Two years on from his completely unexpected comeback, James Arthur is still pinching himself that he was given a second chance. But after an incredible story of redemption, which saw him re-sign to Simon Cowell’s record label after previously being dropped in a blaze of bad publicity, he is now ready for the next chapter.
With a new album on the horizon, James is poised to surprise his fans yet again, prompted by the success of his collaboration with dance act Rudimental last year.
While he may be best known for being a balladeer, the forthcoming release will see him explore genres he hasn’t touched on since his time on ‘The X Factor’, as he hopes to change the narrative around him, following 2016’s ‘Back From The Edge’.
“I’ve made a conscious effort to get away from the self-deprecating stuff,” he tells HuffPost UK, when we meet him at Syco’s swanky west London HQ. “It made sense on the last album and talking about myself a lot, but I wanted to make a body of work that was about relating to people more. It felt like the logical next step for me.
“It was great to see the reaction to ‘Sun Comes Up’ [his track with Rudimental] and how it was received by people. It was really needed. I saw a shift in the people who were interested in me and it attracted a different clientele. A lot of people were surprised by it, and I liked the taste of it.”
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He describes the forthcoming album (which doesn’t currently have a release date) as having hip-hop vibes, admitting he has been inspired by Post Malone.
“I’ve always liked gospel and more urban music,” he says. “I just don’t think people know that side of me yet and I’m excited to show it.
“There’s been no parameters on this album, other than to make sure the subject matter is not about me.”
Not many people get a second chance in the music industry - especially from someone as cut-throat as Simon Cowell, who has sent dozens of previous ‘X Factor’ contestants right back into obscurity after falling short of expectations after the show.
Having arguably had the most notorious fall from grace of them all, with a number of damaging, high-profile social media spats, I’m interested to know why it was him that Simon decided to take a second chance on.
James claims it’s partially due to the “unwavering belief” he has in his own ability. He says: “I did a lot of praying. I think if you visualise some things enough, they come true.
“I didn’t hold out much hope during those couple of years - I’m a realistic guy - and I looked at the list of people who’d fallen by the wayside after ‘X Factor’ and nobody has made it back, but I’ve always had this unwavering belief in my ability that I am something different and what I can do musically.
“I’ve never been the most confident person within myself, but when it comes to music, I’ve got it nailed down.”
Reflecting on his journey back to the top, he admits his success is sweeter as he previously lost it all.
“It had been so quiet for two years - I thought I’d be singing ‘Impossible’ in Moldova for the rest of my life. That’s how it felt,” he says. “Never did I foresee having a global hit like ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’. I was just writing some songs I hoped connected with a few people.
“I remember sitting on my couch and getting a call saying they wanted me back on ‘The X Factor’. Another call: ‘Simon Cowell wants to re-sign you’. Another: ‘You’ve been A-listed on all the radios and you’re top five on iTunes’. I thought I was going to get an email from my doctor saying I’ve got a terminal illness because it was just so unbelievable.
“I was a bit scared that something was going to happen like some dick pic was going to come out or something,” he jokes, before quickly insisting there are none in existence. “But that something bad was going to happen and it was all going to come crashing down again. It took me a while to get over that anxiety. But it has definitely put me back in a much more comfortable place and I’m very grateful for it.”
As he talks about just how ill he was during that period out of the spotlight, I’m struck by just how candid he is prepared to be - often stars can clam up when asked about anything other than what they’re trying to promote, but James welcomes the chance to discuss his personal life and mental health.
“When I was going through that period of time, I thought I was dying in every single way - I really did, I was really, really ill,” he says. “But I just realised how important speaking about it was. Internalising it doesn’t do anything but make it worse.”
He continues: “I’ve got a responsibility to speak out because we’ve got to help people that don’t have the outlets we have like the creative industry to dump all that negativity.
“I’m so lucky and privileged to have music as an outlet. God knows if I’d be here if I hadn’t made that comeback. I might have been somewhere completely lost, or having lost my purpose.
“There’s a lot of people who feel who feel their purpose is to be an actor or a singer who never get to fulfill and get this crippling depression about it. But I’m lucky I’ve got people to listen, so I’m going to shout from the rooftops about mental health.”
As talk turns to his 2012 stint on ‘The X Factor’, he admits his problems also clouded his experience, as the pressure of being on, what was then, the biggest show on TV would often be too much for him.
“I went from being in obscurity to being part of this amazing show and that was phenomenal, but then there was the extreme nerves and anxiety of performing every Saturday night to 11 million people, the judgement and social media,” he explains. “All of that was a big noise because there was so much going on. But I’m just so grateful for the experience because it’s made the last five years of my life unbelievable.”
While on the show, he also realised the constraints of the format when he was left unable to play his own material. While he still ended up winning, it seems James believes he would have flourished on the show in its current incarnation, which allows the contestants to perform their own tracks.
“Last year was cool with them allowing so many original songs - I wish I’d had that,” he says. “I did my best to push the boundaries with what I had, but I‘d have loved to have been on it when you were allowed to do original. I had a song for every genre.”
There’s more changes lined up for this series too, and James’ former mentor and still close friend Nicole Scherzinger has found herself axed from the panel for a second time - something which he is “a little bit sad about”, though he adds: “I’m excited she’s going to work on getting some new music out because she’s so good at that.
″‘X Factor’ is a big commitment and a lot of time out of your calendar and I know she wants to be more creative so I’m looking forward to that chapter.”
James says reports currently suggesting Robbie Williams may step up to the panel to replace Louis Walsh, “make a lot of sense”, explaining: “He’s a bonafide popstar - I don’t think there’s many better people to find a popstar than him. I think it’s right to give it a shake up - it needs a little bit of a revamp.”
When I ask if it makes him sad to see the show that made him a star on the decline, he laughs: “No, it’s great for me because it means no-one overshadows me! I’d love to see it keep on dwindling! I’ve still got the biggest-selling winner’s single of all time. I joke, obviously.
“But I just think it’s been on the air for so long, and the way people consume TV has changed now. People are wise to the way its produced now too. You can tell by the background music whether someone is through. But it’s difficult to change a winning formula or better it because it’s been so good for so long. I still love it, although it does give me anxiety sometimes.”
Now six years on from his ‘X Factor’ journey, what does James hope the next six will bring him?
“These guys are doing stadiums and stuff and that is really my goal - to cement my legacy,” he says. “I’m all about legacy. I want to be legitimised and taken seriously and be considered to be in that league.
“It’s not about money or anything like that with me. I’m a competitive guy and I want to be the best there is.”
James’ current singles ‘You Deserve Better’ and ‘At My Weakest’ are out now.