James Arthur: Sometimes I feel I have to work twice as hard as everyone else
James Arthur chats to Alex Green about creativity, burnout and the mental health struggles that inspired his new album
WHEN James Arthur won The X Factor in 2012, he set out on a path of fame, public controversy and ultimately redemption. Nearly a decade on, three of the 33-year-old's albums have charted at either number one or two.
The Middlesbrough native also maintains an energetic fan base, born out of his time on Simon Cowell's talent show and grown by an ear for a hook and, more recently, a handful of high-profile collaborations with the likes of Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and Sigala.
But his success has also been tempered by mental health struggles and drugs. His career almost entirely derailed in 2014 when he parted ways with Cowell's Syco label following accusations that he used a homophobic lyric in a song.
But finally Arthur is in a place where he feels he has the maturity and creative control to make something a little different.
“I do sometimes feel I have to work twice as hard as everyone else just because of where I came from,” he explains over the phone from the home in Surrey he shares with his girlfriend – complete with indoor swimming pool, recording studio and pool room.
“It has been a long time coming for me to get to a place where I have full creative control.”
Lockdown inspired creativity in some artists. For others, it has been one long episode of writer's block. Arthur falls firmly into the former camp. He recorded an album in three months during the first national lockdown in England and took up hiking and running.
The single Medicine, which dropped last week, is the first taste of that project. His languid voice, almost tailor made for the radio, combines with brash production and upfront lyrics – “When I'm suicidal / you don't let me spiral”.
“I learnt a lot about myself and the things that I want to do and the things I don't want to do,” he says of the past year. “My girlfriend was really supportive in that time. I found I loved hiking. That was a big thing.
“The song is about love over adversity, about the things that help you through the dark times.”
In the past Arthur's mouth may have got him in trouble, but now his honesty feels more refreshing than antagonistic. He entered 2020 struggling with his demons, stemming from his time in foster care and his parents' split, and on stage in Madrid suffered a debilitating anxiety attack.
Shortly after, he was rushed to hospital with flu-like symptoms where doctors found he had a gallbladder infection.
“I had hit a roadblock,” he recalls. “I had this arena tour in March that I had to do, but before that it was a question of, ‘Do I go off to rehab in Texas to address these childhood traumas that I hadn't processed?' That was why I was hitting these walls every so often.”
Eventually he decided to check himself into the Nightingale, a private mental health hospital in central London, where he began cognitive behavioural therapy, embarked on a course of medication and got fit.
Soon March was upon him and he went out on tour again where, by his own admission, he “smashed it”.
Of course, the tour was curtailed by coronavirus and Arthur was grounded once again. The first few months were tough.
“Health anxiety was a huge one,” he admits. “For the first couple of months I didn't want to step outside. I thought I was going to be one of the statistics, having a little bit of asthma and things like that.
“I am very hyper vigilant of my health anyway. I have always had this fear I would die young of a heart attack.
“It definitely freaked me out and after a couple of months of sitting on my couch and playing Fifa and eating s*** I realised the best therapy for me was in making music, so that is what I did.”
Arthur admits he has an obsessive character. Thankfully, he turned that trait to running and even bought his close friends Apple Watches so they could compete with their step counts.
Arthur's usual music making process involves songwriting camps in Los Angeles and a cabal of producers and songwriters to hand. This time it was just him, alone, in his house.
You don't need to point out the stigma that comes with starting your career on The X Factor, Arthur is perfectly willing to bring it up himself.
“Ballads are a thing I have stayed away from on this album,” he says half laughing. “I don't want to be defined that way, as the guy who does ballads all the time.
“I have tried to make it so the label can't tell me, ‘Oh, let's have this one as the single because it's a ballad'.”
Lockdown has not blunted his ambition to break into acting. He wouldn't be the first former X Factor winner to do so – 2005 winner Shayne Ward went on to secure a role as Aidan Connor in Coronation Street. But by the sounds of it, Arthur is looking for something a bit different.
“I am a big fan of Shane Meadows' work,” he says of the This Is England director. “That sort of style of drama would suit me in the future.”
And despite lockdown, cogs are turning.
“There are a couple of things in the works that I am working on that I am excited about. I can't share too much about it, but I feel like the acting thing is going to take off quite soon.”
It is some surprise to hear Arthur talk disparagingly about his last album, 2019's YOU.
“Listening back to my most recent album, it's hard, I don't want to be critical of it or do it down, or slam it, but it just felt really disjointed sonically,” he admits.
Half the record was written in Los Angeles, half in the UK. It also featured a frighteningly long list of credits and personnel.
“I have written it off in my head as not being the best,” he adds.
This album is different, he tells me. “Even halfway through the process of writing it I realised that this is really a moment in time. You can hear that it is a guy who is really reflecting and processing things and being very honest about where he is at this very moment in time.
“I talk about things on the album that I don't think I have ever touched on as literally as I have here.”
:: Medicine by James Arthur is out now.