The Rock City archives: 2016

Jamie Lawson, Rock City Main Hall

  • Monday 18th January 2016
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“I first became aware of Jamie Lawson a few years ago, after hearing his track “Wasn’t Expecting That”. I very rarely get emotional over a track, but that song stopped me dead. He manages to put across such raw emotion within his work, and I knew immediately that I wanted to work with this guy in some way. Having decided to start my own label ‘Gingerbread Man Records’ with my label Atlantic Records, the first artist I had to sign was Jamie. Starting Gingerbread Man Records means I can put music I love out there on a huge platform, and Jamie seemed like the perfect choice for my first release” - Ed Sheeran, July 2015.

 

The road to overnight success is often far longer than people assume, but for Jamie Lawson, the journey was an epic one. It took time for him to find his voice, and even longer to hone his songs, which recreate a key moment, an emotion or even a whole lifetime in sparse, poetic language that connects in a very direct and powerful way. And though he quickly found a core, loyal following who have sustained him throughout, only now is that starting to blossom into something far bigger. But music this lovely is worth waiting for.

Growing up in Plymouth, Jamie was introduced to music by his older brothers. Early on, he’d go to school singing lyrics by The Smiths and The Housemartins that he didn’t fully understand, and then Thriller introduced him to Michael Jackson, a singer he still admires. ‘Looking back on it, he had no real experience of what he was singing about – he never had those kinds of relationships – yet you always believed he felt every single word, that he understood how you were feeling.’

Later, he found Natalie Merchant, and bands like 10,000 Maniacs and REM. He joined a band at school, and they rehearsed diligently through their mid teens, playing locally. ‘I wanted to be Michael Stipe for a while,’ he laughs. ‘I even had the hat! But that’s your way in, I think. You try to be someone else, and eventually you find yourself. I wanted to be Eddie Vedder too, but my voice wouldn’t allow it. It took me a while to let it do its own thing.’

Afterwards, Jamie went to art school, where he showed promise but was unable to settle. Eventually, a lecturer asked what it was he really wanted to do. ‘I want to be a singer,’ Jamie replied, without hesitation. ‘So go do it!’ the teacher shrugged. That same week, Jamie also discovered the emotional, yearning music of American Music Club main man Mark Eitzel, making a pilgrimage down to Virgin Records to hear his solo album 60 Watt Silver Lining every day. By Friday, he says, his mind was made up, and he left college to concentrate on music full-time.

He moved to London and started playing on the acoustic circuit, honing his songs and developing a distinctive style of his own. He quickly gained a reputation, playing support to Martha Wainwright in some of her first UK gigs, and later opening for his hero Mark Eitzel, who has remained a huge influence.

At various times, Jamie played on the same bill as Turin Brakes, Lucy Rose and Ben Howard, even Ellie Goulding. When Damien Rice came over from Ireland to play, he would sometimes crash at Jamie’s place. ‘I was with him the day the O album went gold in Ireland, right at the beginning.’ Later, he played a gig in Balham on a bill that included a young singer called Ed Sheeran, who had just signed to Atlantic. ‘He’d been doing the same circuit and we had mutual friends, so although we hadn’t met before, we’d heard of each other. His songs were great, and he was a nice guy. We exchanged numbers, but just after that he took off and became massively famous, and I just watched, thinking, “There’s another one gone!”’

There is not a hint of rancour in this. It never felt frustrating, he says, because these people were talented, they’d worked hard, and they deserved success. It just wasn’t his time. ‘I just kept going, through a kind of stubbornness – or maybe naivety mixed with a little blindness!’ There were plenty of almost moments. He released his first album, Last Night Stars, on his own label, Allotment, in 2008, a dark collection exploring the angst of his teenage years, with song titles like Panic Attacks, Bruises, and It’s Over. ‘I listened to it recently and thought, “That’s someone who went through some stuff!”, but not really connecting it to me because I’m not that person any more.’

He made another album two years later, The Pull of the Moon, which came out on the indie label Lookout Mountain and showcased a growing maturity in his writing, as well as a more optimistic outlook. In the meantime he signed a publishing deal, and major labels came courting but never quite committed. ‘It felt like there was always some sort of encouragement, and I was getting enough out of it to keep on.’

