Gavin James: ‘There was no plan, let alone a master plan’
As the US opens its arms to Dubliner Gavin James, and Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran take him into the fold, he is going from Temple Bar singer-songwriter to superstar-in-waiting
Gavin James: “I’d write songs during the day, and then try them out in front of a crowd at night – my songs would always sink or swim.” Photograph: Tommaso Boddi/Getty
Gavin James is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Dublin singer-songwriter has been spending a lot of time in the US recently, primarily because the Americans want him. They want him because during July and August he was support on Sam Smith’s North American tour; they want him because he has supported not only Ed Sheeran (at Croke Park) but also Taylor Swift (at London’s Hyde Park). And they want him because they have very recently seen him on The Late Late Show with James Corden and have fallen in love with his voice and his songs.
To the good people of the US, James is a new kid on the block. To us he has been around for at least three years. First he was another singer-songwriter with a decent voice and a few good tunes in his backpack. But since 2012, James has positioned himself as a bona-fide contender for mainstream success. It’s a long way from what he was doing four years ago, he agrees.
“I started off doing the pub circuit – pub gigs in and around Temple Bar,” he says, sounding tired but enthusiastic on the phone (we fear we may have disrupted his sleep pattern). “The work rate was awful. I’d play for about three to four hours per night, almost seven nights a week, for about three years, but they were an efficient way to get a feel for audiences.
“I didn’t necessarily want to get my name out, but just to get better as a singer and musician. I had always thought it was best just to dive in to it, and from that point on I started to write my own songs. It was the old-school way of just playing in front of people, from which I gathered up a following.”
James remembers the pub gigs as being good fun. He would mostly play chart tunes, then lob an original song in just to see what the audience made of it. “I’d write songs during the day and then try them out in front of a crowd at night. My songs would always sink or swim.”
Despite the varied reactions to the songs, there was, he sensed, an advantage to people not having a clue who he was. “The songs that get them to stop chatting, that make them listen, are the ones you know are good to hang on to. There was one of my songs in particular – Two Hearts – that had people singing along to it from almost the first time they heard it.
“From that particular song, we gathered up a bit of a following around the Temple Bar area, with people coming to the gigs just to hear it. The other original songs? Up and down.”
Reaped the benefit
Over the past 12 months James has reaped the benefit of his hard work, although the work part is something he doesn’t get too serious about. “I don’t really see what I do as work; very often it’s a lot of fun. I know loads of people say it, but if it gets to feel like work I don’t want to do, then I’ll think of something else to do. That point hasn’t arrived yet. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever wake up and think what I do is work.”
Whatever way he views it, he nonetheless has a serious work ethic, which has opened up the kind of opportunities he would surely never have dreamed of as a raw singer-songwriter. And authentic friendships with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith have, inevitably, provided him with a much higher profile.
Progress has been steady, he says, a state of affairs that is far preferable to quick-fire success. “If you take it slow it’s always much better,” he says. “Of course, people view their career in terms of what success means to them, so I’m delighted with the way my own is turning out. It’s gathering up a solid and loyal following rather than going straight in and the next thing you know, you’re massive, but then a week later you’re gone.”
As self-confident as he is, James knows well that his associations with Sheeran and Smith (as well as with Irish bands Kodaline and The Coronas, each of which has ably assisted him over the past two years) have enhanced his fan base.
“It’s always good when you have support from people you admire,” he says. “And going on tour with Sam Smith has brought me in front of a totally different audience – people that had never heard of me. The way the word is spreading in America is insane. And when Ed gives you the thumbs-up, or tweets about me or one of my songs, it automatically speeds things up.”
They’re good guys, too, adds James, despite the millions of record sales, the sold-out arenas and the continuous flow of admiration and adulation.
“They really are salt-of-the-earth people, and genuinely normal blokes – the same as the lads that I grew up with. There’s no nonsense about these guys – they’re just good, decent lads, and that includes the likes of The Coronas and Kodaline. Plus, to be honest, it just isn’t cool any more to have massive egos. No one that I know has, and that’s the good thing about the Irish music scene right now: everyone helps out.”
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, James – now wide awake and raring to go – has another gig to get to. We say it again: it’s a long way from the kind of gigs and the kind of audiences he was experiencing four years ago.
“I just loved playing and singing,” he says. “I got into writing songs, and I found that I loved that even more. I’m super laid-back, so I go with the flow. I’ve done that from the beginning. There was no plan, let alone a master plan.
“I just wanted to play in front of people. If people cling on to that, then great. And if they don’t, then I’ll just continue regardless. But here I am, gigging in America, headlining small shows, and there’s no way I thought that would ever happen. It is truly amazing.”
- Gavin James’ debut studio album, Bitter Pill, is out now on Good Soldier Recordings/Warners. He starts an Irish tour on December 14th (all dates sold out) and plays Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on January 21st, 22nd and 23rd
MASTERS AT WORK: HANGING WITH SAM AND ED
What has Gavin James learned from hanging out with Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, two of the best contemporary live performers?
“From Sam, I’d have picked up a lot regarding the techniques of singing. His voice is a wonder, and I don’t even know how he does it. Listening to him at his shows, you’d get loads of tips about the way he performs, the way he talks to the crowd and things like that.
“As for Ed, every time I’ve bumped into him he’s always had five or six or 12 new songs. He writes like a machine. So that makes you write a lot more. He almost shames you into it. Because of him, I’ve got so many songs now – full ones, half-completed ones – that I won’t be able to do anything with them for another two years.”