Streaming sensation James TW discusses his highly anticipated debut album ‘Chapters’, his inspirations, touring, and more!
For a lot of artists, a hit as big as “When You Love Someone” would undoubtably lead to an uninspired debut album, needlessly rushed to capitalise on the single’s colossal success.
Not for James TW. Arriving three years after “When You Love Someone,” Chapters (April 26, 2019 via Island Records) serves as a stunning showcase of the artist’s knack for crafting ardently affecting tracks.
With that passionate lyricism and the effortlessly slick production he masterfully employs, James TW manages to perfectly capture big, emotional moments with an incredible amount of authentic detail. Chapters is front-loaded with singles, but it’s towards the end of the album where James’ unique talent really shines. The album’s penimulate track “If I Didn’t Tell You” pairs an undeniably catchy chorus with wistfully romantic, longing lyricism beautifully embodying an overwhelmingly romantic lyrical sentiment.
Another highlight on Chapters is the phenomenal track “Big Picture,” which serves as the perfect antidote to bewilderingly perplexing anxiety and doubt. While his vocals for the most part are brilliantly buoyant, the underlying struggle to find the positivity in the midst of deafening doubt is still easily evident. While the album as a whole is delightfully cohesive, James’ unparalleled knack for storytelling makes every single song a uniquely compelling listen.
Atwood Magazine spoke to James TW to discuss his highly anticipated debut album Chapters, his inspirations, and more!
Listen: Chapters – James TW
:: A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES TW ::
Atwood Magazine: First of all, congrats on the album! It’s awesome. How does it feel to finally have it out?
James TW: It feels very surreal. I signed a record deal when I was 17 and I’m 21 now. So when you sign that deal I think there’s this kind of naivety where you really think you’re just going to write 12 songs and release them. When really, for something as big as that, you have to really work on it for a long time, especially because I was so young. It feels like it’s been a long time coming but it’s just everything I want it to be and I’m just very proud of it.
The album combines both new and old songs. Was it a difficult choice to decide which ones made it on the album?
James TW: It was definitely difficult because there were these songs that kind of stuck around, despite us releasing new stuff, that was still kind of popular- some of the most popular songs of mine I’d released. With the album, you kind of want to please the people but you equally want to make the album that you want to make and you want to give them enough new stuff. So it was a tricky decision. But, you know, I think every artist has to make those choices. Especially nowadays as artists write so many different songs just to put 12 on an album so I was in the same position as everyone really but I’m glad about the choices we made.
I really love the sentiment of “Big Picture”, which sort of sees you appreciating what you have not and letting your struggles consume you. How did that track come to be?
James TW: I’m glad you like that song. That was a very kind of late entry to the whole album. I kind of felt like I’d written everything I wanted to write and was running out of ideas. With that one, all I really had to do was to think about what I was going through at the time. I was being so caught up in, like, whether the album is gonna do well and kind of stressing myself out when really, it was completely out of my control. You know, all I could do is write the best songs I could and surround myself with the best people.
How do you find that process of trying to see the big picture?
James TW: I find it difficult to do that but I guess that’s why I wrote the song. If I didn’t find it difficult then it wouldn’t have been something that I felt the need to write about. Yeah so I definitely struggle with it the same as other people do.
How was the process of crafting this album different to your last EP First Impressions? Have you noticed any major changes in yourself and the industry since the release?
James TW: Definitely. I mean, for the EP at that point, I’d been signed for a year and I was kind of just picking from the first years’ worth of songs that I’d written kind of professionally. By that I mean like co-writing, when I was signed, I’ve never written with anyone else before. So the EP was my first experience of co-writing and sharing my kind of art with other people to work on.
In between the EP and the album, I got to try making so many different types of music because I’m so inspired by so many different styles, whether it’s soul music, a bit of R&B, and jazz. I wrote a bunch of songs that definitely wouldn’t make sense on the album. I did that so I could kind of get them out of my system and to make sure that they didn’t work. I got to do a massive exploratory phase and then kind of came all the way back around to choosing the acoustic singer-songwriter kind of stuff which felt like the most me. But yeah, there was a huge amount of time where I was able to experiment.
Your album feels like a long time coming. Why does now feel like the right time to release your debut album?
