James TW on Soft Sound Press

Interview: James TW stays honest & authentic on “Butterflies”

For those who like to dance with tears in their eyes… I really hope you’ve been listening to James TW. His latest single “Butterflies” leaves me in emotional turmoil every time. If I can disassociate juuuuust enough to let the lyrics just be background noise, it’s an absolute bop. But the moment I start to tune back in, the words dig their claws in and leave me laying flat on the floor, missing an ex I don’t have (I don’t miss the ex I do have).

The harmonies on the repeat of “for you” in the chorus feel both like a full church choir and a whisper in the wind, like a memory that you know is there but can’t quite bring to the surface. A perfect representation of finding yourself solo after a breakup and trying to move forward, while the imprints of your previous life haven’t been washed away yet. We had the absolute pleasure of chatting with James about his new single, creating his new album over Zoom, and the main goal of writing music to share it with the world (spoiler: it’s honest human connection 👫). Read it all + listen to “Butterflies” below!

Thanks for chatting with SSP! Your music is so much fun, I’ve been listening to “Butterflies” on a loop. Now that it’s been out for a minute, how has this release been for you?

It’s been a mixture of emotions, really. In the buildup to it, I was excited and confident. And then in the week prior to it coming out, I was really nervous and second guessing everything but that’s just kind of what happens. It’s such a long process to find out how a song will be perceived and what it’s going to do. As soon as it came out — after the first like hour of being like, “whoa, I can find it and I can listen to it” — I was like, “I’m just going to go write more songs now.” That’s kind of it.

It’s funny, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing with a lot of the artists I talk to. You get so excited for a minute and then it’s like… okay, let’s keep moving.

Yeah, you can’t stand still and stare. You’re better off making more stuff, you know?

Absolutely. I guess the last time that you released a full body of work, the world was a totally different place. How has this release been different in terms of approach or how you actually share it with listeners?

Well, I mean, the creation of it has been different. Most of the songs in the first half of the album were about a breakup I went through last year during lockdown. All the songs were written over Zoom, so that was a new experience. Last March, I tried it for the first time and “Butterflies” was the first song that came out of a Zoom session. So I thought, “this works for me, I can do this as long as I work with people that don’t mind the camera thing.” And if I’ve worked with them before, I usually had a better experience because you don’t have to meet them for the first time over Zoom as well. Sometimes I’d work over a live stream to work on production, that was different too. Technology’s better. I went to Venice in California to record my first album and afterwards, when I came back home, we were having to FaceTime to go over the last little bit, but it was so bad. Now you can get a high quality live stream of someone working in their software. I sound so old saying this–

No, but it’s true! Tech’s come a long way in our lifetime.

It’s been a lot easier because of that.

For sure. I can only imagine any artist who doesn’t adapt to that as much would be having a more difficult time with it, but it sounds like it’s gone well for you so far! I mean, I’ve only heard one song, but it sounds like it’s going well.

I think it’s going well, fingers crossed.

Not to hop too far back in your timeline, but I think it’s so interesting that your musical journey started with drumming with your dad’s band for weddings. I kept finding conflicting information, was this a one-time gig or an ongoing career?

It was ongoing. I basically got called in last minute ’cause the drummer was really sick, and they either had to cancel the show or let me play. I was really young, I was about 10. I played the show and the drummer was so pissed that they did that, that he quit. He just left the band. So then I became the drummer for the band and I played with them for five years. I have such fond memories of that time in my life.

That’s so fun. I’m guessing growing up in a musical household probably influenced how you ended up at this point in your career. Is there anything that you learned from your dad that’s helped you get here?

I think he was instrumental when I was a kid. He bought a drum kit because he saw on the news that it was good for stress after work, and he didn’t play the drums. He bought them and when I came home from school one day, I was like, “I love this, this is awesome.” He got me some lessons and always encouraged me to try and get better at my instrument or try and write a song or try and upload that song to YouTube. And then when it came to more serious stuff, like picking managers and my career professionally, he was a part of every step.

Oh, that’s so nice. And then, skipping a few steps, eventually it was our hometown boy, Shawn Mendes, who helped shine a spotlight on what you were doing. And now you’re Island Records brothers.

I know. It feels like it happened really quickly. It was just a tweet that he sent that turned into a meeting and then that turned into an offer. And then I accepted the offer and went from there. That was seven years ago.

