At first, James Essien‘s name may not ring a bell - but as one of the UK‘s most exciting and respected songwriters, he is someone to keep a very close eye on. Growing up in North West London, James always had an ear for music. With his personal playlist ranging from Coldplay to Usher, it’s like his childhood would prophecy a career in songwriting that was destined for him. New Wave magazine sat down with James to discuss his rise in the music industry, favourite moments and a glimpse into what he has been working on lately.
Although James is usually at the studio 5 days a week non-stop, today was his chance to relax and catch up with us. If you took a quick look back at James' songwriting catalogue, not only would you be impressed but also, you would easily recognise Here by Tom Grennan, a few hits by Clean Bandit and the amazing James Blunt. Now at the peak of his writing career, James actually began as a singer himself: “I think as a writer, it always starts the same way. So you’re an artist or a singer and one day, you’re like; “I’m going to try writing something” because I was doing the artist thing, performing at shows”. It is no surprise that James had to start from the bottom as well, ultimately bringing him to success at his first try: “The first thing I ever wrote was a version of Marvin’s Room by Drake and a bunch of people did a cover of it. You had one by Jojo, you had by Chris Brown. This made me think I could actually do something with this. It was the first time I ever wrote and it came out good.” That being said, nothing is as easy as it looks and with his early-on attention as a young writer, James still admits; “My career kicked off as a known songwriter when I wrote the Tom Grenna song”.
When it comes to his early life, James and his mother used to always move around. This mainly was due to work and it did not help that he was a difficult child to raise. Luckily, James found a passion that would take most of his time. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to find out that his earliest influence derives from his mother and her diverse playlist. He explains: “I was listening to Chris Brown, a lot of Usher. My mom was obsessed with R&B music and there was another side to my mother who loved indie music. It’s weird, it was like her guilty pleasure. Especially because there was kind of like a divide between R&B music and indie music. It’s not like now where you have artists like Post Malone who can touch on both. Before, you didn’t have that. You had acts like Coldplay, The Script and on the other side, you had Usher, Chris Brown, Mariah Carey and whoever else. I particularly grew up listening to a lot of indie and R&B music. All of the weird bands, I thought were hard and I was trying to convince people from where I’m from who only listened to Giggs”.
It wasn’t after long that James could also see himself writing similar hits and although he enjoys rap and popular music, his love always remained with R&B and indie music. He added; “I always had an interest in some of the guitar, vulnerable songs. Especially with the piano, I always thought “They are nice and very well written”. I think that has massively contributed to the way I approach writing songs. For a lot of writers, they are quite genre specific and that is because they grew up listening to one genre only. For me, it was pretty much every genre that I was into. I really got obsessed with R&B and Indie music”.
The music industry has a lot to offer but it can also take from you as well. At times, some writers and producers who started in this business do not end up succeeding and are forced in a loop of constant bad experiences and missed opportunities. James is very much aware of this reality and ensures that as a songwriter, there is its good side as much as its bad side. We asked him to name the first pro he could think of: “The pros of writing for an artist is creatively as a songwriter, you have a bunch of ideas that would not work for you if you’re an artist. It’s important to identify an artist’s message and know what they are saying to the world and there are some songs an artist couldn’t do. Some of the things I wrote could be amazing ideas but, they could only be amazing ideas to Burna Boy, for example. It would be like; “This would be iconic if this person does it but not if I did it”. Your ideas are boundless and they can be boundless. There is always somebody who fits in that space and you might not want to be there. A great song will always find a home at some point. Ideally, if you write timeless music, then they can last years”.
Whilst a producer has the leverage of forming a closer bond with the artist and even placing their own tag on an artist’s songs for self-promotion, a songwriter is more limited. James revealed that one can be treated almost like a second class citizen, dealing with late payments and less of a regard as a contributor. To give us a brief on some of the cons, James stated: “I think it can be difficult sometimes with some artists because as a songwriter, you are expected to write songs and you go in and the artist is just on a different wavelength than you. And then, you can try a bunch of ideas and they all end up getting rejected. Also, sometimes you have the most talented people in a room but the collaborative effort just doesn’t work. Sometimes, you can expect someone to be one thing and they’re another thing and you end up disappointed. All this time I thought you did this and worked on songs this way but really, it wasn’t”. However, he reassures by adding the following: “By far, I think the pros outweigh the cons. They happen more often while the cons are once in a while”.
On a lighter note, James described his best experience thus far and what ended up being a blessing in disguise. He explained: “One of the maddest for me was when I came up as a songwriter, I did have much out but I was working with people who did better than me. I went to this Clean Bandit songwriting camp and so many talented writers were there from this country. They picked the crème de la crème writers to write their single. They put us all together in a massive house with amazing writers where their credits would just go on and on… And I’m there like the new kid on the block. I was at the camp for about two days and the first day, I did a couple of songs but nothing clicked. In my mind, it was just me that I wasn’t doing that good. On the second day, at a session, there were about 4 of us in a small room in the corner. We had about 4 hours and we wrote this song which got picked as the lead single for the project. It was the most shocking thing because I was primarily there to network, I didn’t come here thinking I was going to get the single”.
Surely, there are new songs on the works that James wouldn’t mind sharing with us. From what we have heard thus far, there can only be greater things to come in the near future. First, we were curious to know who was on his radar: “I want to work with Chris Brown. I grew up listening to him and so, it would be such a cool circle moment to work with and write something people would not expect him to vibe on. Justin Bieber would be good. Beyoncé obviously and Rihanna released music again, I would love to write for her. SZA? Oh my God… Somebody please get me in a room with her so that I can just try something. I know she’s great by herself and she doesn’t need me but I could do something. Then, he did not hesitate and unveiled: “I’ve been doing a lot of things with Ryan Tedder who’s the frontman of One Republic. He’s also the biggest songwriter on the face of the earth, in terms of what he’s done for like ‘Halo’ by Beyoncé and many more. Also, for Zayn Malik and I think I have a single on his up-coming album”.