James Arthur: ‘I got quite good at kidding on that I was all right’

Dressed in black and sporting a baseball cap, James Arthur cuts a quietly introspective figure as he discusses how events of the past 18 months have inspired his fourth album.

James Arthur. Picture: Josh Exell
James Arthur. Picture: Josh Exell

The record, whose title is still under wraps, has been preceded by two singles signalling a change in musical direction from ballads such as Say You Won’t Let Go, for which is best known, towards a more guitar-based mixture of rock, trap, hip-hop and pop.

Speaking on Zoom the 33-year-old singer says the raw honesty of lead track Medicine – which includes the lines: “When I’m suicidal/Don’t let me spiral” – is representative of the way he has been feeling since the start of last year.

“I always try to make my music as autobiographical and honest as I can. I also want to make music that helps people or is for the nourishment of other people, if you like, so yes, I think (Medicine) had all of those ingredients and I suppose I’m always striving for that, to say something real that people can relate to, and also put a bit of myself in there as well.”

Shortly before the pandemic began Arthur had suffered a panic attack while performing onstage in Madrid. The next day in Switzerland he was diagnosed with a gall bladder infection.

The incident proved a sharp wake-up call about the state of his physical and mental health, he says. “I thought I was coping all right, but I think like a lot of people, we don’t realise quite how stressed out we are until our bodies or our own minds tell us. Ultimately you get sick and that’s what happened to me. It was a rough time, but I managed to get to the other side and grow from that situation.”

When he came home, Arthur was put on medication and began practising cognitive behavioural therapy. As he looks back on the past decade since he was projected to stardom via the TV talent show X Factor, he recognises there were longstanding problems that he needed to address.

“I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m someone who struggles with social anxiety and depression and mental health issues,” he says. “I think that particular episode was the catalyst. I’ve been doing work ever since with cognitive behavioural therapy and various other things.

James Arthur. Picture: Josh Exell

“There are a lot of things I need to do in order to stay on the right path, and I accept that and I’m doing my best.”

While growing up in places such as Redcar, Brotton and Saltburn, he had masked his vulnerable side. “I certainly feel there’s a culture in that area – and probably in a lot of areas in England – of machismo,” he says. “It’s quite a deprived area and blokes are very blokey and talking about your feelings it definitely had a lot more of stigma attached to it than it does now.

“I definitely didn’t feel comfortable speaking about mental health issues. I internalised a lot of things, probably due to the culture and the working class attitude around there. People were always like ‘sort yourself out, keep your chin up’ kind of thing. There’s not really a lot else is there, unless you seek professional help.”

After winning X Factor in 2012, the early part of Arthur’s career was not without controversies and clashes with his then label, Syco. The singer says he’d initially been wary of seeking support, but found it was there within the industry when he asked for it.

“I don’t know about other people’s experiences of the industry, but I think it really starts with me,” he says. “There are people around me that wouldn’t have suspected I was going through anything. Coming from the sort of area that I do, and the upbringing that I had, I got quite good at kidding on that I was all right. Once I did speak up the support was there, certainly from my team around me, my record label and things like that.”

Arthur feels the enforced layoff during lockdown gave him “an opportunity to reflect” on his life and career. “I’ve been in the thick of it for the best part of 10 years, just constantly going and going. I’m not one to sit back and take stock or to really reflect too much, and of course we were forced to do that. We all had a mirror held up to us as a society and we had to figure things out. There wasn’t much else to do. Even though there was a lot of uncertainty going on, it was a really helpful period of time for me.”

After a couple of months unwinding playing football video games, he decided to set up a studio at home. Within two months he had written 50 songs. “It was like this pent-up creative energy that was there,” he says. “As soon as I got in a room with a producer, the songs just started to pour out. Medicine, in fact, was the first song.

“I hadn’t written very much in a couple of months and I thought it was time to get it together. I’d got all this time so I thought I may as well try and make an album.”

Songwriting became an additional form of therapy, he says, adding: “I was doing some talking therapy but it actually made me realise how important music is to me because when I started doing that, it certainly felt very therapeutic. I’m really just documenting a lot of what I was going through on that album.”

He feels he has developed more an artist through the process of self-examination. “I can really hear the growth on this album,” he says. “It’s definitely much more coherent than other albums in terms of the sonics. As I’ve got older and as I’ve grown as a person, I think the songwriting has improved massively.”

Listeners will get another flavour of the new material with the single September, out on June 11. “It’s another one of those (like) Say You Won’t Let Go, which was a song talking about starting a family and romanticising about those kinds of things, having kids and being married which is not where I am, but I’m creating a story for the nourishment of other people. It’s a bit of a love story which is again drawn from some of my life but some of it’s fiction, invented for the listener.”

The album, which is due out in September, will, he hopes, shakesome people’s preconceptions of him as a balladeer. “Once you’ve been put in a box it’s very difficult to get out of it, especially in the music industry,” he says. “Anyone who’s a real fan of me or comes to one of my shows knows that there’s a lot of different styles...but when you have a global hit that is an acoustic ballad, it feels like I’ve been in the shadow of that for a little while. The radio stations may not add a song like Medicine (to their playlists) or even a song like September, which is a little bit more rocky, a bit more electric guitar-based, a band feeling, which is ultimately where my heart lies – I came from being in rock bands. And doing a bit of rapping.

“Unless I’m doing the acoustic love song it’s hard to get the industry on board. I think for me the challenge is making the transitions stylistically but keeping the essence of the stuff that people like. I actually think September strikes that balance really well.”

Arthur intends to play a few festivals this summer, with a UK tour planned for 2022. Given all he has been through in the past year and a half, he says he will “definitely” enjoy touring more. “Having the opportunity to hone my skills as a producer and as a musician and a writer makes more excited about getting out on the road,” he says. “I’m a bit more familiar with the tech side of things, stuff that I maybe struggled with on tour before. I was in rehearsals the other week and I was like, ‘Could we try a different lead?’ because I know about these things now. It’s been a tough year for a lot of people, and myself, but I’ve also learned a lot and picked up a lot of skills that I can take with me in my career now.”

James Arthur’s new single, September, is out on Friday June 11. www.jamesarthurofficial.com