“I’m the Frank Sinatra of shouting”. Interview with James Allan (Glasvegas)

The James Allan’s voice is very particular, is a voice like no other. With this blueprint, with emotive songs, often melancholic but at the same time deep, Glasvegas released, ten years ago, their album debut.

So this year James Allan, Rab Allan, Paul Donoghue and Jonna Löfgren are celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the debut album ‘Glasvegas’, an album which was nominee to the famous Mercury Prize. To celebrate this, the band will release some unheard demos, interviews, live tracks and some important material.

The Echo Music had the opportunity to talk with James Allan about why he decided to dedicated his life to the music, the Glasvegas’ origins, his creative process, his career, and some insights about the music and when and what we can expect of a new Glasvegas’ album.

1. At what moment did you discover that you were going to dedicate your life to music? What started everything? Where does the name (and the idea) Glasvegas come from?

These questions might not appear so at first, but they are quite deep… It’s complicated, but I’ll try to put it into a sentence. Whatever I’m saying is only a part – only the memory right now – but it’s more complicated than a moment and a sentence. However, if I was to name one point that started it all, I think it would be when me and my cousin were watching ‘Top of the Pops’ and Oasis were playing on it. Something happened in that moment, I guess, that was the beginning to everything. Regarding the name ‘Glasvegas’… A band name is quite a strange thing, because you self-title yourself. When you’re born someone else does it for you, but when you name yourself you get to tell the world who you are… And I didn’t want to do that. Because I don’t want to self-title myself as I don’t think it is up to me to do that. So I felt a bit weird about it, but a real band needs a name and I wanted us to be a real band. The word ‘Glasvegas’ didn’t really have any connection to the music or any meaning for me. It was just a word I liked in the way that words to me are sugary and beautiful. ‘Glasvegas’… I liked the way it looked and I liked the way it sounded.

2. How do you create a song… where do you start?

The question is rather ‘Where does the song want to start?’ – I guess you could be in the middle of an every day chore like buying the newspaper or waiting on the bus and there’s a thought, a regret, a hope, a memory… These different things uninvitedly appear in the front of your mind. It’s the same with a song. It is like when you get a song stuck in your head and you can’t get rid of it. It’s like an echo in your head. I believe songwriters are sensitive to that. However, the difference is that it’s an idea, lyrics, a melody, that appears and it will get stuck in my head even if I don’t invite it in or try to make it happen. I’ve tried to force it before… but it’s very difficult.

Songwriting is an enterprise I’ve never commanded and never will be able to fully command. The song will decide to start somewhere itself…

3. What comes first? Music or lyrics? Do you believe in the inspiration or in the daily work?

I believe it’s both. Music and lyrics can come individually or together, as a pair. It’s never just one way for me. And I believe in both inspiration and hard work.

4.​ Do you start a song with any instrument in particular?

No

5. ​Describe the process to writing the lyrics?

The process of writing is actually a part that I can try to command. The idea is one thing that I cannot control, but how a song is sculpted is something I work really hard on. If I work on the lyrics I even consider how the words look next to each other, not only what they mean to each other, but if they’re a balanced shape together. Sometimes, I see a hole or a dent and I need to find the answer to the idea being complete. And that is something I work really hard at.

Sometimes it can come so quick while other times it takes a while. It’s like when you get to know a person. Sometimes you hit it off straight away, while other times it takes a while the get to know them.

6. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the lyrics of All I Want Is My Baby/The World is Yours /Shine Like Stars/If/Cruel Moon?

‘All I Want Is My Baby’ was written following a difficult situation for myself personally. It was written through feeling helpless. Because of the way the world is, some things are unfair and I can’t control it. So I feel helpless. But there is one thing that the world and nobody can touch, warp or distort… and that’s the song that I write. That’s the part where I am not helpless. It’s something that is, to some degree, in my control. I guess when I was writing ‘All I Want Is My Baby’ I was exercising my control, voice, opinion and feeling. I got to express that control, which is a big part of rock n roll for me.

‘The World Is Yours’ is more of a mystery to me. I wasn’t channeling any of my own personal experiences. Maybe it was thoughts of my own shyness on a subconscious level. Especially from when I was younger. And I don’t know if that song was maybe more me thinking about glory and triumph in a way that I didn’t necessarily experience myself. But I think a part of it is shyness and then there’s overcoming shyness.

‘Shine Like Stars’ was a message to myself on that particular day. It was a specific moment where I, for some reason, said “if this, this and this happens – everything is going to be glorious”.

‘If’ was about me saying “to fall, to have a bad experience, to have a hard time in your life, to have darkness in your life, to have regret or fear or confusion is not something that I welcome, but in some fucked up way it is a beautiful thing”. Because without that in those times there would be no glory, no rise, no beauty. Any triumph would be unrecognisable because we would be unaware of the contrast. So it was me saying “whether it’s light or dark, I embrace both, because I need both”. When you trip up in front of the world it’s a beautiful thing as well.

‘Cruel Moon’ was written while we were recording the first album in New York. We were in Brooklyn on our way to a guitar shop and I saw a guy in a sleeping bag at the side of the street. It was the middle of the day and it was sunny. I just saw him and on the way back to the studio the song just came. It flowed so fast, lightning fast, so when we got back to the studio the song was finished.

7. Which is the most important thing that a song must have?

The most important thing… fuck… There’s a few things, but if I was to pick one, I think ‘intention’. There would need to be some intention that comes from a pure and soulful place. That would trump any other aspect. No matter the result, there would be something that I could admire and connect with.

8. ​How do you know when a song is finished?

How do you know that you want to go to sleep? You just know.

9.​ Do you usually start and finish a song, then go to the next one, or do you tend to be working on many tracks at the same time?

When I was making the first album I think we had a week or two weeks before going to New York and we only had seven of the songs. And then in that time I wrote ‘Polmont On My Mind’ and then ’S.A.D. Light’ and then ‘Ice Cream Van’ and they were not overlapping. It was just one and then the next one and then the next one. I think you need to get the body of a song one at a time. I need to see the idea through and get a clear structure. For this album, the fourth, I needed to work on one song at a time, but then I’m able to move between the songs to see the nuances and maybe change the odd word. So I guess you could say in some way it is both.

10.​ Do you write the lyrics and all the music, or do you have collaborators in the creation of the music?

I write the lyrics and all the music myself.

11.​ How many hours do you dedicate each day to the musical creation?

About seven or eight months a day!!! 🙂 No, but sometimes I end up working for days without break. I’ve worked on songs three or four days in a row before.

12. How do you order the songs in the album?

I think it is both an instinctive thing and a thought through order. You look at them lined up with each other and you see if they look right. You also look at it like any fairytale. How would you want the introduction to this album – this story – to be told? How do you want the dynamic and the intensity to change in different ways throughout the album? And how do you want the album – the story – to end?

13.​ Are you thinking about the album as a whole thing or song by song? If are thinking in the album as a whole thing, which are the gravity center of your albums?

It’s both songs by themselves and an album as a whole to me. There’s normally a picture that goes with each album. Sometimes it’s a certain colour. So every album is like looking through a window, and if someone was listening to the album I would hope they look through the window and they see that one picture or colour that just connects the whole thing together.

14.​ Does it make any sense releasing LPs in a world governed for Spotify and iTunes?

Personally, I like to hold a record in my two hands. I like the scale of looking at the artwork. I think the size of the vinyl and the sleeve gives a different level of recognition to the actual music, because it’s just not a number on a microchip. It’s a physical, tangible weight in your hands and it gives it a level of honour. Even if I just made one vinyl of my album that I owned that would be fine. I could always make two if you want one as well. I’ll keep one and give on to you.

