Gavin James on being the “billion-stream balladeer”

By Michael McDonagh

Last week, in London, Dublin singer songwriter Gavin James received a rare accolade when he was honoured by the BPI for having his songs streamed and listened to – a BILLION times.

It’s been only three years since Dublin songwriter Gavin James released his debut album “Bitter Pill”.

Since then it has been non-stop touring all over the world – from small solo pub gigs he has supported Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Kodaline in stadiums before doing his own stadium shows.

The musical career of this down-to-earth, self-effacing, son of a Dublin postman has been astonishing including sales of over two million singles and a platinum album.

Gavin has just released his second album, Only Ticket Home, and I talked to him just before he set off on his world tour.


Irish World: You are just back from America. How did that go?

“I am just back from a little holiday as I did the last gig in Oregon on New Year’s Day, it was crazy as it was rammed with people and quite mad and I was quite tipsy after that gig with a big hangover after it, so I had a little break.

“We start a huge tour this Friday in Portugal then we go around England then we go around Europe and then we go to America after Amsterdam and then I’m off to Australia and then to Brazil, so we will be on the road a good while.”

IW: You only really started three years ago but it seems to have been non-stop for you since then.

“I started playing the pubs when I was 17 and did that for about six years. I’m 27 now and it has been a long grind. I have done dates in Europe and been back about 14 times doing gigs some with about 10 people then gradually building it up and going back as the gigs got bigger and bigger, but it has been hard work.”

IW: You have supported Ed Sheeran in big venues but now you do your own arena gigs.

“It has been a really nice ride. It has not been immediate, and in a lot of places we are still doing the club scene and some gigs with maybe 500 people a night, we are still trying to build it up in the various territories around the world.

“In some places, like Brazil, it is a bit mad really – I was Number 1 in Brazil, that came out of nowhere. We can play some crazy gigs there with huge crowds.”

IW: How did you start? Was it the record deal or the awards that helped?

“The record deal helped. I was 21 when I signed my first deal with a French Record label then I signed to Good Soldier and then on to Sony in Europe, Capitol in America, Warner in Ireland, and Mushroom Records in Australia. It’s a bit weird, I’m sort of signed to everybody – but it’s been a nice way of doing it.”

IW: Who were your first musical influences and did that come from your dad’s record collection?

“I had my own records then my dad got me Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan and all that great stuff from his time. When I was younger, I was into Metallica and Slipknot and a lot of Led Zeppelin.

“My dad is a postman and one of the guys in the sorting office gave him a tape of songs every week. It was always a great mix of things, it would have Van Halen and then Cat Stevens and then Motorhead, then you would have James Taylor. It was very eclectic.

“On some of those records, like Cat Stevens, the guitar sound was insane, some of the guitars would be out of tune but the sound of those records was so great. I was a big fan of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.”

IW: When did you decide you were going to make this a career?

I was always into music but my school did not really do music so I had to go out of school for music when I was 14. Just before I left school, and had done all my exams, I started playing the pubs six nights a week from when I was about 16, playing places like Eamon Doran’s, as it was called then, in Temple Bar.

“I was getting up early for school and then was out at night doing the gigs, then not going to school anymore. I was doing cover gigs, you know, like a three-hour set often for people who don’t listen to you.

“I did that for five years. When I started, I did not really know how to use my voice but doing all those gigs is the best thing ever because many of the people in do not give a sh*t about you and would not listen to your songs. It is a great way to learn how to play before an audience and gain confidence, it builds up. It is the best way, and you get stamina from doing it.”

IW: Is it harder now with so few big record deals around?

“It is different – there are so many independent record labels. I always think it is better to sign to an independent label first before singing to a major. With a small label, there are people to help you out and do a lot more groundwork. You would be one of the few signings they have, rather than being in a big label where they may have twenty or more acts doing something very similar to you.

“You might get a big upfront fee from them and I’ve known a lot of musicians who have done that. Everything is amazing for about a year with lots of big promises but then after about a year they have thrown everything against the dart board and if it has not worked straight away, they get dumped.

“Sometimes it takes a long time to get their right record out and to get the right label. We were lucky to work with a guy called Stephen King who put so much work into us as an independent and then we were introduced to (former Warner boss) Christian Tattersfield who had started his own label, we signed to Good Soldier.

“By the time we signed with them I had a very good knowledge of how record labels work and my first deal was better. Because I signed when I was 21 it was not insane like, ‘give me all your publishing and give me everything’. I was able to retain control, I am sure it would not have been like that if I’d signed to a major label straight away. I had a lot of freedom, even now I still do, to do what I want and tour all over the world.

“There is less money now being made from records and not much to be made from downloads but with a billion streams you are certainly doing something right

“Streaming really is the main thing. That told me where to go, so I could find out where exactly I was (popular). Singapore was one of the biggest so I went there to do gigs just for the craic to see what would happen and it was good. The same thing happened in Holland. Streaming works very well and translates very well into the live thing – more people get to listen to you, then more people come to your gigs.”

IW: How important is being Irish to you?

“Very important, everywhere I go. I was in New York last week and went to a bar around the corner from the hotel and everywhere you go you never seem to be more than two degrees of separation from somebody you know, or who is connected to you, like, they know your cousin or somebody’s cousin, who you know.

“I was in Amsterdam and a guy shouted out ‘howya’ – he was from the local pub back home. It’s mad, there seem to be Irish wherever I go.”

IW: Did any musician particularly influence you?

“I was more of guitar player when I started off and singing was never really my thing. I used to go busking in town when I was about twelve or thirteen and would have to draw straws with the band to sort out who would be singing and that’s when it began but it was guitars I was into, like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, and a lot of the Eagles.

“I loved all the Eagles stuff but when I came to song-writing Bob Dylan was the main person. Did you ever hear of Bright Eyes? Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes was one of my favourites because he wrote such good lyrics.”

IW: Did you not want to be a rock guitarist in a band rather than a solo singer-songwriter?

“I have a band, I’ve just bought a Les Paul electric guitar, I’m introducing more of that into the gigs and am playing a bit more rock. When I did the gigs in the pubs, I could not bring my whole Marshall amp and my gear in with me but just went straight to the acoustic.”

IW: Tell us about your new album.

“I went over to London in January 2018 to record it with my buddy Ollie Green. It was the first time he had produced an album, so we worked together on the songs and it came together very quick. Ollie did the whole album, he’s my age but he is a genius in the studio.

“We did most of it in the studio in Crouch End that was created in the old church by David Stewart and Annie Lennox of the Eurhythmics and was sold to David Gray, who then had it for a while.”

IW: You obviously must love touring.

“It is my favourite thing to do, it is a bit wild but in a good way. I did not like it when I started but now I am really into it. When I started it was just myself and I’d just go to the gig and just jump on and try to make friends with as many people as I could.

“Now with the band and my whole road crew, there are about 11 of us on tour. This will be the first tour where we are on a bus and it is continuous, usually, there are breaks in the schedule.”

IW: Any particular events that stand out as special?

“The main things that stick in my mind are when I have been away for a long time and come back and do a gig in Dublin. The Electric Picnic in Ireland really stands out, it was like doing Ireland’s Glastonbury.

“We were just back from America and started to do the newer songs first, the album had only been out about three weeks, yet 75,000 people started singing the songs back to us. It’s deadly to be able to do a big gig in Ireland and then practically walk back home to your house.”

Only Ticket Home is available at http://www.gavinjamesmusic.com


You might also be interested in this article

Nathan Carter: ‘I drove older people away from dance halls’

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways