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20181228: Today: a chest swells with pride
20181228: Today: a chest swells with pride
I'm amazed by the longevity of "Stay." Recently, I was sitting in a bar, chatting to a lawyer who wanted to show me something on his phone. As he looked at his browsing history, at the top was a link to a youtube video. "That's my son," I said. He told me that he had only one CD in his car: James' and when he wasn't in the car, he played it on his phone.
I've had the same electrical supplier for years and when I walked into his shop recently, the accounts clerk said "Long Time No See." I thought nothing of it until I was sitting in her boss' van as we headed towards my flat with my purchases. His phone rang and his ring tone is "Long Time No See." A friend's father is one of Malaysia's big 1970s pop stars. These days, he plays odd pub gigs with my friend's brother. "Who's this "James" we keep being asked to cover," the brother asked my friend. We sent him selfie of her standing in front of a copy of the album. Another friend, sitting in a café where there was live music phoned me: "listen," she said. The band were playing one of James' songs.
Rarely does a first album, maybe an only album, live on especially when the record company doesn't support it. But live on it does, long after he parted company with that record company. Tracks from the album have more than a million plays on YouTube. "Long Time No See" is a shade short of 4.5 million and that's all generated by word of mouth from fans. The record company didn't even issue a proper press release when the album was released.
James' fan base comes from people that have found him. Without them, he'd just be another singer songwriter playing to an audience of one in his bedroom mirror. Ironically, they found him because of something the record company did right long before the first album was recorded: they entered him into Taiwanese TV talent show and then, when he tested well, into Chinese Idol, the mainland version of all those Pop Idol spin offs. There he became a firm fan favourite. He would not win - he wasn't eligible to win because, like all those programmes, the prize includes a recording contract and he already had one. As planned, he left in fifth place. But that caused uproar; he had an enormously vocal, increasingly international, support base who decided (rightly but they didn't know) that it was a fix. Hurriedly, he was recalled for the final where he gave a farewell performance and was awarded a "People's Choice" trophy that had not been part of the plan. As the album approached release, the fractious relationship between James and H.I.M. records reached a peak. The album came out with a whimper and, to all intents and purposes was left to die. There were a few half-hearted PR things around South East Asia but it was weeks before any of it appeared on e.g. YouTube by which time illegal recordings of James in gigs and on TV were building a steady buzz. Copies of songs were starting to appear on Spotify, YouTube and many more. We even found a copy of one song on a Russian website. One CD shop I used to use (it's closed now) told me they were getting many requests for the album but couldn't get stocks.
The album would not die. Radio play continued. The fans kept posting messages of support on James' social media. It gained the dubious accolade of being illegally duplicated by organised crime gangs and sold in street markets alongside fake Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags. James left Taipei and joined a company in Shanghai. Nothing ever got recorded there and James developed a separate career as an actor: for example, he's one of the leaders in the DBS Bank series "Sparks" which, again, has gathered a surprising following on YouTube. He's tested for several big films, including THAT one where he was a very close second (I'm glad: yes, he'd have been a global figure within three months but then he'd have had no time for music or the private life that had, until last week, remained private). He's one of the leads in an extended advert for Kate Tokyo where he speaks in Cantonese (and had four days to learn the script in a dialect he does not speak) and the company adopted one of the songs from the new album for the soundtrack. That's reached almost half a million views in two weeks. It's an ADVERT! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Zzkzf7GlwI . One of the Sparks episodes is heading for a million views. Again, IT'S AN ADVERT.
A chance meeting resulted in an introduction to Cros Music, a small Taiwanese / Chinese independent label that has a tiny, close knit team. Talent is paramount but being part of the team is a close second. It is an extraordinarily supportive environment while encouraging artistic freedom - and then harnessing it to keep the essence while gently smoothing the rough edges to turn the work of artisans into something the mainstream will recognise. The end result of "Lost and Found" is James being James, sometimes with a background that encourages (he'll hate this) AoR or MoR radio to pick it up. And then there's the stuff where there is a rawness that comes from a singer-songwriter doing his thing in the way he wants to do it. Some might see that as compromise and say there is no room for compromise in art. I disagree. You can't eat critical acclaim: it's sales and royalties that pay the bills. And it's the gentle, slightly distant, adoration of millions that keeps you warm at night not the feeling that half a dozen nutters are stalking you to get photos of you in your undies.
I know: look at me. Not the bit about photos in my undies, at me as artist because what I do is more art than anything else. I am totally uncompromising in what I do. I am very, very good at it. But the world isn't ready for me. It's only just catching up with what I was saying in the mid 1990s and a raft of Johnny-come-latelys are being fêted for recognising things that are slapping them in the face having long ago been left in my rear-view mirror. The people who really get this stuff recognise my work. The vast majority don't want to know too much.
