James Arthur has been a music star in the U.K. and Europe since he won The X Factor (U.K. TV series) in 2012. The singer/songwriter, who has a powerful soul/pop voice, immediately had chart success with his #1 European hit single, “Impossible,” followed by the #2 hit, “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You.”
However, it is with his latest album, Back from the Edge (on Columbia Records), and single “Say You Won’t Let Go,” that Arthur has achieved U.S. and worldwide success. “Say You Won’t Let Go’ has become a major hit in about 30 countries, reaching #1 in several countries, and in the U.S. hitting #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #1 on the Adult Top 40 chart.
What’s also impressive about Arthur’s success this year, is that his album Back from the Edge is excellent, and not just the single, “Say You Won’t Let Go.” The album contains 13 songs co-written or written by Arthur, that showcase his strong vocals and compelling songs with deeply personal lyrics, that reflect what he’s experienced since his initial breakthrough in 2012.
After his success in the U.K. and Europe in 2012 & 2013, Arthur went through a difficult and sometimes controversial period where he was criticized for certain statements he made. He temporarily faced a backlash, and he parted ways with his label Syco (Simon Cowell’s label) in 2014, although he has since re-signed with them (for the U.K.).
In more recent interviews, Arthur has revealed that he suffered from anxiety and addictions (around 2014-2015). As a result, the songs on his album Back from the Edge are autobiographical, and very open and honest. Several of the album’s songs recall the emotions and stress he felt during this period, and his subsequent recovery.
Following the fall 2016 release of his Back from the Edge album and single “Say You Won’t Let Go,” Arthur has not only made a big comeback in the U.K. and Europe, but he’s achieved a new popularity worldwide. His new success has led to him playing gigs in the U.K., Japan, Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg. And currently, he’s embarked on a two-month tour in the U.S., opening for OneRepublic. Following his U.S. tour, Arthur will be launching this fall a major arena tour throughout the U.K. as the headliner.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with James Arthur. He discusses his new album, and he tells how he co-wrote his hit, “Say You Won’t Let Go.”
DK: I really like your new album—the songs are excellent and the lyrics are honest and heartfelt. Did you write most of the lyrics for the album?
James Arthur: Thank you, that’s very kind. Yes, I did write most of the lyrics. I worked with some great co-writers and producers [who contributed to the writing], but I’m very proud in saying that all of the songs came fundamentally from me and what I was going through at that time. [By listening to the album], I’m sure you’ve been able to figure out that I battled with mental health issues and addiction and all those things. So yeah, it was kind of easy—a lot of those songs kind of wrote themselves, because it was a conversational, therapeutic album, you know. I do think the album is the most personal piece of work that I’ve made.
Here’s the video of James Arthur’s hit, “Say You Won’t Let Go.”
DK: When you would start a new writing session, would you discuss an idea or title first, and tell the co-writers what you wanted to write about?
Arthur: Yeah, a lot of the time that was it. I would have a melody together and a concept, and some lyrics. And that’s how it went. Some of these [co-writers] were really instrumental in making sure the songs weren’t 12 minutes, you know?” (laughs). They helped make the songs cohesive.
DK: Your song “Say You Won’t Let Go” has become a big hit. Your co-writer Neil Ormandy told me you wrote this song in Los Angeles with him and Steve Solomon. Can you talk about writing this song?
Arthur: Yeah, I was actually pretty hung over that day. My A&R lady was saying, “we need a big love song for the album—a ‘love yourself’ kind of song like Justin Bieber.” And I was like…Oh my God, I hate getting briefs…I don’t like when people brief me. So I’m like, I’m hung over…let me just get to the studio and make this song. I’ll think about that reference.
Honestly, I came with the idea, and basically, a lot of the lyrics just wrote themselves. It was a story, and every line just kind of came to us. Neil would chip in with a word, and Steve would chip in. But again, I felt like I was just talking from personal experience in the first verse. The second verse was about where I’d like to be, or where anyone would like to be, which is to be with a soulmate, with kids and a wife or husband. And the writing came really easy, maybe the easiest song I’ve ever written.
DK: In the first verse, there’s a key line which is very unique…“I held your hair back when you were throwing up.” Did that actually happen?
Arthur: Yeah, it did happen. I’ve been in love before, and it’s always happened in unorthodox ways. There was a time it happened like that…we had a few too many drinks, and you’re looking after a girl. I just looked after her, and I knew I loved her at that time.
DK: Later in the song, there’s another key line, which is romantic and haunting…“I want to live with you, even when we’re ghosts.” How did you think of that line?
Arthur: That was a line I wrote months after the original song was written. We needed a breakdown part for the song, because previously it just went into an instrumental section. And when I got with the (album’s) executive producer, we felt like it needed a moment to breathe, with another half verse, and I needed to say something profound. And then the line just came out. I said, “I want to live with you even when we’re ghosts.” I felt like that was the most profound thing I can say.
Here’s the video of James Arthur’s single, “Can I Be Him.”
DK: In one of your recent interviews, you said that a couple years ago, you kind of pushed a “self-destruct button” and went through a difficult time. Can you briefly discuss that period, and how it inspired you to write some of the songs on your album?
Arthur: Yeah, I self-destructed because I was struggling with the idea of being famous in the U.K., and kind of losing it and not being able to handle it, and struggling with anxiety and addiction. The way I got through it, was by simplifying my life and doing simple things again, and being around family and speaking about my problems, because I was internalizing a lot of things. Like I said, this album was very therapeutic and very helpful in getting me back on the straight and narrow.
DK: On your album, you wrote two of the songs, “Remember Who I Was” and “Finally,” by yourself. Do you like writing songs on your own too?
Arthur: Yes, I think you get a different thing with me when I just write things on my own. Writing by myself is what I used to do a lot. My friends and my hardcore fans will recognize [the songs I write by myself] straight away…I definitely have a style of writing. I’m not self-conscious about making so much sense or resolving [a line or a theme]. And there’s always a thread of hope in my 100% writing.
DK: Currently, you’re on tour in the U.S. with OneRepublic. How’s the tour going?
Arthur: It’s going great. It’s a nice challenge to come on [as the opening act]. When we get onstage the arena is half full, and then for our last two songs we have the place packed out, with everybody on their feet singing along and clapping. It’s a great thing, because we’re used to doing headline shows in Europe and the U.K. and having a raucous crowd, and in America it’s a challenge because we’re introducing ourselves. I feel the warmth in America—I think it’s a cultural thing where gig-goers in this country really appreciate soul music and honest songwriting. And you feel that from the crowd. You feel that in a different way than in the U.K. They’re very vocal…if you do a run or a lick, you get people whooping and hollering, so it’s kind of fun (laughs).
DK: Thank you James for doing this interview. Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about for this article?
Arthur: Yes, there is something I’d like to mention. I’m an ambassador of a mental health organization in the U.K. called SANE (a leading mental health charity working to improve quality of life for people affected by mental illness). Basically, it’s encouraging people to talk about their mental health issues. They do great work—their volunteers go there three or four nights a week, talking people down from rooftops and helping people with problems. I would like anyone who’s going through any kind of anxiety or depression or anything, to check it out.