The reinvention of a superstar
“James has gone, you’ve got me now,” James Righton declares on the opener of his recent solo album Jim, I’m Still Here. The first track Livestream Superstar catapults us into a lustrous expanse of sonic space, transporting listeners into the psyche of Righton’s rockstar alter ego: Jim. It was during the release of Righton’s album The Performer in 2020 that the world abruptly stood still and London went into lockdown. After domestic responsibilities such as Zoom school and dinner with his wife and kids, Righton would slip into the bizarre, fragmented universe of his basement studio dressed in a Gucci suit and sunglasses to perform for a virtual, live-streamed world – one where reactions arrived in the form of emojis from behind a screen. While a shift in reality birthed a shift in identity, Jim was conceived as a persona to express the anxieties of everyday life.
The record is a creative vessel into the interiors of Righton’s mind as he travels through time – swimming through memories, moving forwards and backwards within a world on pause. This period of vulnerability also awakened a more intimate form of songwriting, drawing on the personal, more intimate corners of the mind. Across a constellation of twelve tracks, Jim, I’m Still Here is a story of character escapism, of one man caught between parallel universes: a sonic reflection of emotion and memory expressed through each sonic reverberation.
J.L. Sirisuk: Let’s go back in time to when you released The Performer. You were about to promote it and then lockdown occurred. What was going through your mind?
James Righton: What was crazy was, I’d played one show in Paris and I’d got the best reviews for an album I’d ever received in my life. I had a lot of really exciting things ahead of me – tours, gigs, and then obviously lockdown happened, the pandemic took hold, everything closed down. Suddenly my little album I made didn’t matter, what mattered was staying healthy and looking after my family. It was slightly disappointing that I couldn’t promote it or do all the things you dream of doing around an album. Life just shifted, everything changed. Instead of being negative about it all, I got to spend an amazing amount of time with my young family. My wife and I said, “Let’s give each other a break every day – we’ll need at least an hour of ‘me time.’” I’m fortunate to have a studio in my garage and for me that’s what I do for fun, make music, so I’m gonna go down there and I’m gonna get lost in making music. In hindsight, that’s probably what kept me sane. Whilst I was sat next to my daughter on Zoom school, I would be thinking about songs – so much came to me in those moments sitting by her. The whole album was written lyrically and thematically in stolen moments from my daughter’s and my family life.
JLS: Can you recall when Jim came to you, when he was conceived?
JR: Within the first few days. I’m not joking, ten of the songs were written in the first three or four weeks of the first lockdown. Usually when you make an album, the hard bit is mining and finding what it’s about because otherwise you’re just making stuff meaninglessly. Everything very much came in that period because everything was silent and we were alone with our thoughts. Memories came in, and thoughts. I wanted to leave, I wanted to run away, but at the same time I wanted to appreciate the silence and the world stopping. Then I was scared – it was a super hyper-emotional time and everything was dialled up to a ten for everyone.
JLS: In terms of the songwriting process for this record, in what ways did it feel different?
JR: It changed radically because it was lyrics first. I wrote the words first, I wrote the titles, the songs, the themes and I’ve never done that before. It was the words that shaped the songs. I’m so happy about this because I’ve always wanted to write this way, and I feel now I’m there I can be more personal. I’m more fearless in expressing myself and being honest with myself in music. When you’re a kid in a band, you kind of talk about nothing and it’s really hard to talk about stuff. The musicians I respect and listen to are first and foremost lyricists, and it’s the words that grab me first. That’s what I was so pleased about, that finally I was actually writing and being true to myself.
“Whilst I was sat next to my daughter on Zoom school, I would be thinking about songs…“
“I’m so lucky to have been doing this for so long, but I still get excited when I hear music that I feel is new to me. I had no idea this type of music existed and it made me want to figure it out, how do you do this?”
JLS: Lockdown really made us dig deep into memories of people and places. What can you share about memory and the role it played in the narrative of this record?
JR: It played a huge part because I was starting to really appreciate my friends more than ever, and in their absence appreciate their friendship, their love and how massively wonderful it is to have incredible people in my life. My life is everything because of them. There were a lot of friends that I really started to miss and friends I’d not even spoken to for a while. One of my old bandmates Simon [Taylor-Davis], I haven’t spoken to him in a few years now, but we’re like brothers. We had ten years together in a band and before then we grew up in the same town, we’re incredibly close. Also, an incredibly tragic thing happened when a really good friend of mine died of Covid. The shock of it and the fear – I just put everything down on the page, unfiltered. I didn’t check myself and that was quite liberating, to not care about being too personal.
JLS: I felt that. The track A Day At The Races is so personal and moving, it really hits on the beginning of the pandemic and how fragile the world was.
