You has arrived, and James Arthur is more authentic than ever. The “Say You Won’t Let Go” singer has dropped his third studio album and we are here. for. it. (That song, by the way, is currently the 13th most streamed track on Spotify, which obviously is major). The album, which features the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, Travis Barker, and Adam Lazzara, is bold, genuine, promiscuous, and honest.
In case you forgot, the Yorkshireman entered our lives in 2012 by appearing on and, more importantly, winning The X Factor. (I rewatched his audition tape and cried at my desk; it’s been a long week, okay?). But a lot has happened in seven years (yes, even besides the aforementioned smash hit). The 31-year-old released two albums, James Arthur and Back from the Edge, in 2013 and 2016 respectively. He fell out with his label. He opened up about his mental health struggles—and became an ambassador for the UK mental health charity, SANE. He toured with OneRepublic and earlier this year, Westlife (Westlife!). A journey, to say the least.
In honor of the release of You, Arthur spoke with L’Officiel USA about boxing, making the album, and collaborating with his teenage idol.
Photo credit: Louis Brown
What made you decide to go on The X Factor?
It was a matter of kind of being out of options. I did it to appease my mum, actually. She told me that The X Factor was doing these mobile auditions, where they were traveling around the country. Middlesborough, where I'm from, is quite an insignificant town; not a lot really goes on, but they brought the auditions there. At the time, I was really skint, or poor, if you like. I was sitting in the dark in my apartment with no electricity in my—not even an apartment, it was like a bedsit, kind of little room. I called my mom and begged her to borrow me some money and she was like, "The only way that I'll borrow you this money is if you go and audition for The X Factor."
So it was like either I do that, or not. But I was in the queue and I thought, "You know what, I'll just go home now and tell her that I didn't get through." But something kept me in the queue. I don't know, maybe I just wanted to see what they thought of me. I'm glad I did it because they were really cool and they fast-tracked me. They were like, "We like what you're doing." I basically skipped a few producer rounds, and then around six months later, I was the winner. The rest is history, I suppose.
What has it been like since then?
It's been a hell of a journey, some huge ups and downs. I've just been through a lot; had a massive fall from grace, had a massive falling out with my record label and management. I lost my label. I eventually left my management. And then for a little while, I was on my own and dealing with a lot. I was dealing with depression, being suicidal, and just in a really dark place. I was suffering from panic attacks, which was really consuming my life. After a lot of time, suffering with panic attacks and not really knowing how to manage them and thinking I was dying and being just completely lost and spiraling out of control, I found that talking about it—just saying, "I'm having a panic attack," or just not internalizing so much—was very powerful.
And from that day on, I decided to be an ambassador for it, to come out and talk about it. It started to get better through that. I started to write music again. Sony Germany/Columbia signed me and gave me a shot. And then the miracle happened. I got a single that did—whatever it did—number one radio song in America. It was huge. It's been a roller coaster.
What is your creative process? How has it changed? How has it stayed the same?
When I was younger, I used to write a lot of lyrics before putting a song to it, and funnily enough, as I got older, it's all been more based around the melodies. I recently went back to writing songs without structure and melodies and things. I've got a couple of songs on this new album that feel more authentically me because it's more a stream of consciousness than it is your typical pop formula for songs. I now sometimes write with other people, whereas I always use to write by myself and that's been a discipline that I've been learning and have struggled with at times because I don't like to give a lot away. But yeah, I've very much done a full circle.
What’s new with your album You?
I think with my last album, it was very much about me, and quite autobiographical. All the songs on [You] are directed at you. They feel more inclusive, a bit more like conversational. The thing about the last album is it was really taxing to talk about it; very draining. And funnily enough, the one song from that record that wasn't super personal was "Say You Won't Let Go." It really connected with people. So, I kind of approached this whole record in the same way that I approached that song, which was using more of my imagination, making it more of a stream of consciousness, and being inspired by other people.
I read in an old interview that, at the time, you were listening to a lot of Taking Back Sunday, and now your new album features a collaboration with Adam Lazzara—what does that feel like?
Oh my god, that was a very proud moment. I actually cried when I heard him on the record. Taking Back Sunday is probably my favorite band. They’re that sort of rock-y, pop-punk thing that I grew up listening to and I love. When I wrote the song “Unconditionally,” I kept singing the lyric from “Cute Without The ‘E,’” which is probably their most famous song. I kept singing it and I was like, "I can't do that because that's not my lyric, it's theirs and it’s the same melody as well." So I thought, "What if I ring them and find out if I can use it?" So someone on my team reached out to them and then they were like, "That's quite a cult thing, and it's quite a big part, so we're going to want a big percentage of that." We were going back and forth and we ended up asking about Adam singing on the record. And when he said he was interested in doing that, I was like "Fucking hell, that's a dream come true." My inner teenager was crying.
Speaking of, what inspires you? Where or who do you get your inspiration from?
I'm inspired by people who do extraordinary things. Underdogs; people who you wouldn't expect. I'm a big fan of boxing and combat sports like UFC, and I think the thing that I love about it is the stories. You see guys that get counted out and then become the champion. I think I'm really inspired by when people prove you wrong. I love that. That kind of thing inspires me. Love inspires me. Life. People, and what we're capable of.
What was the best part of your mini North American tour?
I just went to Toronto, like we were in and out, and Toronto is a very interesting city to me. Much like New York, it's got a real identity to it. You see a lot of cities and so many of them look the same, but nowhere looks like New York and nowhere looks like Toronto. The views are the kind that sort of overwhelm you a little bit.
Photo credit: Louis Brown
You’ve already mentioned boxing, but what are your other hobbies?
I like playing football. I'm a bit of a shopaholic. I like shopping, I like buying guitars. I seem to have become a guitar collector. I didn't think that was what I was doing, but I look at my, how many guitars I've got now? Shitloads. I like sports—I'm a typical English bloke. I like watching football, fighting. I'm a bit of a film buff. I like watching movies. I like going to the cinema.
What’s your favorite movie?
It's called Primal Fear. It's got Ed Norton and Richard Gere. It's an old movie, but it's good.
What is your favorite song off of You?
I think it would probably be “Unconditionally” with Adam Lazzara, mainly because it's him. It feels like it harks back to when I was a teenager, in a way...the kind of songs I was writing when I was really troubled. It reminds you of when I used to close the door behind me and just wail at the wall, not really thinking about technique or tone or anything like that. I'm just singing and I love the way it sounds. I think it's pretty cool.
What are you most excited for?
I think all the touring that's coming up. And the album release. I'm a bit nervous, but also I've never been more proud to stand behind a body of work. I've been across every inch of it; it's got so much of me in it. I haven't given away a piece of my soul one little bit on this record. I'm proud of it. I mixed it, I produced it, I wrote it, I sang on it, I played guitar on it. And I did it the way I wanted to do it.