He writes music that reaches your heart, showing his feelings as true as they get. Meet James Walker, a guy from Berkshire whose life changed a few times. His first proper release, ‘English Bones’, is set to be released in the next months and we had the chance to chat with him about his latest single, his dreams, and what it takes to be a singer-songwriter nowadays.
James, thank you for taking the time to answer to a few questions. Let’s start from your latest offering, ‘Weathered’, that follows up to ‘Next To Me’. It’s a song about love and heartbreak, and that sense of loneliness – or emptiness – that resonates with every one of us, at least once in a lifetime. What does ‘Weathered’ mean to you?
“‘Weathered’ was written when, six months after a nasty breakup, I had decided to meet up with an ex-partner. Our relationship was unhealthy to say the least – I was committed to a partnership when, mentally, I shouldn’t have been. I was in an insecure, codependent and jealous headspace; I took every dispute as an attack, every friend that they had as a lover, and truthfully, I just needed to focus on myself and my own mental wellbeing. I was scared of being in love, and even more scared to let it go. We met back up after the best part of a year apart, and things were just different. Their voice sounded different, their laugh had changed… We held hands in the car and I felt nothing at all. They swore everything was okay, but I realised that the time spent apart had made me fall out of love. So, I guess that’s what this song is about, really. It’s about wondering, What happens now?”
‘English Bones’ is your forthcoming album and the first proper release for you as an artist. How would you describe the record? Can you tell us something about it?
“Making this record has been an explorative process for me. The songs that you’ll find on English Bones are ten tracks that I’ve penned over the past eighteen months, and encompass both full-band and solo arrangements. It’s been a joy working with Sam Winfield (at Studio 91, UK: Supergrass, Amber Run, Dry the River) on these tracks. He’s really helped glue the pieces together and create a coherent, sonically consistent record. I think that it would be a completely different album had he not have been involved. The record itself tackles songs both of a fictitious and autobiographical nature. There are themes of love, loss, healing, death and nostalgia. Most of the lyrics come from a place of reflection; on experience, on challenges, on things that I have overcome. The song Lullaby is a song I wrote from the perspective of my mother, looking over my hospital bed in the ICU, following my first open heart surgery at fourteen. On the other side of the spectrum, Casanovas is about the idea of celebrity stalkers, told from the perspective of the stalker themselves.
It can be a heavy record at times, but music for me is a way of catalysing those feelings and getting them out of my system (in the vain hope that someone will be able to relate to them). As daunting as it is to be releasing my first full-length record, I’m very excited to get these songs out into the wild and to start thinking about where to go next. After this tour finishes, I already have some ideas in place for the next set of songs and who I’m going to be working with in order to make them a reality. But that’s all the future. Right now I’m trying to focus on enjoying the present moment & not stressing out too much about what’s to come. If anyone has any tips on that, please let me know.”
Your music encompasses elements of folk and indie vibes. What made you fall in love with music? What have you been listening to and who did inspire your music the most?
“I think the primary source for my love of music was my grandma, Maggie. She was the encouragement I needed as a child, she was the woman who took me to the West End to see performances, the woman who would watch and listen to me perform throughout all of my developmental years as a musician. From being a child at the piano, to performing my first session work as a pianist, she was there.
Sadly, she passed away before she could hear any of this project, or any of the music that I wrote for my ambient project Camellia. I wish more than anything that I could show this music to her, and show her all of the places that I’m travelling on these tours, but that’s just the way that life goes. We all have to deal with loss; and sometimes it stings. I know that she’d be proud, and I know that it would have been something she’d love, but it hurts that she’s not around. So mostly, this music is for her. There have been many musical sources of inspiration for this project, too, and it would be really impossible to list them all. But I take a lot of inspiration from Kevin Devine, Cataldo, Land of Talk, David Bazan, Tallest Man on Earth, Copeland, Nada Surf, Tigers Jaw, Father John Misty, The Brazen Youth and Aidan Knight. Basically other people who sing about their feelings.”
I have the feeling your song-writing is extremely introspective. You look like a genuine artist who displays his feelings and puts them in music, with a great attention to melodies. How does your writing process shape up? Where do you start from?
“Thank you, that’s a wonderful thing to hear. I feel as though all my favourite artists are introspective and self-reflecting, which is something that isn’t always mirrored by the Top 40. The most important thing for me in creating a piece of music is to genuinely portray the emotion, or the story, or the message, of the track to the audience. In terms of a writing process, I’d say that each of my songs are tackled in a different way. Sometimes, I’ll just sit at the piano and play around until I find something that matches my mood (although primarily, the piano just makes me feel so much melancholy), or on other occasions I may write some text first and see how that flows.
Recently, I’ve thought about the idea of writing conceptually, and not necessarily from introspection. I was in Brighton the other afternoon with my partner, and we stumbled upon a thrift store that sold everything, from trinkets to vinyl, to clothes and suitcases. In amongst all of this were boxes of old photographs. Amongst these photographs were candid family photos, all from the mid 1900s; some were photos of peoples’ relatives, others were images of people having dinner together, others were just images that people had taken with their cameras at the time. I’m fascinated with the concept that these were once peoples’ memories, some were perhaps even cherished, and yet they’ve ended up on sale in a thrift store for pennies. I like the idea of picking out the ten most captivating images, and writing songs about what they evoke from me. A little album of other people’s memories. I plan on tackling this idea in the new year.”
