Tonya Antoniou | 04/05/2021
Northern Irish singer, songwriter, and musician JC Stewart is famous not only for his own pop songs “I Need You To Hate Me” and “Lying That You Love Me” but for teaming up with pops big hitters Lewis Capaldi and Niall Horan. He catches up with me about finding his feet in lockdown, new music, and of course the TikTok parody of Friends that went viral after Jenifer Aniston re-posted it last year.
Unlike the miserable Monday weather, Stewart was of a sunny disposition, dispelling his sadboi label as we sat down at the iconic Hawley Arms pub (famous for hosting many a drunk celebrity) over a coffee and dove in on his journey into the music industry and his current and future projects.
On being asked how he coped during the pandemic he was honest about how he got through the corona rollercoaster. “I was better at the start, but this year has been rubbish, for no reason. Last year was good in terms of releasing music and the weird viral stuff, then this year I put out music and it went really well, I think it just hit me that it was the fourth song I’d released which was being played on the radio all over the world, which is class but I’m sitting in my bedroom and I’m kind of watching everything I’ve ever dreamed of passing me by.
I kind of got stuck in my head for a while, I stopped writing for a month because my record label thought I was sending songs I didn’t care about and they were right. I was worried about missing my chance so I wrote songs that I thought people wanted me to write. This next song I’m releasing was the first one I was like “lads, I don’t really know what I’m doing anymore, I did this, take it or leave it”. I think it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever done. It’s really exciting and it’s been up and down, but I’m happy to be on the other end of it”.
It was evident the pandemic impacted how he now makes music and has changed his process of songwriting, a story shared among many artists over the past 15 months. “I used to go into a session every day with songwriters. I was on the other side of it writing for other artists. But then I switched to working with producers and songwriters. You’d come out with a cool song, I did those five to six days a week and you had this bank of songs. A lot of them have come out and they’ve done well, some of them haven’t and because of the pandemic, we had to do it all by zoom. I hated it straightaway. It was not a vibe. Working with all these people I’d dreamed of working with my whole life, seeing them on zoom for two hours and never hearing from them again. It was weird, like speed dating songwriting. I needed a break from it. So, I taught myself how to produce and set up a little studio in my parent’s house where I quarantined, staying there for 14 hours a day, every day, for two months learning new things. Now I have my own studio I’m there on my own ten hours a day.”
As a music graduate, I also attempted to write songs with other songwriters via Zoom during this period, I found it challenging and almost impossible to be creative at times. It was comforting hearing that Stewart also felt detached when writing this way. Having struggled with grasping the ins and outs of music production on my course and regularly needing my peers’ help, I wondered how he developed his production skills and what software made the transition easier.
“Just logic, a keyboard, a little podcast mic and my guitar. That’s all I needed. It was great fun. I learned purely using YouTube; I already knew the basics having watched people do it for the past four-five years, but still every day I YouTubed about 20 different videos searching for the most stupid stuff. I love production, but I’m limited to what I can do. I’ve worked with a guy in Toronto for two years now and he is teaching me a bit as well. I send him stuff, he adds a bit, I add a bit more, and we kind of build it up that way. It is really fun and something in 10 years I could see myself doing properly.”
Stewart admitted he co-wrote “Break My Heart” with superstar Niall Horan over email, it was impossible not to wonder if the experience was difficult.
“It was the least Rock and Roll writing of a song ever! We began emailing back and forth, with a chorus suggestion and the rest of the song around it. I sent my version and he responded with “I don’t like the lyric in the second verse”, I made changes, sent it back, and it came together. We never got the chance to be in a room together, that would have been class. But it’s just one of the things of the pandemic, isn’t it? We made it work with just WhatsApp and email.
“Break My Heart” saw a significant musical change for Stewart who has been known to pen more sadboi style tunes. I ask him about whether he still identifies himself with that genre and if going forward we’d see more upbeat songs from him. “My sister came up with the name. She’s good with branding ideas, she pointed out “you’re just a professional sad boy, you’re happy all the time, you sing sad songs for money and then you get on with your life”, so yeah, I think I still am. But the sad songs come from the realist place but I like to be a normal happy person too”.
“Music-wise, it’s gotten slower and more depressing” he laughs “there’s one coming up let’s call it mid-tempo, I’m excited about it. It’s more of a head bopper, but the stuff coming out at the minute is four and a half minutes long piano songs. We’ll see how it goes. I find it natural to sit down, play the piano and sing songs as all the music I listen to, are old men singing songs at the piano like Tom Wade and Sir Bob Dylan, let’s go and do that, it’s what makes sense to me. Similar to Snow Patrol and Foy Vance, that’s what I’m better at than writing a Pop Bop.”
