British pianist and songwriter Reuben James may be known for his work Sam Smith, but is very much a unique talent in his own right. In fact, he is now releasing his own blend of jazz-influenced soul music, with a new mixtape due for release in the summer.
An exuberant live performer, James has graced a multitude of stages across the world.
Like many of us, the singer used lockdown as a moment of rest, spending time with family in Birmingham and working on new music in his makeshift home studio.
He now returns with the third single from his upcoming project entitled “Closer” featuring Sophie Faith, rapper Jay Prince and New York bassist Carrtoons.
Here’s what happened when we caught up for a chat about his journey so far and the exciting next phase of his career.
Something I’ve noticed from your collaborations is that you’ve worked with a lot of British talent, is that a case of proximity or something you intentionally choose to do?
I don’t have a preference or wake up and think I want to specifically bring through British talent for this project. It’s purely based on who I know, who will pick up the phone to me, who likes me, who I like, and who I like the sound of, regardless of whether they’re Swedish, English, American, etc. And obviously proximity. So anyone who has performed on any of my tracks I know personally or I’m actually friends with or I’ve met. It’s always just a case of me making music with my friends.
If you had to name 3 artists that have had the biggest impact on your sound who would they be and why?
Erroll Garner, amazing piano player, one of the best of all time. It’s not really a sonic thing it’s more of an energy thing. Just the joy and the love and the emotion that he puts into his music – I try to do the same with mine. Nat King Cole is number two because of the swag and the delivery. The cheekiness, the tone…he inspires me every day. I listen to Nat King Cole all day every day. I love PJ Morton. I know I’ve said three guys. I like No Name she’s amazing and H.E.R is killing it.
Looking back, with everything that you know now, what would you say to the younger you that was just starting off in music?
I would advise younger me to get a manager and a lawyer and learn how to save and do taxes. Just learn the music business side of things. It’s unfortunate but business is one of the last things they teach you and by the time you find out it’s usually 20 years too late. Also, don’t give up. As long as you keep doing what you’re doing you’re going to get better and the fanbase will keep growing.
Most people would have first come across you as a result of your work with Sam Smith, who you toured with for several years. Describe to me that transition from performing in Jazz clubs to going on tour with one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
I was writing my own solo music, performing with Ruby Turner, and playing at Ronnie Scotts. I was doing all the gigs whilst studying at trinity college of music. Then I got the call and a year’s worth of dates went into the diary and I got on a plane to Los Angeles. Then it was the Oscars, the Grammys all the award shows, touring, etc. It was quite a natural transition, in the sense that, I’ve always known that I wanted to perform. When I was 15 I got to open up for Bebe king with this band called Funk on Me in Spain. That was in front of thousands of people. As soon as I experienced that I was like wow I’m definitely not going to go and work in an office now.
Was there ever a worry stepping into your solo career that everything that followed would be sort of be in the shadow of that experience?
Not really. Obviously, I’ve been an integral part of Sam’s sound playing the piano and writing some of the songs as well and I’ve been there since the very beginning. I was there at the start of Callum Scott’s career and worked with Disclosure at the very beginning of their career. I’m used to new beginnings. Life is all about new beginnings. It’s not about being comfortable, it’s about challenging yourself. I want to push myself and strive for the next big thing so I don’t ever feel like anything I’ve done before will ever eclipse anything that’s happening now. Right now I’m in a beautiful place where I am building my own fanbase and my own legacy and releasing my own music that’s going to live forever and that’s very exciting. I just want to keep going, bigger, better, brighter!
Speaking more generally, from where I’m standing the Scene relies so heavily on live music. What’s the adaptation period looked like for you during COVID?
I suppose a natural part of being a Jazz musician is being able to adapt at a moments notice and that kind of prepares you for life situations. Anything that’s thrown at you, you just have to deal with in the moment. For people in my trade we eat from live shows, that’s what keeps the dream alive That’s where you sell the merchandise and the vinyls. That’s where you pay the musicians, so it’s just a knock-on effect. If I can’t gig, then none of my band can gig, the venues aren’t getting paid, and then none of the staff that work in the venues can get paid. It’s just an ongoing snowball effect. I think everyone really struggled. It was a real wake-up call for people to get their sh*t together for doing online content. I started teaching piano, recording people’s albums remotely, set up my studio. I was lucky to be able to do that but it’s been a massive struggle for the whole community.
Staying on the subject of touring, I know you’ve spent a lot of time in LA, talk to me a bit about the musical landscape out there.
LA is obviously quite different to Birmingham in terms of the climate and just the energy. There’s a whole west coast sound that I love and it was great to work with some really cool people out there. I was working with some of the guys from Chance The Rapper’s crew and my good friend Nick Littlemore from Empire of Sun. I loved it out there and my finance is from California as well.
Were you ever tempted to move out there to gain access to greater opportunities?
I kind of feel like, especially since lockdown and the way that everything is online driven, it doesn’t matter if you’re in LA or Scunthorpe. As long as you’ve got an online presence opportunities are everywhere now. I’ve collaborated with so many people from sending messages and emails and them sending parts. Anything is possible.
That’s true. I think that as a creative who is so multitalented, there’s always this danger of feeling like you have to work on every aspect of everything in order for it to be authentic. How have you managed to avoid this?
It’s kind of one of those things where you just have to forget about your ego. If I’ve got access to the best drummer in the world who wants to collaborate with me, then I feel it’s a no-brainer. I think there’s a time and a place. If I can do it to the best of my ability and serves the song best, sometimes you don’t actually need the best musicians in the world. Other times it’s like yes I can play the violin, yes I can play the sax, but maybe let’s get a string quartet and make it sound a bit more expensive. I don’t want to clone my head into 10 people and play all the instruments and be like hey I’m Reuben I can do everything, even if I can. I am not precious about being a one-man band, I know better musicians than me. If they’re going to help elevate me and take my music to the next level I’m all about collaboration.
Adore was sort of the intro to you as a solo artist, then Slow Down featured a lot more of your own production. What sort of growth does this new music hold in store?
Even more of my own production because I’ve been learning how to mix. I’m getting better and better at producing so I don’t have to rely on people so much. I do love new producers who can make me see things in different ways. For the next phase, I’m just going to keep pushing my sound and keep experimenting and see what connects with people. While I make music for the fans and those who have connected with me but the main vibe for me is that I’ve got to be happy with the music and making stuff that’s true to me.
One thing we have to speak about before we wrap is the glasses. You seem to be very big on shades, any plans for sunglasses line in the future?
(laughs) this is the thing I was really big on hats and my friends released this hat called the Reuben hat which is like a high crown fedora. Definitely go and check that out. I would like to do a little shades vibe. Maybe a shades lines could be cool, that’s something to think about. You’ll probably be sending your lawyers after me to get some kind of percentage –
-Oh 100% we’ll definitely be discussing my shares in this company
(laughs) okay, well you’re the instigator and it’s on record so I’ll see you in court.