James McVey

For the past decade, James McVey has been known to most as the lead guitarist and backing vocalist of The Vamps. Forming in 2012, the band quickly found success and have achieved a number of noteworthy accolades, including two No. 1 albums, five top 10 singles, over 6 billion streams, and becoming the first band to headline at London’s prestigious O2 Arena for five consecutive years. While The Vamps are far from over and still the best of friends, McVey chose to broaden his horizons and has embarked on a solo career. 

PHOTOGRAPHY Jack Alexander

STYLING Sarah-Rose Harrison

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His debut EP, Manabi, which translates as “learning through study” in Japanese, drops on November 10th. To build anticipation, McVey has been teasing listeners with his new sound, which takes on a more raw, acoustic approach. Stripping back from the pop-rock production The Vamps are typically known for, McVey gets intimate and vulnerable on the upcoming six-track project. After losing the ability to sing for six months and ultimately having to undergo surgery to remove a polyp on his vocal cords in order to get his voice back, the past year has undoubtedly helped mold what has become Manabi as McVey’s approach to writing songs suddenly changed.

Honing in on his songwriting and production skills, McVey welcomed a new chapter in the summer with the tender ballad “Dancing on the Head of a Needle.” Shining a light on his mental health journey, the song received heaps of praise and had fans demanding more. Luckily for them, another offering from the EP, “Blood and Bones,” arrived last week. Serving as a love letter to his wife, Kirstie Brittain, the wholesome number showcases the romantic side of McVey.

On the set of an exclusive photoshoot for Principle, McVey sat down with us to discuss his journey to finding his voice again, the creative process of Manabi, writing vulnerable songs, and what the future holds for The Vamps.

Losing your voice last year has massively impacted and helped shape your debut solo EP, Manabi. First things first, how were you able to communicate while on tour with The Vamps? That must have been a bit of a struggle.  

For a little while, it was quite nice. Even though I’m really close with the boys, I feel I get anxious in big crowds. So for a while, it was amazing. I didn’t have to even try and talk so I could just enjoy the atmosphere. But then, it sort of turned into this feeling of not getting heard because the problem was, I had this app and I’d be texting to try and communicate the conversation, but by the time I typed it out, the conversation had gone on, so I ended up not really saying anything. It got to the point where everyone around me knew what was going on, so I was really comfortable just sitting back and looking at how a social situation works. I found it really interesting to see how we communicate. It meant that me coming back into talking gave me a slightly new perspective on how to communicate to sort of maybe listen better than I’ve ever done before, to actually acknowledge what someone’s saying instead of having a conversation where I’m just like, “Oh, what am I gonna say?” It made me like think about what I’m saying a little bit more, which I think is good. I probably lost all those skills now. 

During that time, you spent a lot of it songwriting. Do you think you’ve come out of that situation as a more confident songwriter?

I think so. I think it forced me to really critique every word that I wanted to say. And I kind of realized more than ever that in a three-minute song or however long, there’s only a certain amount of words that you say. I guess, you know, in the pop world, historically, there’s been songs on the radio that are like amazing, really catchy songs, but if you listen to the lyrics, they’re kind of saying nothing. I really was conscious that I wanted each word that I wrote, I wanted that to resonate with me how I felt. Especially since I’ve been writing a lot about mental health, and my marriage. Mental health is something so important to me. Instead of throwing away a verse to something that doesn’t really mean anything to me, I’ve been really, really focused on “What am I saying in this line?” And sometimes I find when I’m writing a song, I’ll read out the lyrics, not thinking about the melody or how I’m singing it. That really helps me think, “Okay, do I understand what I’m trying to say?” And if I don’t understand what I’m trying to say, how on earth is someone else this listening gonna understand? It really made me critique all of my words, which I think has kind of led me to hopefully be a better songwriter than I was before.

Is it a lot easier to write songs that are more vulnerable as opposed to happy songs?

It’s really hard. I think I find it very easy to write about my relationship and that’s really happy enough because that’s so natural to me. I think the mental health stuff was actually quite hard to write about for a few reasons. I think first of all, writing about some of the dark moments, I know how much that would upset my parents, for example. I’m really lucky to have really supportive parents but it definitely upset my wife. I would hate for people who listen to think, “Oh, he’s had no one that he could communicate with” or “Where was his support network?” I had an amazing support network and I still went through these things. I find it easier now. I’ve got a song on the EP, the last song, “Dance or Die,” which was the first song I really liked where I honed in on the whole mental health stuff. That was a hard song to write. But as soon as I’d written that one, it meant that my first single, “Dancing on the Head of a Needle” was a lot easier for me to explore. I imagine it’s a kind of therapy for some people. With me, when I had therapy, the first one was hard, but then it got easier and easier. I think the songwriting process for this EP was kind of like therapy. So now I feel comfortable writing about it, but definitely was weird stuff.

