Smooth Sailing for James Walsh

Artist: Starsailor
Published: 2003-10-09

James Walsh is leaping jubilantly, arms aloft, in front of an adoring crowd at England's Southampton Guildhall, racing between stage exits, he embraces his band mates, before momentarily disappearing as feedback reverberates around the venue.

But the squeal of the amps has barely subsided before he sprints back out with a childlike eagerness, forgoing the customary crowd teasing, as if he needs to do a double-take to make sure he's not dreaming.

There is, of course, no need for James to pinch himself. Where his initial rise to stardom may have been swift and hectic, he and his band Starsailor are now firmly established, and are as unlikely to disappear as the screaming sea of faces they see before them.

Speaking to James less than an hour before the set, this humble persona shines equally away from the spotlights. His strikingly powerful performances are driven by a modest gratitude to the hoards of fans, which he revels in explaining, preparing a line he will echo later in the evening to rapturous applause.

"Touring's your chance to say thank you to all the people who went out and bought the record, because you can't go round and acknowledge that and shake all their hands, so you put that into your performance, and whatever you put into it is what you're giving back, and saying, 'thanks for making us such a big band'."

At 23, Walsh commands a calm reflectiveness and serenity that contradicts assumption. As the chief singer/songwriter of a band who shifted well over one million copies of their debut album, 'Love Is Here', one may expect him to have succumbed to the trappings that such immediate success can bring.

But far from being arrogant or boorish, James can rarely talk about anything but moving forward, keeping balanced, and striving to improve.

"It can be detrimental when you are being praised to the high heavens because you get a misleading idea of how good you are," he says.

He maintains a soft and thoughtful tone of voice as he speaks (possibly to protect a vocal excellence that astonishes in concert), and while his verbal patterns are littered with hesitation, thoughtful body language and a zest for talking all things Starsailor create an outwardly articulate impression.

It's a thoughtfulness that is perhaps self-imposed, following the occasional slip of tongue about fellow musicians creating tea cup-sized storms in the British music media, but one that serves him well, and facilitates a resilience to criticism from poison pens.

Far from worrying about adverse coverage, James claims it merely furthers his pursuit of excellence: "I think it's good in way, because it helps us raise the bar, and say: 'If this isn't good enough for you, then we'll go back into the studio and create something that you can't criticize, and is just too good.'" His back straightens, and he grins determinedly, adding, " It pisses you off for a bit, but then you think, 'Right then.'"

If there is any point where it could all come off the rails for Starsailor, one senses it would be now. Where the Wigan quartet initially benefited from a 'next big thing' tag, surfing to popularity on a wave of melodic guitar bands, they now seem about as fashionable as Global Hypercolor.

But James appears unfazed by this, merely dismissing that things "move in cycles," and remains focused on taking the band beyond their initial bout as darlings of a 'scene'.

His confidence is warranted. There's a notable difference in sound between the band's new long player, 'Silence Is Easy', and their first outing. The catchy anthemic qualities of early hits like 'Alcoholic' and 'Good Souls' have been enhanced with more intricate melodies on the Phil Spector-produced title track, the tubthumping opener 'Music Was Saved', and the string-backed 'Four to the Floor'.

It's been both a conscious and natural progression: "I think we're playing better live, now. There's been a natural progression to the more uplifting and confident kind of sound, we've done so many festivals when we've had to make these songs that have started off as quite mellow and melancholy fill a huge space, and I think that's influenced the new album. We were already thinking we can't have too many fully acoustic songs, because they just wouldn't work in a live environment, and we wanted some big anthems that people who go to festivals and go to gigs could sing on the way home."

Bar the now unfortunately infamous Mr. Spector's two tracks, and the poignant 'Shark Food', production duties lay predominantly with the band on 'Silence Is Easy', affording an artistic license that has helped this progression. It took ten months, compared to an imposed eight weeks spent on 'Love Is Here', but the benefits are clear.

"We had two weeks to listen to it, digest it, and if there was anything we needed to change we could go back and just perfect it, really. With the first album we set ourselves a definite period when we wanted it to be finished, and I think we learnt from that."

If Starsailor continue to scale the learning curve they have followed over the past three years, the future will be similarly bright. That is, of course, if James, who recently became a father, can get over just how good the present is.

"I think the first album was more like looking through a window, writing from the Nick Drake perspective, and trying to long for something that you can't get hold of, and the new album's about having achieved that, like my girlfriend and having a baby daughter who needs me. Now I'm writing about real events."

Speaking like a veteran, Walsh is a walking endorsement of accelerated learning, and commands a positive mindset that mirrors the seamlessly mature fashion in which Starsailor have completed the transition from bright young hopes to mass-selling stalwarts.

"I think you have to be more laid back, and try and enjoy every moment, from a writing perspective as well, just keep drawing on more positive moments in my life, because it's so much easier to relive and celebrate than the harder times," says Walsh, who admits he prefers to bare his soul and sound "100 per cent Starsailor," than contrive less personal lyrics.

Starsailor are entering a new era, and with 'Silence Is Easy' look to have leap-frogged the second album banana skin, but Walsh promises they are far from resting on their laurels.

"The fans have said through the sales of the album and the sales of the tickets that they still believe in us and they still need us around, but we just have to keep plugging away and soaking up new influences until we make that album that no one can argue with!"

Ambitious? Definitely. Impossible? Maybe. But you can bet your life they'll give it a go.

Writer: Tim Newbound

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