Interview: Jamie Lawson
One of 2015’s true success stories, the excellent, Ed Sheeran-endorsed Jamie Lawson demonstrates why budding songwriters shouldn’t relinquish their dream
It’s said that good things come to those who wait and, for 39-year-old Plymouth songwriter Jamie Lawson, that statement holds greater clarity than for most. With more than 10 years passing since he released his debut album, and having toiled among the toilets while seeing other writers achieve ascendancy, Lawson was at the point at which many of his peers might have thrown in the towel. Conscious, though, of his endeavour and unwilling to spoil it, he pressed on. Fate would then play its hand.
Ed Sheeran – a veteran of the gig-until-your-fingers-bleed approach – knew Lawson from his time playing to the barflies and was a fan of his music. However, it was still pure chance that caused the songwriters’ paths to cross, once he’d achieved superstar status. While playing in Ireland, Sheeran saw Jamie’s poster in a pub and had him added to his bill at Dublin’s Ruby Sessions, as well as his global tour, and so began Jamie Lawson’s own ascent towards stardom.
2015 has seen Jamie become the first signing to Ed Sheeran’s label, Gingerbread Man Records, and release a UK Top 10 single in Wasn’t Expecting That. We caught up with Jamie prior to the release of his self-titled major label debut album this month, which made it to No 1 on the UK Album Charts – pushing Sheeran’s own record to No 2!
What made you decide to become a songwriter?
“I don’t remember there being a point where I thought about it. I was in a school band playing cover songs – R.E.M., Hendrix, Chili Peppers – and then I started writing, because that was what bands did. We got to a point where we were doing half covers and half original sets at gigs. We were only 16 or 17. The songs were terrible, but that’s how you start isn’t it?”
Who were your formative influences?
“In terms of songwriting, I loved R.E.M.’s Out Of Time album. I think the song Losing My Religion was huge for me. It had this great melody that made it very easy to sing along with on the surface and then had all this depth underneath that made you really think. It was kind of your choice as to whether you invested in to that or not. I did, and so found a whole catalogue of great melodic songs with unusual, strange and beautiful lyrics. I then discovered 10,000 Maniacs who wrote these often heavy lyrics over the happiest music and completely messed with your head! Motown is similar; happy-sounding songs with often very sad lyrics. I was a huge Jackson 5 fan. Since then, I guess it’s been people like Bob Dylan, Ron Sexsmith, Mark Eitzel, Elbow, Patty Griffin – all amazing lyricists and melody writers.”
What are the things that inspire you as a writer?
“It can come from anywhere. Wasn’t Expecting That came from a conversation, The Only Conclusion came from watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory! Still Yours and Ahead Of Myself literally came out of nowhere. They weren’t there and then they were. It’s very odd how it works.”
How do you feel your songwriting has developed since you began making music?
“I think I’m more aware of what a chorus needs to do in moving away from a verse than I used to be, but I still struggle with this sometimes. I find it very easy to see in writing with others but if it’s just me it doesn’t always jump out. I don’t think I’m as emotionally involved as I used to be. I feel my earlier songs were very personal; me trying to work out what was going on in my life. Now I’m more able to let my imagination, observations and a bit of life experience lead the way.”
How would you like your songwriting to develop – do you have a direction in mind?
“I don’t know, I wouldn’t mind writing a country record and I wouldn’t mind writing a folk record, but neither of those things are far from where I am now, just a little step to the left.”
What’s the best tip you’ve received from a fellow songwriter?
“I’m trying hard to think but I’m not sure anyone’s ever personally giving me any tips on songwriting. I listen to a lot of the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcasts. I’ve picked up a lot of tips from those, finding titles wherever you are and writing to that. Don’t Let Me Let You Go came from the title first. I wrote it with Amy Wadge, who co-wrote Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud – she picked it out of a long list of titles. I was always worried it was going to end up a really cheesy song, because of the title, but I think she managed to help sway me around that… just! I’ve read the book Songwriters On Songwriting a lot too, there are some great tips in that. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s a budding songwriter.”
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give to Songwriting‘s readers?
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to give advice, but I wish someone had told me to keep things simpler. My lines and songs used to be far too long. I try and cut all the shite out these days and get to the point. I don’t always succeed, not for a second do I think that, but I do try. And listen to Ron Sexsmith; everything you need to know about writing great songs is in his records.”
You’re about to release your first album for Gingerbread Man Records, how does that feel?
“It feels very special. I’m on a plane from London to Glasgow and have just gone to No 1 on the iTunes chart for my single and album. It’s a very odd day and I’m not sure what my brain is feeling and what my heart is thinking. I’m all over the place! But it means a lot. Ed Sheeran has always been very supportive of my songs and my abilities as a songwriter, so to have someone who’s had hits as big as he has and who I respect as a songwriter stand behind my work is a huge boost to my confidence.”
Tell us about how you wrote one of the songs on the album?
“Well as I’ve said, Wasn’t Expecting That came out of a conversation where someone said it on an evening out and it just stuck. The first line that came was the second line, ‘Just a delicate kiss, anyone could’ve missed, and I wasn’t expecting that.’ I thought that was pretty sweet and it led on to; what else would you not expect after this and what leads up to it?’ It’s where the craft of songwriting takes over very instinctively. Quite quickly I could see that this was a journey of a couple from the moment they met onwards. I was really chuffed with the chorus chords going from an Em to E major (there’s a capo on the 7th fret) at the point it does, giving a feeling of positivity at that precise moment. I almost considered it ‘a bit clever.’ Proper songwriters had been doing that sort of thing for years of course but it was the first time I’d done it. I also like the change up through G, Ab bass to Am on the Middle 8, it really helps build that part of the song and reinforce the surprise in the lyric; the pure, unadulterated joy of the love they have for each other. I’m very proud of it. The last lines were the hardest. They took a couple more days and when they came I wasn’t expecting it at all. It almost shocked me, to the point where I seriously thought about finding another way to end the song – but my instincts battled with any doubt and the ending stayed. It’s devastating and the song has been warning you it’s coming the whole way through, and yet you still don’t expect it.”
What’s it like working with Ed Sheeran?
“It’s been great, to be honest he was always very into what I was doing and was surprised I hadn’t been given the means to make this record sooner. So it was all quite easy and straight forward – just book me a studio and let me do what he thought I was best at. And again, that’s a huge confidence boost to someone like me who’s been around a while.”
Who would be the first artist you would sign if you started a record label tomorrow?
“The Man Whom. He’s an Irish songwriter who released a record a couple years back called The Greatest Event and it’s brilliant, nobody really picked up on it. He has a new album coming out soon too. I think you guys would love it. There’s a songwriter in Manchester called Lee Parry who I think is brilliant, like a melting pot of Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and those 60’s New York coffee house songwriters. He has a record called Observations which I love. Very acoustic, very stripped-back and it seems to need nothing else.”
Interview: Damien Girling
Next month Jamie Lawson will cement his place as one of 2015’s true success stories, by making his first US appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on 10 November 2015. His self-titled album is out now and you can find out just what we thought of it here. For more on Jamie, check out his official website: jamielawsonmusic.com