luke james

“I never wanted to be a pop star”: Luke James talks making music with a new mindset

The Grammy-nominated musician and actor talks early musical memories, audition anxiety and why he’ll never hide his love for Kenny G

“I think all the rain that’s happening everywhere else just needs to go to Australia. The earth needs to make that happen.” It’s early January and, while wildfires devastate large swathes of Australia, Luke James and I are lamenting the stormy conditions in our respective locations of New York and London. The comment is, I soon learn, characteristic of James who – even down a slightly fuzzy phone line – manages to exude charisma, charm and the sense that he is just a genuinely decent human being.

We’re speaking ahead of the launch of his second album, To Feel Love/d, and, while this may make him sound like an up-and-comer, you’re likely more familiar with James’ work than you think. The R&B singer/songwriter has penned hits for Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, been nominated for two Grammy awards and opened for Beyonce during her Mrs. Carter world tour. Having spent the last few years honing his acting talents on the set of Fox’s musical drama Star, he talks returning to music with a new mindset, not letting fear hold him back and why his greatest career highlight was an email…

My earliest memory of music is an old piano my mum had. A house near us caught fire but they salvaged this piano and my mum purchased it from our church. I remember sitting at the piano while she played. She attempted to teach me until we found out I had ADHD – I couldn’t really grasp it because I wouldn’t sit still.

I’m from New Orleans. It’s a very artistic city, music is in everything. Before Hurricane Katrina my mum had a huge catalogue of vinyls and the one I used to play over and over was Donny Hathaway. One day we were watching TV and we saw a guy play A Song for You by Donny Hathaway on the Apollo. He rearranged it just a little to make it more personal and the way he moved the crowd was a huge influence. There was also this guy who would play the guitar in church on special anniversaries. One year he decided to sing and he had such a rich tone – really deep and big – that really moved me. He made me think I could be a performer.

If I was to compare to myself to an instrument I’d say I was a saxophone. Sax was my third instrument. The first was drums and I tore those up and then my mum gave me a trumpet and I used the case as a ramp to ride my bike off. I love Kenny G. Some saxophonists would probably kill me for that but I don’t care. I also love Charlie Parker – the way he plays saxophone is truly like a voice and that’s influenced how I sing now.

luke james

I spent a long time writing for other artists. In creating music for other people you’re sharpening your tools, learning how to listen, learning how to feel, learning the dynamics of hit song writing – because there’s a formula to that – and learning how to find the truth within the melodies. This album will be my first as an independent artist. It’s what I want to say now I have the opportunity to write my own story without a hundred million chefs in the kitchen telling me what I need to do in order to reach a goal that I haven’t necessarily set.

I don’t think I ever really dreamed of being a pop star. You make a choice as a creator. You can go in the studio and decide to write what’s in your heart and take the chance that no-one else feels that. Or you go in the studio and ignore all your feelings, because you understand the business of songwriting and hit-making, and write a song that gets people going for a moment. It can be therapeutic to write those fun song with no weight to them but I prefer to write honest music. I’d rather deal with the struggle of getting people to hear it and understand it than just make some poppy song so I can get played on the radio.

luke james

Most of my highlights are really personal things – like my mum and my friends seeing me succeed and achieve my dream. But I did also get an email from Prince. To have someone that I look to for inspiration and that I admire tell me he loves my album and that he’d love for me to come and hang with him, that was everything. I’m good after that. In the end I met him a couple of times and we got to chat and jam. It was a beautiful experience and I’m so grateful I had that chance.

I’ve always wanted to act but music was just easier for me. Acting was such a feat in my mind – the anxiety of the audition process and the idea of having 100 people staring at you. Give me some lines and I could sing them with no fear but if you tell me I have to speak them and give the same emotion, that’s a different thing altogether. I didn’t jump at the opportunities I probably should have when I was younger. I was a bit more fearful so I stuck to what I knew. The universe is very cool because it doesn’t matter what you say. What’s for you is for you – and you can’t stop that. An opportunity to do a musical movie came up and it made acting easier to get in to.

Acting is so new to me and I want to stay an open book. I want to do things that have depth, that say something, that challenge me. At this point auditions come and, if I like the role, I go for it. But even if it doesn’t speak to me I’ll probably still go for it because you just never know. As long as it feels like the story is meaningful and truthful then I’m into it.

Looking for more musical inspiration? Labrinth – you’ve been missed.

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