English Bones is out now.
English singer/songwriter James Walker is one of the rarest types of songwriters. His music is intelligent, introspective, and yet melodious and infectious. His goal is twofold: to create music that has depth but is also accessible. For me, this is actually one of the most difficult goals of any songwriter. Recent years has seen musicians head in one direction or the other. James Walker is brave enough to take both head on.
We sat down for chat with James about his new album English and he revealed the delicate and personal inspirations behind each track on the record.
I remember being in a really strange headspace when I started writing Weathered.
On New Year’s Eve 2016, my partner broke up with me. We were emotionally drained and living lives that weren’t conducive to a very healthy relationship. It ended in an argument in which we exchanged really hurtful words, and six months later he texted me to apologise for being so nasty. We caught up and chatted about everything, and agreed to meet back up for coffee.
We wanted to reconnect. We’d be chatting again via text, and to me it just felt right.
When we met back up, it was like our souls had shifted. I couldn’t see in him what I felt attracted to in the first place. His laugh sounded different, the colour of his hair seemed off. Was that tattoo there before? It just didn’t feel right; he seemed older, more tired, more weathered. But he swore that everything was good, that everything was going well.
I couldn’t, and still can’t, pinpoint what was different, but there was something that made me realise I’d fallen out of love.
When working on the production of this track, I knew that I wanted to explore many different layers and capture a feeling of ethereality. I wanted to create a mood that matched how I felt in those moments of confusion, and in those times of uncertainty.
In order to do this, we started experimenting with vocal layers. The track was put on, and I improvised vocal sounds that were in (somewhat) in key. Lots of oohs and aahs and feeling a little funny doing them. There was no intention of forming coherent words or singing phrases, I just wanted to capture a sound. When the song fades in, the choir-sounding pad in the background is just many layers of me, covered in a load of reverb & put together as a makeshift blanket for the main vocal line that comes in.
Halfway through the first verse, a ticking clock is introduced very far back in the mix and runs, without fail, until the very end of the song. It’s a device that we used to guide the listener through the song, and something subtle to provide motion over just an acoustic guitar and some choir.
My favourite part, without doubt, is the last chorus, we recorded a sub phatty layer, brought in a whole bunch of electric piano, electric guitar, e-bow & played around with bit crushing the main vocal to create that distorted effect you hear.
I can’t remember how many layers there are on this track, but I’d love to see the studio project files one more time.
One of my favourite songs I’ve had the enjoyment of recording; the process was so fun, and such a joy to experiment over a few days & too much coffee.
Next to Me
Like most of my ideas, this was started off as an ultra sad song at the piano. I had been watching a lot of Jeff Schneider YouTube videos on chord voicings and wanted to incorporate the new things that I had been learning into a song somehow.
Originally, this song was intended to be a pretty chilled out solo/electric piano track with a little electric guitar in the background, but putting together this band arrangement was a lot of fun. I’m intending to re-record this over in the States with Matt Phillips early next year, alongside a whole bunch of other stuff, and really go back to basics and strip down this tune.
Thematically, it’s about being with someone out of habit rather than out of love. In a way, it’s about falling out of love with someone and recognising that one day soon you’re going to have to leave them. I’ve been on both sides of that situation a few times.
The kick drum in this track is me punching the sofa in Studio 91. Sam Winfield had wanted to track the sofa for a long time, as according to him it was a great kick drum sound. The absurdity of the whole idea made me agree, and so we set up a mic next to the couch and recorded me punching it in time with the song. Sam then worked some studio EQing wizardry, and out came the kick sound you hear in this track.
Landslide is a little fictitious story about telling someone that you’re interested, but feeling really meek when doing so. It’s a story loosely based around how I constantly felt as a teenager being around people I was attracted to. I was, and mostly still am, terrible at telling people I like them. And more often than not, when I do, I get shut down much like in this song.
The guitar part of this was super fun to play, and it’s recorded on my little 3/4 sized Martin guitar. I wish, in retrospect, that we added a few more layers in the first couple of verses as compared to how the song sounds now, it seems kind of bare! Perhaps I’ll revisit this track in the studio next year for a live session or something. But for now, enjoy it in all of it’s imperfect glory.
This song was my first ever co-write, and was penned in a tea shop in Cologne with my good friend Judy Blank. We were on the road together for Spring 2017, performing in intimate venues all across the Netherlands and Germany. I had only met her twice before, so was a little dubious about how much we would connect on the trip, but she was wonderful. Funny, kind, enigmatic, encouraging.
It enabled me to approach her with the idea that I’d had for this song, which is a story about my Mum looking over me in the Intensive Care Ward. Five years ago, I had my second open heart surgery to fix clots caused by a rare blood clotting disorder. The operation was a great success, and I should be able to maintain a normal exercise tolerance and life expectancy now, but the recovery process was lengthy and incredibly taxing on both me and my family.
I wanted to write a song from the perspective of my Mum, who took leave from her job to look over me in the hospital every day. She was by my side day-by-day without fail, even on the most arduous and boring of days, she stayed right there giving me great conversation or even just to hold my hand.