JR: That means so much to hear that. I wrote it because I got the call from my friend Oli who’s the son of Paul, who tragically died. Oli said, “Dad’s not well. He’s got Covid, he’s just gone to hospital.” And I got the call two days later saying, “You know, dad’s dead.” In the space of 48 hours, he’d gone to hospital and died. I went outside and it was a really sunny day in London – it was weird. I was with my kids and everyone was kind of happy, which again felt weird. Paul was the life and soul of the party – he was like, the guy – we’d go around his house and have our first drinks. When I was a kid, I had alcohol for the first time around there. I was so numb and shocked and just wrote the words, almost recounting what happened, just me trying to make sense of it all. I’m still incredibly shocked by it and it’s so tragic – this happened to everyone, these are the stories of that awful period of time.
JLS: With the first track, I felt like I was being pulled into this other orbit of sound. You sing, “James is gone, you’ve got me now.” When you were creating this universe, what was driving it?
JR: I’m very lucky that on this record I worked really closely with Dave and Steph from Soulwax, They’re my label bosses and my big brothers. I’ve been such a fan of their work from day one, and I’m lucky to be on their label. We talked about making a record together for years and then suddenly the world kind of stopped and we had time to start collaborating. I’d send them songs and they’d send me playlists of references. They sent me this amazing playlist, they were like, “Have you listened to these early Ryuichi Sakamoto records?” and I love YMO but they’d send me some obscure records and I was just blown away. I’m so lucky to have been doing this for so long, but I still get excited when I hear music that is new to me. I had no idea that this type of music existed and it made me want to figure it out, like, “How do you do this?” So I wrote from that perspective. The musical palette was very much shaped by me trying to write in that style – using synthesizers, drum machines, but also expanding the palette to like, marimbas and other instruments I could use to make something that was electronic but obviously had a human heart to it.
Photography by Julian Klincewicz
“I hope people see it as a really positive record, a really optimistic and idealistic record about a really strange time. It’s this little thing that I made.”
JLS: And how did the recording process work with David and Steph from Soulwax?
JR: It was crazy – I’ll never make a record like this again. I’m lucky to have a studio in my garage, so I would work, record, and then send demos and songs to Dave and Steph to work on at their studio in Ghent, Belgium, and then email me back. Then I’d do the main vocals, send to them, they’d comp them and send back. I would do the backing vocals and send a string line I’d come up with – it was crazy. Only last week were we in the same room together in Belgium. It was lovely – I gave them a big hug and it was so nice seeing them.
JLS: In the track I Want to Live you mention, “I’ll finish The Magic Mountain” – and that made me laugh because Thomas Mann is my favourite author. Did you finish reading it?
JR: I did. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to about the album that’s mentioned this line. Again, I wanted this album to be unfiltered and to be true to how I felt at the time, and I’d had The Magic Mountain by the side of my bed for many years. I’ve started it and got to page 120 many times, but during lockdown I did actually finish it and it’s one of the greatest books. I wanted to put that in; it was so personal to me.
JLS: I love that authenticity in this record.
JR: I love musicians who speak about these small details, about the personal. From Patti Smith to Leonard Cohen, my favourite writers always do that, and it’s those small things that make you feel like you’re in the room.
JLS: People connect to that. And then the visual component – there’s a short film you worked on with Julian Klincewicz. Why did you decide to work with him?
JR: I was sent his work by Ill Studio, this incredible company that work with Dave and Steph at their label, and was like, “This guy’s great.” He got sent the album, listened to it, was really into it and was like, “Yeah let’s do stuff.” I was in Boston at the time; my wife was working over there, so he flew over to Boston and met me. We spent three days just filming and made this kind of mini, short film about the project. It was just me, him, and his assistant hanging out and filming stuff. It was very documentary-style, but it captures the loneliness, and also the madness of that period for me.
Photography by Julian Klincewicz
“I would go downstairs, get dressed up in my Gucci suit, log on to a social media platform and then play for half an hour and talk.”
JLS: You mention the personal element of that time, and the loneliness. How did it feel to perform on livestream during this time?
JR: I found it so empty. My album came out the day of the lockdown in the UK and suddenly I had to promote an album, which felt strange. I didn’t feel like it was the important thing to be doing at that time, but I would go downstairs, get dressed up in my Gucci suit, log on to a social media platform and then play for half an hour and talk. The only response you got was like a heart emoji or smiley face emoji on the right side of the screen going up, and a comment of, “Oh, I like this song” or “Who is this?” It was so weird and vacuous, and that’s how Jim was born. I thought, “This is actually really brilliant, when I go down there, when I do these shows, I’ll become Jim. I’ll become this other person. It will help me get through it.”
Photography by Julian Klincewicz
“I thought, “This is actually really brilliant, when I go down there, when I do these shows, I’ll become Jim. I’ll become this other person. It will help me get through it.””
JLS: This was conceived during such a heavy, strange time. Now that we’re out of lockdown, what does Jim mean to you now?
JR: I look back and I’m really happy that Jim existed, he helped me get through that period. Jim helped me keep in check all of those extreme elements of my personality. I think everyone needs their own version of themselves to keep themselves in check. You know, like the worst sides of character, which we all easily fall into. Be it the egotist in you, the deluded or the selfish. Jim was almost like my therapist, but he was this character I could create to push to the extremes and kind of live through and play with.
James Righton’s album, Jim, I’m Still Here is out now.