More and more artists from both sides of the Irish border have been breaking into the international charts of late and talking with Stewart, it’s apparent that the local music scene has influenced his musical style. “I’ve been inspired by Foy Vance, Van Morrison, and the Script back in the day and I wouldn’t be doing music if it wasn’t for Snow Patrol who paid for me to live in London, they signed me to my first publishing deal four years ago, and honestly, it was a stupid business decision for them! I was doing nothing but they were like here pay your rent, go try this, see what you can do. They took me on tour for six months, I even wrote my new song in one of their houses whilst house-sitting for them. I was writing my new song looking at the Ivor Novello trophy for Chasing Cars on the same piano that they wrote it on, thinking that’s what I have to aim for! I’ve got to do something as powerful as that, nowhere near there yet but I’m striving to.”
His natural comfortability behind the keys is inherited from his grandad who used to sing in local pubs and his mother who sings “a little”, but the rest of his family, he says, aren’t particularly musical. “Depending on how many bottles of wine have been passed around, my mum and I do a mean version of summertime by George Gershwin. She’s a really good singer and is in the gospel choir in the local town. She forced me into music. I absolutely hated it as a kid; I just wanted to be a rugby player even though I was really bad at rugby! It was tough to take as a twelve-year-old, I knew every rule, knew all the theories, I just couldn’t play it. At fourteen I was sent to the local theatre to a songwriting class, my mum said “you’re going that’s it” and it just clicked. I wrote my first song and loved it, literally from that day everything shifted. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone to that because I’d never thought about writing songs before. I still play tag rugby and hurt myself all the time because I’m not really a sportsman. I just go for the pints after”.
That little push set Stewart on the pathway to insurmountable success for an artist only 4 years into his career, I ask him about some of his highlights so far. “I Need You To Hate Me” going well was nice, being top ten in Europe and being played on the radio in Europe was mad, it surpassed my expectations. The moment I’ll always remember is playing in Lisbon with Snow Patrol, I had supported them and it was the best gig ever, they dedicated “Chasing Cars” to me, I was with my parents, so that was special and I’ll never forget it. I’m working with my hero’s day in, day out, I’m pretty grateful. I used to be so worried about the next step, now looking back and having the time to reflect, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done but there’s more to come.”
Capaldi and Horan are only some of the huge names Stuart has found himself in the company of, having toured with Anne-Marie and Lauv and written with Justin Parker, Tom Odell and Nile Rodgers. Now an expert on collaborating (he even did a TedX all about it) I asked Stewart to share his three do’s and don’ts when workign with other artists.
“Come prepared, sounds like a silly one but you have to do your homework, come with an idea it might be rubbish but it gets you started, be open to other people and also be picky in terms of your idea, it’s something that I’ve learned, just because something sounds good it usually is. But go around the houses a bit just to make sure. On the other side you can say the opposite to all three of those but also don’t shut stuff down, be open to things, don’t chase other people’s work, just because something is on the radio now and sounds good, it’s not you if you’re chasing that, just do whatever feels right, even if you think people won’t like it. If it’s completely from you, then there is something magic about it. Also, don’t be late, I know people who are two-three hours late for a session and nobody wants that.”
“But ’Ive decided to sort of stop collaborating for a while not because I don’t think other songwriters are amazing but you end up having to compromise to suit everyone else. Probably in two months, I’ll go back to the sessions because I’ll have changed but you definitely have to meet in the middle when you’re writing with other people, which isn’t a bad thing all the time but just not for me now.”
We move on to discussing his latest EP When The Light Hits The Room, Stewart shared that his favourite song is a song called “Hard to Believe” “It’s where the title is from, it’s a really simple song, my potentially only happy song. The whole EP was written about being lost in the whole thing and then finding myself and waking up at the moment and realising, this is good, this is ok, and that song is about that moment. Meeting my girlfriend, all sorts of stuff, this is nice to listen to, it’s a happy one and the next one takes us back to dark and depressing.”
As a songwriter, I wanted to learn what has been the most challenging song he has written, personally, writer’s block has been something that has been paralysing for me, and giving up on the process and accepting defeat is something I try to fight against mentally all the time, so I really wanted to hear if he has been affected by this at all.
