Jamie Lawson interview

Jamie Lawson

The first word that comes to mind after meeting Jamie Lawson, is humble. He spends the first five minutes of our interview talking about the current crisis due to COVID-19. Not that he’s necessarily worried about himself – he’s doing alright and he’s just had a baby that he can focus on. No, he’s worried about young people who’re just starting out, people who feel lonely and are isolated from their family and friends, and of course other musicians – session musicians and those in the industry who rely on touring to make a living. “I wasn’t planning to tour anyways, I felt like maybe I’d tried my luck with that a bit too much lately.”

He does this a lot, commenting casually on something that not every artist would be comfortable with acknowledging. It’s refreshingly honest, especially coming from someone who’s won an Ivor Novello Award over Ed Sheeran. His smash hit song, “Wasn’t Expecting That,” was a re-release – Lawson had already put out the song in 2011, but it didn’t become big until after Ed Sheeran signed him to his label Gingerbread Man Records. True to its title, Lawson says he wasn’t expecting the track to receive such a second wave of momentum. “It just means it stood the test of time, but also it meant that Ed knew a good song when he heard it. I’ll be forever grateful for Ed taking a chance on the song and on me – for doing what he did.”

Sheeran’s faith in his artistry meant that Lawson got the opportunity to tour with major British acts, including Ed Sheeran himself, but also now-defunct band One Direction. When he talks about those experiences, that same sense of awareness pops up again. “I didn’t want that level of fame – I wanted to be successful in music. Those are different things.” While he acknowledges that in becoming the biggest, you arguably become the most famous too, that was never his ambition. “When you think about bands like Radiohead – you could probably walk past Thom Yorke in the street and not know it, unless you’re a huge Radiohead fan. I kind of wanted that route, rather than the fame route. But then I never really achieved that level of success, so it didn’t really become an issue for me anyways.”

There’s nothing bitter about the way he says it – as if perhaps he’s almost glad he was never faced with the same public scrutiny or expected to open up about his private life in name of his career. He could know since he got to witness the price of ultra-fame and success from up close. Still, “it was fascinating being around it, especially on the One Direction tour and seeing how the fans reacted to them.”

It’s the loyalty of those fans that he was so taken with, proving that despite the pandemonium, their love for good music was sincere. “They’ve got incredibly loyal fans that still follow them now, and follow them all individually. Some of them were kind enough to reach out and follow me too, and a lot of those fans are still with me. Same with Ed – a lot of his fans are genuine fans of my music too. It’s just really fascinating to see it up close and yet not be it that’s being seen – if that makes sense.”

That struggle may be familiar for any opening act, but Lawson’s own fanbase has also stayed loyal. He now organises weekly Instagram Lives, mini-concerts during the lockdown. “I’ve been doing this for quite a while – if there was any kind of announcement or if I was a bit bored, if a record was coming out I’d do them occasionally from time to time. Now I’m trying to differentiate between each session. Last week I did a song from each album, all the way through to the new EP.”

He almost grins when he recognizes that it’s almost nice for him. “For someone who wasn’t going to tour, it’s actually quite useful for me. I keep practicing a bit and it keeps me in gear, I guess. It’s great to get feedback from fans when asking what songs they want to hear, and realizing there’s a lot of different songs that people are after.”

It’s a great way to test new material, which is what Lawson will be releasing later this month. His new EP called Moving Images is the first release since parting ways from Ed Sheeran’s label. It’s the start of a new era in more ways than one, with Lawson trying to find new ways to share music in times of a changed music industry. “It’s become harder and harder to make money, to make a living when streaming services pay so little. One of the things we’re trying to do is to have a much more direct connection to the people who like the music. It just seemed like a better way of doing it. To bring it back, release records ourselves, sell them kind of directly to fans, and maybe make – how do I put it – so I’m making EPs at the moment, so less music more often. The idea is to keep the music ticking over as best we can and connect with the audience directly, and this Moving Images EP is probably our first run at trying that, really.”

Although, testing a new idea couldn’t have come at a worse time, given the current pandemic. “There were supposed to be four releases this year, I’d have two EPs by now. My first record was gonna be released on vinyl on record store day, but that’s going to get cancelled now because of the virus and people can’t go to record shops. And also it’s been ten years since my second album came out, so we were going to do something around that as well, but it’s possible we won’t get to do that either.”

Still, Jamie Lawson is ever the humble optimist. Perhaps the EPs are a good way of creating not only a fairer model that plays to fans’ interests – it also may be just the thing that generates “enough interest that people keep sticking around on social media when we do tour. When we next get the chance to tour, there’ll hopefully be an audience for it.”

Aside from the changes in the music industry itself, Lawson has also chosen to change up his sound a bit. It’s still all his – he wrote all of the tracks himself either alone or with limited involvement from others. The overarching element? Strings. They’re already apparent on the single “She Sings For Me’, but they also feature on the other tracks.

The track is one of the only two co-writes on this album. When talking about the process, Lawson says it was “quite different” than the usual process where he goes into a session and writes and records on the day itself, hardly making any changes to the final mix or production. With “She Sings”, he tells me that the original demo was much more stripped down. “There were no strings for instance. I really wanted to have those on the EP, for no other reason than that I just hadn’t done that to that degree before.”