James TW: Well, I think because I felt like we had enough of a following now, where the album would be heard by a good amount of people. In the beginning, most artists don’t release albums, not because they don’t want to but just because it’s not the right time to do that. You kind of have to build a following and I did that through supporting people on tour. Obviously releasing my own stuff and getting added to playlists and people becoming more aware of my music too, so it felt like the right time in that respect. I also just felt like we had 12 really solid songs. I had no regrets when this came out and I don’t now.
You’ve supported Shawn Mendes multiple times and you’re about to support Dean Lewis. Does it feel different as a performer to support rather than headline?
James TW: It’s definitely different. Obviously, you know, each support show is going to have a different crowd, it’s going to have a different demographic. Sometimes I feel it’s beneficial for me to slightly change the set, whether it’s whatever the cover song I’m playing is might work better for that audience or there’s certain things that I know the audience will pick up on that I can do more or less of. There are little things like that I change. It’s very different from a headline as you know they’re all coming after you and when you’re supporting, you’re trying to win people over.
Going off of that: With headline shows, do you ever feel any pressure knowing that so many people have come just to see you?
James TW: Definitely. I feel it’s kind of my responsibility that they all go home and they feel that they had a great time and it was the best season they could have had. I definitely feel that with a headline show versus supporting but it’s way more rewarding as well. Because you know that every single person that bought a ticket wants to spend their evening watching or listening to your music. So that is kind of a toss up between the two different things.
You supported Shawn Mendes on a whole string of dates. What’s the biggest thing you think you learnt from him as an artist and performer?
James TW: One of the things that I say quite a lot because it really, really helped me was that I learned how to kind of speak to an audience. I think when I started supporting him, I didn’t have a lot of experience of playing to big crowds and I’d only played in front of small ones. So I had to be a bit more assertive with what I wanted them to do, whether it’s clap or putting their phones out or singing.
As the opener, I was really scared of offending anyone or coming across as a bit of a dick. Shawn taught me that you can be assertive and you can be confident and, you know, it doesn’t come across in a bad way. So I started to test that throughout shows and I felt more confident at the end of the tour that I could kind of manage a crowd that was quite a rowdy one and still connect with them. So that was the biggest thing I think I learned.
It’s crazy how successful “When You Love Someone” has been. Did you know when you were making the track that it had the potential to be something that would resonate with so many people?
James TW: No. For me, that’s what’s so special about it. When I was 15 or 16 or so I used to teach kids how to play different instruments and there was one little boy that I think he was 11 and I was teaching him drums. His parents were going to get divorced and I found out through my mom, the child didn’t know this was going to happen. So I thought, my god, like that’s such a difficult thing to explain to a kid at that age and in a way that kind of makes sense to them or won’t hurt them. So I literally went into this writing session purely to write a song, this one boy for this kid who I kind of knew from back home. That’s kind of why I think it works because I wasn’t trying to write a song for every child who is going through divorce in the entire world; I just wrote it for one. It was honest and, because of that, it’s resonated with so many more people.
When you’re writing, do you tend to draw inspiration mainly from your own life or other people’s experiences too?
James TW: It’s a mixture. Some of the songs are about people I know. Some of them are about movies or tv shows that I like watching and I kind of write them about the characters. But I would say the majority of them are personal, they’re about what I’m going through. I find it easiest to write a song about yourself because you know exactly how it feels and you’re not trying to kind of sympathize or empathize. But I find it fun to do that and try writing for other people and the last thing I’ll say about it is I don’t have like a crazy, exciting life all the time. You know, I don’t have 100 different things to write about 10 different relationships. You know what I mean? So sometimes I run out of ideas myself and I look to other people’s lives that find inspiration.
When you’re crafting songs, what comes first? Is it the lyricism or production or melody?
James TW: That’s a really good question. It’s kind of different, you know. Today I woke up and just grabbed my guitar and started playing random things and trying to sing random things. The best songs kind of just randomly throw themselves upon you, they want to be written. When I get to sleep at night, sometimes there’s a song that I can feel I’m writing in my head before I fall asleep and I have to get up and write it because I know that is the moment that it should happen. But other times, like today and most of the time, I pick up an instrument- You start playing random chords and you start singing random things, and you might catch on to something that’s special, whether it’s a lyric or a melody, or just kind of groove that feels good. You’re just looking for that, like, initial spark that makes you go ‘oh I want to carry on this idea’ and that can come in any one of those forms.
