Naked but never nihilistic, Starsailor charts a course for indie soul

“It would have to take awful, horrible production to spoil an incredible song.”

How much of your true self are you willing to share as an artist? If you’re not singing, sampling, or rapping your truth straight up, the audience knows it, and they’ll cast you aside quicker than you can say, “See you later, refrigerator.

Modern vocalists especially have to navigate the slippery slope of connecting emotionally with listeners without tipping over into sappy/corny territory. Sam Smith is a prime progenitor of the art of doing it right, as are the likes of James Arthur, Maverick Sabre, Samm Henshaw, and Leon Bridges. They all know how to bare their souls and connect with scores of listeners all across the globe as part of what I’m dubbing the “indie soul” movement.

Story songs should be as intimate and as naked and in your face as possible.

One man who’s been a clear catalyst of indie soul is James Walsh, the always affecting singer/guitarist/pianist for the Wigan, England, collective known as Starsailor. On the band’s fifth album, All This Life (out now in various formats via Cooking Vinyl), Walsh again connects all the right sonic dots, but it took a sharp ear (or ten) to make sure these 11 Life songs all had the right aural stuff.

“We were listening to a lot of Michael Kiwanuka, Marvin Gaye, and other soulful solo artists where there are a lot of backing vocals underpinning what’s going on over the top,” Walsh explained to Digital Trends, regarding the band’s QC process. “Sometimes we would struggle to finish songs to make them sound good as a whole rather than something that starts off really great but peters out.”

One of their own primary inspirations can be found in the name Starsailor itself, which was culled from the title of a 1970 album by folk legend Tim Buckley, father of the late alt-folk hero Jeff Buckley. “It’s obviously flattering that our band has become synonymous with the name,” Walsh admitted, “and hopefully, we’re carrying on his legacy by honoring the emotion and soul in his music rather than failing it in some ways. Obviously, Tim Buckley’s a massive hero of mine, and his son Jeff is as well.”

Digital Trends called Walsh across the Pond to discuss how he captures his best vocal performances in the studio, the right way to cover other artists’ tunes, and the secret of how to best add new songs to your set list (as well as how many).

Digital Trends: I really like the acoustic version of Caught in the Middle I’ve seen Starsailor do on YouTube. Is that also how the new album was recorded, with everyone in the room together at the same time?

James Walsh: We recorded a lot of the bass and the drums together, because they’re obviously quite intuitive with each other. But we found with the vocals and the guitars — and some of the keyboards as well — they sounded a lot better when we isolated them so that there wasn’t too much spill [i.e., bleed] into the mikes.

I’d always be in the room singing and playing while the drums and bass were going down so we could get a band sort of feeling, rather than a drummer playing away on his own. Then my parts would be replaced afterwards, just to get a better quality of my singing on the microphones.

Sometimes there’s a bit of echo on your vocals, and other times they appear direct and naked — like they appear on the last track, No One Else, which is pretty damn emotionally raw. How did you decide the way your voice comes across on each song?

I think it was a combination of my ideas and those of Richard McNamara, who produced the album [McNamara is also the guitarist in the British alt-rock band Embrace]. I’d have an idea for the emotion I wanted to get across, and he’s the guy who knows exactly what mike to use to achieve that.

Tracks like Sunday Best and No One Else, they’re the real story songs, and they should be as intimate and as naked and if your face as possible. Whereas things like Take a Little Time and All This Life are a little more cinematic and lush-sounding.

That’s a good way of putting it. That hooky, harmony-vocal intro on Take a Little Time — did that come first when you were writing that song, or later in the process?

That came later. We recorded a demo of Take a Little Time in a more ’90s indie style — much more driving and dancey. It sounded great when it kicked off, but it sort of meandered a little bit, and it took us a while to reconstruct it. We decided to go that approach where we stripped it all back, and made it more of a soul tune instead of this indie thing it had started off as.

And then there’s that break there where you go into a brief falsetto. How did that choice come about?

Obviously, the sound of the chorus is important and big for the track, so it’s just a continuation of that, really. We sadly lost Prince recently [in April 2016], and I was listening to a lot of his music, and also The Charlatans’ [2001] Wonderland album, where Tim Burgess is stretching out his falsetto — so maybe there was a subliminal influence from them on there.

I can see that. If you had the chance to record a Prince cover, would you do one?

When I’m in a relaxed environment, I might grab a guitar and play Raspberry Beret [the hit single from Prince’s 1985 album, Around the World in a Day]. But I’m not sure I’d do it at a big gig or release it on something because he’s such a seminal artist, and it would be very hard to better him.

I guess that’s always the question when you do covers. Do you do a straight-up tribute, or do you try to turn it into your own thing?

We always try to be faithful to the original, but it always ends up sounding more like us. (chuckles)

People buying record players is a rebellion against the digital age.

I’d say sequencing is still important part of presenting a record these days. Wouldn’t you agree?

Yeah, absolutely! It is a source of much debate in the studio because everyone has their own ideas about what should start it and what should end it, but it’s very much a democratic collection of everyone’s opinions, really. We listen back to it all together, until we get to where it tells a story and puts us on a nice journey.

