UK artist James Henry has been releasing guitar-driven rock and power pop music since 2003, creating music for the love of it. With his latest album Pluck coming out this month, he took some time to discuss his crackling new single, “A Girl Like You” with us.
Indy Review: Hi James! How did you get started playing music? What were some of your early inspirations?
James Henry: Someone I made friends with early on, in senior school in Liverpool, was given a cheap electric and a small amp. I went to his house, saw it and decided I needed one! My parents chose to buy me a very basic acoustic instead, probably fearful of the noise I’d start making with an electric. I plonked around on that for a couple of years, then got a nice looking Les Paul copy and started seriously learning chords and listening to lots of other players. I had no formal training, so picked as much up by ear as I could. As a guitarist, I initially loved Eric Clapton‘s early work alongside that of B.B. King. I started trying to write songs in my teens but I would say it took me many years before I reached any reasonable level of competence in that arena. The Beatles were my idols from the very beginning and continue to be so – they inspired me to play music and want to do it for a living. They were from Liverpool, too.
IR: Tell us a bit about the writing process for your new single “A Girl Like You”. How did the song first develop for you?
JH: My songwriting process usually has four main steps. (a) Hear a phrase in my head then go to the nearest guitar to refine it; (b) operate voice memo on my phone and get this phrase/segment recorded, often with gibberish for a lyric and some guitar accompaniment (c) think of ideas for a lyric and further melodic or harmonic development, then commit that to a little Zoom 4-track recorder (d) if semi-acceptable, I transfer that to my computer and start work on a proper arrangement, further refinement and progress to an initial mix. This was how “A Girl Like You” came about. The verse melody in the demo version I started working from changed quite a bit, as the main recording evolved.
IR: Was the song written about anyone specifically?
JH: Not really. The lyric was inspired by a photo I found in my attic. It was taken at the 1984 Liverpool International Garden Festival, which I went to with my college mates in tow. The festival had many “attractions”, most of them lousy. We ended up in some half-empty tent, being “entertained” by a sorry troupe of circus types who were struggling to hold our attention. I took a shot of them with my plastic disposable camera – an invaluable fashion accessory at that time – and when I saw it again all those years later, I kind of took pity on the clown in there, seemingly doing his best to render us all jolly. I concocted a little fantasy situation for this character, of him being the lonely performer night after night, then seeing the person of his dreams one evening in the front row of the big top. Her sheer presence, just beyond the edge of that sawdust ring, prompts the frantic outpouring of his feelings in the chorus.
IR: The track has a very classic sound, and evokes a bit of nostalgia to records from acts like The Cars and Cheap Trick. What is it about that “power pop” sound that speaks to you as a songwriter?
JH: I’m flattered you’ve associated the track with those acts. I’ve always liked the interaction of guitars that sound on the edge of break-up, which I think is typical of this thing called “power pop”. In my case, I’m principally a guitarist so tend to gravitate to that in recording, rather than keyboards or synths (although I do play them a little). I feel that many of the songs The Beatles did on Revolver, such as “She Said She Said”, “Taxman” or “And Your Bird Can Sing”, gave me a point of reference sonically. However, I like angry sounding lead guitar parts too, which are also in evidence on much of my new album and that maybe sets me apart slightly.
IR: “A Girl Like You” is the first track off your new album Pluck. How does the track set-up the album in your view, and how does it fit into the collection as a complete piece?
JH: I was advised by my mastering engineer to have it remixed, so I went to a guy in England named Adrian Hall. He made it sound much LARGER than my original mix and gave it a level of impact which I thought would make a powerful opening to the album. It sets the tone for the rest of “Pluck”. It comes in at around three minutes, has quite a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-lead structure, offers a pretty decent solo and then evolves into some panned feedback over an arpeggiated synth. It almost strays into “rock” but not quite. A friend of mine said it sounds like “Gilbert O’Sullivan on steroids”. “Pluck” as a whole is stylistically different from my two previous albums as the electric guitar is primary throughout, typified by “A Girl Like You”, whereas the acoustic was far more to the fore before (try saying that after a few Jack Daniel’s’).
IR: Here in the U.S., rock music has lost much of its cultural relevance to pop, rap and country over the last decade. Do you feel it remains more vibrant in England?
JH: That’s a difficult one. I can’t really say that I have my finger on the pulse of what’s culturally relevant in the UK. There do seem to be younger bands taking up guitars over here, mainly independents, but a lot of it doesn’t sound like “rock” to me, or the kind of guitar music I’d enjoy. “Rock” music, or guitar music, doesn’t seem to get the prominence it once had on mainstream radio or TV – in fact there’s hardly any rock or pop music on British television now. In trying to find a place for my album, I’ve gravitated to “power pop” just as a way of giving people an idea of what it’s about – and I think “power pop” is a term more prevalent in the US than it is here. Even then, I’m still wary of “branding” my own music too much. Simply put, I do this principally for my own amusement as much as anything and “Pluck” is the type of music I like to listen to, as well as write and play.
Check out Pluck later this month, and listen to “A Girl Like You” in our A Single Sit-Down Playlist below: