It has been quite some time since Gavin James was a busker on Grafton Street.
Throughout his career, the happy-go-lucky Irishman has gone from playing crowded pubs in Temple Bar to rounding out a world tour with two nights at the capital city’s 3Arena. It’s not hard to see why his career has blossomed — James’ dulcet tones and vocal talent only enhance the raw emotion that can be found in his lyrics. Whether he’s singing about heartbreak or newfound romance, a listener cannot help but be drawn in by the story he is telling. Coming out of lockdown, Gavin is ready to embrace what’s next.
An artist that seems at home on a stage Gavin James is ready to get back ‘gigging,’ but is thankful for the time he had to bring his latest body of work to life. Over the past year, he has scrapped and rewritten most of what will be his third album. ‘Sober,’ the album’s recently released first single, is a track with a sound those who are familiar with the singer’s style will recognize. What comes next, I am told, might be more of a surprise.
1883 spoke with Gavin James about his new single, how he’s evolved as an artist, and the importance of connecting with fans during quarantine.
First — congratulations on Sober, it is a gorgeous song. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind it.
Thank you very much. I wrote it with my friend Ollie Green. I wrote it in 2019. I completely forgot it was even written. We found it and finished it a couple of months ago. It’s not really about alcohol; it’s a little metaphor for the sobering reality of waking up and realizing the person that you love the most doesn’t love you back.
The song also has some A-list collaborators, including Mitch McCarthy who recently worked on Olivia Rodrigo’s Driver’s License. What did it feel like getting the final mix after starting with just your piano?
To be fair, we have a version that was me and Ollie kind of just having some fun with the production. It sounds bananas, but we loved it. It was more likely it was just us having fun being in the studio because we hadn’t been in the studio together for a while. Then, we stripped it back to just the piano and we realized that there was a song in there somewhere. When we heard the piano version we were like “oh, shit.” It’s great that we have it sounding the way that it does now, it’s a complete smash to me.
This song, like many of your other songs, is very vulnerable. Do you find writing with that kind of authenticity easy or is it something that you feel like you’re constantly working towards?
I’m constantly working on it, I would say. Sober is the last “breakup” love song that I have for the new record because I’ve been living with my girlfriend now for five years. This one kind of came out of someone else’s hardships more so than mine. I always find it important to be vulnerable because everybody goes through the same sort of thing more or less and me singing about it can make it easier for other people to understand what they are going through. Sometimes it’s really hard to do, sometimes it’s really easy to do. If it comes out very fast, if it’s a song that just happens in the moment, it’s usually a good thing. But, if it takes a lot of time — I’ve spent like a month on a song and it’s been pure shit. [Laughs] I don’t know why that is. All the right ingredients seem to be in it, but when you finish all the magic will just be gone. I think the first idea that you usually have is the best.
It’s funny. A lot of people I’ve interviewed have said that.
Really? See, I know a lot of people that are the opposite. They spend like a month on a song. I’m like “what the fuck are they smoking?” [laughs] I can’t even see it because my vocabulary is — I don’t even know if it’s very good, but sometimes something will just come out and I don’t even know what that word is. It’s just like it was hidden somewhere in the back of my head. I’ve been writing with my friend Mark and he’ll say, “you’re not that smart, you’re not smart enough to say these things, Gavin.” And I’m like, “I don’t f*ckin’ know. I don’t know what it is.” [chuckles] But that’s why I think the first thing you come up with is the best. Don’t overthink it. I revert to demos a lot, I revert to vocals that I sang the first time because if you get to know a song too much the vocal can sometimes become less intriguing, less vulnerable, as you said.
I see your Sun Studio sticker in the background. I’m from Memphis, so that’s fun to see.
You’re from Memphis? Class! I’ve never been. I want to go. I’ve got a lot of friends in Nashville so we were gonna drive to Memphis but I can’t drive. [chuckles]
Oh, really? I went to school in Nashville, so I’ve done that drive many many times.
Yeah, I love Nashville. We have a place here like it: Temple Bar.
I’ve actually been!
Oh really? Savage!
Believe it or not, your 3Arena show was my last pre-pandemic concert.
You went to the gig! No way!
[Laughs] I did!
Oh my god. Amazing. What are the odds of that? That’s f*cking awesome. That was my last gig as well. [laughs]
All that to say, I’m very familiar with Temple Bar.
That is pretty much the thing to do when you come here, I guess. I still go to Temple Bar. I used to play there all the time, so all my friends run the pubs and stuff. It’s like walking into the sitting room in my house.
Aw! That’s fun. Back to what we were talking about – would you say that songwriting is a form of therapy for you?
[laughs] It totally is. I mean, sometimes it’s really fun. I’ve been writing a lot of songs with my friend Mark from Kodaline. We’ve been writing a lot of songs that are slightly Daft Punk-y, The Weeknd-y, kind of fun stuff. They were really fun at the start and now they’re becoming like, “oh I really like how it’s turning out.” They are different from any of the stuff that I’ve ever done before. Writing together was lovely because there was no stress. Sometimes you can write a really sad song and you can go into a studio and be like, “I can’t believe that I’ve gotten this all out.” In general, writing songs feels great when you finish something. I think it’s like anything else — if you cook a stew and it takes six hours and you finish it and somebody says it’s good, you feel good about it. I think there’s nothing better than the feeling of actually finishing a song, even if it’s a terrible song. As long as you finished it, it’s nice. The thing with doing art or music or anything is no matter what comes out at the end of the day, nobody ever has thought of that idea before. I think that’s so cool. Even if someone has a similar idea, it’s not the same.
