EAST LONDON ACCORDING TO JAMES SMITH: DISTRICT LINE EP & HEADLINING AT SCALA
Yet another bright spark in British music born and raised in the East London borough of Newham, James Smith has transcended the moniker of singer-songwriter to place himself at the forefront of a revival in heartfelt and honest songwriting. His skills as an incontrovertibly gifted guitar player, despite his protestation at such a description, began after a somewhat unusual obsession with Elvis. That obsession fueled an intoxication with the music industry and sparked a fire that drove him to fight against constant challenges to find his place in the scene he loved more than anything.
Today, despite headlining his own sold-out show in London’s legendary Scala and accumulating close to two million monthly listeners, James remains as humble as the beginnings he comes from. He was raised by his market stall trader Dad amongst the bustling back alleys of Green Lanes as Johnny Cash played in the background. At night you could find him rushing around London in the back of his Mum’s Taxi listening to local Newham legends like D Doube E and Kano on Rinse FM radio, a station he would come to forge close ties to. in due time he became an artist who is just as comfortable fighting for audience attention atop a ramshackle stage tucked away in the corner of the pub as he is performing to a packed concert hall full of fans waiting to sing his choruses back to him.
His most recent project titled District Line is a homage to the cast of characters and treasure memories he witnessed and experienced whilst bumbling home, usually after drunken nights cutting his teeth at any venue that would let him perform. The four-track project sees James shift from the music he crafted in his teenage year to the style of music he was always meant to make. This EP fuses intricate melodies and unadorned candid lyrics with a new complex style of composition that truly reflects the multidimensional nature of his character and creativity.
We sat down with James following his show at Scala to reflect on the winding road that lead him to his first headline show and to discuss all things East London, Johnny Cash, guitar set-ups, District Line, and future plans for an album.
Growing up, who were your biggest creative influences? What was playing around the house as a kid or perhaps what was on the radio in your mum’s taxi?
So I grew up in East London and my dad worked at the market stalls in Green Lanes and like you said my mum was a taxi driver. I used to help my dad out on the weekends working the stall and there would always be music playing all around the market, a lot of which was like a lot of Jonny Cash and Bob Dylan, any old-school singer-songwriter stuff. Whereas on my mum side, she was always a massive Carol King fan so there was always this constant blend between two different styles of top-class songwriters. I was a massive Elvis fan around that age after being introduced to Johnny Cash so I naturally began going down that sort of groove until I discovered Elvis.
Weirdly I was obsessed with him haha. I used to have a copy of his birth certificate, I was a weird little kid but I was a proper fan haha. To be honest, both my mum and dad have really good taste in music and both of them used to always discover new artists and show them to me. I remember the time when Paolo Nutini came out we bought every single one of his albums. Then when I started making my music, as well as today, Paolo became my biggest musical influence.
You’ve been playing the guitar and singing from a very early age, what caused the first transition from being a lover of music to a creator?
I think I always just has a very strong desire to be a part of the industry in any way I could. It wasn’t the most natural thing for me to start writing my own songs, it was more a result of asking myself the question “how do I become an artist?”. I had met a handful of people that worked in the industry and all the advice I got was to just start writing as soon as possible so from a young age I decided to learn guitar for the express purpose of being able to write songs for myself. It wasn’t a case of me having a desire to learn the guitar to become the best guitarist in the world, it was more of a means to be able to write my music.
I had sung a little bit before picking up the guitar but I wasn’t really into it until I was able to write and make music for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely really shit when I first started but I just had to work on it a lot. I remember the first 10 songs that I wrote were just awful and then the one after that I came downstairs and played it to my family and they surprisingly said ‘oh that’s quite good.’ I still do the same thing now. One out of every ten tracks I write is going to be decent and the other nine are going to be a little bit shit.
You just headlined your own show at the Scala in London, a massive venue and a massive landmark in your career. As someone who is just as familiar with playing the pub scene where you are constantly fighting for audience attention, has it taken much adjustment for you to get used to this big stage show where everyone in attendance already loves your music? How did the show go down?
Yer totally its a massive adjustment! I still find myself trying to figure out ‘Why the fuck am I here?” whilst I’m on stage sometimes. As you said, I did the pub scene for so long in these venues where nobodies even listening to you and your constantly clawing for peoples attention. When I’m on stage now I still find myself trying to get the audience to engage before I realise that they are already paying attention and singing my lyrics back to me haha. So I literally have to say to myself “chill out bruv!”.