That’s a phrase I like — “a nice journey.” I have the first three Starsailor albums on vinyl, up to 2006’s On the Outside, and there’s vinyl for All This Life. Is vinyl something that’s still important to you as a listener?

Yeah, absolutely. We’re definitely noticed a huge comeback with vinyl. It’s kind of funny that 15 or so years later, we’re selling more vinyl of the new album than we did with the first one! (chuckles) It used to be more of a novelty for collectors, and now, the vinyl chart is a thing again, and people are buying record players in droves. It’s almost a rebellion against the digital age.

Do you happen to have a favorite vinyl record yourself?

Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left [the late folk legend’s 1969 debut album] sounds great on vinyl. And not so much on vinyl, but I’ve been revisiting [1997’s] Urban Hymns, by The Verve; that’s really good. I know they’ve released a box set for that one recently, so I’ll have to be getting my hands on that soon enough.

I like how certain albums get special treatment like that. We were talking about covers earlier. I saw the Isle of Wight Festival performance from back in June for Absolute Radio, where you did a solo cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. Was that your choice, or did they ask you to do that one?

It would have to take awful, horrible production to spoil and incredible song.

To be perfectly honest, it was our manager/agent, John Giddings. I’d been ’round his house a few times, pulled the guitar out, and done a few covers — and he’s quite bossy! (laughs) It was actually a gig at Hyde Park [in London] a few years back where I was playing solo, and John asked me to open the main stage with Here Comes the Sun, because he’d gotten me the gig. Luckily, it was a sunny day, so it went down really well. That’s where continuing to play the song has come from.

I seem to remember we also did a Live From Abbey Road session, and Here Comes the Sun was in that set. It’s one of my favorite songs from an extremely underrated songwriter, George Harrison.

I’m glad George ultimately got his due once All Things Must Pass (1970) came around, and in the later years with Cloud Nine (1987), The Traveling Wilburys, and things like that.

Yeah. That in itself illustrates how unsurpassable The Beatles were. A songwriter of his quality was overshadowed by [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney, these two absolute geniuses!

I’m more of a lyric and melody person. Obviously, the rhythm and harmony are a huge part of it, but it’s more subliminal for me. I’m fixated on the melody and the lyrics. People say things like, “This album would have been better if the production was better,” but I think the songwriting also has to be there. Put it this way: It would have to take awful, horrible production to spoil and incredible song.

How many songs from the new album do you feel you can incorporate into the live set at this point?

I think around half the album — four or five or six songs, but we’re going to have to put that out to a vote. There are some songs we like to play — like Best of Me goes down really well. Take a Little Time is prepped into the set now; so is All This Life. But if there are other songs that are popular with the fans, we need to listen to them and get them in the set.

I think Sunday Best would be a good tone break. And you could definitely do a Fallout / FIA / No One Else flow toward the back half of the set.

Absolutely! I’d like to just add more stuff to our set, like … (slight pause) I was going to say Bruce Springsteen, but his sets are more like three or four hours! (both chuckle) Or U2, who also play a bit longer because they’ve got more to draw from.

Me, I’m the kind of listener who prefers to hear as much of the new material as I can get whenever I go see a band, though I know there are some folks out there who just want the hits.

I went to see Feist at Shepherd’s Bush recently [in London, in July 2017], and she played her new album [Pleasure] in its entirety. Then she came back on and did six or seven of her big songs. That show worked really well, and she had an audience that was really down with it.

The audience bought into it? They didn’t have their arms crossed, going, “What the hell is this?”

Well, she was so good! And her fans there were prepared to go on whatever journey she wanted to take them. We’re lucky enough to have fans like that too, but we also have the ones who want to sing their hearts out to [1993’s] Four to the Floor or Silence Is Easy [two of Starsailor’s most streamed tracks, each numbering in the millions]. We have to respect both types of audience members, so it’s more difficult for us to “indulge” ourselves like that.

You do have some hungry listeners out there. By the way, I have to say the abbreviated FIA (Fuck It All) song title could be a really good hashtag for the year ahead. (Walsh chuckles) But I do like the ultimate sentiment in that song — “nothing is impossible, so why not go for it?”

You can’t be nihilistic about everything all the time.

Yeah! And the song No One Else comes after it as a nice afterthought, but FIA is the true album closer for me, where it encapsulates the whole of the emotional rollercoaster of the album.

Basically, you can worry yourself into an early grave. But you can’t be nihilistic about everything all the time. Sometimes you have to go, “I’m enjoying myself in the here and now.” Whatever’s happened in the past, whatever’s happening in the future — it’s a “go for it” sort of thing.

I also like seeing the handwriting in the album booklet of some of the album’s key lines, a nice callback to what you did in Love Is Here.

Yeah, yeah, I think it’s nice to have a few of the key lines in there. It’s not all sort of laid out for people. Sometimes people get lyrics wrong, but their misinterpretation of the lyrics means a lot to them — so you don’t want to correct them! (laughs) You just want to keep it as ambiguous as possible.