James Walsh interview: The benefits of recording with an orchestra in Arctic Norway
After travelling 300km past the Arctic Circle and jamming with a Norwegian chamber orchestra, singer/songwriter James Walsh (formerly of Starsailor) has released a new EP 'Live At The Top Of The World'. Fortunately, it's rather good.
Imagine this: you're 300km past the friendly side of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian town of Tromsø – a place previously best known for its Arctic Cathedral (a kind of smaller, more angular version of the Sydney Opera House) and, err, for being twinned with Grimsby. The town has an orchestra, though, not to mention more than its fair share of inspirational scenery, both of which are at your disposal. If you can't find inspiration here, then you might as well hang up your guitar.
That's the situation ex-Starsailor frontman James Walsh found himself in earlier this year and the results of which have just been made available as the 'Live At The Top Of The World' EP. We caught up with James to find out how he adjusted to working with an orchestra, his Scandinavian surroundings and what we can expect from his November tour dates.
Tell us how the 'Live At The Top Of The World' EP came about…
"I've always been interested in artists who've used orchestras and orchestral arrangements – I'm a big fan of Randy Newman and Rufus Wainwright – but working with the orchestra up in Tromsø was quite a happy accident. I was doing some work with [songwriter] Sacha Skarbek on the soundtrack for a film called 'Lullaby'. Sacha had been spending some time up in Tromsø, because his wife is from that town, and it just so happened that they were trying to encourage artists to go over there and work with producers and arrangers. They wanted someone to take the plunge and go out there and use the facilities, and hopefully draw some attention to the area. It just seemed like too good an opportunity to miss."
One of the things we noticed about the song 'Man On The Hill' was the sense of space. Were you influenced by the environment?
"Definitely, it's inspired by this sort of beautiful and melancholic feeling that there is up there, where it's just a perfect place to visit, but I can imagine living there must feel quite isolated, especially for the young people. This place is so cut off from the rest of Norway, let alone the rest of the world. That song was inspired by the juxtaposition of this amazing scenery in this beautiful place, but also the downsides to that."
What is it about Scandinavia that's so inspiring?
"I think it is that beautiful and melancholic environment. Obviously, bands like ABBA and A-ha write great pop hooks, but what keeps it from being too twee and cheesy is that they're always in touch with the sad side. I think that's what so great about Scandinavian pop music."
Do you think travelling is an important source of inspiration for songwriters?
"Definitely. We were in India last year with Ocean Colour Scene and that was an amazing trip as well. Going from airport to airport, hotel to hotel – although I wouldn't complain about that – is maybe not as inspiring, but the trips up to Tromsø and out to India, they're the ones that really get the creative juices flowing."
How has your guitar playing developed on the new EP? You seem to have been working on your fingerpicking recently…
"There is some nice fingerpicking on the EP. I think going solo for a while has really helped me develop my guitar playing. It's gone back to basics in a lot of ways. Especially when I go out live, the rhythm is everything because there are no drums or bass there and to compensate you've really got to give it some. I guess it's a combination of that and when I'm in the studio, just getting to try out some ideas. I like to try and harmonise the guitars as much as possible."
Was it a challenge working with the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra?
"It was for both parties I think, because it was the orchestra's first steps into rock 'n' roll. I think it worked out really great, though. It was a good challenge. I think the fact that they weren't coming from a standard rock 'n' roll string section really added something to it. The arranger looked at the songs from a classical point of view and gave them a unique arrangement in that respect."
What kind of gear did you use?
"I've got a Gibson J-45 that I used, that's my standard guitar. I've had it for the last 10 years and I tend to use it on a lot of things. And there was a Gibson Country and Western, which I traded in for a Martin that I had. The Martin was an amazing guitar, but I didn't get enough out of it playing live, whereas the Gibson has been really good to me in that respect. When I've been doing the gigs – especially with the stuff I did for 'Powder' [a forthcoming film that James soundtracked], which is quite edgy and 'garage rock' – I've also been using a Boss Overdrive pedal for the odd song and I'm also experimenting with a drum machine on this tour as well. I've been doing the 'one man and a guitar thing' for a couple of years now and that sort of adds another element."
What can people expect from your forthcoming tour?
"I think because it's still early days after Starsailor, there will be a few of those songs in the set and also some reinterpretations of songs. I want to make sure that I don't just go over old ground, that I can give people the songs they want to hear but in a new and interesting way. We did 'Silence Is Easy' on the EP and it was really fun. It was great to strip it back and slow it down and it helped it to breathe."
James Walsh UK tour dates
4 November – Oran Mor, Glasgow
5 November – Café Drummond, Aberdeen
6November – Corn Exchange, Melrose
7 November – Riverside, Newcastle
10 November – Proud, London
11 November – Moho Live, Manchester
12 November – The Venue, Derby
20 November – Kasbah, Coventry
21 November – Joiners, Southampton