“The songs have been pouring out of me. I feel much more like a singer-songwriter now, living it and breathing it”
Sometimes you just have to walk away from something, follow your heart, take a leap in the dark and start afresh. After almost a decade with his enormous yet somehow tender, fragile voice fronting Starsailor, James Walsh has emerged as a singer-songwriter in his own right, with an acoustic guitar and some big, new tunes to travel wherever the road may take him. Towards the end of Starsailor’s decade of success, he’d started playing acoustic gigs to promote the band abroad, and started to enjoy the new found “freedom” of playing without a safety net.
“The great thing about the band is it’s a comfort thing,” he explains. “You know what the set is, you know what’s going to happen, and you know they’re there to back you up. With the acoustic stuff, there’s this whole new sense of freedom. You get stuck in that album-tour-promotion cycle. Now I can have beats on laptops, experiment with synthesizers or strings sections, write or work with all sorts of people in all sorts of different countries or environments. I feel much more like a singer-songwriter now, living it and breathing it.”
Just over a year after taking the difficult decision to put the band on extended hold, James has barely looked back. He’s toured with Sheryl Crow – playing to more mainstream but “tremendously appreciative” audiences than he ever did with Starsailor’s indie following; written with Suzanne Vega after inviting her to sing with him in New York and recording the Live At The Top Of The World EP with Norway’s Tromsø Chamber Orchestra in the closest major settlement to the North Pole. Working with an orchestra and world famous composer Bernt Simen Lund is a long way from Starsailor’s Wigan roots – “very cold” laughs James – but incredibly exciting. As a result of adventures like that, James admits, “songs have been pouring out of me.”
After collaborating with songwriter/producer Sacha Skarbek (Duffy/Adele), James has found an unlikely new career path as a provider of songs for other people. “That was the great thing about working with Sacha,” he says. “We really got on, and he’d say ‘I’ve got this girl coming in, do you wanna give us a hand?’ Thus, James has ended up in the unexpected position of songwriter for stars like Holland’s country-pop sensation Ilse De Lang and Philadelphia’s Christina Perri, enjoying the new-found spontaneity of “writing a song in an afternoon and the next thing you know someone’s on TV singing it. It’s really exciting.”
But most importantly, this sense of rejuvenation has fired his own new music. Working with Skarbek, he’s been able to bring out the Randy Newman and Rufus Wainwright influences that – he chuckles – “the [Starsailor] lads weren’t very into”, acquiring a new maturity and a new sound, more sophisticated and raw at the same time. Playing with musicians often ten years his junior has resulted in a “mix of styles, quite raw heavy backing but with my voice and melodies over the top.”
Soul On Trial, the stirring opening track on the orchestral Live At The Top Of The World EP – is about a couple trying to escape their past, but he admits it could be seen as autobiographical. Another newie, the haunting Man On The Hill, carries a sublime world-weariness he could never have produced while seeing the planet through wide youthful eyes in the early days of Starsailor. But then, there have been a lot of changes. And then there’s the darker Loaded Gun – about pressure and taking responsibility – is “very slightly” about having to make the unpopular decision and disband the group. However, with Starsailor on hold for however long that may be, Walsh is able to look back “with a lot of pride” at a decade in which he got to live out the kind of real-life fantasies every young man’s rock ‘n’ roll dreams are made of.
One minute Starsailor were unknown in Wigan, the next they were being hailed as “the new Coldplay” after only their second gig, and front covers of magazines like NME proclaimed propelled their debut album – featuring what would become James’s trademark lovelorn voice and epic songs – into the Top 10. They ended up selling over three million albums, and enjoying adventures like supporting U2 at the Stade de France, when 2004’s Four To The Floor was Number One in the country and seeing the stadium “go absolutely mad”, before watching U2 and ending up in Dublin, being offered advice by Bono.
When Starsailor supported the Rolling Stones, French President Sarkozy was at the gig and the northern lads found themselves elbowed out of the way by security, tumbling down the corridor only to find themselves in the inner sanctum of the Rolling Stones’ dressing rooms. “It was one of those surreal moments, like there’s a force field around you and you get there and they’re totally sound, ‘alright lads’. Especially Ronnie Wood – who came down especially to play slide guitar on 2008’s ‘All The Plans’, arriving “in a battered old Bentley and just getting on with it.”
In-between, there was the inspiring but disturbing experience of initially working with producer Phil Spector on 2005’s ‘Silence Is Easy’: a musical legend who is will now perhaps be most remembered for being jailed for murder.
“It was mental,” James remembers. “He could be really funny, but when he started to deteriorate he’d just stare. He was kind of listless.” Spector’s genius can be heard on the 2005 hit title track but the band had to reluctantly part company. “The music wasn’t bad… it was strange. Spector fans said ‘How dare you sack Phil Spector?!’ but he was impossible to work with. We persevered a lot longer than we should have.”
James is equally philosophical about Starsailor’s own mild but unavoidable critical backlash – perhaps inevitable given they’d had so much early praise – admitting that in his youth could take a bad review extremely personally. He’s also sanguine about how the spotlight left them, meaning Starsailor’s final album ‘All The Plans’ only made a respectable 23, bringing the curtain down on “a good innings”.
“Starsailor were called ‘the band who rose without trace’,” he says, sagely. “The songs became more famous than we were. But there’s a lot to be said for stuff that happens almost under the radar, but actually touches an awful lot of people.”
Older, wiser – and a father – he’s looking forward to “doing something different for a while”, setting off in a different ship but touching people once again, which could include anything from writing more songs with Suzanne Vega or fulfilling a lifetime ambition to write with Shelby Lynne. And making what promises to be a very adventurous solo album. What hasn’t changed has that voice – still wounded, still soaring, still bursting with hope and passion – and his belief in his own music.
“I’m in a position now where I feel like I’ve washed everything off and am starting again,” he admits. “There aren’t really any rules. It feels like I can do what I want now.”