Then, after a night out drinking with friends, a phrase someone had used got lodged in Jamie’s head: ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’ A song quickly formed, about a lifetime of love that starts with an unexpected kiss, and ends – he was as surprised as anyone to discover, when the last lines popped into his head on a train, two days later – with a death that comes too soon.

The song got a good response live, so in 2011, a few weeks after writing it, he posted the song on YouTube. Soon after that, an Irish radio producer came home to find his wife and her sister watching it, both moved to tears. He took it to his station, Today FM, and they started playing the track on air.

‘They literally played it off of YouTube, and the quality is appalling,’ says Jamie. ‘It’s a live version, and if I’d known it was going to be heard so widely I’d have sung clearer! But it got a fantastic response.’ He went over to Ireland, appearing on radio and TV, and when the song was released there – still the YouTube version – it went straight into the charts, peaking at number 3 (and reaching number 1 in the iTunes chart). Tracks from The Pull Of The Moon were mixed with more recent material and released as a new album in Ireland, under the title Wasn’t Expecting That. By then Jamie had left London, spent some time in a caravan in Cornwall writing songs, then moved to Manchester. So for the next year or so, he shuttled between there and Ireland, playing festivals, touring, and selling out venues where he’d played previously to barely anyone. ‘It’s strange how the biggest things that have happened to me have been almost accidental,’ he muses.

The next happy accident came when Ed Sheeran noticed his poster in an Irish pub, and remembered their earlier meeting. He was playing the prestigious Ruby Sessions in Dublin the following week, and asked the promoter to invite Jamie to play too.

‘I got a text late on a Sunday night, saying Ed Sheeran had asked me to open for him,’ recalls Jamie. ‘I had to book a flight that was more than I could afford, but you’re not going to turn that down!’ The two men connected again instantly, with Ed telling Jamie he’d listened to Wasn’t Expecting That while writing his own song, Afire Love, and was aiming for a similar tone. Later Jamie went to see Ed’s show at Leeds Arena, and Ed invited him to open for the rest of the European tour. ‘So in a week I went from playing a weekly open mic night in Manchester to 30-40 people to playing to a crowd of 10,000 in Birmingham!’

By the time he invited Jamie to join him on the Australian leg of the tour, Ed had decided to start his own label, Gingerbread Man, with Jamie becoming its first signing. After that, things moved fast. Soon after arriving in Australia Jamie was in a studio, recording a new version of Wasn’t Expecting That. On the 17-date tour he played to a total audience of over 175,000 people, and by the end of it, the track was moving up the charts, peaking at number 3.

On his return to the UK, he went straight into a residential studio in the Oxfordshire countryside, tasked with putting a new album together in just two intense weeks. He worked with Ed’s producer Will Hicks, whose other credits include Lily Allen, James Blunt, Professor Green, Plan B and Bastille, and recording quickly has allowed the songs to retain an emotional immediacy, an intimacy, that often gets polished away in longer sessions.

If you’re looking for comparisons, think early, Moondance-era Van Morrison meeting the poppy accessibility of James Morrison, with perhaps a tip of the hat to Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne. But there’s a reason he has decided to title it simply ‘Jamie Lawson’. From the fragile, tenderly lovely ‘All Is Beauty’ and ‘Cold In Ohio’ to the reassuring optimism of ‘Someone For Everyone’, this is an album that showcases a writer and a singer who is comfortably, confidently and completely himself. ‘I wanted to create something with warmth and love that was a bit like a nice blanket, a good cardigan,’ he says. ‘That couldn’t be less rock 'n' roll could it? But I hope it can help and comfort people, and that they’ll feel certain songs are there for them when they need them. I like that idea, because that’s what music has always been for me.’

Certainly, Wasn’t Expecting That is a song that connects with listeners deeply. The single is about to go double platinum in Australia, where it seems to have touched hearts the same way it did in Ireland.

‘When I was touring in Ireland, you’d have families in the audience ¬– but there was always someone missing,’ says Jamie. ‘They came together because of this song, and that moved me a lot. Now I’m getting beautiful tweets from Australia that say “I’m driving into work and I’m in floods of tears again because of your song.” It’s crazy the effect it can have, but exciting, too.’

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