Mining his own emotions for his confessional music, this singer-songwriter knows how to extract his deepest feelings for his art
My name is Dylan James, I’m a British singer-songwriter and I write from the heart. My journey has been a difficult one, but I’m here to tell the story and give you a perspective of what it’s like to face my own fears and lay my soul bare in songwriting. On the surface, people would describe me as an alpha male but that’s not the true picture. Like all of us, I have a vulnerable side, but until recently I found it difficult to talk about my feelings. I would always sweep them under the carpet, let alone turn them into songs. Depression hit me hard. I felt ashamed, I didn’t understand it and certainly didn’t want to talk about it. The only way I could get the words out was through the guitar. I felt at peace and my guitar would never judge me.
WE’RE NOT SUPERHEROES
I’m NOT Superman is now one of the best tracks I perform live and where my songwriting journey started. It’s a song I think every man can relate to: “I’m not superman, I can’t do the things you think I can.” The lyrics came from a place where I felt pressure to be like a modern-day superhero and just saying, “I can do that,” but underneath the skin, I knew I couldn’t.
The first verse opens with, “Boys don’t cry; you expect too much you expect me to fly,” I even wrote about the kids pushing me to be like the man from the CBeebies show Mister Maker. In their minds, he was a superhero who Daddy could replicate: “I’ll be your mister maker; I can build the world out of paper.”
I wore a mask for years, hiding behind the fear of failure, but I got to the stage where I didn’t care anymore what people thought. I wanted to express this frustration in a song which told the story. I’m NOT Superman became the song which championed my songwriting for my debut album, Expected To Fly.
IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY – SAY IT
Writing from the heart always feels so difficult because you are completely naked and it’s so much easier to just write about the day-to-day stuff we experience. The problem is that, if you have something to say, you’re not being true to yourself unless you write about it and ultimately that comes across to anyone listening to your music.
Of course, production is important but a producer can only do so much. If you have something to say, then say it because your songs will then always have a purpose. I found a way to pull my feelings from my heart and once I started writing I couldn’t stop. The floodgates opened and each song felt like therapy. I started to let go of the past and turned the darkness into something beautiful.
Another track of mine, Black Cloud was written with lots of delay because I needed to push myself into another world. It still haunts me now: “Don’t give in, stay alive, don’t let the black cloud pull you in, just let the black cloud pass you by.” It was a tough song to write but it became my anchor, my signature song for the album. I knew where I had come from and that the album would soon have its spotlight.
TELL YOUR STORY
We’ve all had dark days and facing the world can often seem impossible. I remember watching a documentary on Alastair Campbell who every morning found it difficult to pull his blinds back and see the world he had to face. He was so brave to tell his story. I guess that resonated with me and I could relate to his battles. The documentary inspired me to write Hide which starts with the lyrics, “Don’t you just want to wake up and hide and stay in bed for the rest of your life.” The more I’ve understood depression the more I respect it. Getting out of bed, as simple as it is to most people, is so hard for those who have been depressed.
I like to build hope into my songs and, at the end of Hide, it finishes with the joy of dancing with the one you love in a place which is only yours. “We can dance behind our own walls, where nobody calls.”
WRITE WITH NO FILTER
Writing with no filter comes with risk and often anxiety about what others will think when you open your Pandora’s box. My own personal experience is that it’s never as bad as it seems in your mind. I guess the alternative is to write the songs and never release them, but then no one will ever hear your magic. The success of your journey as an artist far outweighs the risk, or I wouldn’t be writing this now.
Overall, my writing process has been to write down my feelings and experiences on paper and then craft them into words which relate to each experience. I usually have a working title for the song and what that song means to me, this gives the song ownership. A short story. Sometimes I will close my eyes and remember that experience and paint the picture in my head. Once I have the first verse, I get my guitar and play with the chords/sounds which bring the words to life. I’m a sucker for a big melody so will always find a melody for my lyrics to surf on. Never dismiss a hook, it’s what we all want. It makes us feel good. The hook gives your words a stage to be heard on.
Have faith be brave and let the world hear your story. I’ve told my story in my album and it’s important you tell your story. It doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. Make it yours.