James Arthur on his new, rock-edged album and sound: "The challenge is - can I have a hit song and not repeat myself?"
James Arthur's newest album It'll All Makes Sense In The End (out Friday November 5) is, as he will tell you, his most personal work to date.
Backed by its apocalyptic front cover - where James can be seen with a younger version of himself - it's no wonder that the music sprung out of an intensive 3-month period of writing and reflection during lockdown last year.
We hopped on Zoom to chat with James about the new album, what inspired him to dive into a new sound powered by hard-edged rock and trap beats, and the challenges of achieving a world-mauling, career-defining hit like the UK Number 1 single Say You Won't Let Go.
Hi James! It'll All Makes Sense In The End is a bold title - what did you manage to make sense of?
It's the mantra of how I'm trying to live my life now. I've lived a lot of my life trying to control things in a way that's unhealthy for me. I think the best advice you can give anyone who suffers from anxiety is just to control the things you can control. It's something I would tell my younger self, which is why I put the image of me talking to myself as a kid on the front of the album.
So you're looking backward, but also looking forwards. The song Emily is named for your future daughter; how did you find yourself in that mindset?
Emily was a moment in time. It was a very intense period of three months or so of just writing songs. That was like a form of therapy for me. Like everyone [in lockdown] I was forced to reflect and that made my mental health go a bit sideways. Making music was the only way to get through it.
You've said in the past you really want to change people's perception that you only make ballads. This album is a lot more heavy on guitars, and even trap and rap music, did you really try to push forward with a new sound?
I purposefully didn't put any ballads or pianos on the album. I definitely pushed it. The core of this record is all rock guitars, basically to the point where they maybe weren't needed - I just crowbarred them in. I don't want to repeat myself and do Say You Won't Let Go again.
Speaking of! Say You Won't Let Go was a massive hit worldwide for you, what kind of position does that put you in to follow it up? Is there any pressure - or have you let go of trying to top it?
It's a blessing and a curse. It changed my life, it actually saved my life, but it being so big...it outweighs everything else I've done. It's just ridiculous [the number of streams the song gets], it's never left the Top 200 on Spotify. Every time I release a new song, it manages to boost [Say You Won't Let Go] back up. But now the challenge is - can I have a hit song that does those kinds of numbers but not repeat myself? People think I'm this emotional, acoustic balladeer! Not to take myself too seriously, but I think I'm pretty versatile.
It's also a great time to be releasing emo-rock-pop again right now. It's coming back in a big way thanks to Yungblud, Machine Gun Kelly, Willow Smith...
I love that, and that was actually one of the inspirations for this record. There's no one more emo than me or my big sister. We've been listening to that music since we were kids. I made that music when I was a teenager. I love bands like Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. I feel like I can offer something in that realm.
With this album almost taking you back to basics to the sound you were experimenting with when you auditioned for The X Factor, what's next for you?
I'm really motivated to put out another record. 100% just me, locking myself away. No producers, no top lines. I love making music with my mates, but I'll be really interested to see what I can achieve from start to finish across 12 tracks. I think I've paid my dues. I've worked with your Max Martins and your Ryan Tedders, I feel like I can step out on my own now, production-wise. I think the next one will be my...what's that word? For a defining piece of work?
Yeah. that's the one. My magnum opus!
It'll All Make Sense In The End is out November 5 via Columbia.