You mentioned your first single, “Dancing on the Head of a Needle,” which came out in August. It’s definitely a slight departure from the music you’ve made with The Vamps. How did you feel about the reception of it?

It was quite scary for me because it’s quite an emotionally vulnerable song, so there’s that element. Also, it’s the first song that I’ve ever produced on my own, like ever all through. Throughout my time with The Vamps, I had never really done any production, so that was a challenge. I would say it’s like quite a big departure, just sonically. It’s not really a sing-along song, I wouldn’t have thought. And I can imagine a lot of people would hear it and be like, “Okay, that’s quite a different pace from The Vamps.” Inevitably, that means that you might not get onto certain playlists on Spotify charts or whatever, but that’s not really why I’m doing music. I wanted to do music for the reason that throughout the years with the band, we’ve had fans who have gone through certain things and have really felt that the band’s music helped them. And I thought with my solo music, it’s really helped me write these songs. I would love to think that the mental health ones, in particular, have helped fans. And actually, I’ve been surprised how many people have come forward and said, “Oh, I really related to that stuff.” And that’s kind of what it’s all about. It’s about kind of telling my story in the hope that other people can relate.

Did you know going into your solo career that you were going to embrace a more raw, acoustic sound?

The reality is, I’ve only been producing for a couple of years. My skill set is quite small and what I know how to do is record an acoustic guitar and record my vocals. I’ve learned to play piano for this, I couldn’t play that before. And all the strings and stuff is effectively me playing electric piano and then changing the sounds out for an orchestra. So, the whole raw feeling is kind of almost at the limit of my skillset as a producer. But what it’s meant is it’s actually painted a really nice picture of transparency. I’m a massive fan of Damien Rice and when I listen to him, I can picture him standing there in the studio playing guitar and singing. I don’t like the thought of my music being really slick, like bubblegum pop production. I love listening to that, but for me, that’s not really what I want to do. 

In the beginning, was it weird not writing with your band members?

I’ve always written songs on my own as well as with The Vamps. I don’t think it was weird. I think it was a challenge to figure out how to write for my voice because, in the band, I do harmonies, so I’ve never really had to worry about certain parts or how to construct the writing process around the skillset I have. So no, I mean, I think sometimes, not in a writing session, but if I’m working with other people and say I’m having time a bit under the weather and a bit tired, I’ll let them do that verse or I’ll do a bit of that chorus. But with my music, all the lyrics come from me. It’s been a challenge, but I think at the age I’m at now, it has been a perfect time because I very easily and happily could just stay with what I’m doing and be in that sort of relaxed, almost hosting scenario and a creative a process where I can share the load. I think it’s a nice time to like to give myself a bit of a kick up the ass and be like, “Okay, you’re a songwriter. Write an EP and do it on your own.” I think it will be different if I ever do live shows and tour or whatever on my own. I think that’s where I’ll really feel like the void of not being around other people in the bands. I love that with The Vamps we’re so close and we’re going through it all at the same time and we’re the best of friends. It’s nice to be able to on a day off to do something as a team and play football when I’m on my own.

Six songs made the EP. How many do you think you wrote in total? And was it hard narrowing it down?

I did a bit of time in America at the very beginning of this project and probably did 20 songs, none of which have been taken forward because it was just a slightly wrong vibe. And I think having my surgery and stuff really helped me reevaluate the message I wanted to convey with the EP. I effectively started from scratch after 20. And during the new process, I would say probably 20 songs again. But what’s nice is that I’m doing this all independently. There’s no like record label saying, “You need to have 10 songs by this day, blah, blah, blah.” That’s meant that I’ve done six months of this EP but I’ve already got the second EP in the works in my mind and I’ve produced that and that’s happening. If there’s any song that I love, but I think, “Okay, it doesn’t quite fit this vibe,” I know I can save it without any impression from anyone else. I’m writing songs all the time. “Dancing on the Head of a Needle,” for example, was never intended to be on the EP. It was one of the ideas I had for the second EP. And then the vocal surgery forced me to stop. And then I found myself sort of humming over and I did the last song and then before I realized that, I’d written the song lyrically and I thought this is actually a really nice intro to the world of my EP. You know, having a song about mental health is something I really wanted to put at first because it’s so poignant in my creative process. That song came two weeks before I released it. There are loads of downsides to doing things independently, but the nice thing is I can have all these songs and if I wanna put one of those songs out, I can just do it.