Oh my god. I have such a warped perception of time right now just because of, you know, this year. But like–

I totally lied. It’s not seven years. Why’d I think it was seven years?? It’s like… wait, no. Oh my gosh, it has been seven years! To your point, I can’t think about time right now either.

It’s really hard! I can’t separate what happened last year and what happened when I was in high school. I have no idea anymore.

I think as a musician in general, because I’m not working 9 to 5, I never pay attention to what day of the week it is. I can be working anytime, but I think for the rest of the world as well, that’s become a thing during lockdown.

I feel like artists also tend to measure time by what city they’re in. It’s not “that happened six months ago,” it’s “that happened when I was in Boston.”

I wonder if I think about things like that? Maybe I do, it’s just location-based.

It’s kind of funny, but then you have to try to remember when you were actually there, and that’s a whole other struggle. Between not being aware of time and all the Zoom writing you’ve been doing, how have you been finding balance between life and work when everything’s happening in the same space?

I’ve been probably struggling like most people. I moved out of this place that I was living in with my ex in September. I moved to the other side of London, so now I’m in the central part of the city. I love walking the city all the time. I do at least 10,000 steps a day, just walking and seeing things. There’s an unlimited amount of things to look at, so I guess that helps me if I get out. If I can walk with a friend then great, but even on my own to see a bit of life — even though it’s not the way it should be — that’s really helped.

That’s got to be weird. As a tourist to London, it always seems so busy.

Well, I moved to this place called Shoreditch, which was meant to be the nightlife of London. So I’ve been here a couple of times when it’s normal and it’s packed, it’s a zoo. But it’s so quiet now. It’s literally just takeaway places that are open. It’s a weird time, but we’re so close. With vaccines coming out, it actually can end soon. So who knows?

Yeah, it feels like we’re starting to plan for the future again. Festivals and shows are being announced. Whether they happen or not is another story, but it kind of… I don’t know, gives you hope?

Even today. The weather, it was one of the first times where London actually looked like spring instead of just gloomy, rainy winter. And that gave me hope. It made me imagine what it’s going to be like in the sun with people, you know?

Do you have anything specific that you’re really looking forward to doing once it’s safe?

Playing shows in general, just that human interaction and connection that you get when you play your music. These people, they listen to the music in their own time, in their own home, and you don’t get to see that. You see the numbers of how many times this song’s been streamed. But when you’re there and the person’s in the audience and they’re watching you, and they’re singing the words back to you… you see what it means way more than you’d see in a tweet or a post. I miss that. And I’m a bit of a performer, naturally I’m a bit of a class clown, and I just miss being in front of people and trying to entertain them.

It’s a huge shift. Have you been able to harness any of that connection through online platforms, whether it’s live streaming or TikTok or something else?

Last year, I started writing songs with fans over IG Live and then just doing little acoustic sets, but I’m getting a bit tired of the camera thing, you know? It’s not the same, but I think we’ve had some fun challenges that we’ve set up for ourselves. And that’s the thing, everyone’s had to be flexible. The whole industry. People who write songs have to write over camera now, people who perform have to do it in live stream settings, but we will adjust ’cause we just want to still have that connection.

Honestly, I feel like it’s important now more than ever to have that connection. I find myself… I’ve been in the music industry for a long time. You get jaded sometimes to parts of it. Just being home and listening to my favourite songs again, I feel like I have a new appreciation for music again.

I feel like you just have to remind yourself why you love it in the first place. The industry has got all kinds of things that can sometimes, like you say, jade you or just stop you from thinking about it. I’ve realized that’s kind of half my process with writing. I don’t want to write because it’s my job and I have to write to pay bills and I’m a songwriter now. The reason I wrote my first song when I was 12 was because I had this crush on someone and I really wanted to write it down, and I turned it into a song. And that’s what writing should be all the time.

I think that’s important, because you can feel when that intention leaves the music. When it starts to become “we have to write an album and it’s due in October,” you can feel it. So I think that’s probably a good mindset to have. We’ve had this weird year, everybody I’ve spoken to keeps saying “this was going to be my year, I had so much planned and now I’ve been at home.” It sucks, but it means everybody’s going to be chomping at the bit as soon as this is over and ready to go get their dreams. Do you have any pipe dreams that you’d love to chase once we’re back out in the world?