Before Scala, I was absolutely bricking it, also because it was the first show I had done since before the pandemic but I was so nervous that people would get bored and stuff because of my familiarity with those hard shows in smaller venues. However, it was an incredible show and everyone there knew every lyric and came with good vibes which were wicked. In some ways, I think the pandemic helped the whole experience because everyone was just so gassed to be back out around live music and other people again. It was really cool man.
Did you notice any rust in your performance following such a long absence over the pandemic? Particularly considering you are so used to constantly performing in some regard no matter the crowd size?
I was just so excited to be there that the way that I conducted myself on stage was the best that it had been because I was just so ready to get back to it. I had also just finished and returned from a support tour as well which was great practice for getting back to my solo shows. Having said that, throughout the Scala show a lot of things did go wrong! So as soon as I came on, as I had a live backing band with me for the first time, my earbuds stopped working about halfway through the first song.
Basically, the whole show was based on these in-ear buds that would count me into the start of every track. So after the first song we go straight into the second and I’m stood there waiting to hear this “3…2…1” count in my ear but I can’t hear anything! So the band started and I had to turn around and say to them that we needed to start the whole track again haha. I said to my drummer “bruv I’m sorry but you’re going to have to count me in” and I couldn’t help thinking to myself “the whole show is fucked now”. Once we got through that track we managed to adapt with him counting me in and when I asked after the show it seemed like nobody noticed so all in all it went well.
In many ways, your path to musical success was by no means guaranteed with numerous obstacles beginning thrown in your way. Obviously beginning with being kicked out of school at 15 and going to work with your dad in the markets in Green Lanes, at that point could you imagine being stood on the stage at Scala in your own headline show?Do you think you would have ended up on that stage had you not been kicked out of school?
Honestly, after that whole school situation, I could never have foreseen any of this happening. I thought I was a total idiot after that happened and in many ways thought I didn’t deserve any of this to happen. I always had big dreams and big aspirations but that was such a massive hurdle that I didn’t think I would be able to get over that. Especially after so many other crazy big hurdles presented themselves.
Looking back those things have helped me work even harder to achieve what I wanted. If I didn’t get kicked out then I probably wouldn’t have had the same motivation I have now to try and prove people wrong. To everyone in my area, I was just seen as the kid who was a troublemaker, but now having done Scala I think I’ve been able to prove some people wrong and I find that very motivating.
Is there a message you think a 15-year-old needed to hear and what would you tell him if you got the chance?
I would love to be able to tell him that all these obstacles are just part of the plan, it’s all meant to happen. If that didn’t happen, honestly I don’t think any of this would be happening for me now. At the school that I went to after that, I met my music teacher who told me and gave me the confidence to pursue music, and I didn’t get that at the school I was at previously. All these little things eventually add up to form the future I have today.
I’m curious, growing up in Newham, did you ever find yourself attracted to or being inspired by the UK grime scene as artists like Kano, D Double E and Ghetts are all from Newham?
Massively! Kano actually lived up the road from me. Don’t get me wrong I love this lane of music that I’m in because I feel like it comes naturally to me as a guitarist but I’m so gassed about the depth of the UK scene at the moment. I think it’s amazing. I produce a lot as well and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of artists outside of the genre of music that I make. I’m very keen to dip my toe in a load of different sounds. Also, my manager runs Rinse FM so I’ve been around a lot of those guys since I was 15 and grew up around that whole grime scene so I know it well.
Your music always strikes me as being one that’s grounded in real-life experiences and the ups and downs of your own life. Did you find it initially tricky to find inspiration and how did you have to adapt the writing/recording process over the last year or so?
I feel like in a strange way the pandemic was quite a good thing for me artistically. A lot of stuff happened for me that wouldn’t have otherwise. So the label that I was signed to originally had put a clause in my contract that meant when the head of the label left, I was allowed to get out of the contract as he was my direct link. I signed a pretty shitty contract when I was 15 and had to release a lot of music that I didn’t really like. A few of the tracks on my Spotify were written when I was 16 and now that I’m 22 it cringes the life out of me haha! So the pandemic gave me the time to think “right, this is the catalogue I have out, how do I get to the stuff I want to make in the future without it being a harsh transition”.
