Interview W/ James Marriott: "It feels like you’re dipping your soul into something"!
“Sentimental, fierce, introspective”; these are the words James Marriott used to describe his latest album 'Are We There Yet?'. His career began on YouTube, creating hilarious, if not a touch derisory, videos about popular culture and the news. He gained huge success for his ‘Everything Wrong With’ roast series, but in 2020 the release of his first single set him on a different trajectory. Since then, James’ music career has steadily gained traction, culminating in the release of his debut album, out today. We sat down with him (and his cat Otto, who insisted on joining us) to find out more about it.
Photo Credit: Sam McMahon
Nestled amongst an impressive collection of guitars, James reflected, “there’s always going to be some doubt from people who may know me, first and foremost as a content creator on YouTube” and although he acknowledged the privilege of having a platform and an audience, prior to his song releases, he also remembered times when, “it’s felt like mainstream outlets or people in the industry have turned to me and gone - who are you? So it’s been quite difficult translating over from the online sphere in that sense”. I wonder also, if it is difficult to establish credibility as a musician, when the premise of your early career is ‘Everything Wrong With’ other artists.
James did mention this ironic situation. “I think it’s honestly quite funny that I spent a lot of my YouTube career trying to take down other people for trying to create something” he said. Since dedicating himself to music, he recognised in himself a greater appreciation for online content creation and hoped, "there’s a little bit of kinship between us now". Criticism is, after all, a motivator for growth, and growth James has had.
He described his first song ‘Slow Down’ (2020) as "horrendous" and every song since as a vast improvement, but added "it’s somewhat inevitable because I think, if you create things, you always want to separate yourself from what you made in the past". When asked how he felt his music had evolved he replied, "I ebbed away from synths and keys for a while, just to focus on what it was that inspired me about music in the first place". That is, the rawness of music, the feel of a guitar in his hands, the emotion. The single ‘Grapes’ (2022) was the first song which began to incorporate synths again, supplemented by his rediscovery of music and what that meant for him. However, in the new album 'Are We There Yet?', the intention was to take a singer-songwriter approach and think about how to build up the instrumentals to "hone in on those raw moments" which are prevalent in songs like ‘Denial’ (2023).
When talking about his intention as an artist, James tended to focus on the emotional response to music, rather than the technicalities of production and instrumentals. He spoke with an unguarded honesty about the power that music has; "I really love a band called Delta Sleep, who I saw recently, and they have a song called ‘The Detail’. I remember hearing that for the first time, and just being blown away by it [...] they have this moment which gets really stripped back and isolated, it’s just the vocalist and a guitar, and there’s no effects on his vocals anymore. He sounds really thin and isolated then it goes into this huge instrumental moment…I just burst into tears". He added, "I just thought to myself, I want people to go to one of my shows and feel exactly like I feel right now".
In his album that very real, indescribable feeling is everywhere. It is impossible to articulate, but listening to James speak with such intensity about his experience, it became clear that his music was made to move people. To break down their walls, because with music, "you feel safe. It’s almost like being in a blanket, having music fill your ears and not having to worry about saying anything or acting in a certain way. Just being able to experience something and let yourself go". That collective experience of catharsis is beautiful and unique. Ultimately an artist can create with an intention in mind - for James his intention in this album was not to write about love - but sometimes those themes emerge regardless. So, here he is, "sitting on an album which talks about friendship, abandonment, and love".
According to James, art, "feels like dipping your soul into something" and the creative process is not a case of sitting down and deciding to write. Someone who is truly a writer, "won’t allow themselves to see writing as a job". Instead they will have what James has, "a notes app filled with little pictures and lyrical ideas and choruses. Jumbles of moments". Examples of notes he had were "dancing in a dressing gown...an underground bar in Alexandra Palace...and a domestic on the dancefloor". (so listen out for those in his next songs). He also said that if he could meet and interview some of his biggest musical influences, such as The Beatles, The Strokes or Foals, he would want to peer into their writing processes. He recalled that Jacob Collier has an interesting way of writing melodies, so much more powerful than simply singing a melody; "imagine someone you love, or someone you hate, or someone you feel strongly about. Now picture them in your head and get them to sing a melody. Write that down". This method completely changed the way James saw music, as an emotional investment rather than a logical process.
There is, for James, a personal side to the writing process; "I love how writing music makes me feel even in my darkest moments". It has not gone unacknowledged that many great pieces of art emerge from the deepest, most anguished parts of ourselves. If he is having a difficult conversation, overthinking a connection to a person or to his own life, "I find that in those really difficult moments, that’s when I can really find lyrical juice and that sucks! You don’t want that to be your main source of inspiration, to have your dark moments be characterised by the ability to write lyrics now". James tentatively began to articulate some of those struggles. "I'm unfortunate in that I often feel quite disconnected from other people, and there's a lot of moments in my life of stark disconnection. I always feel like I'm writing about a new one, and I guess that feels quite repetitive" which is why he describes in the album’s press release as a "cyclical nature of struggle" present in the album. "For the album to end with the idea of moving on from someone but feeling so disposable once again. I guess that is cyclical".
In addition, he expressed the burden of being an artist and an influencer, because there is no end goal. No song which is good enough, or follow count high enough, and a lot of online influencers aren’t happy because they are haunted by the question, 'how do I feel like I’m enough?’. ‘The true mark of success he added, "is how many times you have hurt yourself laughing; laughing to the point of - I can’t laugh anymore", not something which can be quantified by a number.
Despite these difficulties, he said he felt lucky to be "surrounded by such brilliant, beautiful people", to have music as an outlet and a lovely cat (who was trying to show himself constantly as we spoke). The songs which deal with darker themes such as ‘Romanticise This’ and ‘In Between’ were not created to convey his struggle but to demonstrate that he is dealing with it. His new album very much reflects this, taking the listener through heartbreak, pain, ecstasy and joy, much in the same way that life does. Music is vulnerable and empowering and transmissible; its energy can pass between bodies and with music, nobody is ever truly alone.