James Walker Interview: “I’d love for my performance to feel like a sigh of relief”

james walker
Photo by Ian Wallman

New album English Bones due before the end of the year.

British singer-songwriter James Walker is a story teller. Combining instropective and nuanced lyrics with deft musicinship and an ear for melody, his debut EP Modern Medicine wonderful but only a hint at his potential. His upcoming debut album English Bones sees Walker take the template he established and expand it tenfold. Incorporating a wealth of new instruments and techniques, the album is bound to resonate with all who listen.

We spoke with James about where the name of his upcoming album came from, his lyrical fascination with relationships, and his goal for his music.

Overblown: ‘Weathered’ is the second single from your upcoming album ‘English Bones’. It is quite a tender, vulnerable and melancholic song. Do you feel it is important for people to reveal their vulnerabilities? Why?

James Walker: Music, to me, is an incredibly cathartic process. It’s an elimination of stresses, tension, worries, or feelings of joy, love, grief. Some people dance, some people paint, some people write books. For me, creating music is the only form of expression that feels true to myself. In revealing your vulnerabilities, you are inviting others in. I try to write songs that act as an open door to my mind, where people can step in and try to make sense of all the clutter & cobwebs, and take from it whatever they will.

Socially, this is important too. From my small time I have on stage every night, I want people to take home the message that it’s okay to be open, it’s okay to talk about your problems, and it’s okay to be fighting a battle. The artists that I appreciate and admire the most all do the same; Keaton Henson is a pillar of vulnerability, Damien Rice is a teller of great introspective stories, American Football draw on high school nostalgia, Youth Lagoon create musical catalysts; all of these invite the listen in to make sense of what they are hearing, but ultimately to reflect the music onto their own experiences.

Artists mean something to people because they evoke feelings of a personal nature within the listener; I can only hope that my songs resonate with people in a way that reflects their own inner conflicts, and that together we can find mutual peace & catharsis in the act of performing/listening to music.

Overblown: What does the title ‘English Bones’ refer to?

James Walker: A lot of the record is about identity, whether in a relationship, within yourself, or within other places that you visit. English Bones is a lyric in the closing track, Kreuzberg. That particular song is about the death of my grandmother, Maggie, who is the reason that I even started playing music. She has been an omnipresent factor in my musical development, performance, and creation. Kreuzberg tackles the idea that that omnipresence still continues irrespective as to where I am, who I’m performing with, or what other events are occurring in my life.

The context of the ‘English Bones’ lyric is in the verse, ‘I still see you by the willows out in Leipzig/I still feel you everywhere/I sensed your cold in cattle-market Kreuzberg/In the way that people stop and stare/At my English bones, do I look far from home?/Or not quite far enough, who have I become?’

O: How do you feel your songwriting has developed since the release of your ‘Modern Medicine’ EP?

JW: Modern Medicine were the first five songs that I ever wrote. I had no idea about the writing process, about rules or formulas, about re-writing or scrapping ideas, or about how to build those ideas in the studio. All I knew is that I had written five songs, and that I wanted to release them. I had an offer from my touring partners Adam Barnes & Henry Cook to be part of their label Wild Native, and release my music alongside Adam’s then-forthcoming EP. I’d been opening a few shows on Adam’s tours, which were magical, and figured that I had the contact network to record, release and tour music of my own. So I did. But the tracks didn’t feel like me; looking back on the record feels like strange now, because my voice sounds completely different to how I perform now.

The narrative voice I had on that EP is entirely different, too. I feel as though taking nearly eighteen months to pen these eleven tracks, scrapping twice as many, and re-writing everything over again, has really enabled me to pen some songs in a voice that feels like me. Sam Winfield has helped so much in shaping those songs into what they are; in the studio, we collectively worked on arranging the songs to their best potential, incorporating lots of elements from pads, pianos, electrics, e-bow, and even some reversed glockenspiel. It’s been an eye-opening and incredibly enjoyable experience.

O: The album was produced by Sam Winfield who also produced Bring Me The Horizon. That is perhaps an unusual combination. What did he bring to the process?

