Amongst the seemingly endless amount of male singer-songwriters, Gavin James has managed to elevate himself above the crowd thanks partly to his emotive yet accessible songwriting. With an impressive career that has been propelled by his resonant voice, James’ music has topped the charts in not only his native Ireland, but also Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, and many other countries too.
In May, Gavin James returned with his long-anticipated single “Boxes,” a powerful ode to being your truest self through not conforming to societal expectations. James interweaves his poignant lyricism with production that’s buoyantly spirited to stunningly craft a sensational track that perfectly sits alongside the rest of his varied discography.
We had an in-depth chat with Gavin James about his latest single “Boxes,” his journey so far, and a whole lot more!
You just released “Boxes,” why did that song feel like the perfect one to sort of come back with?
It was meant to be on the second album, but I kind of I fucked up the production because I just went too crazy. I went like absolutely ham on it. It’s like a two and a half minute songs so I think I was just throwing everything at the wall. It’s my favorite song that would have been on the second album. Eventually, when we’re kind of mastering and mixing, we were trying to fix it. When you’re at the point where you’re trying to fix a song, it’s never a good thing. So I decided to just leave because I love the song so much and I was really excited about it.
It would have been one of the main songs that would have been on the second album, so I just sat with it for a year and a half. I didn’t play it at gigs then I went back to it fresh and just stripped it back. It turned into an electric guitar kind of Paul Simon-esque song. Then instantly it just sounded much more relatable and better. The first time I kind of really played it again at a gig was in the 3 Arena, before all this madness.
It’s my favorite song that I’ve ever done. It’s the start of the next album which is kind of handy because I had it already in my back pocket. Then the whole of the third album is finished as well which is awesome. Well, I mean most of the album is done which actually means it’s not done at all because nothing’s ever done.
How’s it been releasing in lockdown? The streaming and YouTube numbers have been crazy!
I’ve never had that before. It’s like fucking crazy. The last thing I released on YouTube probably only hit a million after 5 months or something like that. For this song to do that in a week is insane. It’s gone mad. I think the message in the song is really clear; I haven’t had a song that’s been very simple with the message just being in your face before. I think it is a quite heart-warming message that anyone at any age can relate to.
It’s weird releasing it with everything’s that going on because every time I’ve had a song out I’ll usually bring it around a couple of gigs or a promo trip. With a promo trip, you go around Europe and you sit in the back of a car and you jump out whatever radio station you’re near. You’re like playing and talking from like 7 am in the morning until seven o’clock at night for like two weeks. I love promo trips because you get to travel. The travel aspect is something that I’m missing. In general, I’ve been doing more or less the same amount on Zoom and it’s fucking hilarious because I have a dog and every time I do like something on telly he always just runs in here and starts barking. It’s very funny.
It’s been grand though. The only thing is the no gig aspect of it, which is kind of strange, but I’ve been trying to do like live streams and quizzes and stuff just to kind of get people’s minds off really. I think people go to gigs to get their minds off things anyway. I think now is a very good time to keep people’s heads straight by just doing silly things. Like I did a quiz last night which was just silly. It’s just fun. It’s funny because it’s just an hour of people and their families just having a bit of break instead of like talking about it constantly. Usually, most of my conversations with my mates are like 10 minutes of talking about random shit then we just start talking about the madness that’s going on.
You released an animated lyric video for “Boxes.” How’d that came to be?
I mean, it was always the intention to do the animation lyrically, but not to that extent. I think it was gonna be a lot less intricate and cartoony. Studio Showoff is the name of the two people who made it, it’s two Australian lads. I was chatting to him over the last month and a half about what we’re going to do for it. We were going to do an actual music video for it, but then obviously this all happened and you can obviously can’t do live video. So, we said to throw everything at the animation.
I was chatting to the lads for a month every morning and they were fucking hilarious to Australian lads. It turned out really good. The first draft that they did of me was pretty much exactly me as a cartoon character. Even like a kid version of myself looked like me as a kid. They’re very, very good. They did stuff with like Rick and Morty, Simpsons and Childish Gambino so they’re really class.
