Artist Interview: James Walker

Ian Wallman

Starting out as a session musician who performed on the piano for other artists, James Walker began his journey of becoming a solo artist with his debut EP Modern Medicine in 2016. After a year long battle with a rare heart condition and undergoing major surgery, Walker now writes with new opened eyes and music that reflects on his new perspective. The British singer-songwriter brings with him his first full-length album English Bones which is sure to pull on your heart-strings.

First we’d like to start by getting to know you a little better. Tell us a little about how you
became interested in music, and when you decided you wanted to take part in the
industry.

My first experiences in music were given to me by my grandma, Maggie, and my immediate
family – they got me into playing the piano at a very young age, and I’m incredibly happy that
they did so. Over my developmental years, I was always encouraged to perform and play as
much as I could, and coming from such a nurturing environment lead to my desire to perform as
much as possible now. There’s something so special about creating an emotional connection
with an audience, being able to invest in each others’ feelings for the duration of an evening is
something that I truly value.

For me, I’ve always been interested in the idea of music as an emotional catalyst; for both the
audience and the artist across any genre. I feel like there are shows that I’ve been to, whether a
Damien Rice performance or an Opeth concert, in which the act on stage and the audience
leave the room with a sense that we’ve been through something together.
Personally, I was inspired from seeing the likes of David Bazan, Kevin Devine & Noah
Gundersen travelling and performing in people’s living rooms, and recognised that it was such a
special way of connecting with an audience. Seeing artists perform in such a small environment,
and seeing the emotional impact they made on others made me want to be a part of the industry myself.

You’ve shared a lot about your personal experience with battling a rare heart condition
and going through major surgery. I’m guessing you had to put your music to a halt while
going through all of this. What was the transition like stepping back into music during/
after recovery?

It was an incredibly tough time. I was diagnosed at 14 with a condition called CTEPH (chronic
thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension), and have had two major open heart surgeries to cure it. The last surgery was performed at the magnificent Papworth hospital in the UK, which is one
of only a handful of centres who can perform a thromboendarterectomy, and the results were
curative; I now have a normal life expectancy and exercise tolerance, which I am incredibly
thankful for.

In terms of music creation, at this point I wasn’t a ‘solo artist’, as such, but just the piano player
for a few other artists. I was touring a lot with Adam Barnes as his piano player at this time, and
was inspired to try writing my own material around the time I recieved the news that I had to
have my second surgery. I wrote lots of journals at this time, but I felt rushed. I felt like I needed
to write about the news that I was receiving, and I wanted to share my perspective on illness
and mortality. There were no songs of my own that came out of this period, but I hope that one
day I can sit down and confront these feelings and write a few songs about them.

Now that you have a different perspective after these major changes, what advice can
you give to others who are interested in becoming a musician?

Be you. The most important thing that you can do is understand yourself, and to write from a
genuine place. Don’t write songs that you think will do well, or that you want to hear on the
radio. If you’re trying to be someone else, that person is already doing it better than you. Write
songs that reflect your innermost feelings. Don’t stress about social media statistics; music is
not good by virtue of how many plays it receives but by how genuine it is. Be understanding of
others’ craft; people will like you more as an artist if you take time to be patient, and to listen to
what they have to say. Wear sunscreen.

You started out as a session musician, performing on the piano for numerous touring
artist’s. Are there any other instruments that you typically play or explore with?

I love keyboards in all forms; there are a lot of pads, nords, e piano, wurlitzers, etc, on the new
record. I also play the guitar, both electric and acoustic, as well as various percussion parts on
these tracks. It’s been a lot of fun to experiment with different amp/cab setups, and a whole host of pedals. Vocal processing is also of great interest to me; I love some of the work that Cataldo
has done on their latest release, tonnes of slapback, compression and a really unique sound.

Last year you performed as a solo artist for the first time while touring throughout the UK
and the US. Tell us how this experience has compared to your past experiences as a
performing session musician with other artists?

Truthfully, it was a big learning curve. The first few shows were a blast, as my friend Adam
Barnes (who I play session piano for) had asked if I wanted to open up some of the shows on
his tour. They were lovely, intimate, sit-down rooms of around 200 people, who were all
incredibly appreciative of our music. I came to realise that this is a rarity. When I was playing my
own first shows I experienced the opposite – loud, unappreciative bars, filled with people who
treated my songs as background music. To begin with, I took it very personally, and took to heart feelings like, ‘they’re not listening to my – my music must suck’, and found myself slipping into a
very negative headspace.

This all eventually changed, and I’m still working on it through performing more and more. I’ve
met people who have enabled me to play some lovely events. Over the past year, I’ve been
spending time performing with Judy Blank from the Netherlands and with Matt Phillips from NC,
USA. They are both incredible musicians, and also wonderful people. It’s a joy to travel around
performing with them, and dipping into each others’ networks has enabled us to book lengthy
tour runs together all over. We’ve actually just got back home from the Horizontoer, on the
Wadden Islands in the Netherlands, on which we were booked by Judy. We travelled between
the islands on 150 year old pirate boats, performing in popup venues all around the cities on the
islands, and living in close quarters with other artists. It was truly a special experience, and
something I’ll remember for a long time.
The shows that we play now are mostly well-attended, quiet, lovely events. We’re hoping that
this continues, and that in time, more people will start to come to listen to us play too.

