Friday 14 December 2018

2016 Ones to watch: 'Ireland's Ed Sheeran' set to wow the world in 2016

Gavin James, singer

Celebrity fans: Gavin James
Celebrity fans: Gavin James
John Meagher

John Meagher

By any reckoning, 24-year-old Dublin singer-songwriter Gavin James had a remarkable 2015. There were primetime US TV performances, a debut album that enjoyed robust sales, glowing reports of his American headline tour. Oh, and the small matter of supporting Ed Sheeran at a sold-out Croke Park.

It was all a far cry from the days when he was the hapless ­troubadour in the corner of a pub who was trying to make his voice and battered acoustic guitar heard over the din of stag and hen parties.

And impressive as last year was, 2016 is likely to be the year that James truly goes supernova: he embarks on a major UK and European tour at the end of January, prefaced by three sold-out shows in Dublin's Olympia. If there's any Irish musician who can 'do a Hozier' and become a household name all over the globe, it's this flame-haired singer, who first picked up a guitar at eight years of age.

After years playing covers in Temple Bar tourist traps and busking on the street, James first attracted the attentions of the industry in 2012 when one of his own songs, 'Say Hello', started to pick up radio airplay. A year later, it would win the Choice Music Prize Song of the Year after a public vote, and soon word spread about the likeable young songwriter who wrote smart songs that could be comfortably sung back after just a few listens.

Everything accelerated for him last year, with high-profile support slots for such global sales sensations as Taylor Swift (at London's Hyde Park) and Sam Smith, with whom he toured in the US. Then, there was the release of his debut album, Bitter Pill, which was one of the most downloaded albums in this country in 2015. Another highlight was the support slot for one of Ed Sheeran's sold-out shows at Croke Park during the summer. The enormously popular English songwriter has frequently sung James's praises and he has opened several doors for the young singer that might otherwise have remained shut. Back in 2014, Sheeran tweeted the following message to his millions of followers: "Record labels if you ignore Gavin James, you are missing out." The labels came quickly: first Vagrant Records, the indie behind the well-regarded Dublin songwriter James Vincent McMorrow, and then a worldwide deal with Warner Bros. When it came to making his debut album, he was able to call on some big name hit-makers, including Fraser T Smith whose credits include Adele. And when it comes to 21st-century album sales, they don't come much bigger than her.

James has also found himself being taken under the wing of James Corden, the English comedian, actor and television presenter. 2015 was quite a year for Corden himself, landing one of the most prestigious chat shows in US television, The Late Late Show, and he had the young Irish singer perform on it in both May and November.

They were gilt-edged opportunities for the singer to demonstrate to an enormous US audience what he was about - and he took them with aplomb. He performed the stirring title track from the Bitter Pill album in November and attracted a flurry of hugely enthusiastic tweets from viewers. The host himself captured the mood by tweeting, "I mean seriously, how incredible is @gavinjames."

Since the release of that album in November, James has focused largely on the US market - and embarked on a multi-city tour there in the run up to Christmas. Now, for the next few months, the emphasis will be on trying to make UK audiences love him as much as Americans seem to.

He will also be hoping that his album will be among the nominations for the Choice Music Prize for Irish album of the year - which will be announced next week.

But despite his attraction to the public, many of the critics have been slow to lavish praise on his work, preferring instead to highlight his undoubted qualities but suggesting that much of the album is a little too samey to be a critical success.

Sheeran also has his struggles with critics who dislike his populist approach, but when one considers his enormous popularity with the public, he's unlikely to be too bothered. Similarly, when he gazed out at a packed Croke Park in June, James is hardly likely to have cared that some reviewers have been unkind about his music.

An industry source who knows him well talks of an unfailingly polite, low-key young man who is very grounded.

"It amuses him when people talk about him being an overnight success, because - as is so often the case - he was working on his music for years. He was doing open-mic nights when nobody knew who he was. But it's doing those shows when absolutely nobody is paying attention to you that you can really work on your songs. And he did that.

"Gavin is about as chilled-out as you can get, but that doesn't mean he's not driven. He takes his music very seriously and wants every aspect to be just right, not least when it comes to the live side of things, because that's where people can really fall in love with what he does."

Even with the success he's already had, James is unlikely to lose the run of himself. Memories of those tough earlier years are unlikely to fade. "You'd look down and not one person would be paying attention," he told the Irish Independent. "It was like being wallpaper sometimes, but then other nights would really make up for it, especially when you could sense yourself improving."

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