Raw talent is innate. But it takes both effort and finesse to maximise that potential. Take British singer-songwriter James Smith, for example. Showcasing his melodic expertise on stage at Britain's Got Talent series 8 in 2014. Smith, then 15, impressed both the judges and general public and eventually being a finalist.
This opened doors to many opportunities, such as working with notable musicians like Martin Luke Brown, Katy B, Sody and Sasha Kaeble. Smith has since amassed 200+ million streams on digital music platforms with memorable hits including 'Call Me When It’s Over', 'Tell Me That You Love Me' and 'T-Shirts'.
The London-based musician has a knack for composing and producing heartfelt tunes via delicate guitar cords and passionate gospel arrangements. Recently released his second EP District Line, we caught up with Smith to understand how he finds an identity in music and what inspired this latest record.
ESQ: Tell us how did you get into music.
James Smith: I grew up singing on my dad’s market stall. He would make me sing Johnny Cash songs to all of his friends and it always went down really well. I always liked that older style of music, and it was this that led me to pick up a guitar when I was around 10. The rest was history! I’ve been writing songs since I can remember!
ESQ: Describe your creative song-writing process. Who are your inspirations and why them?
Smith: I tend to write melodies and lyrics whilst I’m commuting. My latest EP all started as voice notes I had made sitting on the ‘district line’ (a tube line we have in London). I then take inspiration from these voice notes or lyrics and start writing with just a guitar or piano (making sure that the song is good acoustically).
This is important because I find that when I start making a song from the track, it never feels authentic to me as a songwriter. After I have the song is when I sit down and produce it. This can take forever sometimes.
ESQ: What were you trying to convey with District Line?
Smith: This is an EP all about a relationship I was in a few years ago. I hope for this project to be my final goodbye to this chapter in my life. I feel like I’ve sung about this particular heartbreak a lot. Maybe I’ll have some happier songs soon [laughs].
So, the EP encapsulates that ‘letting go’ attitude I have towards the relationship. It also represents me and how I grew up with my music and love life. They seem to fit hand-in-hand.
This is very much a nostalgic EP — looking back and letting go.
ESQ: What’s your experience like producing for music peers like Katy B and how do you forge a complementary sound with ‘James Smith’ in them.
Smith: Katy is a real mentor to me! We are with the same management and she has kept me under her wing since I was about 15! So, I’ve known her for years, and it was a real pleasure to work on her recent stuff. I try to just let her do her thing and learn from the huge impact she had on the industry when she first started. I also sneaked in a few backing vocals on the new project [laughs]!
ESQ: What did you learn from your collaborators like Martin Like Brown when making the tracks on District Line?
Smith: I wrote DL and My Oh My with Martin. He’s one of my favourites to work with. We are really good friends, so a lot of the time we tend to just have a laugh when we are writing which is always fun. We wrote DL in the sun with a few beers down us lol. He also just lets me do my thing and really encourages me to be authentic.
A lot of co-writers tend to put their stamp on everything, but Martin allows me to be myself in the sessions we have!
ESQ: The lyrics you penned are relatable. What made you want to share your experiences?
Smith: Writing is my only outlet to be vulnerable really. I’m not much of a wallower in real life, I try to crack on and bury things down… so that when it comes to writing, there are no limits! It’s cliche but it’s my therapy and I bloody love it!
ESQ: What is the most important lesson you’d learnt so far in life?
Smith: Big question! Aha! I’m always learning lessons. I think something I’ve figured out recently is to lead with love and good vibes only. I try to only surround myself with good people, good food, good music — this way I can appreciate and savour every moment! I love nature too. Getting out and living. Hugging trees and all that hippie stuff. I love it. So, in order to achieve this, the answer to the biggest lesson I’ve learned in life is to pause. Rebalance. Like the lead character in ‘Soul’ the new Disney film!
ESQ: What do you think contributed to your success and popularity since Britain’s Got Talent, especially in the ‘notoriously difficult’ music industry?
Smith: It just comes down to hard work and staying constant. I haven’t really taken my foot off the pedal since I was 14 — so I hope it pays off [laughs]! We got a long way to go yet!
ESQ: What have you been up to lately and what else would you like to explore musically in the future?
Smith: I’ve been writing my debut album! And producing a lot!! For some really cool artists.
In the future, I’d like to explore some different sides of my musical capability. I make a lot of different types of music and would love for people to hear that side of me in the future.
District Line is now available to purchase and stream at all good music sites including Apple Music.
"I’m a big fan of soul music and think that it is essential in the morning to lift spirits and get you in the right frame of mind. Here are some easy listening tunes that I feel are some of the greatest in this genre."
1. 'Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand' — Leon Bridges
"This song feels like such a wake-up song to me. The arrangement is so beautifully nostalgic. Curtis Mayfield played a part in this tune also of who I’m a huge fan. Leon Bridges is one of the voices of our generation!"
2. 'Coming Up Easy' — Paolo Nuttini
"I grew up with this album. It was one of the first records I bought. And this tune always seems to get me up and ready for the day."
3. 'What’s Going On (Live)' — Donny Hathaway
"To me, this version of Marvin Gaye’s classic is one of the best ever. It’s so feel-good and really gets me in the spirit to make positive decisions! The world is mad but we gotta love each other! Pure soul music like this is key in the morning."
"Songs that will keep you up and moving are important during your day. Positive thought and reflection! I have chosen these tunes to keep you active."
1. 'You Ain’t The Problem' — Michael Kiwanuka
"I’m a big fan of Kiwanuka and this track is so great to keep your energy up. A perfect soundtrack for the day."
2. 'Come On Come Over' — Jaco Pastorius
"Some funk is key! This song always gets me in a good mood. Keeps me up!"
3. 'When I’m In Your Arms' — Cleo Sol
"I discovered Cleo recently and I was so in awe by the production on this record. It is really inspiring. I wanna produce music like this! So some 'inspo' for the day!"
"I like to unwind to some slower chill vibes at the end of my day. Songs with a lot of musicianship tend to help me get lost in the music and below are some of my favourites."
1. 'Lua' (feat. MARO) — Jacob Collier
"This is a BEAUTIFUL song. The perfect song to wind down too. Huge fan of both these artists and the string arrangement is top class."
2. 'Annie and Alistair' — Flyte
"Flyte really gives me a 'Beatles-y' vibe (which I LOVE) and this is such a well-written song. It really relaxes me. The melodies and harmonies are beautiful."
3. 'Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye' — Bettye Swann
"A classic! The soul of Bettye is something we all need at the end of our day. This is one of my favourite songs ever!"
Enjoyed the tracks? Check out our other ‘Dawn to Dusk’ playlists curated by guest artists each week and follow our Apple Music profile to access our playlist first when it's out.