I had written the verses for this song a long time ago, and roughly had a chord structure and melody for them, but I really wasn’t sure where I should have taken the chorus. This is where Judy came in; I showed her my ideas so far, and she suggested going to the Vm for the chorus and introduced me a melody idea that she had for my lyrics. We spent the rest of the day co-writing this song together, and it’s easily one of my favourites on the record both in its sentimentality and also in its production – Sam has done a wonderful job on this one.
2009 is the song that almost never was. It was one of the first songs I ever wrote for myself, and was written back when I was living and studying in Brighton. I was conflicted living there, as I loved the city but was having a terrible time. I was living in a student house, complete with the stereotypical housemates coming home at 6am on coke, kitchen filled with mould, no personal space, and no money.
I couldn’t deal with it, and moved in with a friend of mine and his folks. It was such a strange demographic to be around as I’d moved away from home a few years ago and felt as though I had parents to answer to once again. It definitely limited my freedom, no matter how liberal and open they were.
A friend of mine from home then also moved to Brighton, and the three of us started a little American Football/twinkly emo band called Cityview that never launched. We had written a collection of songs together, 2009 being one of them, but never had the time to get in the studio and release anything. We wanted the song to tackle vague ideas of nostalgia, being in bands back in the day, past relationships. Nothing too deep, but it was a lot of fun to write and produce.
When it came to recording English Bones, this song was always in the back of mind. It felt a little bit like closure to get this song tracked and out there, and I knew that I wanted to play a little guitar solo somewhere on the record! I wish that Oscar or Zak were the people playing on the record alongside me, but life got in the way – Oscar moved to Wales and Zak started working in a different industry and playing with another band on the side. I still miss those boys and that city though.
An afterthought, this one. In the middle of recording English Bones, I had an episode of anxiety that made me panic and think that I didn’t have enough songs that were good enough to launch, or too many that were depressive and in a minor key. I just had a momentary struggle with my artistic identity and locked myself away for a day in my home studio writing this song.
It tells the tale of a celebrity stalker who follows his idol to her home & watches how unhappy she is behind the scenes. He sees that she is an addict, and through his camera lens he can see the truth behind her fame and glory.
It’s just a little commentary, I guess, on the fact that success doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness. It’s a little song that I wasn’t going to put on the record, but Judy thought it was great & that I should keep it!
This is one of the darker headspaces I occupied in creating this album, and a hard song for me to revisit that often as it’s quite a confessional dialogue. All the lyrics are reflective of the relationship I had with the same partner that Weathered is written about; and two years on from that experience, it’s hard to empathise with the person I was then because of how different my life is now.
The whole theme of this track is the idea of being in a sexual relationship with someone who makes you feel as though you don’t deserve them; I wanted to capture the cold feeling of degrading, of tension, and of disgust in myself by choosing an icy guitar tone, vocals having a slightly different treatment on this song than the rest of the record, and culminating the track in a crescendo of instruments, designed to replicate the ending of such a tumultuous time.
This was a fun one to produce. The percussion on this is a combination of a real drummer and the infamous Simmons Clap Trap that ended up appearing on both this tune and 2009. It’s an old drum machine from a few decades back that makes the most gloriously 80s clap sounds, and I couldn’t resist the idea of using it in a few choruses on this record. Adam Lewin, who played the drums on this, came in super early one morning and nailed the whole song in two takes. He’s a machine. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Abyss started off as an solo piano ballad, but ended up being arguably the most ‘full band’ track on the record.
One of my favourite chord progressions I wrote for the whole record. I always want my lyrics to be filled with ambiguities and open to interpretation by the listener. That’s something I strive to achieve in most of my recordings, but on a personal level this song directly tackles the issue of identity within creating art. For years, I had been a session musician, performing piano and singing backing vocals for artists who were of much more significance than me. I didn’t feel as though I could be any more than that, I struggled with developing my artistic integrity as I felt often as though people didn’t take me seriously. I felt indignant, I felt weak. It was a very anxious time, and a lot for me to come to terms with. I released my first EP in the middle of all these feelings, and I hate hearing it now. This song was a way of addressing all of that in that noisy, cathartic ending.
My grandma, Maggie, is perhaps the sole reason that I am a musician today. She got me interested in my first instrument, the piano, she took me to the West End to see theatre performances, she encouraged my artistic development, and she was supportive of me no matter what I was doing. Sadly she passed away a few years ago, and I am still far from at terms with the impact that her passing has had on my life. I still think about her all the time, and I wish that she could have seen where I’m at today. I wasn’t even a singer/songwriter yet when she died, and I wish that I had the ability to perform any of these songs for her, but I can’t. It’s something that I find very hard to deal with, and I’ve tried coming to grips with that in many musical terms but I can never quite express it right. I have an ambient/piano project called Camellia which is dedicated to her, and whenever I sit at the piano and work I think about her all the time. I miss her terribly.
This particular song is about sensing someone’s presence after they’ve gone, and feeling their impact after they’ve passed. There was a particular time in Kreuzberg where I felt her presence, and this song came out of it. The piano motif at the end of this song felt like a little send off, and one of many more I’ll give her throughout my career. She’s still influencing me now, from wherever she may be.
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