The post-Britpop, indie frontman talks about how he writes songs for the band, for pop stars and for music libraries
Wigan-born songwriter James Walsh burst onto the scene in 2001, fronting the post-Britpop indie band Starsailor. Their first single Fever earned them the title of “Britain’s best new band” and their third single Alcoholic gave the group their first UK Top 10 hit, before their critically acclaimed debut album Love Is Here reached No 2 in the UK Album Charts. Sophomore LP Silence Is Easy also hit the No 2 spot, and its title track reached No 9 on the UK Singles Chart, but this would prove to be Starsailor’s high watermark, with subsequent releases gradually losing their commercial impact.
In 2009, James Walsh started recording his first solo album, Lullaby, working with Suzanne Vega at first and then ultimately songwriter-producer Sacha Skarbek. While establishing his career away from the band, James began writing with other acts, such as Spice Girl Melanie C and 2010 X Factor winner Matt Cardle, and he still continues to work as a collaborative songwriter for emerging artists.
After a five-year hiatus, Starsailor reformed in 2014, enjoying triumphant festival performances and their return was swiftly followed by the release of Good Souls: The Greatest Hits, which included two brand new tracks Give Up The Ghost and Hold On.
We caught up with James outside a London recording studio, taking a break from a co-writing session, just before Starsailor released their fifth studio album All This Life…
Tell us how Starsailor started as a band.
“Well, we all went to college together in Wigan, but I’m a few years younger than the rest of the band. There was an end of term concert and the guy who was meant to be singing – who was in a higher year – fell ill, so my lecturer at the time put me forward. That’s the first time the rest of the band heard me sing, then they approached me in the pub afterwards and said. ‘Do you want to come to a rehearsal?’ So someone’s misfortune was my fortune!”
Had you already started developing your skills as a singer-songwriter at that point?
“Yeah, a little bit. I’d been playing in little ensembles for college projects and stuff, and I’d done a few open mic nights around my home town.”
Looking back at the Starsailor discography, pretty much all your tracks were credited to the band as a whole. Were they written as a group, jamming them out, or did you individually bring ideas in to work on?
“It varies really. I guess some of the more laid back… Most of the ballads were me presenting a fully formed song – at least first verse, chorus and chords – then the band took it from there. Whereas the four-to-the-floor songs were more of a seed of an idea that I had, that we all hammered out together. There’s only me working on the lyrics.”
How did you approach writing the words? Was it a tricky process or was it more spontaneous?
“Initially quite spontaneous, rather than second guess myself and over-analyse, unless something’s wrong. That’s something that’s accelerated in the songwriting business outside the band; you basically get a day with an artist to write a song. You can’t go off for three weeks to work on the lyrics – it’s got to be the best it can be, within that period. Usually the best results come out that way as well.”
When you’re working with another artist for the first time, do you start the session with a clean slate or do you get a headstart with an initial idea?
“I prefer to either start with a blank slate or give the artist at least a chance to come up with a seed of an idea, so there’s a little bit of them in the song. They’re more interested in developing it and taking it somewhere, then it’s my job to help them realise their idea into a fully formed song. Occasionally someone might be blank or jaded and ‘written-out’ because it’s their 80th session of the week, and then it’s up to me to get things going. I think, lyrically, you want them to tell their story, so I try to let them lead it. Over the years I’ve learnt how to translate what someone’s trying to say into a succinct set of lyrics.”
Where do you like to write?
“I quite like working in the studio. With artists, definitely, because you get to listen to what you’ve done and present their management and label with something that’s a bit further down the line. They can hear where it’s going production-wise as well.”
How about for your own stuff, for the band?
“I write my own stuff all the time, wherever I am. Most of the songs I’ve written for the last album were recorded as a voice note on my phone and then picked it up when we needed songs, basically! I listened through and chose the best ones and developed them into songs.”
Looking at your career on paper, it looks like you went straight from Starsailor into writing for other artists, then had your solo career before returning to the band. Is that how it happened and were these all conscious decisions?
“I think I prefer to approach it in terms of what people want me to do, rather than have a pre-designed idea of ‘this is who I am and this is where I’m going and this is what I’m going to do’. I’m more open to approaches and people offering work in different areas of songwriting and music.
“The main difference between what I’m doing now and how I approach the band, to how it was before, is that before there was a huge amount of pressure on the band because it was the only thing we had, really. Whereas, now I’m quite happy to be creating music, whatever it’s for, whether it’s for another artist or for TV and film. It’s just more enjoyable and relaxed – we’re not sweating over radio playlists and gold records anymore!”
Do you write songs specifically for the band now, or do you come up with an idea first and then decide who it might be good for?
“I don’t know really. Usually I’m just writing for myself and then when a band project comes along – like when we got the deal with Cooking Vinyl – I go back to what I’ve written and decide which of those ideas can be developed into the band sound. But I do like having a project to aim for, like when you get a brief for a film. Like recently I’ve been doing library and production music. There’s a school of thought that library music is – kind of – I don’t know, it’s…”
Soul-less? Wallpaper music?
“Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, if I write something really good, should I set it aside for myself, or the band? But I’ve kind of reconciled that if people want to use it, then I’ve got to have faith in my abilities to keep writing good songs. You’ve got to let things go. Also, it increases the chance of the stuff being used and synced, developing my reputation.”
Tell us about the new album. What brought the band back together now?
“It all came together quite organically really. I’d been reluctant to – not so much the album – go back to the band for a while, because I felt like we’d run our course and left on a high point. There was a no point doing it unless we were able to come back on a high point. We were lucky enough to get offered an arena tour with James, a few years ago, and that just felt like the right thing to come back with. So we decided to see how that goes and obviously we’re all still really good mates and we get on, and that went really well. So we eased back into it and then Cooking Vinyl offered us the deal for the album, so we thought we might as well give it a go.”
Did you approach the album any differently than in the past?
“I’d say the process of actually writing the songs was quicker than it had been before. Maybe because of all the work I’ve been doing over the last few years – having that pressure to write a song in a day and come up with ideas spontaneously – was reflected in the rehearsal room and the studio when I was working on the Starsailor stuff.”
We really like the album, especially your falsetto on Take A Little Time. Has your voice changed or was that a conscious decision to sing it like that?
“Yeah I think it was particularly suited to that song, because we wanted to maintain the warm, laid back vibe of the track. Something belted out in full voice would’ve taken that away slightly. And I love the Bee Gees and [Curtis] Mayfield, and Wonderland, that Charlatans album, so that’s definitely an influence on that.”
What sort of other artists you’ve been working with recently?
“There have been loads. There’s a young lad called Will Morgan, who I’ve worked with quite a bit, who’s really good. There’s someone called Jessarae who’s from California and he’s been working with Iain Archer as well – he’s got a really good sound and is with Modest Management that look after Little Mix and One Direction.”
Are you simply given acts to work with as part of your publishing deal, or do you select people you want to write with?
“There are a few things that come through my own personal contacts, or someone’s messaged me on Twitter, or something. But generally, like you say, the publisher gets in contact and puts sessions in the diary. Unless it’s completely off the wall, I like to have a go at everything! You never know what will work out.”
Are there any tactics you employ if a session isn’t really working?
“I don’t know! Just keep going. If things are really dragging, or – even if an idea’s really good – and you’re struggling to get to the next stage, it’s always good to park it and work on a new idea completely different, instead of struggling on.”
What’s coming up next?
“The album’s out, then we’re touring the UK in October, and then hopefully we’ll go into Europe after that.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Starsailor’s fifth studio album All This Life is out now. For more details, go to starsailorband.co.uk