James Arthur: ‘If X Factor is finished, then I’m part of the history of that’

The singer on lockdown anxiety, imposter syndrome and picking fights on Twitter

James Arthur recently lost his temper with some idiots on the internet. “I’ve forever got people telling me, ‘don’t rise to people online,’” shrugs the 33-year-old singer and former X Factor winner. “But I’ve always defended myself.”

The triggering event was the Soccer Aid charity tournament in which Arthur played and for which he was then body-shamed on social media. Deciding enough was enough, he went on to Twitter and took to task the detractors. There was no shame, he said, in putting on some lockdown weight. We’ve all been there.

“I’ve never really listened to people who say, ‘oh you shouldn’t stoop to their level,’” says the pop troubadour, perhaps best known for his 2016 number one Say You Won’t Let Go. “I don’t see it that way. I see it as speaking up for myself and not letting people say whatever they like.”

It's almost as if everyone is catching up to that way of thinking now. We've seen with all the racism and stuff – let's shed light on these people

As he gears up to release a heartfelt and uplifting fourth album, It’ll All Make Sense in the End, Arthur reflects that he’s always been ahead of the curve in his willingness to call out unacceptable behaviour. But perhaps others are now following suit. Just look at how the England soccer team stood up for themselves amid a torrent of racist abuse at the European Championships.


“It’s almost as if everyone is catching up to that way of thinking now. We’ve seen with all the racism and stuff – let’s shed light on these people. If you’ve got the balls to get online and hide behind some pseudonym or a bunch of numbers or an egg and [write things] that might make someone go and kill themselves, I’m going to shed light on you and let people see that and stand up to it.”

Arthur may have been catapulted to fame via a TV talent contest. But a few minutes in his presence confirms he’s no cookie-cutter pop star. He’s made mistakes, picked fights with the wrong people and on several occasions seemed to have actively attempted to sabotage his career.

Yet, as his response to the Soccer Aid boo-boys demonstrates, he’s also got a streak of raw honesty. You can hear it as he speaks over Zoom, his voice sometimes catching with emotion. And it’s front and centre of It’ll All Make Sense in the End.

The record is a showcase for Arthur’s rasping falsetto and brooding pop. There are songs about hope and fear (Running Away), enduring love (Always – written before his split from long-term girlfriend Jessica Grist) and about numbing your spiritual pain with alcohol (Last of the Whiskey). He even pens an ode to a future daughter (Emily) – an epic weepy sure to sets lips wobbling everywhere.

Spilled out

All of these feelings spilled out during lockdown, he explains. “I’ve always struggled a bit with anxiety,” he says. “With the pandemic, and being isolated, I suffered. In the end it forced me to do what I loved doing, which is make music. And to try to put that anxiety into songwriting.”

Life in the spotlight has been a tricky business for Arthur. He freely admits to having had a few blots on his copybook since his X Factor single, a cover of Shontelle’s Impossible, became the biggest-selling winner’s song in the show’s history.

His bleakest moment arguably came in 2014 when he free-styled a homophobic rap song (bad) and then shared it with his two million Twitter followers (disastrous). This was followed by spats with everyone from X Factor colleague Lucy Spraggan to One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson.

“The bad boy thing doesn’t bother me,” he says. “If being real and authentic and speaking my mind makes me a bad boy, I don’t mind. My music’s pretty soft. Maybe at one time it used to bother me when people would spin things or sensationalise things. Make me out to be scum or something. That’s not who I am.”

Arthur’s honesty is surely his most compelling trait as an artist. And yet his determination to speak his mind has caused issues too. To say nothing of giving him the distinction of being the only musician fired and then re-hired by Simon Cowell.

The firing occurred in 2014 when Arthur became embroiled in a row with Spraggan. The point of contention was the aforementioned homophobic rap Arthur made as a diss towards grime star Micky Worthless (for which he apologised). As the storm raged, Cowell cut his ties. “I think James, unfortunately, has had so many issues with what he has done publicly – which is a real issue with me,” said Cowell. “Somebody should have told him to shut up and just put the records out.

Just two years later, though, Cowell’s SyCo label had a change of heart. They did so in the aftermath of Arthur’s single Say You Won’t Let Go – a juggernaut which put the singer in the record books as the first solo male X Factor winner to have two number ones.

“I was brought up to a be a good person,” reflects Arthur. “I made some mistakes in the spotlight. I was thrust into fame very, very quickly and out of nowhere. I didn’t know the game. I didn’t know how to play the game. I said what I thought. I got into spats with people on Twitter. It was a lot to deal with all at once. Some of the residue of all that followed me around. At the end of the day it’s about the music. That’s what’s going to stand the test of time.”

Foster care

Arthur was born in Middlesborough to an English mother and Scottish father. His parents split when he was three and for a time, from the age of 14, he lived in foster care. Having played in bands since early adolescence, in 2012 he auditioned in Newcastle for the ninth season of X Factor.

He sang Young by Tulisa, watched on by an audience that included his parents. It was the first time his mother and father had spoken in 22 years. By the end of the performance, tears were streaming down Arthur’s face.

“My mum and dad didn’t have any relationship,” he told an X Factor panel that included Gary Barlow and Louis Walsh. “I went off the rails, especially at school. I used to get suspended, thrown out. I ended up sleeping rough sometimes. I volunteered myself into foster care. I wanted to get away. Music was a coping mechanism.”

Arthur is slightly nervous about the new LP. He has built his name with big emotive ballads. Say You Won’t Let Go, for instance, is quintessential Arthur: it’s got a booming chorus and radiates sincerity.

It’ll All Make Sense in the End is no less searing. But it’s also something new. There are hip-hop elements – at moments he sounds like a Teeside Khalid or an ITV Saturday night version of Frank Ocean. And some of the big guitar outros recall Coldplay or Ben Howard. He shrugs. Maybe it won’t be universally beloved.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t for everyone,” he says. “I am trying to transition stylistically – be a bit edgier, do a bit more of the hip-hop and rock stuff. ”


Artists at his level are rarely so upfront about their doubts and insecurities. Arthur, though, is an open book who confesses to having suffered imposter syndrome through his career. That little voice has always been there. Was he good enough? Is he blagging a living? Would people eventually see through him?

It was Robbie Williams who helped overcome those doubts. The former Take That man took Arthur aside and explained he had suffered through the very same long, dark night of the soul.

“I was talking to Robbie about this. You go through phases of imposter syndrome. Robbie is one person I really, really admire. When I spoke to him, a lot of the things he said really resonated with me. He said that sometimes he would get on stage and Robbie Williams – that persona –  didn’t follow him on.

Simon Cowell is an innovator. I'm sure if he wants to do a singing contest again, he'll think of something fresh that will work on television. I owe a lot to X Factor

“You do have those imposter syndrome moments. You find yourself in front of thousands of people. And it’s just you. You aren’t part of a band. A lot of the time, you feel you’re on your own.”

He certainly wasn’t on his own in sensing an era had ended when it was announced earlier this year that X Factor had been cancelled after 15 seasons. How does it feel to have outlived Simon Cowell’s hit factory?

“Simon Cowell is an innovator. I’m sure if he wants to do a singing contest again, he’ll think of something fresh that will work on television. I owe a lot to X Factor. Everything to it, in a way. It’s cool that, if X Factor is finished, then I’m part of the history of that. I had the most successful winner’s song of all time. No one can beat that now. That’s gone down in history.”

The single Emily is out now. It’ll All Make Sense In The End is released November 5