“The last song I wrote I had to take a break; I went to Kent for two weeks by the sea. I didn’t bring a guitar and I wasn’t allowed to play any music, I just wrote in a book. I kind of accepted in my head that my career was over. I don’t know why, there is no reason for it; I just went into a weird place. Then I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house and there was a piano in the hallway, I was watching something and getting really stressed about nothing. I just sat at the piano and played the verse for the song for the first time, it just clicked. Then I went to my publisher’s house, played the piano and wrote the song, and sent it off. It was the nicest feeling ever, getting it back, as It had been months, writing it was easy, but starting was the hardest process because it felt like a long time to get there”.
I wondered if this meant Stewart ever felt daunted when creating. “If I wasn’t playing the piano every day I’d go mental. If I’m super stressed I sit down and don’t even necessarily write. I don’t even really know how to play piano, I can’t read music but I’ve been playing for seven years. I can play my way and if I play I feel better. I’m never daunted by creation or creating, I’m excited by it but it’s because I have to do it as well, it’s therapy, it feels like an extension of me and if I don’t do it I feel weird.”
I imagine Stewart must tire of being asked about the Friends parody. As someone who has never seen an episode, I still enjoyed it, and couldn’t avoid asking him about the impact on his career and if he had any regrets.
“People ask me all the time why I picked the friends theme tune because I’m not a major fan. I can’t stress how little I thought about doing it. I was trying to do TikTok, I was watching Friends on TV and my sister wouldn’t even move from the sofa. My mum wasn’t happy, the fridge hadn’t been cleaned and everyone in the world has seen the inside. I got a few new followers on Instagram, who I think now hate me as I’ve not posted anything about Friends since. On my gravestone, it will say the guy who did that friend’s video during the lockdown. That’s it. It was a fun time, a mental few days being on Good Morning America while sitting at my parents’ house. No one cared about the fridge and Jennifer Aniston never replied to my numerous DMs. She didn’t follow me, she didn’t tag me and I asked her to marry me and nothing!”
Looking to the future as the world starts to open up again, Stewart is looking forward to playing live music and gigging again. “I’m looking forward to Ulster Hall in Belfast, I just announced it. I supported Lewis Capaldi there once, whilst the last gig I played in Belfast was to 90 people and this one is to 14 hundred, so it’s terrifying. I hope people come, I never thought in a million years I’d go that far. Also, supporting The Vamps as I met Brad over lockdown, we went to the pub a few times and he asked if I wanted to come on the tour. Hopefully, I might have an American tour coming up too, but it’s not confirmed yet, if that happens I’m quitting.”
“Just meeting other artists, playing all the shows, and traveling. I miss just going places, my music does quite well in Asia, and I’ve never been able to go. I’ve been in the top 10 in Malaysia for 6-9 months with a song called “Lying That You Love Me” that came out a year and a half ago. So, it’s that, seeing the world, hanging out with all my band and crew who are also my best mates.”
Having achieved TikTok success, millions of Spotify streams, and collaborated with his heroes so early in his career I asked where Stewart sees himself in five years.
“In five years, I’d love to still be doing this, still playing shows because that’s what I’ve missed in the last two years and to release a second album. I also want to start a ridiculous restaurant that only sells chicken goujons. That’s my biggest dream at the moment. In Northern Ireland, you can give people sushi and fancy food and all they want is chicken goujons. I’m going to do five different types of goujons with spicy goujons for the spicy challenge. I have the best name ever, honestly, it’s happening, I’m going to be a goujon mogul! It will be at all my gigs for people to buy. Imagine the opening party. I want a big blimp with it on and dropping goujons from the sky. I got a bit of inside information, my mate works in a pub in Northern Ireland and the first weekend of opening again he said they sold double the amounts of goujons to pints of Guinness. Give the people what they want. They want chicken goujons!”
Informing him that someone may steal his ideas when they read this interview, Stewart proclaims he is trademarking it straight away tonight.
JC Stewart isn’t just a talented musician but a likeable one, someone you want to support because he comes across as a good person. He has been working hard on his craft for years and is humble, grateful not to take it for granted despite all the amazing people he has worked with. He has a wicked sense of humour and I love that he took me on a chicken goujon journey, a project I’m now pretty invested in. I felt like I was part of some sort of market research and yes I’d buy his goujons. With such enthusiasm from him, why wouldn’t I?
Words: Tonya Antoniou