I planned to do a transitional project that still felt like it was in the same vein as my old stuff but is more on the road to where I want to go. In terms of recording, I have a little studio at my house so I was already familiar with recording from home and making a lot of racket that drives all my neighbours mad. In general, I’m still figuring my sound out and the pandemic has afforded me that time to think about it and to take a pause from releasing music.
We would love to know the story behind your single ‘My Oh My’. Did this track evolve out of that twinkling piano progression in the opening interlude or a certain lyric concept?
Yer absolutely the whole track grew out of that little piano melody. That track was a bit of a random one, to be honest. It was written in about 20 minutes and started by me just playing around on the piano until I came up with that little part. The lyric is simple as anything but feels so powerful, it’s all about a breakup but I wanted to keep the meaning as open as possible so that it could refer to any type of loss. It fell out of the sky that one.
How did the addition of the full-bodied backing vocal choir come into the track to create this beautiful juxtaposition between your understated vocals and then this big crescendo? It’s not a technique I’ve ever really heard much in your music. This track in particular must be a blast to play live in a big space.
I wanted to make that a thing in my music. So in the verse of ‘My Oh My’ the piano is really soft and was recorded on my mate Martin’s felt piano which is just the softest piano I have ever heard. We recorded that on some of the verses exclusively on that but something just didn’t feel right. So I went to a big recording studio and recorded on a grand piano, so the keys are played on two different pianos that give this massive instrumentation shift that helps give it that boost. The backing vocals are just me and my mate stacking vocals on top of each other that we recorded in my garage as it’s super boomy. I put a mic in the middle of the room and we just ran around recording our singing from different places to give them different dimensions, that way it sounds like way more people than it is.
I’m obsessed with that beautifully watery guitar and stunning fingerpicking that opens up Blackbird. Getting a bit nerdy on your guitar set up, I would love to know what electric guitar is on that record and if you have a go-to pedal board set up to get that honey vibrato tone on that record?
Haha, I’m always gassed to talk guitars man. I believe Blackbird was recorded with a Telecaster to create this Jeff Buckley inspired sound. To get that warm sound, it’s all about the amp I use. I plugged my guitar into a Fender bass amp and because it’s designed for a bass you get this rich thick tone. I use a Blue Sky for my reverb and then added a bit of reverb in the post. I have a small little overdrive pedal that adds a little something but it’s pretty much just a clean signal through the bass amp.
What made you want to cover this Beatles song in particular, do you feel the sentiment of it relates to your musical journey?
Do you know what, it was actually one of the first songs that I learnt to play on guitar! I play that track wrong, it’s not covered in the same way that McCartney plays it. I think I was in the studio with an engineer messing about and the mic was on, I was tuning my guitar and played that and the engineer asked if it was my version of Blackbird and I had to tell him “No mate I just play it wrong haha”.
I read that you view writing in a really interesting way as in real life you tend to laugh everything off but in writing you allow yourself to feel vulnerable and to explore how you feel. Did you notice that straight away from the first moment you began making music or has it been a gradual evolution of allowing yourself to become more vulnerable in your work overtime?
I think the upbringing that I’ve had and the area I’m from, a lot of men are the way that I am. They are very closed off from expressing emotion and laugh everything off. I find that I’m personally a bit of a sop and like to have emotion and as I’m getting older I’m learning to bring some more of that emotion into my real life and allowing myself to be more sensitive.
Music has always been my outlet to vent whatever I’m feeling and feel like I’m releasing whatever is going on. I’ve never been good at telling people or communicating outside of the music. It may sound really wet but my guitar is my friend and someone that I speak to that allows me to have some kind of spiritual experience. When a melody comes out of nowhere, I could be half asleep and ill just have to go sing it and I won’t be thinking of anything else while it’s going on, it’s such a mad experience.
Your latest project District Line is an incredible reflection of the direct inspiration you draw from being on the District Line. You’ve always felt super at home on the tube, which I find fascinating especially as your mum is a taxi driver so you both share this detailed knowledge of the veins of London. Why do you think the underground is such an inspiring place for so many different types of artistry?
