Jamie T on new album The Theory of Whatever
London singer-songwriter Jamie T speaks to Alex Green about overcoming his creative block and marking 15 years since his debut, Panic Prevention...
IT HAS been six years since Jamie T last released an album, a long time even by his standards. But the 36-year-old, whose releases have come only sporadically since the zeitgeist-capturing single Sheila in 2006, is back with 13 new tracks. Why has it taken so long?
"The wall was – how do I put this? – a self-imposed want of trying too hard to move on," he explains over video call from the garden of a pub close to his London home.
"People are always obsessed with musicians moving forward and progression. Maybe I was thinking about that a little bit too much."
Jamie T, real name Jamie Treays, emerged from Wimbledon in west London around the time of his 20th birthday, a mouthy indie kid with a punk attitude and sharply observational lyrics about city life.
And while those early songs like If You Got the Money, So Lonely Was the Ballad and the inescapable Sheila have proved evergreen, he has, unsurprisingly, done some growing up in the intervening years.
This was especially clear when he sat down to write and record his new album, The Theory Of Whatever, and found himself lacking direction.
"Maybe I was trying too hard to make things progress and losing my identity in it," he questions.
"It took me a minute to find myself in the way my music sounds to me. It took me a minute to get back there."
Each album has been a step forward – his debut Panic Prevention led into the more acoustic Kings and Queens, then came the darker themes of Carry On The Grudge and the freewheeling Trick.
"Progression is a natural thing but I was forcing it," Jamie reflects.
"I've been doing this for so many years now. It definitely progresses naturally, so it was just silly of me to put too much effort into trying to make it move forward. Once I stopped doing that everything naturally moved forward anyway."
Despite his mental block, Jamie T still managed to pen some 80 songs for this album before whittling them down. Lockdown helped. With all the time in the world on his hands, he turned to his make-shift home studio – a microphone, guitars, a keyboard and a laptop.
"I was the workaholic type," he says with a smile. "I just worked and worked and worked."
Treays enlisted the help of some friends to finish the album, Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis and Hugo White, formerly of The Maccabees, among them.
"If you are in a band you have other people to rely on," he explains.
"I'm not in a band so I don't have a support network of people around me. So that's part of it, having some support around you and having good friends, people I look up to, it's the best of both worlds.
"I like being part of the community. Especially with indie music, there aren't actually that many of us these days, so it's important to me to keep some community around it. It helps me out no end to bounce things off people – and steal their ideas."
Early in his career, Treays earned a reputation as a prickly interviewee, but it now appears his reticence came more from a dislike of dissecting his own music.
Some critics have suggested The Theory of Whatever is about the relationship between hope and disillusionment.
"Grappling with questions is, I suppose, the nature of songwriting," he offers in response.
"The best songs I have ever listened to, my favourite artists, they always manage to not tell you what to do, but just make you ask questions. Then you can make your own mind up.
"I am hoping that it comes across a little bit like that, especially with the disillusionment in parts of it. I hope I'm asking questions rather than answering them."
He also stresses there is a lot of hope in the album and that the prevailing theme is really one of positivity. London has always played a part in his music, whether it is his 2007 ode to the the city's Northern Line or St George Wharf Tower from the new album, about London's tallest residential skyscraper.
"I have lived here in London my whole life," he says.
"I suppose I am a narrative, location-based songwriter, some would say. But I would like to think that if I lived in Manchester I would be doing the exact same thing."
He is more comfortable discussing the past – specifically his debut album Panic Prevention, which was released 15 years ago and recently went Platinum.
"I'm very fond of looking back at that period of my life," he says.
"I have lots of really great memories of that time."
The album, named after his propensity for panic attacks at the time, played a formative role in many young people's lives, alongside records by the Libertines, Lily Allen and other indie staples.
"I am chuffed that it managed to speak to so many people," he admits.
"It certainly was a very personal record, basically about me and my friend Joe, and so for so many people to find something in that is a wonderful thing."
He has recently been listening back. What does he hear in his 20-year-old self?
"I love the way it sounds," he reflects.
"I love the production on it. Someone described it to me the other day as the sound of someone who doesn't know what they're doing – I think that is spot on."
Treays says his routine of disappearing between album cycles dates back to his early days in the music industry, when aloofness was the best protection.
"I was pretty steadfast. I knew that I was doing something different to everyone else and I knew that no one else knew how to do what I was doing.
"I was very cocksure and terrified, coming off as arrogant, defensive and all those kind of bratty things that you can be. But I still look back at that and feel I was right to be like that."
:: The Theory Of Whatever by Jamie T is out now on Polydor.