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The fairytale rise of singer Gavin James

10 march, 15:01
0
Irish singer-songwriter Gavin James performing at the Pinkpop festival in Landgraaf. ©AFP
Irish singer-songwriter Gavin James performing at the Pinkpop festival in Landgraaf. ©AFP

"In Ireland everything happens in pubs," Gavin James, widely seen as the next big singer songwriter, is quoted by AFP as saying.

That was certainly true for him. It was against the hubbub of laughter and conversation that the young red-haired singer honed his delicate, angelic voice and where one night in Dublin he met Ed Sheeran.

The encounter with music's most famous redhead would change his life. They met, as he tells it, "in a pub at three in the morning."

British singer Sheeran, who last month won the Grammy for the best song of the year, "was giving a secret concert in Dublin and a friend of mine called me -- really drunk -- to tell me to come quick he was in the pub. I was in another pub down the road so I came around and we got talking.

"We found a guitar and we played all night, passing the guitar back and forth, jamming and drinking whiskey..."

When his head had cleared, Sheeran -- who comes from an Irish family -- tweeted his discovery to his nearly 17 million followers, adding: "Also, record labels, if you ignore Gavin James, you are losing out."

Later when they bumped into each other again in another Dublin pub, Sheeran asked him to be his support act at the 82,000-capacity Croke Park stadium.

- 'Ginger mafia' -

"It was mental," says the singer, laughing off jokes that he and Sheeran were part of a "ginger mafia".

"In Ireland we are not short of red-haired people," he adds.

Less than two years later James is about to release his first studio album, "Bitter Pill", having played stadium and concert halls across the United States, Britain and Ireland supporting Sheeran as well as Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and James Blunt.

But as the 24-year-old points out, he was far from an overnight success. 

He began on the pub circuit at 17, dropping out of music college to often play three gigs a day while working in a supermarket.

"Some days I would wake up sounding like Morgan Freeman," he jokes.

"I started playing in pubs in front of five or six people, and most of them weren't listening. By the end I was playing in front of 600. It was weird. I would ask them if they wanted me to play (Steve Earl's) 'Galway Girl', but they wanted my songs.

"It wasn't as if I was thrust out straight away in front of 10,000 people," he says, but still his success was dizzying. 

His apprenticeship had taught him how to charm a crowd. "In the pubs I would be competing with hen nights who would be jumping on your lap, but if you play along and tell jokes and are nice they would listen... and I learned how to use my voice better." 

Although he comes from a musical family -- his sister is a gospel singer and his great grandparents were opera singers -- he credits his musical education to his big brother listening to the radio at night in bed. "I think that's how it got into my soul."

- Songs about alcoholism, bullying -

As a boy, James began playing Irish music on a tin whistle and accordion before passing via the hard rock of Green Day and Slipknot to Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke to a sound that is somewhere between soul and folk.  

But it is James' delicate "falsetto, soprano, I don't know what you would call it" voice, he says, which stands out most. Given the way "I look, I should really sound like a rugby player," he adds.

His songs are mostly about love that has gone wrong, with the striking video for "For You" touching on the very un-pop music subject of parental alcoholism. 

The title track of his album "Bitter Pill", which is released on Friday, is about the break-up with a "girl who wanted me to give the singing up", while the song "22" tackles bullying, something he long suffered himself growing up in the working class Stoneybatter neighbourhood of Dublin.

"I was bullied a lot at school. It was terrible, really terrible but it stopped, and it was fine from about 15 onwards."

The song helped make his name in Ireland, turning a small acoustic album, "Live at Whelan's" recorded at the legendary Dublin pub, into a number one album there.

James begins a European and US tour in Paris on March 14. 

By Anthony LUCAS


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