Wednesday 22 November 2017


John Meagher

John Meagher

Gavin James allows himself a wry smile when he thinks about his early days learning the ropes of singer-songwriter. The young Dubliner – then barely out of school – would play pubs in Temple Bar where, more often than not, at least one band of women were out on their hen-party and looking for easy laughs. The youngster with the guitar and shock of red hair in the corner was a perfect, ready-made target.

"I had to put up with a lot of slagging," he recalls. "They would want to sit on my lap or 'help' me play the guitar. Others would come and stand in front of me and make faces and try to put me off. It was hard initially – I was just 17 when I started – but I learned to 'work' with it, to basically not get into fights with them."

But even on those occasions when the stags and hens were enjoying their revelry elsewhere, James used to wonder if his songs – covers, mainly – were getting through. "You'd look down and not one person would be paying attention," he says. "It was like being wallpaper sometimes, but then other nights would really make up for it especially when you could sense yourself improving."

He stuck the circuit for four years, until he realised he was staying within a comfort zone. "I enjoyed it for the first three years, but then it began to feel very samey especially when I'd play Galway Girl and Use Somebody for what felt like the millionth time."

Such a description offers a whole new dimension to the notion of suffering for one's art, but James doesn't feel it was time poorly spent. "Doing covers in that kind of environment stops you from being shit," he says. "Once you'd done that, you feel like 'normal' gigs are much easier.

"And," he deadpans, "it helps you cope today when someone shouts 'Get off the stage, Ed Sheeran' at you. Not that there's anything wrong with being called Ed Sheeran, and as the two of us have hair like this I guess it's going to happen."

Now, the flame-haired troubadour, who is still just 21, is being acclaimed as one of Ireland's most promising young singers, whose talent for finely judged acoustic music has already been acknowledged with an appearance on Other Voices as well bagging the Choice Music Prize Song of the Year.

His song, Say Hello, won a public vote in an eclectic shortlist that included Delorentos (who won the best album gong on the night), Le Galaxie, Kodaline and The Script. "I know people always say they're surprised when they win anything, but I was genuinely speechless," he says. "I didn't for a moment think I had a chance, especially as that was from the very first EP I'd ever released."

One gets the impression it's not false modesty speaking: Gavin James is about as unassuming a songwriter as you can get. "I'm pretty laid back," he says, with a laugh. "Maybe too laid back, but I am enjoying what each new day brings and I'm sort of taken aback by how quickly things have changed from playing pubs to going on the road in Britain with Kodaline."

Shortly after the Choice success, James signed with Vagrant Records, the independent label that is home to the more established Irish songwriter James Vincent McMorrow. "James is someone I look up to," he says. "He's got so much talent it's frightening, and I like the way the label have handled his release. It's more comfortable signing to a good, small label like that than being yet another act at one of the majors."

James cites Ray LaMontagne as a hero and mentions Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey as two of his favourite home-grown singers. He has also come to appreciate the large body of work from Paul Brady and was delighted when, during a gala dinner at Trinity College during the summer, the Ulsterman – who had been in the audience – joined him for an impromptu song.

He's been quick to develop a profile in the UK too having bagged support slots with US singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson – whose songs have been used on Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill and The Big C – as well as the aforementioned Kodaline.

Right now, he's itching to get his debut album out to the public, but the as-yet-untitled record won't see the light of day until March or April. "It was finished in June and it's been mixed since," he says. "I'm dyin' for it to be released, but I've been told to be patient."

The album was produced by Tom Nicholls, a veteran tunesmith whose credits include Kylie's Fever and various hits for All Saints, Sugababes and Celine Dion. "It would have been too obvious to go for a singer-songwriter producer," he says. "Tom is much more about pop, although this couldn't be described as a pop album at all."

Recording was done in Metropolis Studios, London, in the very room where Adele made her gazillion selling albums. "It inspired me being there."

In the meantime, a second EP – Remember Me – has been released to whet the appetite of his burgeoning fanbase, And, in a nod to his covers past, the mini-collection features a striking cover of the song of Summer '13, Daft Punk's Get Lucky.

While most are likely to have first encountered the name Gavin James this year, he is no overnight sensation – and not just because of his innings in the taverns of Dublin's tourist zone. James has been playing guitar since he was eight years old and joined his first band at 14 – "I played electric guitar, bluesy stuff and Led Zeppelin" – and he countenanced no other livelihood when he finished his Leaving Cert.

Enrolling at the Ballyfermot Rock School felt like the most natural transition in the world, but within three months he realised that it wasn't for him. "I didn't like the idea of everybody writing the same songs," he says, "or being told 'This is how you write songs'."

Despite such misgivings, James is not opposed to the idea of such music colleges and points out that formal tuition has done no harm to the likes of Wallis Bird, a former student. "It just wasn't for me," he says. "I have the worst attention span of anyone I know."

Right now, he says he is in the most creative vein of his young life to date, writing song after song and getting a better handle of what material to keep and develop and what to dispense with.

A pair of concerts at the Pepper Canister Church in Dublin next month will offer a valuable indicator as to where he is now and what direction he may go in.

The venerable Protestant church – a cornerstone of this historic, Georgian part of the capital – is about as far as you can get from the boisterous pubs of Temple Bar, and Gavin James doesn't need to be reminded of it.

"You'd never know," he says, a twinkle in his eye. "Maybe one of those hen party women liked what she heard and will be there."

Gavin James plays the Pepper Canister Church, Dublin, on December 13 and 14. EP Remember Me is out now.

Irish Independent

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