To touch on the ongoing situation, how does it feel to have this expanse of time and uncertainty after touring so relentlessly?
At the start of it, it was a bit strange. I kept waking up in the morning thinking I had loads of things to do. In reality, I had like nothing to do. At the start, it was a bit strange to fill that many hours in the day and I think a lot of people kind of felt the same. I think a lot of people in the music and a lot of people, in general, found themselves feeling a bit guilty about not doing much. Like even with my missus. She’s studying to be a dog groomer and she’s like the same. I’m like if you don’t feel like doing anything, don’t do anything.
At points, I’ve had motivation for like three days. And then like, there is a day where I’m just like I want to do absolutely nothing. It’s totally cool not to do anything else because it’s mad, there are too many hours in the day. I find that I usually wake up and I sit down at the piano and I’ll try to write something. If nothing comes out, I’ll be like ah grand and just go to watch a bit of TV. I think pressuring yourself to do loads of things during this time is a bit strange. Everyone’s been like I’m going to learn to speak Chinese or read a shed load of books but in reality, they’re not gonna do that. I think you’re generally a pretty busy person normally, it’s totally cool to treat this whole time as a bit of a breather. I’ve found that even though I’m far away from so many people and I can’t see them, it’s kind of reconnected me with more people than it has disconnected me from.
Your debut album is over 4 years old. How does it feel to reflect back on that and the way your fans have taken to the songs?
When I do a gig, I always try to throw a few older songs in there. From the first album, I hadn’t played like “Hole In My Heart” for like three years. Recently, I played it at a gig somewhere in Switzerland or something and everybody knew it. I thought “shit yeah, I should probably play that song”. It’s mad because I never get bored of playing any of the older songs. “Nervous” is one of the songs that’s like still the main point in all my gigs no matter where I am. It’s the one that’s like universally sung along to. I think it’s because it’s there’s not really a lot of English in the chorus.
It’s great reverting back to that album and the second album. I’m just trying to step up the production. When I did the first album, I actually recorded it and hated the production. Then I actually ended up recording the whole thing again. I spent a month recording the album with somebody and I just turned out sounding like Pirates of the Caribbean. Like it sounded dogshit. I mean Pirates of the Caribbean is awesome but for my debut album to have like strings on it was just silly.
I was like 21 and I didn’t really know how to record so I was just kind of learning off of the producer I was working with. I won’t say any names. The second go-around I worked with a guy called Cam BlackWoods and someone called Frasier T Smith. I enjoyed it so much because Cam Blackwoods is just like this crazy Scottish fella; he’s insane. He’s worked with George Erza and stuff too. We used to just go for pints then go back to the studio. I just had so much fun. Then like Frasier T Smith did like Adele’s stuff. He’s so nice too. He’s like the nicest guy ever. When we both finished the album, he got me a really sparkly and incredible guitar. I didn’t expect that at all. I was like fuck because I got like a bottle of whiskey or something.
That whole period of time was like one of my favorite times in my life. I was in London for like six months and I hadn’t lived anywhere else. I loved it and then eventually I moved to London about a year and a half after. The second album was a bit easier to record because I just did it with my mate Ollie Green. Then because of lockdown, I’ve been recording a lot of the third one here with my little tiny setup. I have like a MIDI keyboard and have my keys behind me, so it’s going to be very piano heavy.
During the creative process, are you ever thinking about how fans or listeners will interpret that? Or are you purely looking inwardly? Additionally – do you know whether that would resonate with enough people and become a single?
Most of it will be introspective and just like writing a song. I think there was one song on the last record that I actually did think about for the live gigs because I do have a lot of ballads. I noticed that sometimes if I was doing like a festival and I went down after like Stormzy or somebody that was just crazy energetic and it’d be a bit strange. I found that I really wanted to have more like bangers in the set that would get people going and get them all riled up.
