It’s St Patrick’s Day, so why not get yourself a Guinness, paint shamrocks about your person and give the biggest new musician in Ireland a spin? Dubliner Gavin James has recently filled his hometown’s 3 Arena and won his country’s prestigious Choice Music Prize for Song of the Year in both 2013 and 2016 – for his songs Say Hello and Bitter Pill, the latter the title track of his platinum-selling debut album.
As ever, we’re slow to catch on when our neighbours are onto something musically. While we’ve been handing our entire chart over to his mate Ed Sheeran, the songs of this alternative ginger everyman have been selling by the bucketload in France, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. When we meet in Hammersmith, where he’s been working on recordings for a second album to come later this year, he seems quietly bemused by the whole affair.
“My manager gets all the statistics on Spotify. I never really log in,” the 25-year-old tells me. “He brings it up every so often and I’ll be like, ‘No way!’”
His manager could tell him that this week he is the 218th most streamed artist in the world, just behind David Bowie and Daft Punk and just ahead of his nation’s biggest band, U2. His songs recently surpassed 200 million plays in total, a mighty figure for this former busker and regular around the pub gig circuit of Dublin’s Temple Bar area. The three cities that are currently listening to him the most are Stockholm, Mexico City and Oslo.
This St Patrick’s Day he won’t be in the pub in Dublin as usual, but playing a lucrative gig at what’s billed as “the BIGGEST Paddy’s Day party in the Middle East”, in the Media City Ampitheatre in Dubai. Dublin to Dubai: it’s a couple of letters and half the world away. “I’ve played there a couple of times before. It’s an amazing place, though it feels like all the buildings are empty,” he says.
Like Sheeran, who invited James to support him in Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium in summer 2015 and recently released simultaneous singles in two different styles, the Irishman knows how to generate broad appeal. His most popular song online is currently a remix by Dublin DJ Mark McCabe of his ballad Nervous, also known as “The Ooh Song” because of its lovely, wordless falsetto hookline. McCabe didn’t fiddle with James’s high, emotional voice or plucked acoustic guitar, but added beats and synths in the tropical house style that’s hot right now. It earned the song a place on a Spotify playlist called “Chill Hits” with almost half a million listeners, and a new set of fans for the singer-songwriter.
“The second that song came out, everything else shot up,” he says. “I went to America for a tour last November, and hadn’t sold that many tickets. After that song, I had to upgrade some of the venues.” He had a similar experience in the Netherlands in 2015, where his unassuming recording, The Book of Love, became a chart hit despite being a live acoustic cover version of a little known song by cult US indie band The Magnetic Fields. “Holland’s mad. I gave the song to every country at the same time, but there I had this new radio guy looking after me and he promised he’d make it a hit. I was like, ‘Why would a live version of The Book of Love do anything anywhere?’ But later I went over to play there, did an hour and 15 minutes and they knew every word.”
Now he’s at it again, with a newly released cover of City of Stars, the key song from the smash hit movie La La Land. It’s a perfect showcase for his remarkable voice and should win him another legion of fans. I get the impression he knows exactly what he’s doing, despite his humble back story and “Who, me?” demeanour.
The son of a postman and a childminder who began playing guitar on the streets of Dublin at 14, it’s impossible to get him to admit that he’s any good. All he’ll volunteer about his singing ability is: “It’s weird that I do this high voice. I’m a big ginger guy, I’m stocky and I have a big head.” (He means its physical size, definitely not his ego.) He chats fast and jolly, hard to decipher at times. When he says something or someone is “savage”, which he does often, it’s the highest compliment in his arsenal.
Playing his first ever arena headline show, in Dublin last December, was naturally savage. “I walked out and didn’t play a song for about two and a half minutes. I was just looking at the crowd going, ‘No way!’ It was insane.” The UK has so far been fairly resistant to his charms, though he’ll perform at the 2,300-capacity Forum in Kentish Town next month. He’s not worried. He’s got faith that it’ll happen eventually. “Holland’s the only place where I blew up a bit. Everywhere else has been a grind. Ireland was a grind, England’s still a grind. I’ll just grind it out until more people start coming and something happens.”
Superficially, you may believe we’re well stocked for weepy acoustic singer-songwriters, thanks, and have no space or need for a less adventurous Ed Sheeran. In that case, have a look at James’s videos for his songs For You and 22 – hard-hitting, naturalistic clips that show young people leading difficult lives, coping with an alcoholic mother in the former and schoolboy bullying and physical abuse from a parent in the latter.
It’s the piano ballad 22 that has had the biggest impact, leading to James performing the song at 11 Downing Street in December for the charity The Diana Award’s Anti-Bullying Programme. Although the red-headed boy who gets a bloody nose in the video isn’t directly based on James, he admits that he had “a really rough time at school”.
“I wrote that song thinking I’d get it off my chest, because I hadn’t really talked about it before,” he says. “I wasn’t physically bullied, mostly teased. I did get into fights but nothing crazy. But stuff like that sticks to you forever. I want to do more with the charity, so people know that it happens, and kids know that they’re not by themselves. There are other people on that trip as well.”
He credits Dublin’s busking culture and pub circuit with building his confidence and toughening him up. “It was doing music, being around different types of people outside school. Then when people came up to me to give me a hard time it was easier. I didn’t care as much what they thought.”
Now, of course, he can count his admirers through dizzying streaming statistics, and raise a Paddy’s Day glass to his former antagonists from the heights of glamorous Dubai. This is what the last laugh looks like, and it’s getting louder every day.
Bitter Pill is out now on Good Soldier. April 8, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5 (0844 847 2405, o2forumkentishtown.co.uk)