British quartet Starsailor, release their brand new album All This Life, on September 1st via Cooking Vinyl. All This Life is their fifth studio album – and first since 2009 – All This Life finds Starsailor re-energised and on outstanding form. They played to an ecstatic crowd in a packed Big Top Stage at this year’s Isle Of Wight Festival. It’s great to have them back. Mark Millar caught up with frontman James Walsh for a chat.
XS: Hi James how are you?
JW: Not too bad, I’m looking forward to a festival we are doing at the weekend and we are putting the album out next week so its all go at the moment.
XS: Where are you now?
JW: I’m actually in Northern Ireland. I kind of split my time between London and Ballymena. I’ve got the kids for a few days.
XS: How do you like living in sunny Northern Ireland?
JW: Yeah, it’s nice, its cool there is always a good pint of Guinness.
XS: Starsailor signed to EMI and shot to fame very quickly with your debut album “Love Is Here” featuring the top ten single “Alcoholic”. The album received huge critical acclaim. Looking back at that time what was it like having such success very early on in the band’s career?
JW: It all kind of went by in a bit of a whirlwind. It all seemed to happen quite quickly we didn’t have much chance to get used to it. One minute we are playing round pubs in Warrington and not really getting anywhere and the next thing there is all these record labels after us. It wasn’t exactly a steady rise. There was nothing nothing nothing and then everything. It was a bit mental (laughs).
XS: Do you have a standout moment from those early days?
JW: Probably playing the V Festival. I think we were so overwhelmed how big the crowd was and it was an indication of how well everything was going at the time and I think doing things like Top Of The Pops was pretty surreal because that was still going back then. It was all pretty crazy.
XS: Were you comfortable playing to the big crowds?
JW: Yeah, I’m kind of in my element up on stage. I’ve always found the most nerve wracking thing is addressing the crowd between the songs. When I’m actually singing and playing the guitar that’s as comfortable as I can be. But the few minutes or seconds between songs where you have to address the crowd it’s like all of a sudden your, not a rock star anymore you’re just an ordinary bloke up on stage having to talk in front of thousands of people. I’ve sort of got used to it and tried to get confident with it. it’s definitely something I enjoy doing.
XS: For your second album “Silence Is Easy” you worked with legendary producer Phil Spector. How did a young indie band end up working with someone like him?
JW: It was mainly through his daughter Nicole. She kept up to date with new music and new bands coming through. She’d always play records to her dad and try and keep him up to date as well. As far as I know, we were the only band he listened to and thought “right I really like this I want to work with these guys”. It was an amazing experience and incredibly flattering at the time because I’m a huge fan of “Imagine” and John Lennon solo albums and the Dion album “Born To Be With You” that Phil Spector produced. Obviously, the experience has been jaded somewhat by the events that happened since. his legacy and his hero status have been tarnished.
XS: He famously pulled a gun on John Lennon I hope you didn’t have any experiences like that in the studio.
JW: No, We recorded in London and there was no access to firearms so we were pretty safe (laughs).
XS: Starsailor released 2 more albums “On The Outside” in 2005 and “All The Plans” in 2009. Why did you decide to put the band on hiatus after the last album?
JW: I think it felt like we were treading water. We weren’t getting any further no matter how hard we tried. It’s something I really envy of sports people. If you’re in the prime of your fitness say you are a footballer or an athlete. If you are the best at what you do then it’s undeniable that you’re going to score goals or you’re gonna get the fastest times and you’re still going to be up there. Whereas with music I feel you can still be writing just as good songs and still be just as good as a band or whatever but there are so many other factors like the media and attention gradually gravitating towards whats new and whats exciting coming through. I think it was an acceptance that we had got to a point where it doesn’t matter how hard we tried we were never going to get to those heights that we got to back then because of the landscape that we are in now. So I felt should I keep banging my head against the wall? or go and so something different and explore other avenues in music and start to enjoy it and get creative again instead of putting in all the effort and emotional turmoil into an album then Radio Two didn’t play list it or Radio One didn’t playlist it so it all went down the drain pretty much (laughs).
XS: You went on to record your solo album “Turning Point”. I love the song on the album with Suzanne Vega called “Firing Line”. How did that come about and what was it like working with Suzanne?
JW: We share an agent so that was fairly easy to arrange but obviously she was under no pressure to do it so it was still incredibly flattering when he was able to put me in touch. She said send me the song over and if I like it I will sing on it. I was amazed that not only she agreed to do it, but she really put the effort in and she sounds so fantastic on it. She could easily have phoned it in with all the commitments she has but she obviously took her time and did a brilliant job.
XS: What is your song writing process?
JW: Nine times out of ten I sit with my guitar and try and come up with different motifs or chord changes that trigger a melody in my head and sometimes a semblance of words come out instinctively or other times I have to sit down and work out what I want to say. If the band is involved then I will take that idea to them or sometimes they are already in the room when I’m doing that and then we develop it from there. If they’re not then I will do it on my own or if I’m co-writing with another person in the room.
XS: Do songs come easier if you are working with the band?
JW: Yeah, it’s a different process really like if the band is inspired by something that I’m playing then they’ll get into it and come up with some great parts and then the song will evolve quite naturally from there. Obviously, the drummer is important because he is dictating the rhythm and the speed of the piece, but then sometimes I might play something that they are not into and ill have to go back to the drawing board. When I’m working on my own there is only myself to please.
XS: Starsailor releases the new album “All this Life” next week (September 1st). When did you decide to get back together to record a new album?
