When he talks about his own success and the music he loves, Gavin James regularly uses the words ‘mad’, ‘bananas’, and ‘ridiculous’ – in their most positive sense, of course. The singer-songwriter recently moved back to his native Dublin after years of living in London. His Uncle Paddy is up on the roof fixing a leak while we speak via Facetime, and James is happy to give us a little tour of the place, proudly showing us a beautiful, big photo of The Beatles (Sgt Pepper era) adorning one of the walls, and a little shrine to the Fab Four nearby.
Now 29, James has had a pretty fab ride himself this past decade. His mellow, modern-day troubadour style has earned him just shy of six million monthly listeners on Spotify, and his end-of-year stats on that all-pervasive platform tell the tale: 182.8 million streams, 9.9 million hours of his music played by 29.3 million fans across 92 countries. He’s got 22 platinum records under his belt, his last album Boxes hit the number one slot in Ireland, the tune Always made him a star in – of all places – Brazil. And when he’s not playing his own shows (including a sold-out headline set at Dublin’s massive 3Arena) he’s been called on as a support act by the likes of Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.
In fact, James reckons he hasn’t really had a week off in the past nine years, so the down time forced upon us all in 2020 has worked out quite well for him. “I’ve been busy since 2011 pretty much,” he says, “so I’ve got back to sitting down and writing songs at home, which has been great. I had festival appearances cancelled this year, and other dates would be starting about now and into the New Year. But it is what it is.”
Talking a mile a minute through a perma-smile, Gavin James is enthusiastic, funny and always ready with a laugh. It’s good he can take this moment to smell the roses. Gigging heavily since his school days, he started out as a guitarist in rock power trios, in the thrall of Hendrix, Rory Gallagher and Pearl Jam. Then, when he discovered Bob Dylan and Damien Rice, he switched to acoustic guitar and started to focus on his voice and songwriting skills.
With school life disappearing in the rear-view mirror, he honed his chops in the pubs of Dublin and on the city’s bustling Grafton Street, belting out crowd-pleasers like Hotel California and Hallelujah. “That teaches you how to sing your bollocks off!” he says. “If you haven’t got enough money for an amp you really gotta shout your head off. You know you have a crowd there if the guards come over and give out to you [tell you off] – that’s when you know you’re doing a good job.”
He would play Dublin’s famous Temple Bar regularly, sometimes clocking 12 gigs a week – three on Saturday, three on Sunday. “There was about four years of never-ending pints and songs and gigs,” he recalls. “It was amazing. And then I met my manager, Edison.” Edison Waters heard Falling Down, a song James recorded with his band The Problematic, and promptly turned up at the singer’s house to offer him representation.
Their first excursion to the USA in 2011 came to nothing, but on returning James worked at his craft, and started breaking through in 2013 when his self-released song Say Hello won the Meteor Choice Music Prize, the prestigious award for Irish artists. He earned indie kudos for his sweet read of The Magnetic Fields’ dourly romantic The Book Of Love (a Top 10 hit in Belgium), with record deals coming from Good Soldier in the UK, Believe in France, Sony, and Capitol.
He met Ed Sheeran in a bar in Dublin in the mid 2010s – guitars were passed round, party pieces were performed. “He had a radio interview the next day,” says James, “and was really nice about us and Tweeted about us. Then I met him at his VH1 show at [renowned Dublin music venue] Whelan’s, and he shouted across the pub, ‘Do you want to do a gig with me in Croke Park?’ The first thing I thought to say was, ‘You sure you want another ginger at the gig?!’ But I stopped myself and said, ‘Yeah!’
Ed’s songwriting ability is otherworldly. Usually you write 10 or 15 songs and one of them is solid but every song he’ll play will be like, ‘What the fuck!’ He nails it every time, I think it’s because he uses that muscle all the time, he’s a workhorse when it comes to songwriting. He figures out a way to say the right things in songs and keep people’s attention. I think that’s amazing.”
In November that year James’ debut album Bitter Pill went Top Five in Ireland, and three years later Only Ticket Home peaked at No.2. Starting in the Netherlands and creeping across the continent from the single Nervous onwards, his success in Europe has become extraordinary, but it’s his popularity in Brazil that really takes the biscoito. Always was used regularly on a soap opera there called Pega Pega, and as the song crested the Brazilian chart so James’ socials began to fill up with thousands of affectionate messages in Portuguese.
He even got a walk-on part on Pega Pega later on, and is treated like a superstar when he plays Río or Sao Paolo. “It’s bananas,” he says, laughing at the wonder and absurdity of it, again. “You’ll go to one place in the world and they’ll know one song, and sometimes you’re surprised by the ones they sing back. But in Brazil it was mad – they know all of the songs, they shout out for all these weird B-sides. It’s amazing. Actually they’re a similar crowd to the ones in Ireland – they just want to hear the music and have a good time.”
He hasn’t been totally at rest over 2020. He had a few shows pre-pandemic, and Boxes became him his first chart-topping album at home in October. He also moved back to Dublin from London with his girlfriend, who uprooted herself from friends and family to do so. She’s the main inspiration for his current single, Man On The Moon, a consoling guitar/voice piece about loneliness. Timely stuff in this blighted year. “I wrote it for my missis,” he says, “It’s about looking out for the person you love most and making sure that, if they feel lonely, then they know that everybody is thinking about them.”
Mad. Ridiculous. Bananas. Gavin James is all, and none, of these things. Here are the ten albums that brought him here…
1. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
“It’s a banging album, it’s ridiculous. I would’ve been about 12 when I properly got into it. I had a CD player in my attic room as a boy living with me mam and dad, and I’d listen to it twice before I went to bed.
"I was in bands and we did covers of Alive and Even Flow – I used to have hair down to me arse! It’s been my favourite album forever. Alive or was the one that started me off. The video is amazing too.”
2. Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
“The number of people who’ve tried to recreate that album cover, and I’m one of them! I was in New York for a while before all this madness [his success], and I did a photo shoot in December – it was freezing. I was trying to wear cool clothes, and ended up in this thin jacket with no padding. I walked through New York for five hours freezing me bollocks off trying to get that Dylan picture. I didn’t get it though – I’m too ginger!
“I used to play Temple Bar all the time, and that brought me from playing in a three-piece rock band to playing acoustic, and digging into songwriting a bit more. And this is the album that started the ball rolling, it was the start of me learning how to write, and I took a lot of fingerpicking styles off him that I wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t listen to a lot of Dylan. I use my index finger and thumb, this strange claw thing. When I busked on Grafton Street Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright was in the set, and it’s probably still my favourite song ever. Freewheelin’ is class…”
3. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced (1967)
“Guitarists like Jimi were the reason I got into guitar in the first place, I was much more into guitar than singing when I was a kid, I’d lock myself in my room and play for hours. I was really into Hendrix, Rory Gallagher and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I even sanded down my Squier Stratocaster so it looked more like one of those guitars – my dad was so annoyed!
"I had a wah-wah pedal, and I was there trying to figure out that weird chord in Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary. That was really fun – if you know the pentatonic scale you can play a lot of Hendrix stuff and I’d be there, wailing away and having a great blast. I was about 13 when I discovered him. Before that it was pure pop – Westlife, Blue – then Blink 182, then Hendrix.”
4. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
“My dad’s a postman and one of his mates in work used to give him mixtapes, all this random stuff. One of them had Rock And Roll on it, and that reached out to me – ‘Holy shit, Led Zeppelin are class!’ It’s the mixture of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page just being deadly at what they do – one of the best guitar players of all time and one of the best rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time, together.
"John Paul Jones’ bass and John Bonham – it’s out of time but in time at the same time, it’s ridiculous! I got the CD of Led Zeppelin IV, then bought all their other stuff – the live albums. You can’t beat a bit of Zeppelin.”
5. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
“For every reason. It’s the greatest album of all time. I got a small drum kit for Christmas when I was 14 and [Beatles best of] One, and it was easy to play along on the drums. Then later when I started really getting into The Beatles I got Sgt. Pepper, and never really stopped listening to it.
"It’s one of those things where you can’t listen to anyone else except them. And thinking about how they recorded it back then – things are so much easier now, but they used tape and physically reversed stuff. George Harrison had got into Indian music – Within You Without You is amazing. A Day In The Life is the one though – the last chord on that is my favourite. I was very lucky to do a session in Abbey Road. It’s one of the places you never think you’ll go to, then you’re there, and it’s just mad.”
6. Counting Crows – This Desert Life (1999)
“I found this in my dad’s new car when I was 14. It was just the CD with a fish on it – no cover – and it didn’t say Counting Crows on it. I didn’t know what it was and didn’t have a computer back then and couldn’t Google it, then after about a week we found out somehow it was Counting Crows.
"My dad and I would listen to the song Mrs Potter’s Lullaby constantly and [brandishing his left arm] I’ve got the lyrics to Colorblind tattooed here. ‘I’m colorblind, coffee black and egg white…’. I got it when I was 15 and my ma killed me! The ‘I’m’ looked more like ‘Jam’ so I just had an apostrophe put in there. Now it just looks like ‘Jim’…”
7. U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)
“It’s class. It’s a driving album. I listen to it everywhere. It always reminds me of Dublin for some reason – if ever I’m away from home in the States or Brazil I can put it on. And it reminds me of drinking beers in an Airbnb in Arizona.
It’s all I listened to when I was away touring the States. That whole album – it sounds like nothing else. I love the way every song blends into each other. Red Hill Mining Town is awesome, but if I had to choose one song, it’s Where The Streets Have No Name.
8. Damien Rice – O (2001)
“This is an amazing album. I got into this around the same time as Bob Dylan, when I was jumping into the acoustic guitar stuff. Just as a songwriter I adore it – every song, the likes of Cannonball. There’s two versions of that, one with the drums and one without, and I can’t decide which one I like more.
"He kind of started off the singer-songwriter boom, didn’t he? Without him there would be many Ed Sheerans hanging about. He was singing about all of his feelings and being totally out there. He’s one of best, and he seems like a cool lad too.”
9. Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run (1975)
“I jumped between Born In The USA and Born To Run, but this one has Jungleland on it – a great, weird rock opera thing, nine minutes of madness! I got into him about four years ago because I was going to see him at Croke Park. I’d heard him of course, but when I dived into his catalogue properly I was like, ‘Fuuuuck!’
“At Croke Park he played Jungleland, then the next night finished with Thunder Road, he did it acoustically at the very end. Everybody was getting ready to leave because he’d played for about four hours or something, and people were giving out to him because it’s a residential area, but Bruce brings his own generators so you can’t turn him off! I think they ended up putting the floodlights on in the stadium, but he just played on, like a legend…”
10. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
You can tell the Beatles influence in this album, I think. Kurt always talked about them how he was influenced by them. I love pop music, something that just grabs your ear and that album has pop songs in a grunge way, like Stay Away. The melodies are always there, and Butch Vig’s production – it sounds ridiculously good. I love that album.
Gavin James headlines a livesteamed show from INEC Arena in Dublin on New Year's Eve. For updates on future dates and releases, head to gavinjamesmusic.com