JW: Sam’s also worked alongside bands such as Dry the River, Amber Run, and MMX. He has worked on some incredible projects, and having such a diverse producer working alongside me has truly helped the record explore levels of subtlety that it wouldn’t have otherwise. We had a lot of time to experiment with creating an overall sonic for the record, and I embraced the challenge of exploring new instrumentation/arrangements that I didn’t have before heading into the studio. The song Casanovas was written during the recording time, the verses for 2009 were completely changed in the recording process, we scrapped a B-section for Waiting and got to explore to unique and very fun production techniques on Casualty and Weathered.

It’s been a blast working with Sam, and I hope that we can work together on more projects in the future. For now, though, I’m looking at heading out to Old Lyme in Connecticut to record my next tracks. My friends Charlie and Nick own a recording complex out there, and have offered me to come and stay and write/record with them. They’re in an incredible band called the Brazen Youth, and I feel as though their brand of lo-fi recording is right up my street, and I’d love to explore the whole For Emma… vibe of recording out in a cabin/farmland.

O: You are in the midst of quite an extensive tour. Do you relish the challenge of playing a new town/city each night?

JW: Most of the time it doesn’t feel like a challenge at all; having the opportunity to see new places, meet new people and socialise with venues, hosts and wonderful folk all over is something that feels like a blessing rather than a task. I admire and feel as though I understand people like David Bazan who can tour for 3+ months at a time, the call of the road is much stronger for me than the ties I have at home. If I could, I’d spend three quarters of the year touring.

For now I only a network large enough that enables me to head to Europe a for five or six months per year and to America every now and again. Being on the road at the moment with Judy Blank (NL) and Matt Phillips (USA) might help this become a more substantial route. The shows that we’ve been playing thus far have been so rewarding, and I can’t wait for the next six weeks with Matt. He’s an incredibly talented player, and I’m learning lessons in both guitar playing and humility from him every day I spend around him.

Playing so extensively is a learning process. The long hours in the car, the sweaty work of loading in and out of venues, the performances themselves, the socialising afterwards. They all teach you something; every day I’m learning better how to be calmer, every day I’m learning how to approach people, every day I feel I’m becoming a more open person. Being thousands of miles from home and having someone telling me about their lives, worries, successes, is an incredible feeling. The fact that I can perform to people and encourage them to open up about themselves to me is so wonderful.

O: Another song on the new album is ‘Next to Me’ which deals with being in a relationship out of habit rather than love. A lot of your songs seem to deal with relationships. Do you find these songs difficult to play live?

JW: A lot of songs deal with relationships, sure, but mostly of a very different kind. Some songs deal with romantic relationships, others deal with interpersonal relationships, one or two deal with conceptual relationships. Next to Me is a pretty straightforward song about feeling completely alone while sharing your bed with a significant other; it’s something that I went through for a long time and learning to break free from that was a major crux in the last few years of my life.

The rest of the record is not so straightforward, though. Lullaby is told from the perspective of a mother looking over her child in the Intensive Care Unit and is a commentary, once again, on omnipresence & unconditional love. Casanovas is a song told from the perspective of a celebrity stalker. Casualty is about imposter syndrome. Waiting is about feeling entirely unworthy in a sexual relationship; about wanting the ground to swallow you whole.

O: What is your goal for your music?

JW: Such a tough question as there are so much goals I have, whether personally, externally or in a career sense. Importantly, I want people to be able to resonate with the songs that I write. I want people to see a live performance of mine and reflect on their own similar issues; I’d love for my performance to feel like a sigh of relief or a breaking of tension. I want to continue touring around the world sharing stories and evenings with strangers, fans and friends. In a similar train of thought, I want these shows to continue growing bigger. I’d love to eventually perform for small theatres of sit-down audiences, just a few hundred people per evening, and have people be able to form an emotional connection to what they see on stage. I’d like to tour with my full band a few times too. Playing BBC Introducing stages at some festivals would be great.

All in all, I just want music to continue being a catalyst both for my mental clutter & understanding of the world, but also a catalyst that enables me to see more places, meet more people, and perform at more venues. My goal is to continue doing what I’m doing, perhaps growing each time I head out, and to find just a little more financial stability. But that all comes with time. For now, I’m enjoying every day as it comes and feeling so incredibly lucky to be here.

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