This is your first full-length release. Tell us a little bit about the album and some major
influences behind it.

It is my first full-length, and that scares me a little bit!
English Bones is a collection of songs that tackles not only a lot of personal issues I’ve been
through, but also some conceptual ideas. Lullaby, for example, is a song written from the
perspective of my mother looking over my bed in the ICU. Casanovas, on the other hand, is
about celebrity stalkers sung from the perspective of the stalker themselves.

What was the writing process was like for English Bones, as well as working with Sam
Winfield? Did you ever struggle with writer’s-block or was this something that came
naturally?

The writing process was quite lengthy, with the record taking me around a year to write. The
songs all came from various places of introspection; on my health, on my relationships, on
ideas/concepts not related to any of that. Sam Winfield really helped shape my ideas into
something so much more. He really is an incredible producer; these songs are the best that they
can be because of him. The recording process was so enjoyable, and seeing these songs come
together was nothing but rewarding.

Which track are you most excited to share with your listeners?

Releasing Weathered has been a joy; the responses from blogs, my friends, and live audiences
has been incredible. It was an incredibly cathartic song to write, and seeing that energy
absorbed by people all over the world is a phenomenal feeling. I’m also really looking forward to
releasing 2009, which features me on the electric guitar, too. Lots of fun.

It’s no doubt that English bones will tug on the heart-strings of those that listen. What do
you hope your audience will take from this album?

I feel as though there are lot of different feelings that I’ve explored on this record, so I’m not
hoping for a specific takeaway but rather that the audience comes on a journey with me
throughout the record. I want this record to reach out to those who need it most; all I can truly
ask from the audience is that they listen in & form their own judgements. That’s the thing about
introspective records like this – to me they’re just an open door into someone else’s headspace,
for the audience to make of it what they will. I hope that people find something they can relate
to.

You’re currently touring across Europe throughout August and September. How is the
road treating you so far? Any specific spot you’re looking forward to visiting?

The road has been great thus far; I’ve actually just got back from the Horizontoer in Holland,
which is a run of shows on the Wadden Islands. It’s a little bit like a travelling SXSW, all of the
venues on the islands are turned into performance spaces for artists; whether theatre or music.
The artists travel between the islands on 150 year old pirate ships, which they also all sleep on
in super close proximity. The shows were so well attended and incredibly well recieved, and it
was a true joy to be performing alongside some great artists.

We’re currently in the UK, playing across most major cities in small cafés, venues or living
rooms. The UK is always a lot tougher for me to perform in, despite being from here, because I
feel as though I’m just lost in the static. Everyone from the UK is a British artist; the novelty of
‘being from the UK’ doesn’t exist here in the same way that it does in mainland Europe.
Performing over there always bring a larger, more quiet & appreciative audience, because I’m
seen as something rarer. I mostly enjoy performing in Holland and Germany for this reason; the
people are accepting, wonderful hosts and great fun.

I’m very much looking forward to performing in Austria later on in September. This is the first
time I’ve performed there as a solo artist in venues, so I’m a little apprehensive, but very excited
to reconnect with some contacts and see some beautiful cities. Perhaps most exciting for us though is the prospect of having three days off in the Kleinmachnow/Berlin area; we’re planning on being tourists in the city for one day, hanging with friends the next, and going to Europe’s biggest waterpark (Tropical Islands) on the last. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to visit since seeing Casey Neistat’s video on it, and I didn’t realise that it was so close! So that’s something that we’re looking forward to for sure.

[tw-toggle title=”Tour Dates”]

23/08 – The Tasting House, Reading (UK)
24/08 – Caffeine & Cocktails, Reading (UK)
25/08 – House Concert, Goring Heath (UK)
29/08 – House Concert, Reading (UK)
30/08 – Latest Music Bar, Brighton (UK)
31/08 – The Library, Oxford (UK)
01/09 – Schenkers, Apeldoorn (NL)
02/09 – House Concert, Hoofddorp (NL)
03/09 – Werk aan het Spoel, Culemborg (NL)

04/09 – House Concert, Haarlem (NL)
05/09 – De Nieuwe Anita PM, Amsterdam (NL)
07/09 – Club Move, Barneveld (NL)
08/09 – Tee de Cologne, Köln (DE)
09/09 – Cowhide House Concert, Frankfurt (DE)
10/09 – Xinix, Nieuwendijk (NL)
15/09 – House Concert, Dobl (AT)
16/09 – House Concert, Linz (AT)
17/09 – Tunnel, Vienna (AT)
19/09 – KaffeeWerk, Passau (DE)
20/09 – Frankfurt International School Auditorium, Frankfurt (DE)
21/09 – House Concert, Heidelberg (DE)
23/09 – House Concert, Berlin (DE)
26/09 – House Concert, Hamburg (DE)
27/09 – Tonfink, Lübeck (DE)
29/09 – Villa Basta, Hasselt (BE)
30/09 – House Concert, Wantage (UK)
[/tw-toggle]

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