James Arthur heard ‘Castle on the Hill’ a year before its release — are you jealous? Well, that’s just one of the reasons that it’s nice to be James Arthur right now. Below, we discuss hanging with Ed, playing undercover gigs in London and what it’s like to get 157 million YouTube hits in four months.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve finally touched down on American soil. How’s that feel?
It feels like the dream. It feels like where I want to be at this point in my career. I did The Late Late Show with James Corden and the TODAY Show, though I was very self-critical of the vocal performances. I suffered with the flu over Christmas and I still wasn’t quite over it, but I was happy. People liked it!
“Say You Won’t Let Go” has been a pretty wild ride, yes?
It’s been a fairytale, a miracle. In the UK, we dropped it online, there was no promotion, no radio. We weren’t expecting to get radio on board for it, just because of my previous…yeah, it caught fire and the fans got hold of it. They’re really the ones to thank for this incredible journey. In America, people are starting to pick up on it. I’m just very humbled by the whole thing. It’s a song that has breathed new life into me.
It’s nice because I didn’t even think this would be the first single; I just thought it was going to be a nice album track. I guess because it’s so honest and conversational and easy to listen to, it’s relateable — it has connected with everybody. I couldn’t be more pleased with it.
You were a part of so many different bands, then won the X Factor, before finding your solo voice. Did those experiences teach you anything?
Being in bands and plugging away with not many opportunities and no money for many years really shaped me and taught me about work ethic. It really made me appreciate what I had now, because it was so hard before that. X Factor provided me with a platform that has launched me and given me some longevity.
Do you miss playing in bands at all?
Yeah! I often think about starting a band again, doing my solo stuff and a band. I grew up in bands. Kurt Cobain is one of the reasons I started doing music because I just loved to watch them rock out. It’s something I love to do.
You’ve faced backlash and controversy over certain lyrics.
There was a point in my career when I was really, really lost — when I first found fame, I was super lost. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I was doing a lot of self-medicating and wasn’t really in the right mind, and did some things that were quite irresponsible. Looking back, I’m embarrassed about it. But in hindsight, again, those things have shaped me and got me to a place where I have more self-respect and perspective.
It was a tough time for me, but maybe I wouldn’t have had much to write about if I hadn’t pressed the self-destruct button! It’s relatable. Everybody’s gone through some kind of struggle in their life, and I’d like to be the type of voice who talks about it.
Yes, you are vocal about depression, anxiety and drug use.
With anxiety, it’s been something I’ve struggled really badly with over the years. I manage it much better now, but there was a point where I would have severe anxiety attacks throughout the day. I’d be calling ambulences and hospitals, convinced I was dying, having a heart attack. It was just stress — pressure I was putting on myself. Beating myself up too much about things that I can’t control.
People like Zayn Malik are coming forward and sharing their experiences. Do you have any of your own advice to fans who might be struggling?
My advice to people would be, control what you can control. Don’t think too far into the future or the past because those things will only bring on guilt or anxiety. Try to live in the moment and enjoy what’s happening in front of you.
I think it’s very important — there are so many people suffering from it, especially young men. There’s a high rate of suicide in young men because they’re so afraid to talk about their problems. They see it as weak, or not masculine. I think it’s important for people like Zayn, especially, being such a megastar, having so many fans, he might be helping loads of people just by saying, “Look, I have this, it’s okay to have it.”
US vs UK fans: can you pick one?
Oh, you can’t ask me that!
What’s the weirdest or most unique venue you’ve played?
Probably this thing called the Secret Busker, where I had two hours of prosthetics — I dressed up as an old man and had to busk in Waterloo Station in London which is a huge — yeah, I had to sing my songs and hope people didn’t notice who I was and stuff. That was amazing.
Someone like Jay Z or Drake. One of the big, power hip-hop artists.
Which new Ed Sheeran single is better?
“Castle on the Hill”. But they’re both great. Ed’s a good friend of mine and he played me all of these songs like a year ago in my apartment acoustically. That one stood out to me then.
What’s the best thing about New York?
The food is here is REALLY good. Everything I’ve eaten in New York has been top quality.
Any style phases you regret?
Oh, yeah. Not long ago, I grew my hair out. I grew it to a point where it looked pretty…Google it and you’ll see. It wasn’t cool.
I’ll be sure to use that as the photo for this article.
Don’t use it, please!
Okay, I promise. What’s next for you?
I want to set up camp here. It feels like they appreciate my music here and the soul and the influences I’ve gotten from American music are — yeah. It seems to be going well so far. Fingers crossed that it goes further.
I’m going to be home in the UK for a tour throughout March, then we’re hoping to come back here and do some gigs.
You can get James’ album Back From the Edge right here.