I love the new track “Incredible.” What’s the story behind that song?
James TW: With “Incredible”, there’s obviously an underlying message of just looking at someone and just being in total awe of how beautiful they are and how stunning they are to you. But really where that song came from was I had a lot going on and I was really busy and traveling so I didn’t really get a lot of time for my relationship. Then when I’d come home, it would be these really short intense periods of time where I was able to spend time with my partner. Then when we would spend that time, there were moments within it where I was just completely shut off from the rest of the world. I would forget about all the things that I had to do and all the things that were coming up or had just happened. I could just literally be there in that moment with that person.
When I could be there and when I could feel that it was one of the best things in the world because there’s always things going on, there’s always things that need to happen. So when you can drop that for a second and just spend time with that person that you love, that’s really where the song came from. I wanted to capture those moments. And, you know, it was kind of a bunch of different evenings that we were able to spend where I could feel like that.
When something emotionally impactful happens, do you feel the need to like immediately write about it or do you take your time to process the situation?
James TW: That’s a good question. Again, it’s kind of different. With some songs, the lyrics are like coming out of you like diarrhoea, you just have to write them down. That’s a really bad analogy but you get what I’m saying. Then other times you’ll get one lyric that you think is a nice idea but you don’t really know how to write a whole song about it so you let it sit. Then over time you think of other little other ones and piece them together.
The album ends with “Right into Your Love.” What was the thought process behind that choice?
James TW: The reason I chose that and I chose the general order of all the songs was because I wanted it to flow and I wanted to come out of incredible and not just throw you into “Big Picture” and for it to be all happy again. So with “Happy For Me”, it has this melancholy intro and kind of slowly builds you back into the tempo.
So I chose to put those two at the end not because I felt like they were the worst songs but just because I felt like they were really nice endings to the album. Those songs are actually some of my favourite ones and it’s been really interesting because obviously I would expect the album’s to be popularity wise and fans listening just kind of 1 to 12 the way it is. So “Right Into Your Love” would technically get listened to the least but that’s not the case at all. It’s kind of all of my friends’ favourite song and it’s been really interesting to see how they resonate with it.
I saw you wrote “If I Didn’t Tell You” with Calum Stewart (JC Stewart) too, whose music I love
James TW: Calum is an insane writer. We did “You & Me” together as well. We’ve done a bunch of other stuff too, he’s super talented. He’s got big things coming for sure.
Speaking about the popularity of tracks, how does it feel to be putting an album out when today’s music landscape has, in some respect, eroded the importance of albums?
James TW: Well, I think streaming definitely encourages people to listen to these kind of songs more singularly and kind of on their own, instead of listening to more of a body of work. Just in general, there’s not an album chart on most streaming services but there is a singles chart so of course you’re going to listen to songs from different people.
But I think what an album enables, like a fan or an audience member to do, is to really invest in more depth of what the artist is. Obviously, there are certain songs that are good for playlists and certain songs that lend themselves to the streaming model. But then there are so many great album songs that maybe don’t get heard as much just because they’re simply not released. What was so nice to me was when my record label said ‘Okay, fine, like, you know, let’s make 12 songs, let’s make an album and put it out.’ That actually opened me up to be able to write songs that I would be afraid to normally write because a lot of the time, you know, it has to be the best song and it has to be the single.
When writing for the album I was able to write about things I maybe wouldn’t have written about because they have to be that front runner. They didn’t have to be the best thing, they just had to be a reflection of my music. That’s why I think it’s so important because it means people can invest more in the artistry and so can the artist themselves.
You’ve got some incredible gigs lined up. What excites you the most about the future and the ways in which you can share your music?
James TW: That’s a good question. I think what excites me the most is getting better as a performer and a songwriter- they’re the two main things I think I have to do in my job and I always get excited by growing in those two ways. I’m excited by what the album could mean. I’m excited to be writing new stuff now as well. You know, I think it’s just about staying inspired and making sure that you’re still doing something that you love and feeding that love and creating that kind of desire to be the best you can be at it. That’s what means the most to me.