We talk to the Irish born singer-songwriter about growing up listening to Motown, his graphic design days and his Guilty Pleasures iTunes playlist
Growing up on a steady diet of Van Morrison, Bowie and Motown classics, Daniel James was always going to have an appreciation for good music. Both easy on the eyes and the ears, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter has already made quite a name for himself, debuting his soulful, acoustic guitar-laden tracks only last year. His single, ‘The Bridge’ was first played on Zane Lowe and Clash, where Sunday Times Culture and The 405 raved about his folk-rock sound. James has recently toured with big names, Sam Smith, Saint Raymond and Hozier, and is now celebrating the release of his Grey Sky Records EP, Ain’t No Money.
We caught up with the delightful Irish singer before he played his first ever headline show at London’s The Islington.
So how is 2014 treating you?
It’s been a great year so far. Busy, which can only mean good.
True that! You’ve cited Bowie, Van Morrison and Motown tunes as the type of music you listened to growing up. Is it fair to say they influence your music now?
Well like a lot of Dads, mine had a record collection. I just remember growing up with music around me. I would always be obsessed with looking at old photographs as a kid so pulling out the ‘My dad looks suspiciously like Bowie years’ photo album would spark a walk down memory lane and he’d play his music. Van the man lives a few miles away and dancing to Motown in the living room was always a good laugh in my metal house. Yes they have influenced my music right now by being introduced to great music as a young kid, its only made me want to find out more.
So did you always want to be a musician, or was it dreams of becoming an astronaut or a fireman when you were a kid?
I’m sure I went through an astronaut, fireman and professional footballer phase. But I seriously considered the world of graphic design. I spent a year at Central Saint Martins in London and specialised in graphics. I used to paint at school and loved drawing. My relationship with music and becoming a musician has been mixed. I fell out with the idea of pursuing music in my mid teens due to one of my music teachers disappearing. She was a massive influence. After a few years of graphic design I realised song writing was where my heart was at …and I wrote my first song at 19 called ‘Cliftonville No More’.
How would you compare your life in Northern Ireland to London? How old were you when you made the move?
I moved to London when I was 18 for the Art course at CSM. Northern Ireland was a great place to grow up, a place where you learned to be a lot older than you actually were. I found when living there, people were very good at putting you in your place, which for me has kept me grounded living in London: the ‘Treat people how you want to be treated’ vibe. I lived in Bangor for a number of years before moving down to road to a place called Helen’s Bay. I mean the obvious things to say about London compared to where I grew up is that it’s a bigger place. There are more people from all over the world and it runs at a faster, more intense pace. My life has changed dramatically since moving to London. I guess I’ve taken the opportunities presented to me because I moved here by myself and quickly found out If I didn’t grab them someone else would.
Have you always been musically-inclined? Did it take very long for you to get signed?
There has always been a Clavinova electric piano in my house. We have moved three times back in Northern Ireland but the piano has come with us. I would play it as a kid but I would hate the theory part. It would clutter my mind and confuse me. Those books remained on the floor and I would enjoy a blank canvas. I’ve always had something for a top line. I think that’s what I’m best at: discovering a top line then telling a story.
We’ve read you were discovered online, can you explain?
I sang a song I wrote for a London music blog a couple of years ago, then got contacted by my manager. It was very early days.
That’s great. How would you personally describe your genre? Are there any artists you’d liken your sound to?
It’s a mixture of sounds and genres, from folk to soul to gospel music. I like to combine and try not to limit myself. I write most of my songs on acoustic guitar then use that as framework to create something, hopefully a bit different. I’m experimenting quite a lot at the moment with the production. I’m a realistic person. I guess I’m wary that sometimes my songs can be too straight, so spicing things up is a lot of fun right now. The most important thing for me is the song. In 10, 20, 30 years you want people to talk about you and your song. Fingers crossed…
Your new EP, ‘Ain’t No Money’ drops July 20th. What sort of response have you had so far?
It’s been a great so far. I’m just making music and putting it up online letting fans grow with me as I progress. It’s never always that simple but I’m being allowed to do this, which is a cool thing. I really enjoyed making the EP. It’s my first EP and is a lovely feeling to complete and release. Now I can’t wait to share more music.
Can you tell us a little bit about its title track?
‘Ain’t No Money’ is based around greed, power and dancing with the Devil. A lot of people get obsessed with the amount money they could potentially earn or steal and really damage the good people on our earth. Sometimes it’s very difficult to forgive people. It’s a song personal to me.
Are there any other songs on the EP that you’re particularly fond of?
They all have special significance to my life. I love singing ‘We Own Our Love’. I get transfixed in the meaning behind the song. I believe we only have a certain amount of love to give.
Whose in your Guilty Pleasures playlist? Who do you hope doesn’t start to play when iTunes is on shuffle?
To my mates that only listen to disco on vinyl and party with no shortage of disco biscuits, I’d hope they would ignore ‘Pretty Green Eyes’ by Ultrabeat. Although, you know what? I have no shame in my white lighting drinking days.
You’ve just come off a tour with Hozier. How was that?
Amazing. Loved it. He is a special performer and a lovely guy. I was on Andrew’s bus so got to know him and the band really well. We went to Paris and Berlin to play which was great to know what its like to play outside the UK. I learned a lot very quickly because I was by myself and I was basically tour managing myself, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I had nobody to else to blame but myself if I was late, damaged my guitar or got lost, etc etc. Luckily all of Hozier’s team were lovely.
What about pre-show rituals, do you have one?
Warm up…a hot tea with honey and some lemon maybe and some alone time really to grab my thoughts together, nothing too extraordinary.
You’ve got your first ever headline show at The Islington coming up. How are the preparations going?
They are fine! Its still just going to be me and a guitar with a few other bits and pieces. It will be my first headline show so I’m nervous but very excited to play some tunes.
How do you wind down after playing a set? Crack open a cold one and settle onto the couch with a documentary? We’ve read you’re quite the doco fan…
Beer is involved, yes. Calms me down… after sweating profusely. Yes, I watch quite a lot of documentaries. It’s a great source of information and inspiration. I’m not much of a reader…I enjoy certain few books but I get distracted so I tend to watch a lot of weird docs. The most recent one was called Dark Days – would highly recommend.
What’s on your bucket list?
Make an album. Play Glastonbury. Tour the USA. I’m going to keep it there before I start listing off more generic dreams of a musician. Oh, learn how to drive…
Glastonbury is a bucket list essential. Lastly what does the rest of 2014 hold?
I’m going to release another EP later this year. [My upcoming] tour with Sam Smith will be incredible in October. A few more festivals are coming up, too, across the UK and Europe. But yeah, just continue what I’m doing, keep the head down and see what happens. It will be very exciting.
Words: Steph King