Nobody has had a more action-packed 2015 than Gavin James, who talks to Stuart Clark about gigging with Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Kodaline; hitching a ride on One Direction's jet; following in U2 and Frank Sinatra's footsteps and generally having the time of his life!
I thought Ed Sheeran was King of the Bearhuggers but, nope, his pal Gavin James scores even higher on the Squeezeometer. The gusto with which he greets your humble correspondent could have something to do with Gav just hearing that James Corden wants him to fly over to LA and serenade his Late Late Show viewers for the second time in six months. Or maybe it’s the afterglow of having gigged this year with Kodaline, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran. Or being given a lift home to Dublin on One Direction’s private jet by Niall Horan. Or the release this week of his stunning debut studio album, Bitter Pill. Or his sell-out run round Ireland before Christmas. Or... hell, there are dozens of reasons why the 24-year-old should be in super-huggy form.
Cover shoot in Kathrin Baumbach's HP Central lair completed - Gav, it has to be said, gives great pose! - we adjourn to a nearby hostelry where both of us let the rock 'n' roll side down by ordering glasses of fizzy water.
The behaviour was altogether more rock ’n’ roll the last time we met backstage after Gavin had killed Electric Picnic.
“There have been a few gigs this year when I’ve thought, ‘It couldn’t possibly be better than last time’... and then it is!” he beams. “The Picnic was one of those, so celebrations were in order. Another amazing night was opening for Ed in Croke Park. I was absolutely bricking it going on stage - we’re talking almost passing out nerves - but once I got stuck in it was great. Looking out at all those people in such a famous venue was a real moment. Ed made sure we all felt really welcome, and we were in and out of each other’s dressing-rooms.
“Afterwards we ended up at this really cool pub on the northside called The Hacienda, which only opens when the landlord feels like it. Glen Hansard, who I’m a massive, massive fan of, was sitting next to us with a pint and suddenly started playing a song. I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
When I asked Ed about meeting Gavin for the first time at a Jamie Lawson gig in Doyle’s of College Green, Mr. S confided that, “I didn’t understand what he was saying for the first 10 minutes! He talks very fast. He’s such a lovely guy, though."
“Aw man, I sound like a leprechaun on speed,” James chuckles. “If I tell a joke at a gig in the States, I have to repeat it a couple of times before people start laughing. If I’m doing a day’s promo there, I start off in full-on mad Dubliner mode and then gradually slow down in response to all the puzzled ‘What the fuck is he on about?’ looks. I don’t ever want to stop being myself, though.”
Gavin’s first taste of big audiences came courtesy of his Dublin pals Kodaline who invited him to open for them on the first leg of their 2015 North American Tour.
“There were no record companies or management involved,” he recalls. “Steve from Kodaline texted asking, ‘Can you do that tour?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ Before I was allowed on their bus I had to reassure them that I don’t have smelly feet and promise not to poo in the chemical loo, which with the air being recirculated is rule number one of touring. It’s the weirdest thing because I don’t do it anywhere else, but I’ve started talking in my sleep on tour busses. I had a row with somebody who didn’t realise I was asleep and objected to this bullshit nonsense I was spouting!”
That’s going to be my new catch-all excuse: “Sorry I called you a ‘complete bollocks’ the other night but I was asleep at the time.”
“Good luck with that!” he laughs again.
Somnambulant mutterings or not, Kodaline’s Stephen Garrigan was full of post-tour praise for Gavin.
“We’ve never had a band come with us on the bus because it’d just be a nightmare, but with Gav it’s him, a guitar and a suitcase and that’s it!” he enthused to Hot Press. “Gavin goes on, starts singing and within ten seconds the crowd are hooked. He’s got this voice that’s just insane, and absolutely smashed it every night. He’s told us some of the things he’s got coming up and, well, it’s not a case of if but when he cracks the States.”
One of those “things he’s got coming up” was another lengthy run round the US with multiple Grammy-winner and new Bond theme man Sam Smith.
“I used to watch him all the time from the side of the stage; his voice is crazy!” James says of his bequiffed tourmate. “Sam did a little bit of a song that sounded James Bond-y one day at soundcheck, so I had my suspicions! Then he went into a really cool version of ‘My Funny Valentine’ - “You make me smile with my heart/ Your looks are laughable/ Un-photographable/ Yet you’re my favourite work of art” - which was sensational!
“He’s got this piano-player, Ruben James, who’s probably the most talented person I’ve met in my whole life. He learned to play guitar a month before the tour; I’ve been at it 10 years and he absolutely destroyed me. There was this massive end of tour party in Dallas where Sam was singing Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion and, even though there was a decent bit of beer flowing, hit all the high notes.”
It was as Smith’s crowd warmer-upper that Gavin got to play Red Rocks, the legendary outdoor Colorado venue where U2 shot their equally legendary 1983 Under A Blood Red Sky concert film.
