James Holt hails from Bolton, meaning that he’s probably just a touch too far removed geographically from Manchester to claim himself as a potential famous son of its musical future, but at the same time, you might wonder why he’d want to. After all, this is a singer-songwriter who inhabits more than one musical world; his music leans towards the indie rock typical of the city’s past, but at the same time, he’s classically trained and stylistically restless, lending his songs a distinguished edge lacking in many of his contemporaries. Having recently graduated from the University of Salford with a masters degree in music composition, he’s received direct praise from industry heavyweights like Roxy Music’s Brian Eno, and performed at the Royal Albert Hall. He swung by the Beatstream office to talk us through his musical journey to date.
First things first: you have to be doing something right if you’ve got Brian Eno singing your praises.
There’s an online arts festival called Noise Festival, based here in Manchester, and they basically serve as a kind of online network for artists and creatives – anything from music to poetry to film. They have a big online database where people can upload their work, and every couple of years they have an actual festival where they get curators to champion the best of each category. Eno was the music curator that year, and they shortlisted me, sent the list to him, and he picked one of my tracks from it. He said he felt ithat it was fresh and exciting, so to have him in my corner felt amazing.
Did you actually get to meet him?
I did, yeah! He was giving the annual John Peel lecture for 6Music at the British Library, and I was invited down to go and meet him, and thank him for his kind words. I had a copy of his diary with me, and he signed that for me, too.
You’ve also played at the Royal Albert Hall in London: how did that come about?
The Eno thing seemed to boost my exposure, and people began to notice me. That, I think, is what led into the Royal Albert Hall show. It happened as part of this music organisation called Music for Youth, whi put together these showcases all over the place; Birmingham, London, Manchester. Me and my band played one of them at Band on the Wall in Ancoats, where there was a panel of judges and loads of acts on the bill. The idea is to help people progress, and to give them advice and a bit of a platform. At the end of every year, they have a Youth Proms event at the Albert Hall, where there’s orchestras and brass bands – all sorts. I was asked if I wanted to play a solo slot on the first night, which was amazing. You can see some of it on my YouTube channel now.
Going back a little bit further, what were your earliest musical influences?
I’ve always played, from an early age. I think I began learning piano when I was six, and from then on, I played that, guitar and cello, having private lessons on each instrument. I enjoyed composing instrumental pieces when I was in my early teens, and that developed into songwriting. What I do now, I think, was down to the fact that I went through a huge Beatles phase. That opened my mind to songwriting, in that it taught me that music wasn’t just about expressing emotion through the instrumentation – it’s about doing that through the lyrics, too. The combination of the two was, to my mind, the ultimate form of expression.
Would it be fair to say that you have a classical background, then? What were your other influences, besides The Beatles?
Yeah, that’s the kind of background that I came from. That’s my foundation, because I did all the grades and the examinations, so those are the kinds of pieces that I played the most. After that, I got into a lot of jazz, as well, just playing it on my own/ I used to do all these jazz improvisations – I still do, actually. I always liked popular music, too – Oasis, Led Zeppelin, all of those bands. My Beatles phase would’ve been when i was around 16 or 17, and that’s when I started to write songs. I’ve always enjoyed a wealth of musical inspiration, including world music and classical. The scope with classical is huge, especially in terms of historical impact; a piece from the 1600s will sound completely different to one from the 1800s. There’s a joy in listening and learning, whatever the genre.
As an unsigned artist, what’s your view on streaming services?
I mean, ther e’s no going back, is there? Streaming’s here now, and we have to adapt to it. Not only that, we should look for the positives; I think it can be a very useful thing for musicians and labels. That’s not just in terms of promoting music and getting it out there, but also for analysis; you could go on tour in Europe and figure out which songs are most popular where, based on streaming statistics. If there’s an old B-side that’s being streamed a lot in, say, Portugal, then you put it in the set when you play there. That kind of information of handy. It’s the same with sponsored posts on social media, too. If somebody’s liked Bob Dylan or John Lennon’s page, they might see an advert for my music in their feed. That can only be a good thing.
It sounds as if you’re gigging and recording plenty in the near future – what are your plans and aspirations in the longer term?
I just want to progress and play more shows to bigger audiences. It’d be cool to work with new producers at some point, to get their take on my music and improve the quality not only of the compositions, but of the recordings. I think, today, it isn’t quite as important to be signed as it used to be – a lot of people do things for themselves now. That’s quite liberating; I can decide what song I’m going to record or release at any give time, and pour as much of my own time of it as I feel I need to get it to sound as close to how I imagined it as possible. That’s the ultimate goal.
‘Whatever Happened to John?’ is now available via jamesholtmusic.com. James Holt tweets at @jamesholtmusic