicked off on April 22nd with Reuben himself. Lapsley and Studio Moross are also taking part, amongst other creatives.
Notion caught up with Reuben from his at-home studio to talk about his as-yet-unnamed mixtape, working with friends, the shock of lockdown as a globe-trotting artist, and the future of live music. Jump in!
You’ve been musical from such a young age and had such an illustrious career already. What made you fall in love with music and pursue it as a career?
There was always a piano in the house and an amazing vinyl collection that my parents have. My sister played piano and violin and sings. [Music] was just an escape for me really. It’s the only thing that I really love doing and I just knew from when I was a kid, like four or five years old, that the only thing I want to do is music.
You’ve written for the likes of Sam Smith, Little Mix, Disclosure, and Liam Payne. Do you have the artist in mind when you begin writing the song, and if so, how do you get into the mindset of that artist?
I never shop songs to people, it always just happens organically in the room with artists. It’s a collaborative process, always. Sometimes, I might preconceive some harmonic ideas, or some chords, or a concept or lyric. You have to be a therapist and go back and forth. You have to swallow your pride and your ego – it’s all for the sake of the artist, really. I’ve come from an experience of jazz but I have also played in many pop bands, R&B, folk, rock, blues, reggae… it makes you versatile, so you can really step into any shoes when you’re working with different artists and facilitate the kind of music that they want to make. It helps to be able to play piano because sometimes I just sit down and play some chords, and just talk to artists and just see what they want to say, and they’ll just sing and it just goes from there.
You must have formed some quite strong bonds with people?
Definitely. It depends on who you’re working with. Some artists want to do all the lyrics because it’s personal to them, so I’ll do all the chords and the production or sometimes, artists are more open to discussion. They’ll want to figure out concepts and lyrics together. There’s no one way to do it. You could watch a movie and get inspired by the storyline and then that could be a song. Or I could be listening to some classical music and then get inspired. I just try and keep it fresh and write in different ways all the time and learn from my peers.
How does the process of writing for other artists differ from the way you create songs for yourself?
I suppose it’s a bit more pressure because it’s not my career on the line when I’m writing for other people [laughs]. There’s anonymity. When you’re writing for people, no one really knows that you’ve done it outside of the music world. So you can kind of do whatever you want and whatever they want, but with your own music… it took me a long time to put out my music because I wanted to experience life and travel and gig and just build my musical language before I put some stuff out into the world. Now, I feel like I’m grown enough to be able to make a statement of my own rather than just make music for other people. But I still love writing with other people, but I felt like it was time for me to leave my own legacy behind in terms of my own music.
Let’s talk about your upcoming mixtape where you linked up with Tom Misch, Frida Touray and Daley. What drew you to working with these artists in particular?
Love working with Tom Misch. We actually went to the same uni but at different times. I’ve known him for about seven or eight years. I worked with him on his album, ‘Geography’. I’m a big fan of his music and I love working with him. He’s one of my favourite musicians so it was a pleasure to get him involved. I’m all about collaboration. I’m not precious about it having to all be me. I just want to bring in the best musicians in the world and the best producers and the best singers and writers and make the best music possible. As long as I like it, that’s all that matters really.
You’ve got your own record label, Rufio Records, on which you’re releasing this mixtape. When did you set it up?
I did it a couple of years ago before I released my first record because I didn’t want to wait around for a record label to own all the rights to my music. It’s really easy to put stuff out yourself, so I’d rather just build my own little fan base and see what happens, really.
So who else is on your bucket list of collabs? On this mixtape, you’ve worked with HONNE, Adam Flowers and Keyon Harrold.
Everyone I work with, it’s because I know them and we’re mates and because there’s an organic, natural vibe that we’ve built over time. It’s never me picking up the phone being like, ‘hey, come sing my song!’. It’s always people I know, that’s how I like to work. But there are obviously people on my bucket list. I’d love to work with PJ Morton. I’d love to work with Anderson .Paak, Stevie Wonder. Eloise is amazing, I’d love to work with her.
The past year has been a hard time for musicians thanks to the live music industry being on pause. As someone who is so used to performing live, how have you been coping with the change?
I mean, wow, I’ve just come from seven years constantly on world tour with Sam Smith to being locked down, back in my parents’ house, working on music in the garage. It’s a big shock. When you used to get in the adrenaline rush of thousands of people screaming and performing on such a big stage, to then be home and not travelling, not catching any flights, not going on the stage and feeling any audiences, it’s a shock on the body and the mind. But you’ve just got to adapt. Financially, the way musicians make their bread is from doing shows and that’s all I’ve known for 10 years. So it’s lucky that before lockdown here, I set up a studio and I’ve been able to work remotely. I worked a lot with Marcus Mumford on a TV show called Ted Lasso, and I finished my EP ‘Slow Down’. Been working with my friend Nick Littlemore who has amazing bands called Pnau and Empire of the Sun. So it’s kind of a blessing that I’ve been able to keep working but I do miss doing live shows for sure.
Are you feeling positive about the future of live music?
I mean, it’s been slim pickings so it can only get better. I can’t imagine it getting any worse than what it is! I’m sure every artist and performer is just gagging to feel that buzz of being in front of a crowd. I literally can’t wait. But I feel like hopefully there’ll be a boom – if it’s safe. As long as it’s safe, I’m happy to go back out there and start turning on the dance moves and going crazy, jumping on the piano.