“It’s insane that fucking U2 video! Red Rocks is this almost dayglo red colour. We played there the night after Hozier - our tour busses probably passed! - and, I shouldn’t be admitting this, but a bit was loose and I... okay, I stole it and brought it home as a souvenir! Another time in Colorado I went horse-riding in the Rockies. I don’t know if they were trying to be funny, but they gave me a ginger horse and I got mega sunburned. You can tell just from looking at me that I’m not built for heat - although I do love hot sauce. I got some in Denver which was fucking insane!”
Did Gav repeat my awful culinary mistake of ordering the Rocky Mountain Oysters when he was in the Mile High City?
“Bull’s testicles? No, I wouldn’t be into those... even with lots of hot sauce on them! What I forgot to tell you about Red Rocks is that because it’s so high up, and I didn't drink enough water, I got altitude sickness. 20 minutes before the gig I had to get a drip brought in; I couldn’t even stand-up. The problem is my head is massive and I’m the closest thing to the sky!”
While the likes of ‘Coming Home’, ‘For You’ and ‘Hole In My Heart’ are some of the most poignant relationship songs you’re going to hear this or any other year, playing 280-plus gigs in 2015 hasn’t left Gavin with much time for romancing.
“The long-distance thing makes relationships a lot harder,” he rues. “I’ve tried it a couple of times with girls here in Ireland, and eventually being away far more than you’re here becomes a problem. They start wondering, ‘What’s he up to on the road?’ which’d be me if the shoe was on the other foot. I’m in this sort of chilled place at the moment where I’m not bothered if I’m in a relationship or not.”
Despite the marathon promo campaign for Bitter Pill that awaits-“The plan is, ‘Tour, tour some more and then tour again!” - James is eager to be around for a decent chunk of Ireland’s 1916 commemorations, which will have a special resonance for him and his family.
“My Granny’s brother, James Fisher, was one of the youngest people to get executed,” he reflects. “I never really talk about it, but he was only 18 when he was shot. I have the letter at home from him to his Ma, which is the saddest thing ever. He was like, ‘I’m awaiting the supreme penalty, but I’m happy to die because I’m a good Catholic and a soldier of the Irish Republic’. It was insane.”
Asked whether he considers himself to be a political animal, Gavin shakes his head and says, “I don’t delve into that much; it’s not really my place to. I just make music.”
Causing a major viral stir in September was the video for ‘22’, James’ anti-bullying song that’s unfortunately based on personal primary school experience.
“I was totally nervous bringing that one out,” he admits. “All my songs are very personal, but that’s really close to the bone. I had a terrible time in primary because I was shy and ginger and all the other stuff that kids tease you about. I eventually came out of my shell when I was 12 or 13 in secondary and took up the guitar. I was also bigger than everyone else by then, which helped! I got into a lot of fights when I was young, but that gradually petered out. My introduction to playing before that was the tin whistle - I did a mean ‘Enter Sandman’ on it, which didn’t go down too well with the trad brigade! The video for ‘22’, which is super intense, was directed by Brendan Canty who also did Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’. He’s amazing. You don’t have to explain a song to him, he just gets it.”
We’ve Mr. & Mrs. Wigglesworth - “I changed it to James for obvious reasons!” - to thank for their son’s impeccable musical taste.
“There was lots of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and classic pop stuff in the family record collection,” he reminisces. “My Dad brought me to my first gig, which was Velvet Revolver in The Point. I was only 12 or 13 and seeing Slash, Duff and Scott Weiland on stage together just blew my mind.They’re almost considered the runt of the grunge-era litter, but I loved Stone Temple Pilots. The first album I bought was Take Off Your Pants And Jacket by Blink-182. I remember learning all the lyrics and trying to sing it in my room. I was into Slipknot, Korn and all that other nu-metal stuff too.
“My sister still sings with the Dublin Gospel Choir and does a lot of session work in London - she’s actually on Bitter Pill - while my brother is the exact opposite of me in that he studied hard, got a really good job and has kids.”
Rudimentary guitar skills acquired, he started busking in Dublin with Craig Gallagher, an old musical ally - “He’s savage!” - who accompanied Gavin on a recent run round Europe. He then formed The Problematic whose first gig was in a skate park.
“We didn’t know a bass-player, so it was two guitarists and a drummer who had a broken arm,” he smiles. “We thought, ‘If the Def Leppard guy can do it one-handed, so can he!’ We did a lot of AC/DC covers and ‘Johnny B. Goode’, which you just turn the amps up as loud as possible for.”
Having decided that band democracy wasn’t for him, James embarked on a rigorous bout of solo gigging, which brought him to the attention of Edison Waters, a Dublin managerial mover ’n’ shaker who’d previously worked with the likes of Luke Thomas, Royseven and Laura Izibor.