As you move into releasing your next album, how do you think it differs from what you have released in the past? How do you think you’ve grown as an artist?
I think this one, Sober, is the most “tip of the hat” to the other stuff I’ve done. It’s not a million miles away from the second record. But, the third album, which is pretty much ready now and will hopefully be out at some point next year, will definitely be a bit of a shock to people who have listened to my music before. I think it’ll be a good one though. It’s a lot different. It’s definitely a lot more synth-y. I was kind of left to my own devices in a studio in Dublin for a year and a half. When I did the 3Arena show that you were at, I was talking to people in the bar being like, “the album’s finished. I finished the album and I’m so happy.” That whole album is just gone. I got rid of it.
It’s nothing like what it was. I think the album could have been okay. I’ve kept ‘Sober’ and I’ve kept one other song. I’ve rewritten the album about four or five times because of the amount of time that I’ve had to do it, which is kind of a blessing and a curse. It’s gonna be really weird. There are loads of synths and weird things that I have never used before and I’ve become used to producing stuff because I’ve had to adapt to not having anybody there or not being able to fly over to London. Now, I’ve worked with lots of different people. It’s a lot different, but it’s a good difference.
Artist evolve and the music they make changes.
Yeah, this record is way more evolved than the second record. The second record was quite quick because I was on tour and I finished it on tour. This one was thought out. Every little part of it is supposed to be there.
That’s exciting. I listen to a lot of Irish artists and I find that a lot of you have a very rich emotional sound that I am not going to describe well, but I call them rom-com songs in my head.
No, I get it.
Ok, good. I wanted to ask if you think there is a reason for that? Or have I just connected some obscure dot in my mind?
Oh, no. I totally agree. I get it. I love Scrubs songs or Grey’s Anatomy songs. I think in Ireland you’re brought up playing music. It’s very similar to Nashville, I guess. In Ireland, you’ll be in your Auntie’s house when you’re six and they’ll put a piece of paper on the ground and they’ll go, “sing a song, sing a song.” You grow up in a really lovely state of music; it’s just everywhere and in everybody. When I was around ten, my granddad used to stand up on a table in bars and sing poems and tell jokes and do all this nonsense. It’s growing up around so many different forms of art and poetry and music and singers and everything, it rubs off on you a little bit. Or, it could be the Guinness. It could just be we’re all hungover. [chuckles] Maybe it’s that.
I love the Zoom parties you’ve been doing during quarantine. It shows a very genuine desire to connect with your fans. What gave you the idea?
It was just there. I was trying to find different ways of keeping people occupied and it was good for me and my sanity as well to do something that resembled a gig a little bit. I started with Zooms in my house and it grew to where I was able to do a Zoom arena gig. It was like an arena gig and there were about 500 people that rotated on a screen. It was before Christmas when everywhere was closed. I had one for the release of Sober as well. I went next door, got a few pints, and brought them in here. A drunk Sober party.
[Laughs] That sounds so fun! When I was prepping for this interview, I noticed that you do a fair amount of charity gigs and things to raise awareness – lots for touring crew during the pandemic, a Special Olympics fundraiser, Concert For Cancer, Kilometers For Keegan. That kind of thing is very near and dear to my heart. Why did you personally decide to use your platform in this way?
If I didn’t, I’d just be sitting around watching TV or doing nothing. It’s great for me to use whatever platform I have over here in Ireland or wherever else. If you have it, why wouldn’t you use it for good things? Use it to spread the word. We did one thing for an organization called Alone for all of the older people in Ireland during the pandemic. It was so lovely because when people signed up, I had only said I was doing a gig. There were so many people that signed up just to be friendly to these isolated older people. In the end, I think 65 people joined me and we raised nearly 250,000 euros or something crazy like that. That was the first thing I did. I didn’t know that you could do something like that from home. When that happened I started to do more things to see how much I could push it.
With the world opening up again, I have a couple of questions about touring. Your songs have a unique quality in which they play well in both intimate venues and large ones. Does the size of a venue feel different to you as the artist?
Yeah, it does. I think they’re both different shows. If I’m doing an arena gig, I keep the talking to a minimum and just kind of do the show because I never really plan on saying anything at any gigs, ever. Sometimes I say the wrong thing or something stupid which is usually funny. I find the theatre gigs and smaller shows, I can get away with talking in between songs. You can see pretty much every single person in the room. When you can see everybody in the room, you can feel closer to people. You feel like you can kind of drag them in and you can create a party vibe like if you just invited everybody over to your house. Whereas in an arena I can’t see anybody at all and it’s really hard to even get it through your mind when you do a gig and then they turn the lights down and everybody screams. It’s a very strange feeling because it’s not something that you can get used to. I get just as nervous for both of them. There’s not one I prefer.
Finally, what are you looking forward to most about getting back on the road?
No, not Burger King [chuckles] The last tour I did, which is the last world tour that finished in the 3Arena. I was healthy. I went to the gym, which was awesome. It was fun to do. I didn’t have any parties. I didn’t drink any alcohol. Then everywhere closed down. [laughs] I was like, “shit. I should’ve had some alcohol.” [laughs] When I go back on tour now I’m just gonna go crazy, have fun with all my friends, and enjoy the gigs. Then after that, I’ll go back to being healthy and crazy.
I can’t believe you said Burger King when you have Nandos ready at your disposal. I miss Nandos.
There is a Nandos in The States!
Yeah, but it’s in Chicago!
They’ll eventually have helicopters that will bring the food over or drones. [both laugh]
Check out Gavin James’ new song Sober now.
Interview by Sydney Bolen
Photography Jack Alexander
Top Image credits