The main thing is definitely the people, it’s the most interesting place in the world for people watching. I find the whole concept odd that human beings go underground and sit next to each other while nobody says a word to anyone. We all just sit in our little bubble in this packed little tin. Everyone brings their energy onto the tube and you can tell when one person has had a really bad day, another has had the best day ever, somebody is late and panicked and another is early and chilled. I’ve had so many memories and drunken nights sat on the District Line. Every time I get in it it’s the same aesthetic so I’m taken back to those nights at different points in my life.
Is it true you wrote the whole thing while sitting on the tube?
Totally, so apart from ‘My Oh My’ which was written on the piano at home, all those tracks began as lyrics or voice notes that I would sing quietly into my phone while sat on the tube so that nobody would hear me.
We are told you have a new single hopefully dropping before the end of the year. Without giving too much away, is this track going to be a natural evolution from District Line or are you playing around with some new sounds?
It’s definitely going to be a development from the District Line for sure. It’s another very stripped-back track but I honestly just love this track a lot. It’s not one of those that I’m forcing out that sounds big so that radio will play it, it’s more just one I’m really in love with. This particular track talks about my worries about being a musician and the pressure of picking this path over a more typical and stable one. It’s that idea of questioning if I would be happier in someone else’s shoes. This career path is really hard when you are trying to be your manager, social media marketer while also making music. It’s a 24 hour and 7 day a week kind of job. I spend every hour of the day thinking about or working on my music and I’m still skint haha!
It’s a track that I’m really proud of as a songwriter but I think once I’ve dropped it I’m going to fuck off for a little bit and work on a solid full project so that I can put something out that’s a proper body of work. Something that I’m super proud of.
Let’s talk about Johnny Cash! A big musical influence on you and something I think you can really hear with those bluesy notes like on ‘Rely On Me’ and particularly with that harmonica on ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright. Is the extreme vulnerability he puts in his music the biggest thing you’ve learnt from listening to him?
With Johnny Cash, it was always how raw he is in his sound and how out of the sky it is. It seems like a lot of his work reflects things that have just popped into his head and he is explaining to us through his music. It doesn’t seem like he over analyses or thinks about it too much. A lot of songwriters now focus on the art form of music, which is obviously amazing and can result in these obscure but intricate and thought-provoking songs, but with him, he just says things how it is. Even the way it’s recorded, it always felt really raw and gritty.
Quick side note, have you seen Walk The Line, the dramatised movie about his life? If you could see a movie about another musician rise who would you want to see it made about?
It has to be Paolo Nutini man! I’m the biggest Paolo fan and I know that he has a crazy story to tell. I heard that after his second album dropped, he was booked to go on Jonathan Ross’s show and on the day nobody could get a hold of him and he wasn’t at his house. Then nobody heard from him for a couple of months. Someone finally got a hold of him and he was just living it up in Thailand haha!
What three albums would you choose if you were stranded on a desert island and had to listen to them for the rest of your life?
Oh, mate this is hard. I think it would have to be Voodoo by D’Angelo then Sunny Side Up by Paolo Nutini. Finally, I think I would take The Loved Ones by Flyte.
If you could only lock one track you’ve created thus far in a time capsule to last forever, what would it be and why?
It would have to be ‘District Line’ because it was the first track that I felt really summed up to me as an artist. That sort of song is something that is quite natural for me to write but I never pursued it because I always felt I had to write more of a pop-based sound with a big chorus. That tune really sums me up and this era of music I’m in right now.
Where would you take someone to show the real heart of your hometown in order to get some good grub?
There is this place in Wapping called Il Bordello which is hands down the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in my life. It’s run by this Italian family and next door is this pub called the Prospect of Whitby which is the oldest pub in London. Both are right on the seafront and give off proper old-school Eastend vibes.
Lastly mate, who are three creatives you admire and think deserve a shoutout?
One producer that smashing it at the moment is called Inflo who does a lot of work for Cleo Sol as well as doing Little Simz last album. He is also part of a band called SAULT who are incredible too. Then my mate AZ Captures is an incredible photographer who runs a brand called Pay Your Shooter which focuses on fair pay for photographers. Lastly, Martin Luke Brown who is the mate that helped me do the vocals in my garage and is also an artist with a new project dropping really soon, so check him out!