From Dublin to L.A.: Ireland’s Gavin James Invades the U.S.
Most live albums are, to put it mildly, garbage. Second only to best-of compilations on the list of catalog-padding crimes against consumers, the official concert recording has devolved horribly over the last 35 to 40 years, tumbling from an occasionally exciting glimpse into an artist's authentic self down into the depths of glossy, contract-fulfilling hooey that does little more than fill completist fans in on what their favorite act sounds like with added overdubs and crowd noise.
All of this is to begin to explain that 'Live at Whelans,' the debut international full-length effort from singer-songwriter Gavin James, is an intriguing rub against the grain in a few ways -- the first of which is not only that it's a live album, but one recorded without a band. For the duration of the 12-song set, it's just James, a guitar, his audience, and his songs.
I thought the best I could do would be to release what I've been doing.
"I've been gigging in Ireland for so many years, I thought the best I could do would be to release what I've been doing," James shrugged when Diffuser asked about the rationale behind starting out with a live LP. "And when something is fully produced, there's more room for critique. I don't really mind if people critique the live album," he laughed, "'Cause ... it's live."
'Whelans' isn't just stripped down in terms of James' stage show, either. While it would be dishonest to call it a lo-fi recording, it's obvious that it hasn't been tinkered with much; on certain tracks, amplifier hum buzzes in the background, and during other moments, you can hear bits of the stray ambient noise that most artists try to bleach out of the final product.
"We took it straight to the studio and didn't f--k with it at all," says James. "We left the crowd in it, we left everything in it. We had one mic on the guitar, so when my strap squeaks, you can hear that, too."
And when James says "we left the crowd in it," he isn't just pointing out the obvious. For listeners unfamiliar with his previous efforts -- which include 'Say Hello,' an EP that went to No. 1 on the Irish charts -- hearing the 'Live at Whelans' audience sing along or break into applause when they recognize a song's intro is a little like walking in on a boisterous, inclusive party partway through. The affection between James and his fans is obvious, and infectious.
"The Irish crowds are always right there," James muses when asked why he chose this venue, and this show, for the album. "When it's a quiet song, there isn't a peep, but when there's any chance of singing along, they really let you have it."
It's those songs that represent the other significant way 'Whelans' is unfashionable: Blessed with a gorgeous voice and a gift for hummable melodies, James is also a purveyor of deeply romantic, thoroughly open-hearted tunes; as he says in 'Say Hello,' "sincerity is all I'm thinking of." It's very easy to be cynical about this kind of music, or to dismiss it as adult contemporary pap, but 'Live at Whelans' wins you over -- partly because, unlike a number of his fellow balladeers, James doesn't need a lot of (or any) production to get his message across.
I just write about what I've been doing the last four years, and who I've met, and what I've been going through.
"There are so many songs about a bloke with a broken heart, s--t like that," he agrees. "But pretty much, I just write about what I've been doing the last four years, and who I've met, and what I've been going through and that stuff." Looking back over his evolution from cover-singing busker to songwriter, he sums it all up simply: "I'd been playing other people's songs, and eventually I started writing my own stuff, and people started saying, 'Oh, do that song.'"
That makes an awful lot of unglamorous work sound like something that passed by in a cheerful 30-second montage, but that's actually how it probably feels for James these days. When he spoke with us, he was in the midst of his first publicity junket in New York City, and clearly still buzzing on the first flush of his leap from Irish sensation to new U.S. artist -- a transition that's being aided by his recent signing with Capitol Records, whose new chairman, Steve Barnett, is clearly on a mission to revitalize his label's long-flagging fortunes.
"They just came on board, and they're nice dudes," James chuckles. "It's great. We're recording an album, working in London with Cam Blackwood, who produced the George Ezra stuff. I think I'm 50-percent of the way into that. I think we're looking at a September release, and before that, we'll have some EPs or singles and stuff. Videos, and all that. It's gonna be fun."
In the meantime, Capitol is rolling out the red carpet for 'Live at Whelans' -- and if its live setting and lack of polish probably preclude it from achieving the same level of sales success as the label's other recent overseas signing, Sam Smith, it still represents an addictive first tug in what promises to be a lengthy assault on listeners' heartstrings.
"It's mad," James laughs when talking about his current run of showcase dates, which took him from New York to Los Angeles before sending him back across the Atlantic for another leg of shows in the U.K. and Europe. "We're doing something on top of the Capitol building. I'm super ginger, super Irish, super pale -- close as you can put me to the sun ever in L.A. I'm going to have to do like a 10-minute set and then run into a cold river."
Gavin James' 'Live at Whelans' is out now. You can order the digital edition of the record at this location.