Art is like that: good art is not necessarily comfortable. Dali's incredible technical talent is overshadowed by his visions. There is critical acclaim for a slovenly bedroom, used condoms and soiled knickers. In the real world, neither gains mass popular support. Purists might sell one copy of something if they find the right market but they can only sell it once: the people who make the money are the insider traders in art markets who create a false market based on a tiny number of opinions which may be honest but equally may be self-publicity by a critic who needs to stay in the public eye. It is the taste of millions that pays the bills and, ultimately, one gushing arsehole at a cocktail party might be interesting for a few seconds but feeling good comes from knowing that you can walk out onto a stage with 75,000 people who really, really, really want to be there. My record audience was 37 million for a radio broadcast but they would have listened to the programme even though I wasn't there. James put that into perspective with hundreds of millions tuning in to his Chinese Idol performances - and tuning out when he wasn't there.
And so, it's been a long road to this new album. It's been fraught and, as a family, we've been around when we know we've been needed and we've let James develop at his own pace. I've recently found out that there were some problems along the way that were deliberately kept from me because both James and his mother know that I really can't help myself turning back into the balls-out litigator and tackling problems head on. Diplomacy is not in my vocabulary. It's not in his, either.
But Cros Music, working with some of Taiwan's best producers and session musicians have eased out the brutality and applied not a gloss but that thing that is the musical equivalent of food's umami. It's an indescribable element that turns something brilliant into something beyond that, taking the purity of a food that might be just a bit too pure for the taste-buds of most people and adding something they recognise, even if they don't know it.
You might think that I'm one of those parents that will tell their child they are doing well when they are really doing shitly. Believe me, I'm not and you can ask James. He was brought up with encouragement to always see everything as a step towards distant perfection. Failure is fine so long as you don't keep repeating it. And one should never deny it. If you are really no good at something, do something else. Parents who tell their children they are brilliant when they are embarrassingly bad do them no service and, worse, don't teach them to deal with disappointment. That doesn't mean being cruel, it means finding ways to help them improve, to follow dreams they are suited for and to work their balls (or tits) off to achieve those dreams.
James' rewards were tied to success: his first "big boy's toy" guitar was a Gibson, a reward for a successful school interview that was completely unrelated to music. He had applied to go to Colchester Royal Grammar School, by far the best school in Essex, for his sixth form. But he'd have to board because commuting to it was impossible without his own car and driver. He was told that he would be accepted as a day-boy but there were no rooms available to board. He was surprised when we walked from the school, into a nearby music shop and the cherry-red SG chosen with a "is it this one? Yes? Can set it up while we go for lunch?" "I didn't get in," he said. "You did,"I said, " there just isn't anywhere for you to sleep." Later, while he was on tour with me in Malaysia, his exam results came in. "Would you mind sleeping in the cleaner's cupboard if we clean it out?" Colchester asked and he was on his way, in a school that recognised and encouraged individuality with responsibility. Thank you Colchester Royal Grammar, first for finding him an actual study to sleep and work in before he arrived and also ( you might not understand this, and James almost certainly will not) for providing an environment that, as a result of that, combination underpins the structure of this album. I know: for an all-too brief period, I was lucky enough to attend a school with a similar ethos until my parents moved half-a-country away and I went with them.
Some of the songs are painful for us, James' family, to listen to. They are about loss that we all suffered and which has caused - and if we are honest continues to cause - pain. My parents were very involved in James' upbringing and he spent most school holidays with them. He was very close to them, particularly my father who developed cancer while James was far away and unable to visit, which tore him up. The intensely personal songs about that time, in the English versions, are heartbreaking for us because we know he wrote them as way of dealing with the frustration and sadness. One, Perfect Day, was written for my father as a thank you for all the years of care and fun and played to him often in his last weeks.
There has been huge happiness, too. It's a long time since James met the love of his life and while there's never been any big secret, equally there has been a private life that has been kept private. There have been three weddings: one a tiny civil ceremony in Beijing, one in a Herefordshire manor house and one in Harbin, China where his wife is from. They've been married for almost three years but no one noticed. There didn't seem an imperative to make it news. Last month, they welcomed their first child, a daughter, born in Taipei. There's a surfeit of mothers there at present: I'll nip over when things have quietened down a bit. A recognition set in that after the album came out, and some other acting things came up, privacy would be compromised and that it was equally important that it was clear that private does not mean secret. The plan was to make a statement when mother and daughter were fully settled, in January buut last week, a person or persons unknown told a Hong Kong PapRag that James was married with a daughter and, like most PapRags, they didn't bother to fact-check other information and published fake news. So, James published a photo with his new daughter. That's enough: no one needs to know more. "In the public interest" is not the same as "in the public fascination."
Oh, and one more thing. Just in case James thinks I've not expressed pride often enough, here it is again. He knows me. If I think it could be better, I'll tell him. After all, we've gone back and forth over the album several times in the past 18 months since work started and I've not always been convinced by some of it.
But now it's done, it's out, it's playing in my office. I could not be more proud. Well done.