“Everybody when they start off thinks, ‘I’ll do an EP, which will be massive and then by the end of the year headline the 3Arena’, but Edison, having worked with the likes of Laura, knew that there are no short-cuts. You build your fanbase one song and gig at a time. We went for slow and steady rather than manufacturing some sort of hype. I think that’s the way to go if you want a sustained career in music.”
Released in November 2014, the Live At Whelan’s album was supposed to cement that fanbase rather than propel Gavin towards international stardom but Ed Sheeran’s “If you ignore Gavin James you’re missing out on a lot!” tweet changed all that.
“It was meant to be this low-key thing,” he nods, “but suddenly radio in Holland was playing ‘Book Of Love’ off the air. We recorded a proper version and they were like, ‘Fuck that, we want the live one with the clapping’. American radio never play live tracks unless they’re by someone huge like U2 or Bruce Springsteen, but they’ve been all over Live At Whelan’s or, as they pronounce it, ‘Way-lans’!
“It was definitely a big contributing factor to me signing with Capitol Records in the States. One of the lads gave their new Chairman, Steve Barnett, a copy and he flew over to London to wrap up the deal. It was all pretty painless.”
Gavin had originally planned to come off the road for three or four months to record his debut album proper, but with Live At Whelan’s blowing up on both sides of the Atlantic and the likes of James Corden, and the mega-rated Dancing With The Stars wanting him as a guest, he ended up doing it in bite-size chunks in Dublin, London and LA.
“A lot of the vocals were done in the famous Capitol Records building in Los Angeles where they still have the same reverb chamber downstairs that Frank Sinatra used - ‘It had to be you, wonderful youuuu…’ To stand there in front of the same mic he used was insane. I’d work on a song, go away for two weeks and then come back and finish it. Then I’d start on another, go away for a month and come back and finish it. It was a really long process, but hand-on-heart Bitter Pill is 100% the album I wanted to make. Part of the reason Capitol signed me was that I already had the songs and my other shit together. They understood where we were at from the start.”
It’s like choosing a favourite child, but is there a Bitter Pill money song?
“Yeah, ‘Nervous’, which is one of those that just popped out straight away. It’s also the weirdest song on the album structurally and really good fun to play live.”
There was another celebrity endorsement in September when Niall Horan tweeted: “On the way to Birmingham in the car and listening to Gavin James’ Live At Whelan’s; amazing album!”
A few days later James posted a photo of himself and Niall on a Leer Jet with the message: “Cheers for the lift back to Dublin buddy. My head was TOO large for that plane. Legend!”
“Niall’s unbelievably sound and a massive music fan,” Gavin explains. “He just texted me saying, ‘Do you want a lift back to Dublin?’ I was like, ‘Go on, it’ll be quicker than Ryanair!’ It was going from Luton, so I drove up to his gaff. It’s deadly because you don’t need a passport. I was shitting myself, though. Them planes are tiny but we got there in one piece. Niall’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but there’s not even a hint of arrogance. He’s just one of the lads.
“I took a screen-shot of my Twitter just to see how many extra followers the shout out gained me - it was a thousand or so in a couple of minutes! He’s great for doing it.”
If they weren’t taking a prolonged career break, you can bet your life that One Direction would be bringing James out on the road with them. By now you’ll have noticed Gavin’s penchant for words like “crazy”, “cool” and “insane", which underlines his kid in a sweetshop enthusiasm. As affable in real life as his on stage persona suggests, he’s the antithesis of Thom Yorke in that he doesn’t perpetually moan about his pop star lot, and reckon that the music business is going to hell in a handcart.
“I found it tough at the start, but I love life on the road. I miss being at home but when I get back for two or three days I straight away miss the gigging. It’s important to box off a bit of time for yourself. We were in New York for just two hours, but Edison arranged for us to fly round the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter. That makes up for all the waiting around in airports for delayed flights.
“It’s not cool to be egotistical or a diva anymore,” he continues. “Ed, Sam, Jamie, Hozier, Kodaline... they’re all normal lads.”
While the one man and his guitar routine has worked brilliantly for him, there will soon be additions to the Gavin James payroll.
“I love playing by myself, but I think I’ll get a band,” he reveals. “There’s more of a buzz when there’s four or five of you and I’ve got loads of people in mind.”
There will be no winding down for Christmas with Gavin paying return visits to Whelan’s, Cyprus Avenue, Dolan’s and the Roisin Dubh - “Four of my favourite places in the world to play!” - and joining Hozier & Co. for the 2fm Xmas Ball in the 3Arena.
“I’m playing first at the 2fm gig and then legging it back to Whelan’s for my own show,” he reveals. “I’m going to see if I can get them all to come back afterwards to Whelan's for a jam... but don’t tell anybody!”
We wouldn’t dream of it, Gav!
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