Written by Molly Gorman
I had the pleasure of speaking with singer-songwriter James Vickery on the day his new single, ‘With U’ featuring Kojey Radical, was released. ‘It was really a dream come true to work with Kojey,’ he says. James wanted someone British on the track and Kojey was his first choice, ‘he did it so perfectly and so quickly – I was jealous of how quickly he did it!’ The blend of James’ emotive, unique vocal tone with Kojey’s earthy rasp is the perfect combination for a sensual, sultry r’n’b hit.
James has made a lot of dreamy collaborations in the past. Back in 2012 his vocals featured on ‘Flow’ with Disclosure, and more recently he’s created ‘Pressure’ with SG Lewis, a really good friend of his, ‘Come To Me’ with Musiq Soulchild, and ‘You Comfort Me’ with Earthgang. I assume there must be a great deal of trust necessary to thrive in the music industry and I wonder if he’s ever encountered an opportunity for a collaboration which doesn’t quite go to plan. ‘Absolutely, trust really is important to me which is why I tend to work with my friends,’ he says. ‘Especially because I make quite vulnerable, authentic music. I only want to bring in people who do the same thing. For this track it was great because I could sing about my life and Kojey could sing about his.’ And that’s the beauty of merging talent – respective artists can maintain their own identity but produce something euphonious together.
I acknowledge that James has actually been on the music scene for a while, ‘You’re right, I haven’t come out of nowhere, Molly!’ he laughs. It’s true, post auditioning for both The Voice and The X Factor as a teenager (he sang with winner James Arthur at the bootcamp stage of the competition), James realised that the talent show route wasn’t for him. Instead, he took some time to grow and to find his voice, furthermore releasing his first single ‘Epiphany’ back in 2016. Originally, he had more of a folk/acoustic sound before progressing into r’n’b/neo-soul, when well-deserved recognition started to flood in, with his 2018 COLORS performance of ‘Until Morning’ taking off. It garnered over 29 million times on YouTube, has been streamed over seven million times on Spotify and James has since amassed almost a million regular monthly listeners.
His art clearly resonates with a wide audience, (typically across the UK, America and South Africa), ‘I have a crazy big following in South Africa which is amazing and I don’t know why! My mum is South African but I don’t think that has anything to do with it… I think they just like my type of music.’ His first album is titled ‘Songs That Made Me Feel’, nodding to heartfelt, vulnerable lyrics which marry his angelic voice. I ask about his writing process, ‘for me, I write best when it’s directly linked to something happening in my life. The whole EP is about different aspects going on in my life, over the last six or seven months. That’s my writing process – I write about things that are deeply affecting me, positive or negative. It’s interesting because you can look back and see different phases in my life: heartbreak, falling in love, falling out of love. Life does that and it’s reflected in the music.’ He then jokes, ‘things must be going well at the moment as I’m writing a lot of sultry, bedroom music at the moment – make of that what you will!’
James is completely deaf in one ear, and is very open about his hearing impairment. He created a documentary on YouTube called ‘Louder’ about how it has affected his life and his career as a musician; it’s nothing short of brave. I was moved by James’ honesty and vulnerability in the documentary – he discusses how he didn’t want his impairment to tarnish his career, and is up front about the difficulties he faces when making music. In the documentary he says, ‘I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s really hard being a singer with a hearing impairment. There are certain things that I just can’t do and that really is upsetting for me because I wanna be the best version of myself and as an artist and musician. I can’t mix my own records because I can’t pan the speakers… I can only listen with one headphone, I have to listen to everything in mono, there are definitely frequencies that I can’t pick up because I have 50 percent less hearing than everyone else.’
Since the documentary was released, James has received overwhelming support, ‘I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t gone through that as a child, losing my hearing so young. Since I’ve been open about it, so many people have reached out, especially people who have the same condition.’ We discuss how great it is to have more representation of deafness in different forms in the mainstream media – Tasha Ghouri from Love Island and Rose Ayling-Ellis from Eastenders/Strictly Come Dancing are just two examples of incredibly successful figures raising awareness and making people remember that they aren’t alone. James said ‘it makes me feel so proud to be a part of that community. I wanted to show the reality of it but also tell people to never let it hold you back.’
Meeting James felt more like having a chat with a friend opposed to an interview – he has a great sense of humour and is very easy to get along with. His fans can get a good sense of this through social media. TikTok in particular, (which he uses avidly like most artists nowadays) showcases his personality. ‘Social media doesn’t come naturally to me. TikTok has evolved since I first started and the algorithm is good, definitely opposed to Instagram! You do have to sell yourself but there is a mutual understanding with fans and artists – I’m a bit goofy and strange so I’m quite happy to be cringey on there! Instagram feels more corporate and serious to me.’
Sonically, James wants to keep people guessing with what’s to come. ‘R’n’b and soul is such a broad umbrella of music. I like to dip in and out of different subsidiaries of r’n’b, but I like to think that the thing that ties it all together is my vocal.’ He draws influence from Daniel Caesar, James Blake and Tom Misch, with Caesar’s album Freudien blowing him away, ‘it’s gospel infused and the lyrics are poetry. It was a large reason why I went to Toronto to write the EP, to feel the energy and I got the chance to work with some of the people he’s worked with and who know him really well. I’m also inspired by Sam Smith too, who made me realise that you can be deeply emotional with music!’
Alongside his passion for songwriting, it’s evident that performing excites him; I can see the expression on his face change as he speaks about it. His love for it stems from musical theatre, which he did a lot of in his early years. His YouTube channel is full of live versions of his music, which might give you a small taster of what his shows are like. ‘I see myself as a live performer. I pride myself on the live show and I work so hard on it – I work towards the live shows – I promote music so people come to my shows. My end goal is to put on a show that sells out really quickly.’ For someone who thrives off a live show, the Covid lockdown must have been difficult. ‘It was grim – I didn’t realise how much of an effect it would have on me! There is no other feeling when songs you write are being sung back to you by thousands of people – these songs you write in your bedroom. It’s almost like a drug, the endorphins you get.’
In November he will get to do just that, as he embarks on a tour supporting another inspiration of his, Sabrina Claudio, playing 14 dates across Europe. He’ll also be releasing one more new single before the end of the year and hopes to play some shows of his own in 2023, ‘I’d love to play the O2 in Brixton and sell it out quickly – I’d be so happy if that happened. And Koko! That would be an amazing headline show, I used to go clubbing there back in the day when I was eighteen.’
Head over to James Vickery’s Spotify page to hear more of his latest work.