The rise, fall and resurrection of James Arthur has been written about at length. In a nutshell, the Brit won X Factor in 2012, landed a global hit with “Impossible” and then had a public meltdown. Most talent show winners don’t get a second act, especially after causing that much chaos, but James isn’t your average X Factor alum. For starters, there’s a grit and authenticity to him that sets him apart, and then there’s that voice, the kind of soulful (in a blue-eyed kind of way) instrument that comes out of the UK once or twice a generation.
I caught up with the crooner last week at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to discuss the US success of his comeback anthem, “Say You Won’t Let Go,” and his upcoming support slot on OneRepublic’s fall tour. Somewhat surprisingly, James was an open book — explaining how he came up with the song (he followed an A&R brief) and clearing up a recent run-in with the UK press. Get to know the rising singer, and find out more about his excellent Back From The Edge LP, in our Q&A below.
Did you have a feeling that “Say You Won’t Let Go” was going to be a big record? I did feel like it was special. I remember when I wrote it, and I got back to the motel that day, my friend was staying with me and I remember saying like, “This could be what the record label are after at least.” Because the label wanted something universal. All the other stuff that I was writing at the time was quite personal and had a redemption feel to it, a redemption theme. I hadn’t really done my “Love Yourself.” That was the kind of song the label really wanted me to create. So I went to the studio and I was like, “Well, let me do my take on this kind of thing.” Personally, I didn’t think it was going to be the first single, I thought it might be a filler.
Really? Yeah, I thought it might be an album filler. I didn’t think it was going to be a global hit song at all. And you never know I suppose. You just try and make stuff that’s relatable.
It’s interesting that you had a brief. I hate to have a brief, I really hate to have a brief, you should never go in there trying to force things. But I thought it was fair enough that she said, “Give us some of the storytelling of that Lukas Graham song “7 Years” with the feel of “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber. I was like alright, I’ll do my best and I’ll give it a go, and I went in there, and it took maybe two and a half hours. I was a little hungover because I’d been drinking with my mate the whole day before. I just kinda wanted to meet the brief and then bounce, really. I think the key thing with it was that I was just being honest. I was telling a story, and it felt organic.
Is the song about anyone in particular? No, not really. I was drawing upon past experiences, but it wasn’t about anyone in particular.
You went through a bit of a rough patch in the UK. Was there pressure to bounce back with a smash? Yeah, I think so. It felt like the public perception in the UK was quite bad. I had a bit of a bad reputation. I’d had a public meltdown, and I felt like I needed to have a genuine smash to get back into the fold and really be taken seriously again. Because The X Factor winners, generally they come and go, and you don’t hear about them for ages. So I needed to prove that I wasn’t just a flash in the pan in a way, and come back with something great. You know I didn’t think the radio stations would come back on board. I guess it was because iTunes, it flew to number one on iTunes, that they were forced to play the track.
Did you ever doubt that you would be able to make it back? Yeah, all the time. My realistic thoughts were that that probably would be the case, but I had a lot of belief in my ability, and I had faith. I was trying to visualize getting back to that place.
Are those problems with the UK press a thing of the past now? Nah, I think even when they write positive things about me, they start all the articles with, “Bad Boy James Arthur” or like, “Back in 2013 James Arthur had a public meltdown but now he’s back!” That’s how it starts, with that. It’s never just about me as an artist really.
Do you think that will fade away by the next album? I don’t know, I mean. It’s fine, it’s cool that they talk about me having a comeback. But I think this is a lot of lazy journalism in a respect that they always refer to my downfall, it seems to be the crux of every article.
They had ran with a quote you gave about Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik. I thought it was obvious that you were joking. Of course I was, yeah. If you think that I’m being serious when I’m saying those things… but the fans do. Fans of those people think I’m being serious, and they message me, they tweet me saying, “Well who do you think you are?” I’m not allowed to justify myself to them, you know, because I would get in trouble with my manager. But I want to say, “Look! Give your head a shake.” People always ask me about Zayn Malik because we both came from X Factor and we’re both quite open about our struggle with anxiety. So I always say the same thing and I must’ve done a hundred interviews where I’ve been asked about him, and I say, “I taught him everything he knows.” It’s a joke, it’s tongue in cheek.
I guess you’re not a fan of social media. It’s so hard, because there’s no tone. And you don’t get context, and you don’t get intonation, you can’t have a personality really. And when you sit down with those tabloid journalists, it’s like there’s no wonder that everyone’s media training to death now. Because you can’t have any sort of fun with it. I was offered media training at the beginning of my career and I said, “No, fuck that!” I said, “No way,” because I don’t want to be a robot. All the people that I love had an opinion, all the people that inspired me had something to say. Whether it was good or bad, you’d get respect for speaking your mind.
“Safe Inside” was the second single in the UK. Will that be the same in America? No, I don’t think it is. I mean, “Safe Inside”… that one was for me. And I wanted it to be a thing for around Christmas time. It just felt like a family song. I was thinking of those John Lewis adverts, you know? Christmas where the kids have got their nose pressed against the window and stuff. I don’t think the label or management really wanted to go with it, but they sort of let me have that one because “Say You Won’t Let Go” did so well, they were like, “Alright you can have that one.” I think “Can I Be Him” is going to be the second one here. Yeah, and that’s the third one in the UK.
I read that you recorded a song with Nicole Scherzinger? Yeah we actually did record a song, but nothing’s really happened with it. We just got her to record the second verse [of “Let Me Love The Lonely”] and to my understanding it was going to be something that we gave away on Spotify. I don’t know what happened really.
I’d like to hear it. I think she’s supremely talented. And she’s one of my best friends. She’s so good I don’t think she gets enough credit for how good she is. She’s quality, like genuinely, like a top singer.
Are you surprised at finding success in America so quickly? I always felt like I’m the type of artist that would work here, because I’ve got that soulful thing, and also a lot of people in America are quite spiritual. If you listen to the album it’s quite uplifting. I think a lot of people are quite religious here, and I reference those sorts of things, even though I’m not a super religious man myself. But my music, you can feel like you’re at a service when you’re at my gigs in a way. Because I’m trying to make people leave with a few less demons.
Have you started thinking about your third album? I’m writing it already! Last week I did a whole week of writing sessions. And when I get home on the second of May, I’m going be in the studio with Steve Mac and William Hector, and some other great writers you know.
They did Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You.” Yeah, they did that. I’m getting the A-List producers now, which is great.
Does that make a difference having access to those hitmakers? Well, I have quite a lot of faith in my own writing ability and I always go to a session with people with my own ideas. And usually it’s 80 percent the bones of the song that I have, and people, these producers, these core writers will just kind of help me bring it to life even more. I think that’s a blessing, it’s really a great experience.
You’re touring with OneRepublic later this year? What can fans expect from the show? I guess the fans that have heard “Say You Won’t Let Go” will think that I’m an acoustic singer/songwriter guy, but actually my shows are like a mixture of D’Angelo, The Roots vibes and then heavy rock, really heavy rock where you’ll see us moshing out like we’re Fall Out Boy. It’s really eclectic, you know. It’s a good mix of stuff. It’s just a lot of energy, and I’m trying to make people feel something.