James Arthur, best known for the hit “Say You Won’t Let Go,” rose to fame after winning British talent show phenomenon The X-Factor UK in 2012. Straight away, his winner’s single, “Impossible,” went to #1 in the UK.
A year later, Arthur released his eponymously titled debut album, which again soared in the charts and reached #2. Not long after that, however, things took a downward turn. The singer-songwriter became embroiled in controversy around some of the lyrics on his rap mixtape, All the World’s a Stage. A series of high-profile Twitter spats ensued and Arthur subsequently parted ways with his label, Syco Music. In an unprecedented move, Arthur rose like a phoenix from the ashes and made a comeback, signing to Columbia Records and releasing his sophomore album, Back from the Edge, in 2016, which would later go platinum.
Arthur reveals that it was his experience on The X Factor that was partly to blame for his troubled period. The show– watched by millions each year– is known for taking ordinary people with an extraordinary voice and jetpacking them to stardom. The contestants go on a journey that will change their lives forever, so in order to mold contestants into an artist that will sell, it is more than just their external appearance that is re-shaped, but their musical style, too.
It was The X-Factor’s attempts to change Arthur became the root of his anguish. “I was OK as I was, I didn’t need all this molding,” he stresses. “All that did was make me lash out, actually. I wish I’d just have let all that stuff happen and not got so angry about everything and just been like; OK, I understand your opinion, but with respect, I want to do my own thing, instead of doing my own thing in a rebellious way. That turned into negative energy and it didn’t have to. A lot of controversy ensued from that which led to me doing things I regret. I think the bottom line is that I was an artist, I was fine the way I was and I just needed to learn a few valuable lessons. Thankfully I’ve learned them now.”
Arthur credits his staying power to the fact that he was already an artist prior to going on The X-Factor. “I knew who I was, I knew that I had an identity and a sound already, and I didn’t need molding really,” he says. “I didn’t need any help or any co-writers, I could have written the songs by myself.” This was another way Arthur was different from other contestants; he was writing and recording songs since he was fifteen. Before he auditioned, Arthur had been in a string of rock and indie bands. Musical talent undeniably ran in his blood.
Whether or not you’ve heard his music before or followed his journey, Arthur’s last album, Back from the Edge, which he describes as “a very personal, quite self-indulgent record,” is intense and powerful one that will hit you right in the feels. Far from what you’d expect from an X-Factor winner, the record dives into the depths of Arthur’s soul, discussing parts of his life when he suffered from an addiction to alcohol and drugs, as well as his battles with anxiety. Although the topics are often maudlin, the beats are catchy.
Despite the pain it caused him to relive some of his darkest moments whilst performing the album, Arthur felt that it was necessary to go back and picture them again for the sake of his art. “I think it’s important to draw upon those emotionsand feelings; to try and take yourself back,” he explains. “That’s my job as a performer– to convey those emotions. As difficult as it is, it’s also therapeutic. The stage is where I dump all of that energy.”
Since Back from the Edge, Arthur has kept busy, touring North America with OneRepublic, as well as headlining his own UK and Ireland tour in 2017. He was also featured on the Grenfell Tower Fire charity single “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and on Rudimental’s single “Sun Comes Up”; the titles of which both seem like metaphors for the singer’s turnaround in life. “I definitely didn’t believe that I could come back in the way that I’ve managed to come back,” he says. “That was unprecedented.”
Things only went up from there, Arthur not only released a new track “Naked,” but also teamed up with EDM powerhouse Marshmello on “You Can Cry.” Arthur describes the record as “a project with integrity,” because, “it wasn’t straight down the line pop music, it was hip hop too. It was one of those things where he had a song that he really believed in, wanted to put it out and felt like I was the best person for the song. It was as simple as that, really,” Arthur explains, reflecting on the collaboration. “I thought it was interesting having a chorus that was all falsetto. It seemed to fit me perfectly and it was an honor to be part of a Marshmello track.”