So the only one I really did for that was for was the track “Only Ticket Home,” which is the last song on the album. It’s pretty much like an Irish ballad but it just goes absolutely apeshit in the chorus. When we do it for gigs, I think it lasts for 15 minutes. Literally it’s like three chords for 15 minutes.
At the 3Arena, there’s a video where I ran from the stage to the back balconies which is mad because it’s obviously huge. I run right back to the end to another B stage and then got everyone down to jump up. Then I actually got lost as I rang to the stage because it’s a very big confusing arena. I couldn’t find the stairs that lead back to the stage. It took me like five minutes to get back whereas it took me 35 seconds to get there.
Your last album starts with “Start Again” and ends with “Last Year.” How did you decide to bookmark the album in that way?
For me, “Start Again” was always the start of the second album just because of the way it feels and the way it’s like a punch in the face when it starts. I started most of the gigs with that because it’s like punchy and then it goes straight in then it builds then it goes into “Always”, where there’s a bit of drop.
I treated every album as a setlist, to be honest, and with my third album, it’ll be the same. As a kid, I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam. On their albums, they always seem to have really high energy, kind of low energy, middle energy, high energy, high energy, and finally low energy. I took a lot from that.
“Last Year” was actually the last song I recorded on the album, and it was the last thing we did on the whole thing. It’s live and we had this version where I kind of walkout and close the door. We didn’t keep on the album. I don’t know why we didn’t keep it on the album; I think we just kind of chopped it by accident.
I feel people are so passionate about your songs and quickly attribute their own meanings to them. Are you ever wary of explaining a songs’ origin and meanings? In the sense that it might influence sometimes interpretation.
Yeah, sometimes. I never really liked describing the meaning of “Always.” For me, it describes something very personal in my life, which I don’t mind talking about. But for somebody else, it could mean something totally different because the song is universal lyrically. The whole song just means losing somebody in general and there are so many different ways that people can experience a loss.
When you were getting started with music, was there was an external sign or an internal realization that this could be a career?
When I was 13, I was in a band and I was in a battle of the bands and all that stuff that everybody does when they’re 13. I always knew I wanted to do it anyway. So, when I knew I wanted to be in music so school was very secondary to me. I didn’t do anything in school. I was really bad. Like, I sucked. The only things I was good at were History and English, in everything else I was dogshite.
Dublin is a great place to be if you’re playing music. When I was in my last year of school I was doing about eight gigs a week in Temple Bar so I was making enough money to kind of look after myself. When I was making even that little bit of money from music, I was so happy. Whether I was doing that or teaching people, I always knew I was going to do music in some way, I guess. Obviously, nobody plans to do it on like a broader scale. Like I never thought I’d be doing fucking 3 Arena.
I was always just learning of people and asking them for gigs as well. I used to and still do hang out with the Kodaline boys all the time. Even when I was like going to pubs with all these bands in Ireland who were doing amazing and I was just playing pubs at the time, I’d ask them for gigs. Ireland’s an amazing place for that.
I think the fact that I decided to stay here, I think was a good shout as well. I moved to London when everything was kind of going alright. So, I moved to London, like, possibly three years later I should have done but I would have been a very, very small fish in a massive pond.
In terms of expectations you put on yourself, do you ever feel sort of pressure or expectation externally to emulate the DNA of previous albums that you’ve been successful with?
I think so. I think other people probably feel that. I never do; I just write and see what happens. Like “Boxes” is so far away from everything else I’ve ever done anything I’ve ever done. It just sounds a lot different. Sometimes when you release something you can get worried that you’re going to alienate some of your fanbase, but I think a good song is a good song. So I was just trying to write a good song. If I’m ever unsure of what I’m doing or if it’s a bit naff then it won’t make any album. I always just try to be honest. I always try to have one lyric that stands out in a song.
Every time I find a song that doesn’t have that I’m like “fuck I need to find that tiny lyric.” The rest of it can be simple and I’ve never aspired to be like really clever with big words and stuff like that.
The production embodied within your songs always perfectly complements the track’s lyrical sentiment. I think one of my favorite examples of that is “Easy,” I love the buoyance to that track. Could you tell us about the process of crafting production to elevate the song’s impact?
