Amiable irish singer-songwriter Gavin James is in Australia next week to perform songs from his first studio album Bitter Pill. He’ll also be trying out a few news songs and tells AM’s Greg Phillips that he’ll sing “for as long as the audience can stand him”. Just don’t ask him to sing Robbie Williams’ Angels!
Ever had one of those conversations where you can’t quite make out what someone is saying but you laugh and express acknowledgement anyway and hope like hell that you’re responding appropriately? My interview with Irish singer songwriter and rising international star Gavin James contained a few of those moments. He’s one of the most amiable guys I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing but the thickness of his accent and speed of his conversation left me a guessing a few times. To be fair, he probably felt the same of me. What I’m more certain of is that Gavin James is highly likely to become a household name in the not too distant future. With the help of heavyweight songsters Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, who have recently taken him under their wing as a tour support, combined with the release of an acclaimed first studio album Bitter Pill, the Dublin-based artist has already begun to make a name for himself globally. His soaring vocals and heartfelt, well-constructed songs have found much appeal with ballad-friendly music fans in the UK and USA. Next week Australia will get an introduction to Gavin’s music when he tours here with just voice and guitar. His 2015 release Live at Whelans, which features many tracks which have ended up on the studio recording Bitter Pill, is ample evidence that he can cut the mustard in an unplugged environment and move an audience to sing.
This will be Gavin’s first trip to Australia. He tells me he’s still ‘traumatised’ at not being allowed to join his parents on a trip here when he was six. His uncle John lives in Perth and he looks forward to spending some time with him once the tour is done. James was not always a balladeer however, his musical path began in bands, worshipping guitar acts like Led Zeppelin, Wolfmother and Hendrix. His real hero was Irish guitar slinger Rory Gallagher. “They actually have a festival on him now,” Gavin says. “He was ridiculously good. My dad has seen him live a couple of times and said it was the best shows he’s ever seen. I have a live DVD, which I have watched to bits.”
Gavin’s father was a big music fan and his record collection consisted of many folk albums by artists such as Cat Stevens. Under the influence of that kind of music, Gavin purchased a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and his life changed forever. “I went and bought that Freewheelin’ album when I was about 13. Then I watched the documentary No Direction Home and I was completely hooked on Bob Dylan. He completely changed the way I wrote songs. I was writing like I was in a band, writing all the parts and after listening to Bob Dylan I just thought I can simplify this.”
Last year Gavin had the opportunity to play The Troubadour in LA, home to a lot of famous folk singer-songwriters in the 60s. For someone so appreciative of music history, he was also stoked to record in the legendary Capitol Records building in Hollywood. “I recorded a bit of the album there, a lot of the vocals for the Bitter Pill songs,” he says. “We used the famous reverb chamber in the basement, which all the old recording artists used … Frank Sinatra and that. We had Nat King Cole’s piano in the studio, which is absolutely insane. So we’d be messing around on that and they’d turn the reverb up on the vocal and you could hear the way all those Frank Sinatra records were recorded, it was mental.”
There’s a clip on YouTube of James performing his song Book Of Love on top of the Capitol Records tower (see below). He’s playing a beautiful 335 style guitar but it wasn’t his. “No, I got that 335 as a loaner. I’m an idiot. I forgot to bring my guitar over with me. I have like an ES 150 from the 50s a big fat guitar at home. It’s meant for jazz but it sounds so bassy, really loud.”
Gavin’s main stage guitar is a Gibson SJ200. He also owns a J45 but smashed the bottom of it on the corner of a stage in Limerick a year ago. “I got the J200 when I was in Winnipeg or somewhere. It’s a J200 western classic, which I found in a guitar shop. It’s the bassiest acoustic guitar I have ever played. It’s really big too, which makes my head look smaller, which is good!”
Part of the attraction of Gavin’s music is his great sense of space, thoughtfully using sections of silence to embellish the drama of his songs. It’s an aspect of his writing which he believes comes naturally rather than picking it up from anyone in particular, although he does acknowledge a bit of a nod and wink to Coldplay’s Chris Martin. “I dunno, I just have some really weird bars in my songs,” he says. “I’ll be doing production in the studio and they’ll go, why is there like 6 bars of nothing there and then 4 bars of loads of stuff and then another bar of nothing again? It’s really weird and I have no idea where it comes from.”
James paid his dues playing up to 7 nights a week sometimes in Dublin pubs. It was time well spent though. “I taught me how to sing properly,” he states. “It also helped me with the stage presence thing. It was definitely a tough gig though.” The affable performer would sometimes have a bit of fun at the expense of drunken pub patrons. “Without fail, they’d always ask me to play Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’,” he laughs. “They’d go, oh don’t you know it? It goes like this … and then they’d begin to sing it and I’d go … hmm no … don’t know that one! That would happen every night, someone would ask for that song.”
Gavin has begun writing songs for the next album in his humble home studio and feels it will differ from Bitter Pill. “My set up at home is really basic. I just use a bit of Logic, one Neumann mic I use for everything and a bit of MIDI for drums and strings. It’s enough to do a solid demo for people to have a look at. I think I am going to strip it back even more for this album,” he says. “I want to be able to hear every instrument and I just think I am going to spend more time on every aspect of the album. I think I will try to produce it myself and just get my mates to play on it. I haven’t thought too much about it yet. I am just writing and hopefully I can record just after Christmas. I have started doing some co-writing too. I wasn’t too mad about it initially but I have gotten back into it. I am writing a lot more on piano than I used to as well. I’m trying to play a few of the new ones on the road. I just did Electric Picnic in Ireland and we tried out some new songs and they went down well. I will try some in Australia too. Gigging songs is a good way to know which songs will be the best for the album.”
I suggested to Gavin that with the success of his first album, he could take advantage of the inertia and ask his label if he can record the next album in The Bahamas!
“Oh no, I wish. I’ll probably end up doing it in the country somewhere in Ireland. Somewhere that has a fire and is not extremely hot. I dunno, The Bahamas … you’d never get anything done would you? You’d just be having cocktails all day.”
And the grand plan for Gavin James? “I never had a plan since day one,” Gavin says. “Just keep working and keep gigging. Just work really hard writing and recording as long as I can, keep going and enjoy it. There is no master plan. Just do it until I am sick of it … which wont be happening any time soon.”
Gavin James Australian dates:
Thu 22 Sept – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane
Fri 23 Sept – Plan B Small Club, Sydney
Sat 24 Sept – Ding Dong Lounge, Melbourne
Sun 25 Sept – The Boston, Perth