At the Zermatt Unplugged festival in Switzerland we had the chance to interview British singer/songwriter James Walsh who rose to popularity with his band Starsailor. In november last year he decided to put his band on hiatus, and began working on a solo album. We talked about the progress of his new album, the festival, some of his musical influences, and the challenges of playing unplugged shows.
James Walsh: We got here last night. We saw the band that was playing last night here, but nobody told us what they were called… (laughs) I think it was a Swiss band, they were quite good. They had quite a Maroon 5 kind of vibe… The singer was very smooth…
nolivelost.com: And what are your impressions of Zermatt and the festival ?
James Walsh: Beautiful! We played here three years ago and really enjoyed it then. It’s a lovely vibe. Everyone’s very friendly, and everyone at the festival has introduced themselves and asked us how we are, and I think that’s quite unique really. At some festivals, you go in and do your show, and you don’t really meet anyone, but this is a very friendly festival. It’s the little touches…, like in the dressing room it said “Welcome James Walsh to Zermatt”, it’s just nice things like that…
James Walsh: Yeah, definitely.
nolivelost.com: Your music with Starsailor had a lot of rich arrangements and also bits of orchestration. Is playing unplugged thought as a specific contrast to that kind of music, that era?
James Walsh: Yeah, I think so. The songs come across direct, and they live and die on the strength of the lyrics and melodies, whereas with more orchestration, you can sort of hide behind that. I think it’s much more of a challenge and much more direct, when it’s just the voice and the piano or guitar.
nolivelost.com: What can we expect tonight? Are you going to be on stage alone, or do you have other musicians with you?
James Walsh: I’m going to be completely on my own. I was saying earlier that this is quite a big challenge, and it’s a first for me really. It’s the biggest show that I’ve done on my own, so I’m hoping that it goes well.
nolivelost.com: When you rearrange some of the Starsailor songs for playing them unplugged, what’s the most challenging part of that process?
James Walsh: I guess some of the songs are more of a challenge, like Four To The Floor, because the riff in it is so integral, so it’s hard to play the original arrangement, it becomes a totally different song when I play it on my own. I think that generally speaking the more riff-based compositions are harder to recreate, than some of the songs that I wrote on my own with a guitar anyway…
nolivelost.com: Among your major musical influences, Tim Buckley and Neil Young are often mentioned. Is the unplugged direction that you’re taking…, can it be seen as a return to your musical roots?
James Walsh: Possibly, yeah. My other big hero’s Bruce Springsteen, I’m a big fan of his unplugged stuff, like The Ghost of Tom Joad, some of We Shall Overcome, that record is fantastic. More rootsy music is really coming back to prominence now, Mumford And Sons, Laura Marling, there’s really some great stuff out there.
nolivelost.com: Is the solo album that you’re working on going to have an acoustic direction as well?
James Walsh: It’s going to be very much all-or-nothing… I’m going to Tromso in Norway to record with an orchestra, which should be amazing. So the songs are either going to have an orchestra, or it’s just going to be me and a guitar and piano. It’s unlikely to have that sort of band sound that Starsailor had.
Something else which has been a great experience is writing for other people, being sort of commissioned to write songs for other people. You get yourself into a different head space, and are less confined with what you think people expect from you, because you’re writing for someone else. Some of my strongest songs have been written when I’ve been thinking “How would this girl sing this?”, so I think it takes you to a different place.
nolivelost.com: Do you mean songs that you’ve recorded yourself in the end, or songs that were recorded by other artists?
James Walsh: I’ve done some writing with Ilse DeLange, who is a Dutch singer. Those songs turned out very well, and hopefully she’s going to include them on her album. I’ve also been working a lot with Sasha Scarbeck, who is a writer/producer, he’s worked with Adele, James Blunt and Duffy. He’s been a great person to meet…
nolivelost.com: Is there a time schedule for the album yet?
nolivelost.com: Very rough?
James Walsh: Quite rough. I guess the autumn is when I’m going to start recording.
nolivelost.com: So we can expect the album maybe by spring next year ?
James Walsh: I think there’ll be an EP before that, too. I’m going to Tromso to do the orchestral stuff in May. So that might be the introductory EP maybe before the end of this year, which would be great, to get something out in 2010…
nolivelost.com: For the eagerly waiting fans?
(singer from another band soundchecking downstairs interrupts with some passionate notes…)
James Walsh: Very good! (laughs) Increasingly, bands will be doing more EPs and single releases, than working for two or three years on one big album I think… Which is a great for fans. Because if you ask a big fan of a band “Would you want an album every three years or an EP every six months…?”
nolivelost.com: One quick final question: What are some of your current musical influences? Maybe some new emerging artists that you’ve just discovered?
nolivelost.com: Thanks a lot for taking the time for us, and all the best for tonight.
James Walsh: You’re welcome.
James played a very energetic show that night which perfectly fitted the atmosphere at the Club Vernissage in Zermatt. You can read the review and find more photos of the show here.
Interview & photos by Annemarie Jansen & Bjoern Kahlenberg
(live photos taken at Zermatt Unplugged on 2010-04-15)