He explains that while he’s had string sections on previous albums, what he really wanted was to just delve into the whole process himself. He asked a good friend to write string parts for “She Sings”, “A Perfect Year”, and “You Saved Me”, and then built the songs up from there in his home studio. Lawson stresses, though, that it’s a collaborative effort. “After I’d have the song ready, I’d give it to a producer/mixer friend of mine, Tim Ross [who also worked on Lawson’s previous albums]. He’d make them sound good – cause he has that skill, to make the songs sound amazing.”

Similarly, he makes sure to mention his co-writers by name when we discuss “She Sings For Me”. I wrote it with a guy called Ben Mark, and Jamie Norton. We wrote it in London, I don’t remember overtly where the “She Sings For Me” came from – it’s one of those things when I’m writing I tend to just sing a lot of nonsense until something I really like kind of sticks out and this was one of those things. And then you kind of stop and think, ‘oh what does this mean, what’s going on, what are you trying to get to”. That seems to be my process. You can’t always do that when you’re co-writing, You can get a bit shy, but I’ve known Ben a long time so it was okay and he’s really enthusiastic about stuff, so – it was a good song. It was a good day.”

The song’s message is rather timely. Lawson seems happy with my initial observation of the track as one that is about finding harmony and hope in dark times. “You’re exactly right! It’s very much about being pulled through, or getting through.”

The “she” in this track does not refer to a person, he tells me. “The “she”, for me at least – is music itself. The idea that you can always turn to music in any mood whatsoever. Whether you’re feeling lonely, whether you’re sad, down or happy – whether you’re in an amazing mood. Music is always there, and you can always find music that fits your mood. I love that about it. And you know, it’ll always mean different things to different people. That’s what the song is really about or at least what I was aiming for.”

The fact that Lawson seems to favor writing in metaphors definitely allows more scope for the imagination. It’s particularly apparent in track “And You Saved Me”, which starts off with the poignant lyrics “I was chasing after meteorites”.  When I ask about his affinity with celestial references, he can’t quite explain why that is. “It’s a brilliant, really interesting observation because I actually really writers like Billy Bragg. He writes these fantastic, romantic love songs that are very much based in the home – domestic love songs. He’ll mention the dishes and the hoovering. I think they’re brilliant, the detail in them is fantastic. But I’ve just never really been able to do it. I’ve always gone for big skies and oceans and stars, and things that kind of give the image of space – and I don’t mean outer space, I mean open space. I don’t know why that is, I don’t know why that is. That’s just how it comes out, this etherealness to my songs – like trying to explain feelings rather than actual places.”

He reiterates his point of music holding different meanings to different people. “I’m not sure if it’s conscious as much as it’s just how I write, but I really like the relistening of things. The first band that did that for me was R.E.MN. They had songs you could sing along with, but also really think about. And I like that. Those quite open lyrics are up for interpretation, which means that as soon as you hear it – that song is yours and no longer mine. And it’ll be whatever it means to you, and that’s really important too.”

It’s also one of the reasons why he ended up picking the title Moving Images for the EP. Lawson tells me that he enjoys the double meaning of the phrase. “You have images that move. And you have images that move you. In the same way you were just talking about – we can interpret these things in different ways, whichever one suits you best, it’s good. I like that sort of thing.”

Ironically, the EP ends with a somewhat paradoxical, open-ended track called “Closure”. Central is the question/lyric “What use is closure if you don’t want love to be over?”, which doesn’t get answered throughout the track. It’s a rather personal track, even though Lawson co-wrote it with Jez Ashurst. “The title was his idea – he wanted to write a song called Closure. We were talking about Tom Petty. He’d always seemingly choose the most simple rhyme and make it feel very deep, he’d leave a lot of space in the song. And the reason he did that, was because he believed it. We tried to channel that here. Jez and I have both lost our fathers, so we had that in common. Still, this is again a song you can have up for interpretation – whether it’s a love song about an ex partner you’ve lost, or like in our case a parent, or maybe just someone you are no longer able to see.”

It’s one of the tracks on this record that he didn’t change a single thing about after the initial recording, particularly the open-ended nature of the lyrics. Though to be fair, the recurring question on closure is a good one that neither of us really have an answer to, anyways. “I’m very chuffed with it. It’s good to leave that sort of thing out there occasionally. Sometimes, you need to tie things up and bring it to an end. Have a beginning, middle, and end. Other times, you’re just wondering out loud – and that has value too.”

Even though songwriters expose their most inner feelings to the world on the regular through song, it can still be difficult to open up in the first place, particularly to co-writers. “On this record, both co-writes were with people I knew and am friends with. But I’ve certainly written songs with complete strangers, and written incredibly personal songs with people I’d only just met.”

He pauses, then tells me about a song called “Sing to the River” off of his Happy Accidents record. It’s an incredibly personal track about dealing with the grief of his father’s death, and how he’d gone to a river close to his house in the early morning and sing to it. “I wrote it in LA with a guy called Chris Braide, whom I’d never met before. I went to his house, and the idea of writing the song had been with me a while. I’d even been in a writing session with Ed [Sheeran] and didn’t bring it up, even though I know Ed really well and I could’ve. My instinct told me not to. And yet here I am, with a stranger in a very odd place somewhere in the middle of LA that I don’t know at all. A place that feels very alien to me, and for some reason, I can open up and say “this is where I’m at, this is what I’m thinking”. We kind of wrote the music together and he led me to that lyric and did a brilliant job.  I think it’s a beautiful song.  It’s weird how – that’s just pure instinct as to whether or not you can go to those places.”

Lawson adds that it’s just “fascinating how your body or mind will say “yes today” or “no today”. The thing is if you go yes if you feel no, you won’t get it. You won’t get the song that you’re after. And if you get it wrong, you’re going to turn away from it and you’ll hate that song, and it’ll affect how you relate to that emotion. Or it could do, anyways.”

It echoes the experience of listeners too, and how you may have very vivid memories attached to particular songs. “It’s interesting isn’t it. How we’re drawn to certain songs at certain times that we wouldn’t be at other times,” Lawson agrees. He’s recently been revisiting his own album collection, and has found that the music from his youth still affects him in the same way. But it’s also made him think about his own future.

“Take John Prine,” he provides as an example. “Amazing songwriter, and released a record even last year or the year before that was fantastic – he was 74 or 75. It gives you a lot of hope and inspiration that someone is still releasing music in their seventies, it’s kind of crazy. But I love the idea that I might still be making music when I’m seventy, and what that might sound like.” He pauses and grins, before continuing. “Because he did sound like an old man, he struggled to breathe and it’s fascinating to see how he adjusted his writing to that.”

It’s also a great reminder that music is both timeless and so incredibly fleeting at the same time. When asked to compare how this EP stands out from his previous work, he stresses the element of experimentation once more. “The really interesting thing about EPs over albums is that they can be these kind of stand-out moments, especially if you’re turning them over a bit quicker. It means if you don’t like one, then it’s not that long until the next one comes and you can move on. And if you do like it, then it’s a cool thing that stands by itself.”

Lawson adds that to him, the process of bringing out an EP is that they’re full of these little differences. For example, the track “I Loved You Then” has got this almost laid-back fuse sound hidden in the melody.  “It’s kind of like an old school B side. Back in the day, the B side of the record was often cooler than the A-side, because it gave you a different glimpse of the band, and what they were doing. It’s the stuff that wouldn’t end up on the album – the allegedly throwaway songs, but they were actually quite cool. I think maybe this has that same element, that kind of thinking to it. These sings might be a bit different from what Jamie Lawson fans have had before. They’re still Jamie Lawson tracks, because I’m singing them and that’s quite distinctive, but they have a slightly different feel to me.”

In fact, the first track of the EP – “A Perfect Year” was never meant to be heard by anyone except Lawson’s wife. “I wrote it as an anniversary present for our paper wedding anniversary. The actual present that I’d ordered for her didn’t turn up, and so I was stuck on the day before without anything to give her. I figured on the first anniversary that’s not good, not good at all. I very much rushed, I wrote the song and recorded a version of it in two hours whilst she’d gone to the shop. To be honest, I didn’t think anyone else was going to hear it, I wrote it just purely for her – that’s the only reason I wrote it, just for her to hear. But then the more I listened to it, the more I started thinking maybe – maybe others would like it too.”

While he, of course, discussed the inclusion of the track on the EP with his wife, he did not let her hear the other material. “I usually play people – especially my wife – the demos of songs and things, especially when I really like them. But to be honest, with this whole EP as I was making it, I was maybe a bit more hesitant. I didn’t play it to her at all, I didn’t play it to anyone. I think I was maybe a bit too nervous – I just made the EP and the first time she heard it was when I got the mastered CD back.”

His initial hesitation was reignited when the pandemic hit. “I wasn’t sure whether or not to release the EP. We’d planned it for the beginning of the year, and it was the question whether we should put it out or not.” In the end, though, it’s exactly this pandemic that’s made him even more convinced this is the perfect time for new music. “I’m glad we are going to [release it]. I think it’s the right decision. The live streams are proving that in just how many people are coming back each week wanting to hear new songs and different things. Maybe now more than ever music is really needed, and new music is needed.”

True to the humility that I’ve grown used to over the course of our conversation, Lawson can’t help but genuinely praise another musician for their work. “Do you know the singer Alec Benjamin? He wrote that song Six Feet Apart and released it immediately. Really brave for someone in his position, but also great. That’s what’s on his mind and he knows that it’s what is on other people’s mind as well. That’s what brings people together and makes them feel less lonely. It’s a great song too and it’s important, that we keep these things going.”

Indeed, the current circumstances may inevitably end up changing music in so many ways – but it’s also given many people a newfound appreciation for the creative arts. Moving Images has intricately crafted songs and strings aplenty, with lyrics living in a liminal space that allow for emotional and personal connection. While it may be hard to create a stand-out moment in the midst of a historic event, Lawson’s Moving Images definitely deserves some appreciation as well. Because who knows what his music will sound like next?

Moving Images is out on May 29th.