15. Does your label have any kind of influence in your creative process?

Yes, if they’re willing to support and believe in us, which they always have, then they can make the whole thing work. By trying to not interfere they’ve influenced it and helped us make the music we want to make. Ollie Hodge, Mike Smith and Danny Watson from the label were always supportive and gave me (and the rest of the band) the space to create.

16. ​There is an interesting change of direction in all the albums…. For example, in the first one the tone is introspective, in the second one more explosive and in the third one a little interior… Are there any reason for these changes?

That’s the most accurate I’ve ever heard any description of the three albums summed up in a short expression. That’s perfect. You’ve said it perfect. I think it’s been the place where I’m at in my life. What I’ve been hoping for. How I’ve felt inside me. I think the albums have been a reflection of that.

17. ​With which artist/musician/group would you like to collaborate with on an album?

There’s so many people that I really admire and there are so many songs I wish I wrote. If I was to collaborate with one artist and had to choose only one… Phil Spector.

18.​ Which musician/group are you listening currently?

The last album that really made an impression on me was ‘You Want It Darker’ by Leonard Cohen.

19.​ You went to Ecuador to play music with a tribe… Can you tell us about this experience? When started this idea to take form? Which are your insights about your music and the tribe music?

Well, it’s obviously a unique experience if you go anywhere in the world and they don’t know who Elvis Presley is or they don’t know what a guitar sounds like. There’s not many places on earth you could go where that’s the case. So it was interesting to spend time with people who had never been exposed to entertainment or show business and who you think have nothing. The kids didn’t have iPhones or video games. They had no sense of how they would like to present themselves regarding clothes and fashion. You think they’re deprived for that, but then you see how happy they are and you realise that maybe they’re not deprived. Maybe we are the ones who are deprived in some ways. Because they’ve never been exposed to the social expectations that fuck us up in some ways. However, it was interesting to see that although they’ve not been exposed to the same things, there’s still a part of human nature that is just the same. That’s what the song I made with the tribe was about.

20. ​Do you have any date to release your new album? What your fans and the public should expect of this new album?

Ehm… one and a half years ago? Haha… There is yet no decided date. However, for the new album I personally guarantee a life changing experience. By that I – hopefully – mean it in a positive way!

21. At a concert/gig… how do you order the songs you are gonna play? Are there any criteria?

In theatre they say you should ‘start big, end strong’ and maybe that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s probably just like theatre. It’s a show and we try to make it as good as possible.

22. Why so long of a delay in releasing a new album?

This album has been a friend that took me a bit longer to get to know and reach. I usually describe it as walking on a long road and I see someone walking towards me. As I get closer some features get more defined. I get closer and closer until I’m in front of them and shake their hand. Sometimes that road is just longer.

23.​ There is a notable evolution in the James Allan voice… Can you tell us a little bit about the exercises to conserve the voice? You have a routine to train your voice? How can you get high notes without cause pain or damage to your vocal strings?

I don’t do any exercises, but I probably should. I don’t have any routine either, but I do think that it gets stronger on tour as I use my voice regularly. I never sit around the house singing. The only times I sing, other than at our shows or while we are recording is maybe if I’m trying to do an Elvis impression in the house. I would never describe myself as a singer. I would rather say I’m a shouter. I’m the Frank Sinatra of shouting. It’s like sometimes when I sing the songs, I feel as if I’m letting the fire out and whatever is inside me is being released. After it, what’s been inside me dies down and starts to grow again. Then the next time I sing it’s the same thing over again. It makes me feel better to let it out.

24.​ Sometimes tone of your songs makes us feels the band is a little bit sad, but in interviews you seem happy people…Is this only an image of the group?

Do you mean that we’re trying to project an image of being happy? Or sad? How good would a human being have to be to make the music we make and then pretend to be a certain way? I don’t think anyone could act that well, not even Al Pacino or Marlon Brando. I don’t think I am any one way in life. I don’t think of myself as being happy or sad. Everyone is all these things.

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