That one I wrote with Mark from Kodaline and Corey Sanders. Corey is amazing, he releases music under the name of Dirty Blond and he’s incredible. He’s from Wales and we were just really drunk in London and we wrote the song really quickly.
We recorded it like two days after that after the hangover was gone. It’s such a happy song. I hadn’t really released like a really happy song before and even production-wise; it’s so happy. My mate Ollie Green produced that song and the whole second album. It was just me and him in a room for like two months. There was never anyone telling us what to do.
Ollie’s got like crazy ears and his music knowledge goes from a certain time to like current music. But my knowledge goes like way back so I’m bringing in like a Paul McCartney-esque bass and he’s just like “what the fuck?” But like sonically the two of us together just blend very well. I’ve worked with him on most of the third album as well because he’s just class. We’re totally different people but we just get on so well.
Since you first released music back in 2016, what do you think are the biggest changes you’ve gone through as an artist?
I think I just stopped stressing out about it. I’m much more chill than I was for the first album. At the time everything was brand new I was just hoping things would work. But now I don’t really stress too much about it. I just kind of do it and then hope things just work. And if they don’t work, I’ll just do it again.
Then if they don’t work, usually they will work in another way. Like they’ll work in a gig. There are a lot of songs on the second album that were released, that didn’t necessarily do as well as “Always” or “Hearts on Fire.” But at gigs, they’re actually the songs that people are singing louder than they do the other ones. Over the years, I’ve never looked at anybody else’s career and just focused on my own. Since I was a kid, my dad always said never look at anybody else, just do your own thing. Some artists might be like, why is this artist doing this? Or why is this artist more successful? It’s better to just focus on yourself.
Are there any new artists you’d recommend? I saw your cover of Luz’s track “I’m Lonely”; she’s just incredible
She’s class. She’s the best new person I’ve heard in Ireland in the last couple of years. Other than that, there’s Dirty Blond. Obviously, she’s massive but I’m listening to a lot of Kacey Musgraves. She’s ridiculous. Wild Youth is a band that is absolutely smashing it.
Also, my mate goes by the name SLANG and he’s awesome. I’ve been writing a lot with him recently. I think he first produces everything on a PS1. I don’t know how it works but he got a publishing deal from that. Then he started working with loads of people. He’s crazy good.
Through Alan Walker’s remix of “Always” and that version of “Tired” both of those songs are different from your standard stuff. What’s been the process like behind that?
Originally “Tired” was like a really stripped back ballad, just piano and a couple of guitars. We were trying to figure out the production when the second album was already nearly written, and I didn’t really know what to do with it. I sent it to Alan and he wanted to work on it. When Alan did it he just stripped it back and just put all of his madness on it.
He sent it back to me and I was like this is fucking class. It worked out perfectly because it wasn’t a song, I necessarily knew what to do with production-wise. I thought I had enough ballads. Obviously, he turned it into like not a ballad at all. He just turned it into a big fucking dance banger.
After “Tired,” he was like if you’ve got anything else please just sent it over. I held off sending anything until I had a song, I really wanted him to work on and “Always” was that one. He’s just a genius; I don’t know how he does it.
When I was working on the second album, I was trying to find more like “Hearts On Fire” kind of songs. My brain was just muffled by all the songs I’d written at that point and it was so refreshing to hear Alan’s version. Then when we went back to America, we were twisted in Vegas and we heard “Tired” in like every casino we went in to. That felt like a full circle thing because we were actually in America when we trying to get him to work on the song.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to?
At the start of all this, it was a pint. But now it’s more that I just want to go places. First of all, I want to go to my mom and dad’s and have a barbecue or something like that.
I think I just want to go places and travel and do gigs. I kind of want to just do a big, stupid 75-year tour after all this. My crew has been waiting for 10 years, so it’s really shit time for them. There’s literally no work at all. They’re all my best buddies. Like you can’t be with someone that long and not be like best friends. I’ll make sure as many gigs as possible to kind of get everybody back on their feet a bit.