James Arthur was living his best life, but in the middle of the European leg of his 2020 tour, he was “blindsided by some health issues,” he recalls. Considered “a matter of emergency,” he slammed on the brakes and stepped back from the stage. On January 22, 2020, he shared the news on Instagram, writing, “I’ve become really unwell and doctors have advised I need to rest.”
He eventually returned, picking up his arena tour in early March, but he had to take some downtime to heal, reassess, and figure out what he needed next in life. Even so, the beginning of the year continued to be “tough,” he says, “but I managed to get through the UK arena tour. I was supposed to be touring in the US all of 2020. But of course, we were stopped by a global pandemic.
“You know, it must be annoying, hearing all these famous artists and musicians going on about how great it was to have a break and to just focus on one aspect of the music industry,” Arthur tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call. “But it really was a much needed pause for me and allowed me a bit of a reflection period.”
Much like Bo Burnham’s “Inside” comedy special, the British singer-songwriter found himself spiraling out and clutching to whatever remnants of creativity he could. “It totally resonated with me─that whole special. I was alone in a studio a lot of the time, and I was just kind of fumbling through trying to create something and be productive and take my mind off all of the noise that was going on.”
He eventually struck upon gold, penning a batch of new songs, including “Medicine” and “September,” soon finding himself pretty “motivated to make music. Ultimately, for me, music is the best form of therapy. So after a couple of months of sitting in my sweatpants, eating Cheetos, and playing FIFA. I got to work in a studio set up in the house.
“I definitely knew what I wanted to achieve, sonically. I knew that I wanted to make a record that was guitar-driven. I was reminiscing on the music that I used to make back when I was just a young indie kid in a rock band. And I was doing a bit of rapping and stuff like that,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to make a coherent album, one that felt like a body of work that was all made in the same place. After the first few songs, I realized, ‘Oh, I’m actually unpacking some stuff that I’ve experienced over the last few years—stuff that I’d never really addressed or spoken about before.”
“Medicine,” co-written with James Bell and Red Triangle in one of the first socially-distanced sessions for the record, erupts with all “this pent up creative energy” that had long been bottled up, unleashed into a charge of creative chemistry. You make my heart beat faster than adrenaline / You kiss away the pain of all the hell I’m in, he sings, an intense ache coursing through his vocal performance.
In many ways, the sultry showstopper clues the listener into a running theme on his new record. “Without sugarcoating it, there’s a theme of giving up or wanting to give up. I speak a little bit about suicide on on this album,” he reveals. “As tough as that was, and as vulnerable as I had to make it, in the end, I figured that it only brings light to the subject. ‘Medicine’ is a good yardstick. The lyric talks about, ‘When I’m suicidal, you don’t let me spiral.’ There’s a lot of appreciation for those people that love me and support me in my life that have kept me from spiraling and going too deep into those dark places.
“I’m in therapy right now. And as profound as that is, I always just feel a sense of purpose and a sense of stillness when I’m doing music that I can’t get from anything else. It’s the most therapeutic thing that I can do,” he quickly adds.
With another album appetizer “September,” paired with a newly-released visual (directed by Bryan Schlam, known for working with The Black Keys), Arthur delivers a slice of acidic wit and charm (see: My Chemical Romance and All-American Rejects). “I think back to a song that I released in 2016, called ‘Say You Won’t Let Go,’ and it became a song that a lot of people made part of their lives on their wedding days. It’s the one song on the album that’s really pop and like a real love song. That particular session was me doing that, I suppose. You know, I always draw from my own life and a little from my imagination. Talking about having kids and starting a family is not where I am, but it’s cool to imagine those things.”
Speaking of “Say You Won’t Let Go,” off his Back from the Edge record, he makes reference to one particular lyric (I held your hair back when / You were throwing up) as the goalpost for songwriting—kind of. “I guess I’ve been trying to top that line ever since,” he laughs.
“If there’s one particular attribute that comes naturally to me as a songwriter, it’s the storytelling element,” he continues. “I like to say things that are visceral, to spark an image or thought. I like to set the scene.”
“Medicine” and “September” prime for Arthur’s forthcoming fourth album, It’ll All Make Sense in the End, out October 8. Creatively, he’s quite pleased with “how much I pushed the boundaries on this. As I’m sure you’re well aware, in pop music today, the radio seems terrified of guitars being loud in production. Even my own team were like, ‘You should maybe tone this down.’ On previous records, when I’ve been convinced to do that and dilute the rock elements, I’ve kind of lost myself.
“The vocals are so intense on the record, and it made sense to match that intensity with heavy guitars and the trap drums,” he notes. “There’s a lot of energy on the record, which might surprise people if they’ve heard my previous work.”
Arthur then takes stock of his growth as a songwriter, from his early days back in 2013 with a self-titled release to You (2019) and beyond. “I think I’ve developed as a storyteller. I used to be much less succinct with my songwriting, but I’m getting better at arranging songs,” he says. “I think that’s been one of the key things I’ve refined a little bit. I just learned to trust my instincts and care less about what people think─and love the music that I’m making as much as I possibly can. Hopefully, that will be the perfect recipe for connection.”