Alice Gee |
James McVey is deep in thought. A year after we last Sat down, I’m excited to see James and curious why now is the right time to focus on solo endeavours. After ten hugely successful years with The Vamps, James feels a sense of stability as he reflects upon his personal experiences from the past couple of years, from getting married to mental health episodes and everything in between. With the oh-so-common perception, solo work can only mean catastrophe for the band. James remains as committed as ever to where it all started, putting out the flames to any potential rumours surrounding The Vamps and their future as a band. For him, the time has never felt so right to release his EP, a collection of songs so personal to his existence. Although The Vamps are busier than ever, with next year set to be full-on, James is confident that his solo work and The Vamps can coexist, even complimenting each other over the next year.
For James, it’s not about taking attention away from the band, nor are there deep-rooted problems. Having found a time where he has the luxury to release music independently, he’s thrown away the whole rule book of writing, producing and releasing music. It’s a moment when his life feels like it’s come full circle. “That’s how music started for me when I was 13/14. It feels like a real full circle moment, 14 years later, to go back to the essence of the magic of songwriting that I initially found.” Experiencing opportunities like no other, including a series of accolades, James has toured the world, released 6 Albums, and worked in some of the best studios globally. But the core of it all for James is being able to return to his DNA where all these moments began, sitting with a guitar, writing, singing and releasing music.
That said, it’s not been all laughter and light from James the past few years. Instead, it’s been a time of uncertainty, suddenly receiving the worst news he could imagine. For the first time in 20 years, musically, James experienced vulnerability he never could have imagined. “I never looked after my voice much, and I thought I’d got away with not needing to warm up or down. But actually, things caught up to me.” I ask if it’s fair to say it was a period of real struggle. “Some people go through trauma, and the whole thing is blanked out of their memory as if it never happened. For me now, it almost feels like it didn’t happen. But I do know, in those moments, there was real despair of not knowing when I would be able to tour with The Vamps again, but also, I was working on my solo project throughout that time.” As James tells me, being methodical is crucial in helping him prepare for life and career-defining moments it’s a luxury he wasn’t afforded with his music and personal life having to take a pause all of a sudden. “I’d been excited what was to come and the next six months of my life. Having that forced pause after we’d all been forced to pause for two years with the pandemic made me feel shit. I thought to myself, I still can’t do what I want to do. It’s only now, nearly eight months since my surgery, that I’m finally in a position where I feel free again. I don’t have to worry about my voice. I can throw everything at my music and The Vamps with this sense that a weight has been lifted.”
At the moment, I feel a tremendous amount of empathy surrounding the lack of autonomy James found with his body. The silence must have been deafening. “I knew there was something wrong. In a couple of weeks between getting back from the Philippines and then going on to Europe, I saw this specialist, and he said, “It’s bad, you need surgery”, the weight felt like a tone of bricks. No one would want to give up on a world tour, let alone one celebrating such an anniversary.” In an industry built upon fragility, James explains he had no idea when they’d be able to play a world tour like that again, making his decision even harder. “I was incredibly torn. Do I either not do the European tour, get the surgery, and return to full health quicker? Or do I go on tour and just be careful and try and get well for the summer? Thank God I did the latter because I could do the tour.” But it came at the price of being unable to speak for the whole European leg of the tour. “It was only three weeks, it wasn’t a very long part of the tour. I thought this would be fun for a few days but it quickly became tiring.” But with that came a slightly new perspective on life. “For the first time, I was forced to put my feet into the shoes of someone who couldn’t talk or communicate for certain reasons. It was isolating, and I felt trapped. It made me subconsciously develop a change in my character when I could talk again because I’d been so withdrawn that it took me a while to gain the kind of confidence to be like yes, I will speak. I will contribute to this conversation.”
The stress of the experience, alongside James admitting to me he’s one to rely on control when it comes to his own life, the prospect of silence and uncertainty took its toll. “When my voice went, I had no idea when It was coming back, let alone the risk that my voice could have changed completely forever. It was challenging to process, especially my not liking change, which I struggled to deal with. But also, it wasn’t just my health it was my career. It was the first time in my life that every element was affected. I’m fortunate to have a supportive wife, but I can imagine it must have been tough for her. So, every aspect of my life was probably stressed throughout that period. I’m fortunate that I got through it. There was a lot of self-reflection and evaluating what I wanted to do. And, it’s meant now that everything I’ve done since I’ve enjoyed in a way that maybe more so than ever. It’s that appreciation of saying I couldn’t have done this a year ago. I think I’ve come out of it a more optimistic person.”
It’s always interesting to see the discourse involved when revisiting old trauma. But it’s clear the importance and impact his marriage had in helping hold himself together over such a dark mental and physical period. Anyone listening to James’s recent solo work will notice references to love intertwined through multiple tracks. It’s a whole lot of love that I want to talk about for a hot minute. “I met my wife just before The Vamps’ first tour, so we’ve been together around nine years now”, meaning she’s been onboard and part of everything. In turn, James is incredibly considerate as I ask about the effect of his mental health and journey in writing the EP and how she has played a part.
