James Arthur is back with his fifth album, Bitter Sweet Love (January 26).
Since rising to stardom in 2012 as the winner of the ninth series of The X Factor, Arthur has had worldwide success. He has two UK No.1 singles to his name, the first being his debut single Impossible and the second being his 2016 track Say You Won’t Let Go, as well as one UK No.1 album for his second record, Back From The Edge.
Arthur’s new record – relased via Columbia – follows his 2021 album It’ll All Make Sense In The End, which went to No.3 in the UK and has 54,879 sales to-date, according to the Official Charts Company.
Music Week spoke to James Arthur in this month’s Aftershow feature, where he discussed the influences behind the new record.
“There was a longing to make more organic, natural-feeling music again,” he said. “Growing up, I really loved the softer version of Springsteen in Bryan Adams. A lot of music that came out of America and with that big ‘80s feel to it. My bandmates are really into all of that, so I dived in and my musical director has been educating me."
Here, we meet up with James Arthur to go deeper on the new record, reflect on his career so far and to talk world touring and a huge homecoming...
Your forthcoming album, Bitter Sweet Love, feels much more organic in sound compared to previous material. Was that a conscious stylistic choice?
“One hundred percent. Last time, I made an experimental, trap and pop-infused record [2021’s It’ll All Make Sense In The End] but touring on those songs and hearing live drums again really inspired me. I presented the songs in quite a different way. I like how that record sounds, but when I went on the road and I played it there was a little bit of regret that I hadn’t captured them in a more organic way.
“As soon as I got off tour, I went straight into writing because I wanted to bottle that feeling. I tried out a few new people to work with, but I wasn’t really interested in finding co-writers as such, I was more on the hunt for a producer who could help bring to life the vision that I had for this body of work. Myself and Steve Solomon hadn’t been in a room together since 2016 but we hit it off right away and I ended up clearing my diary and making the album.”
How was that working dynamic this time around?
“Anything I mentioned that I loved or that I put to Steve he just got immediately. He’d been a session guitarist for a long time, so he’s really good at playing a riff or suggesting a style of tuning that’s just my taste. Together we made a great team. So much so, we’re currently writing another album, my sixth. I’m hoping to get that in the bank before I go on tour next year.”
Speaking of, 2024 looks stacked, with a world tour to promote Bitter Sweet Love. How are you feeling looking ahead to everything?
“I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say but it feels both extremely exciting and quite daunting. We’ll be going to Europe first, which will be a testing ground for a lot of the new material. There are some massive shows lined up along the way. The fact that we put this tour on and it sold out has been very humbling, to be honest, particularly the The O2 and Wembley. Because I’m doing both of them, I feel like I’m punching above my weight a bit.”
It all culminates in a massive homecoming headliner at the Riverside stadium in Middlesbrough. What does it mean to you personally, to return to your roots with such a statement show?
“It’s a very deprived area and not many people make it out. It’s got the highest unemployment rate in the UK. So, if ever I reflect on how far I’ve come that’s one of the things I take into account. Just getting out of Middlesbrough and being able to have the career I have had so far is phenomenal, let alone coming back to play these sorts of shows. It’s mental. I feel very lucky, I really do. It’s an amazing thing to do with your life. The fact that the promoters have got faith that I’m going to sell that thing out is testament to how far we’ve come.”
To put on an arena tour, and for it to sell out the way it has, that’s a huge milestone in itself and I’m really happy about it
On paper these are career milestones in the making. Was it important to come back with a bang to support this record?
“Pre-pandemic, it felt like I was establishing myself as an arena act but coming back it felt like there was a bit of work to do and I was told, ‘We’re not quite ready for that, so let’s do a theatre tour again.’ I felt like I took a step backwards, in a way. The last album was a mainstream record, but it didn’t get mainstream attention really. For me, to put on an arena tour and for it to sell out the way it has, that’s a huge milestone in itself and I’m really happy about it.”
Reflecting on past achievements, what stands out as the most surreal moment success has brought so far?
“Years ago, when I was on the Jonathan Ross show, I got to have a conversation with Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Cilla Black. When I think of my big ‘celeb’ moments, that would be No.1. My nana was so buzzing! To share a couch with those three legends was insane. Tom Hanks said to me, ‘My wife has your music on in our house all the time’ and I’m like, ‘What is going on, man?’ My mind was blown. Tom Hanks is probably the G.O.A.T. [‘Greatest Of All Kind’] for me. But I’ve always said I’d love to get in a room with Eminem, Jay-Z, Drake and those kinds of big hitters, to do a big hook on one of their songs. That’s what I’m aiming for.”
In 2023 you told Music Week that you resisted Say You Won’t Let Go becoming a single before it was certified Diamond in the US, which you said highlighted “how much I know about A&R”. What do you understand about A&R nowadays?
“Well, obviously I haven’t learned too much about listening to other people, but I still think I’m the best A&R in the room, most of the time! Thankfully, I’ve got a great A&R in Tom Overbury now and it’s cool to be working with someone who lets me be an artist. He’s a good one. I don’t know how many good ones are out there, but Tom is one of them.
“I think what it was with me, I’ve always been afraid of being cheesy or corny. People around me always tell me that I can’t be because I have a way of delivering something and just be a bit cooler. I think I’m much more sensitive to it than other people are though. And I’m trying to embrace that a little more. There’s a challenge in my head: how can I do something that everyone will love that isn’t inherently cheesy yet still make it as cool as it can possibly be to me? That’s the crusade that I’m on.”
WORDS: DAVE McLAUGHLIN