I’m quite the quantitative person, which really goes against what I do for a living ’cause that can’t be quantified. It’s very unhealthy for me to sit there looking at how many streams something gets, because it’s completely out of my control and it affects my mood and everything. Really my main goal with this next album is to give me the opportunity to make another one. It has to do well enough and connect with enough people to the point where I get endorsed to make another one, ’cause that’s what I love doing. In amongst that is touring, and I do get obsessed with what venue I can play and whether I can step up a venue in a certain city. I love all that stuff. At the end of the day, like you say, I think the less specific I am and the more I remind myself why I’m doing this in the first place, it’s a blessing I get to do this for a job. So if I can just keep doing that, then I’m winning.

I like that, that’s a good answer. Speaking of the future, I heard some whispers about your next single “Hopeless Romantics.” Are you allowed to tell me about it or is it too soon?

I’m happy to! It’s very different to “Butterflies”, it probably couldn’t be more different sonically. It’s a piano based song and it’s got strings. We went to Abbey Road and recorded all of it, so it was a special song. Essentially I moved, like I said, to the other side of London after this breakup and I was like, “I need to find out by myself what I like and what I don’t like.” I didn’t think about the breakup at all once I moved here, and then a very good friend of mine who I write with said, “Have you gone back yet? Have you actually thought about that moment and tried to write a song about when you knew it was all done?” And I was like, “no, I don’t really want to because I’m happy now,” but he kind of made me. He was like, “nah, I think we should try this just once.”

So I dug out all the journals from that time when I was really down. I was really sassy and bossy with him whilst we were writing it. I did not want to be nice to him. But he brought this emotion out of me that was just so celebratory. Instead of it being sad and angry emotions, it was just kind of like… wow, that was such a good thing. We were naive when we first got together, we were 16. I love this song and I feel like “Hopeless Romantics” could be the biggest song on the album. I’m still writing for the second half, but I love the song. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

I’m excited to hear it. It sounds like we’re going on a whole journey with you here.

I think about that sometimes. I don’t have to let people in as much as this, but I kind of love it. It’s just who I am. I love sharing things. So yeah, this song shares a lot for sure.

Do you ever find your fans sharing that level back with you as well?

Definitely. I get lots of private messages from people talking about their experiences and how a song has described it or helped them in a certain situation. It’s just so wholesome. It’s just the best thing that music can do. When people connect to songs, they want to share their stories.

That’s wonderful. And I feel like everybody is looking for that connection right now. So it helps that you’ve put yourself out there and been like, “I’ve been through this,” and then everybody else gets to come back and tell you “me too” just to have some human connection.

Yeah! I think that’s the thing about songwriting in general, as well. You know when I was talking about writing just for the sake of writing? That’s usually because you’re dry and you don’t have any inspiration. But there’s this thing that’s happening, and I think it’s happening on socials as well with the TikTok world, where people are really honest about the weird quirky things that they feel or they do in their own time and they don’t filter it. Then hundreds of thousands of people are like, “I do that too and I feel that too.” And that’s what I think — if you’re honest in songwriting — bridges the gap between people in the same way.

Yeah. TikTok has been really weird for that. I keep wondering if I actually have any unique personality traits or if we’re all just living the exact same life worldwide.

I view it as a nice thing.

It’s definitely nice! It’s just strange to see how similar our experiences are. When people talk about things from childhood in the 90s, how did we all do the same quirky things without the internet showing us other people were doing them too? It’ll definitely come in handy with this album, having everybody listen and be able to connect with it.

Yeah, I think if I can learn how to tell the story in a format that translates in that app, it could definitely spread the music in a great way. Because it’s obviously different from a song, and that’s the best way I know how to.

Absolutely. You’ve already achieved some really incredible things and now obviously you will be achieving some incredible things with this album as well. I’m excited to watch it happen in real time. What is the best thing that fans and supporters can do right now to support you as you start rolling out this new music?

I’ve spoken a little bit about socials already. But when fans are listening to the music, it makes sense that these kinds of apps that they’re listening on look at the data. If they’re listening to it from a saved playlist, that means a lot more to them than if they’re going to one of the editorial playlists that has loads of songs on it and they listen to me from there. So saving the songs to your own playlist, sharing the songs with people that you know, posting it, using the internet for the great tool that it is to help spread the word is probably the best thing that they could be doing to help.

Congratulations on everything so far, and everything to come!

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