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James McVey

The Brit-pop mainstay talks new solo music, vocal issues, and rediscovering his songwriting roots

“I’m very lucky that I’ve got the machine… the monster of The Vamps on one side, but that poses me with a really exciting yet difficult challenge to be like, ‘Actually, this is who I am,” said James McVey, the longtime guitarist and founding member of British band The Vamps currently in the midst of his first release cycle of original music.

“I love The Vamps… we’re going to do more, and that’s brilliant. But, alongside that, this is what I want to say as a musician. It’s just about knowing that there are going to be some people that are like, ‘Alright, that’s weird… I’m not interested.’ Other people are going to be like, ‘He must be trying to do something so far away from The Vamps because he’s scared to draw comparisons.’ With me, it’s a complete blank page. Especially not signing a record deal and doing it on my own. Now, at the age of 30, it’s almost like I’m 16-year-old James again having to knock on doors and be like, ‘Hey, I’m an artist. Listen to my music.’”

McVey’s first single, “Dancing On The Head Of A Needle,” was released mid-August while his second release, “Blood and Bones,” is out now. Both tracks and the entirety of his upcoming EP Manabi, set for release on November 10th, are far from the infectious electro-pop he has sold out arenas around the world with his band for the last decade. These tunes are pure singer-songwriter fare. Stripped-back and bare bones. Nowhere to hide.

Vocal Issues 

Six months ago, even the thought of demoing a song for this project was out of the question for McVey due to ongoing vocal issues. “It was a blissful ignorance over the last 10 years,” he said, expanding on his social media posts on the subject. “I thought, ‘I don’t need to warm up for any of these shows,’ and more importantly, ‘I don’t need to warm down.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I could drink all through the shows. I can smoke weed if I want to. Great! Cool.’”

That “blissful ignorance,” which mostly stemmed from the idea that he was “only doing harmonies” to Brad Simpson’s lead vocal, was a major aspect of his downfall. Then, it became a health issue. “I got sick while I was on tour with the band in the UK, and I had it for three weeks,” he said. “I was going onstage and singing, pushing through it. After Christmas, we had a block of three months which was solid touring. Very rigorous schedule. I didn’t have time to rest my voice properly.”

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After the tour, he decided to go and get a vocal scan for the first time in about 10 years. The results were not glamorous. “It wasn’t worst-case-scenario, but the guy said, ‘Look, you’ve got a poll up on your vocal fold. Absolutely no singing and I wouldn’t be talking either. You probably need surgery, but let’s see how you get on,’” he explained. “It was the first sign that there was a degree of fragility with that part of my life. Mentally and physically, it has been a really bizarre journey. But, having that forced period of contemplation and pause really helped me.” The music coming from him now was created under extenuating circumstances and is the result of an artist backed against a wall but still needing to produce art. After a successful surgery and rehabilitation period, McVey is back stronger than ever.

New Music 

“’Dancing On The Head Of A Needle’ is almost an apology to myself, but also to the people I was around late last year,” he said, on his first dose of new material. “I’ve had friends that have gone through some really hard shit over the last year, and I don’t feel like I was a lighthouse for them. I was so unreachable… to my wife, my friends, my family, and I now see that.” The tune is honest and forthright… emotionally, full of regret, and personally, full of fear. Like learning to ride a bike again: “I got so restless in my head / Those thunder clouds were closing in and who was I? Still not quite sure and laugh or cry, pray or sin / My beating heart was linen thin.”

On his newest tune, “Blood and Bones,” the training wheels are off. McVey’s mid-range belt register and gorgeous, floaty falsetto are all over it, sounding carefully refined yet strong: “After all… you’re the earth and sun / The fire and snow / You are my true conviction / After all… you’re the wind that blows down the road I chose / You’re my blood and bones / That’s all I know.” He sings the first two choruses down in his baritone, then impressively jumps the octave at the final go-around.

Finding His Way To Manabi 

Manabi is McVey’s journey back to his musical beginnings. An appropriate concept, as manabi is Japanese for “education, study, learn.” He worked on the project with Amy Wadge, known for Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” Alex Stacey, whose credits include Ella Henderson and Donny Osmond, and James Welsh of Brit-pop band Starsailor.

“With the writing process of this EP, I thought, ‘Where did songwriting truly begin?,’ he quipped. “’Where was that musical innocence?’ ‘When was the first time I heard something and thought it was interesting?’ I think it was, probably, at age 11 or 12 listening to Damian Rice. I didn’t understand it… it took me a long time to truly listen to a full Damian record. There’s a song called ‘Cold Water.’ It kind of scared me, but it blew my mind. When I came around to this project, I was like, ‘This is where songwriting truly captivated me. Let’s go back to that.’”

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With Rice as a guide, McVey is allowing himself to be as vulnerable and exposed as an artist can be. “Dancing…” and “Blood and Bones” only scratch the surface of the experiment. Other tracks, soon to come, round out what is truly an exceptional piece of music by an artist who has achieved the kind of professional success only few will come close to, but is still driven enough to further his artistic journey beyond what is safe and normal for him.

Taking The Stage 

To celebrate the release of the EP, McVey will be playing a show at London’s Hoxton Hall on November 10th alongside American rocker Patrick Droney and fellow Brit James TW. The show will be in support of Mind Charity, the most prolific mental health charity in the UK.

Tickets for the Mind Charity event are extremely limited and on sale now.