I would open a little window on your personal life, if you don’t mind. You introduced yourself as originally a session musician, “playing piano & guitar all over smokey folk cafés and at obscure European festivals for other artists”. Then something happened, you underwent some hard times, due to an illness. Now, after a delicate recovery, it’s time for a new start. How much did this impact your life and the way of seeing things in life, more importantly?
“I still work as a session musician, so perhaps I should re-write my bio. I’m currently the piano player for Oxford-based singer/songwriter Adam Barnes. He’s been an incredible friend and mentor to me over the past eight years or so, and it’s a continued privilege to perform alongside him at all of these euro festivals and smokey venues.
In terms of my illness, keeping a long story (relatively) short, I have undergone two lots of open heart surgery for a condition called Chronic Thromboembolic Pulmonary Hypertension. In other words, I had a lot of blood clots throughout my lungs and into the pulmonary arteries of the heart. Nearly 5 years ago, I underwent a thromboendarterectomy at Papworth Hospital in the UK; they are one of only a handful of centres in the world that can perform the operation. My life expectancy without surgical treatment was around 2 years, and as of now, I currently have a normal life expectancy and normal exercise tolerance. I’m running multiple times a week, and enjoying a second lease on life. People think that it shouldn’t happen to people so young, but you just take the cards that you’re dealt. I’m on blood thinners for the rest of my life, but I can think of worse things to do than take a handful of pills every day. It’s not something that affects the way I live my life, and it certainly doesn’t impact my ability to tour and perform music.
It did, however, have a pretty substantial effect on my mental wellbeing. For the first few years after the surgery I was a ball of nerves; every headache I felt was a stroke, every missed beat I got was a heart attack, every pain I had was a tumor growing. Of course, none of this was true, by my brain just went into absolute catastrophe. If it’s happened to me before why can’t it happen again, or worse was all that I could think. And it’s taken the best part of five years to get comfortable with the fact that, yeah, something else could happen to me but it could also happen to anyone else and they manage to deal with it!
I guess that it just brings the idea of mortality and the fragility of our lives to the forefront; we’re all transient and temporary and will all be forgotten, but that isn’t necessarily a negative. It means that we have to hold on to the little bit of experience that we have here, and treasure it something dear. Everyone should love one another, be accepting, kind, virtuous and loving. There’s no reason to hate anyone or anything, or to knock other people down, because at the end of the day none of us are truly important. And that’s the beauty of it all. Even our kings, monarchs, celebrities are all just people. They’re all going to die too, just like you or I, and so why not just try to be the best example of humanity you can be, and leave a peaceful and positive impact on those around you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still working on it too.”
August and September will see you on the road across Europe, touring with other artists and bands, such as Matt Philips, Judy Blank and Loud Mountains. It sounds like you are going to have fun and bring your new music. Are you ready for these couple of busy months traveling around?
“I’m always ready to travel around and perform for people; there’s something so beautiful about being able to meet other people, from all walks of life, in such an intimate way. A lot of these shows are in people’s living rooms, small cafés or in intimate venues. It’s an opportunity for me to connect with lots of people from all over the world and share my stories with them, but also to find out about them. Honestly, if I could, I’d spent eleven months of the year away seeing new places and meeting new people. Provided that I could still see my family/nearest and dearest, I’d love to just up and go. The longest tour I’ve ever done was close to 11 weeks, as a piano player, and by the end everyone else wanted to head home while I just wanted to continue! I’m hoping that as my career develops, I’ll be able to spend more and more time on the road. I’ve got to learn to focus on the present, though, and enjoy the shows that are coming up without thinking too much about the next run. Perhaps one day a booking agent will look after all this for me! A man can dream.”
Loud Mountains had you as a guest on stage during the last Truck Festival. You played piano for them and recorded some footage you put together on YouTube, documenting what it looks like a genuine friendship. How much is this helping you in your growth both as an artist and as a man?
“They did! It was a lot of fun. I’ve known Kevin and Sean from Loud Mountains for the best part of five or six years. They’re incredible people, who I have all the time in the world for, and I’m so excited that they’ll be coming out and performing on a handful of these shows in Germany and Austria with me in September. I love those guys to pieces.
As for creating YouTube videos, it’s not something that really helps me grow as an artist per se, but it is something that I enjoy doing! I love being able to capture the memories of a trip or tour and put them together in a video like I did for Truck. I originally started off by vlogging, but I realised that I’m not the right type of person to do it; after trying to create videos for a year, I realised that I cared way more about capturing the experience than of capturing myself. I didn’t want to tell people what I had for breakfast that morning, but instead I wanted to capture what it felt like to be there. And that’s what I tried to do with the Truck festival video, and that’s something I’ll continue to do over the coming months.”
Life is made of dreams, isn’t it? What is yours?
“My dream is to live a long, fulfilling, happy life made of great memories with wonderful people. I want to continue having the opportunities to travel, and I aspire to make a good living from creating art that is genuine and truthful. I’d like to see women’s and LGBT+ rights become globally equal. One day, I’d like to be able to raise a family and settle down with someone who loves me unconditionally. I’d also like to climb to the top of the Eiffel tower.”