JW: We were discussing it for a while before we finally decided to get back together but initially, it was for a tour. An opportunity to do an arena tour with James came about. there had been other offers to do stuff but it didn’t seem like the right re-entry to get back into the public consciousness and the tour with James seemed like the perfect thing really with decent venues big crowds and a similar fan base. so we thought this is a good opportunity and we should go for it and see where it takes us. As a result of that, we played the festivals. We played the Isle of Wight festival and Cooking Vinyl came in with an offer and it felt like validation that there was still an appetite for new material out there not just a nostalgia thing.
XS: I have had a listen to the album and have really enjoyed it. There are some very different sounds on it from what I would normally expect from Starsailor.
JW: It’s quite a difficult balance trying to progress and bring something new to every album and keep some of the core elements that got people into the band in the first place. We don’t want to run too far away from that sort of sound but we need to move on a little bit. Hopefully, there are some elements that are surprising but also there is some familiarity with some of the songs and some of the sounds as well.
XS: The songs that stand out for me so far on the album are “Caught In the Middle” and FIA (F**k It All). Do you have any particular favourites?
JW: FIA (F**k It All) is my favourite as well and “Best Of Me” because it’s been going down really well on the festival circuit. It’s great to see a song instantly connect with an audience. I think “FIA” is a good one because it encapsulates a lot of the themes and the lyrics of the rest of the album into one song and message.
XS: Unfortunately, I don’t think you will be getting on any Radio One playlists with that track.
JW: (Laughs) No!
XS: Who produced the album?
JW: Richard McNamara who is better known as the guitarist and co-songwriter for Embrace. He’s got his own studio at his house and he’s a good mate of ours and it was a great experience and obviously, he was on hand to play some guitar as well.
XS: How did it feel going back into the studio with the band?
JW: It felt really good. It felt exciting obviously cos he had been so long. I think it did us good I think we felt a lot fresher. When you usually make an album and then tour for a year you are kind of knackered by the time you have got to get back in the studio and do it all again whereas we had such a long time out apart from the odd gigs here and there. We felt quite fresh and excited and up for it. I think it’s slightly more a stressful and tense experience than the gigging side of things because there are all these different opinions but it makes it all the more worthwhile when we can listen to the album and we are all proud of it and we all feel like there is a little bit of everyone on there it’s not like one person’s opinion dominating.
XS: When you are writing songs how do you decide what is going to be a Starsailor song or what is a James Walsh solo song?
JW: I’m getting into Ryan Adams and a lot of country music like Chris Stapleton so some of it is a little too far into that territory to be Starsailor, but a lot of times there are songs that could sit for both. A lot of the Starsailor sound is down to what the band brings to the table as much as my song writing, so they can transform something that with another set of musicians would sound totally different into typical Starsailor song.
XS: Starsailor will be going on a headline tour in October. What can fans expect?
JW: It’s going to be hopefully a good mix of the old albums and showcasing tracks from the new record, so hopefully a trip down memory lane and some glimpses into the future as well with maybe a few covers thrown in for good measure. It should be a lot of fun we are really looking forward to it.
XS: How do you listen to music nowadays? do you prefer CD, Vinyl or Download?
JW: Occasionally I’ll sit in my front room and stick a CD on but cos I’m out and about all the time I listen to music on my phone. It’s all officially downloaded from iTunes and stuff. I haven’t quite joined the Spotify revolution yet.
XS: Is there anything that you have been listening to recently you could recommend?
JW: I like Sigrid the Norwegian singer she’s really good. Julie Byrne, Tom Speight, and a lad I’ve been working with Will Morgan he’s really good and all girl group called Paradisia, it’s sort of orchestral pop. They are really good live with the strings and stuff. There’s loads of great music out there I think it’s a good time for music. The difficulty is that we are bombarded with stuff nowadays whereas before there were labels and A+R’s who were kind of the gate keepers so that there would only be a certain number of bands doing well at one time. Now it’s all Spotify playlists and dozens and dozens of artists at a similar level of doing alright, making it hard to digest it all.
XS: Starsailor is going to be releasing your new record into a completely different climate. Is it daunting coming into this environment as an older band?
JW: A little bit yeah. It’s pretty scary! and obviously, we’re nervous about streaming as its part of the charts now and we are nervous about whether if our fan base is going to be streaming the album enough for us to do alright. Most of our fans will be buying the CD or the Vinyl. We will see how it goes we have done our bit.
XS: Do you have a favourite record that you always return to?
JW: There is a few but I think “Grace” by Jeff Buckley is still the one. I think vocally, his songwriting and obviously, there are some covers on there and the production. It’s just an amazing record and it’s stayed with me for a long time.
XS: So what is next for Starsailor?
JW: We have the tour in October and we are looking to go to Europe in November. We should try and do some Christmas gigs in Ireland it’s always good fun, and then take stock and see how the albums went down in terms of the appetite and doing another one and how soon we do it. I’m just enjoying having these opportunities. Maybe some other things will come along. It’s great to still be active in music.
STARSAILOR UK HEADLINE TOUR
12th Oct – Cambridge, Junction
13th Oct – Norwich, Waterfront
14th Oct – Bristol, Bierkeller
16th Oct – Leeds, Beckett Students’ Union
17th Oct – Birmingham, O2 Institute 2
18th Oct – Sheffield, Leadmill
19th Oct – Liverpool, Academy
21st Oct – Newcastle, Boiler Shop
22nd Oct – Glasgow, O2 ABC
24th Oct – Manchester, O2 Ritz
25th Oct – Brighton, Concorde 2
26th Oct – London, KOKO
‘ALL THIS LIFE’ TRACK LISTING
1. Listen To Your Heart
2. All This Life
3. Take A Little Time
4. Caught In The Middle
5. Sunday Best
7. Best Of Me
8. Break The Cycle
10. FIA (F**k It All)
11. No One Else
Thanks to Chris Dean @ Wilful Publicity