“Blood and Bones” is your current single, which is my favourite, alongside “30,000 Feet.” Do you have a personal favourite yet?

I think “Blood and Bones” for me is probably my favourite on the EP. I’ve had that song for a couple of years, actually. I rewrote it all recently. I like the fact that I’m seeing that it’s like the “Cannonball” [by Damien Rice] of my EP. I love it. I think it’s a sweet, sweet love song, but I like the fact that you hear the title and you’d be like, “That sounds a bit horrible.” That oxymoron is quite nice. I love the fact that it’s just a very simple production lyrically that I was quite proud of.  I mean “30,000 Feet,” I think it’s so far away from “Blood and Bones,” but I’d like to think they can be put together. I wrote that song with Amy Wadge and it’s kind of about getting high. And when I wrote that at a time where I was like, “This is great, I’m getting high, I’m fine.” And actually, now I’ve kind of really cut the weeded massively. I went through a weird time in October last year when I smoked and drank a lot. I had a bit of a thing, I wouldn’t say a breakdown, but revelations I had to change my life. I cut all that out. Now when I listen to “30,000 Feet” from that time, I’m like, “Oh God.” I thought that the answer to anxiety and stuff was smoking loads of weed. It’s ironic that that’s bringing the biggest issue for my anxiety. So I still have the song, I love the song, I love singing it, performing it, but I view that song in a different kind of way now, which is funny. A lot of people love “30,000 Feet” because I think it’s got a bit more energy to it than some of the others.

The title of the EP, Manabi, means “learning through study” in Japanese. How did you come to choose that title? Was that a Japanese word you already knew?

It’s funny, I said this on Instagram… I’ve had the word “learn” in my bio on Twitter for eight or nine years because I’ve always liked the thought of every day I’m learning more about myself. I always knew that if I was to able to do a music project, I would call it “Learn,” but then I didn’t want it to sound too boring. My wife’s been learning Japanese for a couple of years, and we’ve done a few trips to Japan and really, really enjoyed it. The culture is something that I really enjoy being around. When I first went to Japan when I was like 18 or whatever, I think me being an ignorant Westerner was like, “Oh God, they’re so uptight, live a little!” Now when I go back I really, really appreciate the respect of the Japanese society and as a community, how they are. Both me and my wife and I really feel like we’ve learned a lot from Japanese culture and continue to do so. I wanted a type of word that meant “learning” not in our language but something that still resonated with me.

You’ve spoken quite openly about feeling really content about everything related to The Vamps. How is the next year looking for you four? Are you going to be taking a break or are you going to balance everything?

No, no, we’re still active. We go to South Africa in two weeks to do some festivals. We’ve been in the studio this year doing little bits and pieces. Next year there’ll be a lot more The Vamps stuff going on. Fans of us know that we actually do like each other. There’s no kind of animosity there. There’s no rivalry, there’s no competition to get your elbows out and be like, “I wanna be famous.” With this project, the fact that I’m doing it independently, I’m producing it on my own, it’s very clear for me to say that I would not be striving to compete with the success that The Vamps have. It’s mainly just for me to give my songwriting a narrative. 

And lastly, what’s your main vision or goal with your solo music?

I’d love to write an EP for a series, something like that. I’m really getting into the whole storytelling nature of songwriting. And I think what I’m trying to do is I’d love to carry on telling my life through these songs moving forward forever. There’s no goal necessarily. I’m not saying, “Oh, I wanna have a number-one album” and sell out arenas or whatever. Without sounding like a dick, I don’t need to do that because The Vamps does that. I think the goal for me is to work on my production, carry on writing songs, and hopefully release music that people see as emotionally vulnerable and transparent.

To celebrate the release of Manabi, James will perform a special launch show at Hoxton Hall on November 10th. All ticket sales will benefit the mental health charity Mind. Tickets go on sale from September 28th at 10am.

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