When we spoke, it was only a few days before Arthur released two new tracks from his forthcoming album. It’s his third studio album, and Arthur is now back with his original label, Syco Music. “You Deserve Better” and “At My Weakest” are still self-deprecating love songs– as is Arthur’s trademark style– but they are considerably more upbeat than his previous records. “You Deserve Better” is a foot-tapping, soulful groove full of funk guitars and stunning vocal harmonies. “At My Weakest,” on the other hand, is a gospel-tinged ballad. “It’s important for me now to switch it up and make music more with my fans in mind, feel-good tracks,” Arthur says. “I wish I could tell you what the title of the album was because that would make more sense. All the songs are directed at you as opposed to a reflection of me. Hopefully, it’s relatable to everybody.”
All preconceived notions of how Arthur would be (he’s often been portrayed as sullen and temperamental by the British press in the past) were scuppered when we spoke. Maybe it’s because he’s come out the other side with a new lease of life, but Arthur was warm, relaxed and excited; a shift that seems to be reflected in his new music. “I think there’s been a lot of evolution,” he ponders. “Going through the whole process of promoting that last album and how draining it was, talking about my life and being so open about my struggles with mental health and then going out and performing those songs, it became apparent to me that I needed to inject a bit of fun back into my music. It’s been a new lease of life to be songwriting from a different perspective. It just feels like the reins have come off a bit and I’ve not been such an introvert with my writing. I’m adding strings to my bow that makes everybody feel good and want to dance.”
Continuously full of surprises, Arthur also released an autobiography in 2017, Back to the Boy. A Sunday Times bestseller, Arthur penned it in the hopes that it would help shed a light on the decisions he’s made through the telling of his past. It discusses many of the themes from his sophomore album in more detail; his struggles with mental health issues which led to drug abuse, and how he dealt with the feelings of intense pressure and loneliness that accompanied his sudden rise to fame.
In the book, he says: “There are many things people don’t know about me and maybe when they read about those things they will have an understanding of the journey I have been on and why I’ve made the mistakes I have.” As well as being cathartic for the singer, Arthur also saw the book as an opportunity to use his platform for good. “I have a responsibility as someone with a voice to shed a light on mental health issues and talk about my struggles,” he says. “Hopefully to help people who aren’t as fortunate as me and feel like they haven’t got anyone to talk to. I definitely know how that feels. However I can help and encourage people to open up about their difficulties then I’m doing a good thing, I’m giving back.” It was because of his honesty about his own experiences with mental health that led Arthur to become an ambassador for the charity SANE. With the highs of fame naturally also came the lows, and Arthur, now much more sure of himself and his talents six years down the line, reflects on what he would have done differently at the start of his career if he had known what he does now.
“I wish I could have said to myself, you definitely can be yourself, you don’t need to try and be anything else because ultimately, the best form of therapy is being honest and being myself. Being me, being honest and open, as long as it’s kind and comes from a good place, that’s the best advice I can really take on.”
Despite the setbacks, James Arthur has had incredible staying power. His drive to keep coming back and proving people wrong must have taken a great deal of courage and strength– a task which was undoubtedly augmented by being in the public eye. Although he has a captivating voice, many other artists, had they been in the same position, would unlikely have come out the other side as successfully as he did. So how did he do it? “I just stay hungry,” he says. “Call me crazy and unrealistic– and I’m usually a bit of a realist– but I kinda wanna be great. I want to be remembered as someone who put out really great music. I’m driven by having hit music out there. I wanna be there best there is, I wanna be the top of my game. I’m competitive like that, so I’m driven by being the best of my craft.”
“I believed that my talent could take me very far,” he says. “I’m a realist and realistically, I didn’t think I could get back to where I was and beyond. That seemed completely unfathomable to me. I always believed I could continue to make music, that I would have some fans and that I would be good enough to be taken seriously as an artist but the bounceback and where I am now is like a dream come true.”