“I think it’s hard for her sometimes because I’ve done a lot of this (EP) at home over the past couple of years on and off. I think we’ve both had a period of reflection over the last couple of weeks where it’s solidified into this project, almost like a diary of my life over the past couple of years.” It’s no surprise that from a period of uncertainty, James has treated his solo work almost like a form of therapy, practically a cliché to him, he explains as he tries to understand the significance of his most honest, personal and emotionally vulnerable moment in time. In a world where accolades currently have no place, James has had to detach from some habits he’s picked up in his ten years in the industry only to focus on the real driving force behind the EP. “The fact that she is in every song is so important. We’ve been married a couple of years now. We’ve gone through a lot together. I mean, she’s my biggest supporter. I’m sure there have been times she’s probably struggled with when I’ve been in the pits of despair, wondering where the project is going. Still, the fact that she’s seen the spectrum of everything epitomises my sense of feeling how lucky I am with someone I can be completely myself around.”
When asked what he wanted to capture with the EP, in a moment of reflection, he said “Dancing on the Head of a Needle” and “Dance or Die” has been a journey of the last 18 months capturing a transparency of what life has indeed been like at his lowest, to his single “Blood and Bones” a love letter to his wife. “I’ve been speaking about mental health for ten years publicly since the start of The Vamps, and I still have moments where I feel like shit. But I want to show the other side, too. It’s about showing vulnerability and hoping people can relate to that journey. I want it to be seen as tangible. It’s not a conventional group collection of songs that you typically hear. I’ve not been influenced by artists or industry direction. Instead, I’ve produced myself as I wanted to, and I hope people can hear that in the music. Success for me would be quantifiable through people saying, “I saw a bit of myself in that song or that verse” or “It resonated with me”.
When discussing mental health in the World Mental Health Day run-up, I’m curious how James feels the conversation is being led. “There’s more (conversation) around it. I think mental health affects everyone, regardless of who you are, but from a man’s perspective, there’s been a lot more conversation around it, which is good. I think I’m right in saying suicide is still the biggest killer of men, though. So there’s work to be done. Since I started The Vamps, I set out with the mindset that although it will be pretty intense for some people, I will share everything. Taylor Swift said once that the Taylor you see, and the other Taylor are the same person. She has to be Taylor Swift all the time, so instead of trying to have a James in The Vamps and a James back home, if I’m honest about everything and express how I feel, then I can’t be caught out.”
In the buildup to James’s first show coinciding with the mental health charity Mind, he feels a sense of divine intervention with the timing of the pairing. “It’s going to be a safe space. There’s a big mental health angle, but I didn’t want it to feel intense and serious. Mental health is so important to everyone. But you must create a welcoming space for people to feel comfortable and open to that.” As I talk with James about the roots of HATC, I resonate with the responsibility of making something that can often feel quite heavy approachable. “The heavy and very real element of mental health, I feel like there’s a journey for everyone to get to that point. At some point, there’s that early phase where if you tap in, It is a spectrum, and everyone’s affected differently. There must be moments when we’re talking about those dire things. But, if mental health can be seen as something that everyone relates to, if we get it into a position where it’s more welcoming, an open debate or space where we can help each other, It can prevent those real difficult pitfalls.”
As for where James finds himself with his mental health, he’s ever-present and open to his experiences. Having the understanding and insight he does, I wanted to know what he’d say to his younger self, who found themselves in the pitfalls he’s worked so hard to find a way out of.
“There’s a couple of moments that I think led to the position that I’m in mentally. I had, and still do to some extent, had a difficult relationship with food and eating. I’ve not been diagnosed, but I relate greatly to Body Dysmorphia. So I think one example of the marketing at the time would be don’t go into Hollister at 13. That branding affected me. It’s relevant to the next part, which is to try my best to be more outgoing in the early days of The Vamps. It stems from going outside my comfort zone to learn more about myself in those uncomfortable moments. I think I didn’t do more stuff because I was so obsessed with losing weight, putting on muscle, and not eating certain foods that I became quite withdrawn. It played into my mental health, where I was conveying this image of transparency in many ways. But there were areas of my life that I wasn’t opening up about and embracing the possibility of change.”
“I would say that even until last year, I hadn’t realised my mental health is not fixed. I had moments where I felt great, but I noticed that I was very up and down like something would change, and then I would spiral into a negative space. I think there were a few chemical imbalances, but I also acknowledged that I probably hadn’t truly unpicked certain things in my mental health. Now that I’m through that, I know that that was a negative period of my life, and now I’m prepared to look out for the warning signs of that stuff happening again. So the second thing I’d say to myself is you’ll have massive highs and lows, but try your best to listen to that internal monologue or your emotions more. As difficult as it is, I now try to be present with the feeling I get immediately after receiving it.”
Sat across the table deep in thought empathy is clearly something James’s doesn’t lack nor take lightly. A question that can be either a cliché or extremely uncomfortable he takes entirely in his stride, seemingly unphased to really open up about himself. As we sit just the two of us, our conversation and podcast coming to an end, I’m not all that surprised at the warmth I receive when asking (some more than others) vulnerable questions, instead I feel grateful that he’s willing to open up, be part of and contribute to the mental health community in the hope something he says will help change someone’s life. If I’ve learned anything over the past two years of HATC magazine, it’s moments, conversations and communities like these save lives, and James isn’t afraid to be part of them.
Listen to the full interview on Head Above The Clouds Podcast.
Words Alice Gee
Photography Jack Williams
Styling Phoebe Brannick
MUA Gracie Jai Cox