INTERVIEW: James Leonard Hewitson | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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I’ve always found it more comfortable to be modest about everything,” states James Leonard Hewitson. “I think the self-deprecating thing is something I did as a teenager to sort of make friends, then it filtered into this artistic project.” For several years, the Hartlepool-based singer-songwriter has been making a name for himself with his wry brand of self-effacing slacker pop and collage-like sonic palette. His second album, More Pop, finds James embracing the 80s, and his more romantic side, albeit with a healthy dose of cynicism.

I was listening to a lot of Sparks and New Order and stuff like that,” he recalls. “I had this job over lockdown, where I’d drive around in a little van and collect those rental e-scooters, changing the batteries and taking them back to the warehouse if they needed repairing. I had to listen to music that would get me through it, and that’s where the 80s came in.”

James references the pandemic several times when discussing his new record, but it’s to be expected given that his debut album Only The Noise Will Save Me was released in 2020, and the lion’s share of More Pop was born throughout lockdowns. We’ve been treated to various tasters at different intervals over the last two years, a slightly erratic timeline but one that somehow fits James’ impulsive approach to songwriting.

None of the songs were written with the idea that they would all form one body of work; that’s why it’s called More Pop – it’s just another collection of songs. They’re just songs with choruses that are influenced by different periods of pop music,” he explains in his typically dry fashion. “I’d love it if there was some mad concept or deeper meaning, but most of the songs were written over pandemic times where it wasn’t possible to think long-term.”

He’s doing the modest thing again, of course. While More Pop is indeed “a collection of songs underpinned by sounds of popular music from the 60s to the 80s,” it’s a bloody brilliant one at that. Take Stable for example, the first taster we were treated to a few years back. It’s an infectious slice of pop genius with some of the most wonderfully witty lyrics you’ll ever hear. “I’m emotionally unavailable, I’m just doing what I can to keep myself stable” he sings languidly over skittering drum beats and pinging synths. Then there’s added Sparks-esque falsetto and psychedelic freak-out for good measure.

I think the self-deprecating thing is something I did as a teenager to sort of make friends, then it filtered into this artistic project

The 80s influence and a sense of romantic yearning are at play on the likes of Sideways and Disco In August, the latter being a surprisingly slinky hazy disco cut, which you can imagine was influenced by the trip to Berlin James describes, where he worked with a producer named Daniel Schaub.

There’s also another unexpected and rather obscure influence that has heavily impacted More Pop. “Speaking of the 80s, someone who got me started on this whole artistic journey is this artist from Peterlee called Eddie Huntington. I think he works at Stockton Council now, but he ran the drama club at my primary school and the first performance I did to a live audience was through this drama club. He was a pop star in the 80s but he was heavily marketed in Italy and the Soviet Union.” This all might sound a little bizarre, but a quick google search confirms this story. “He did this album called Bang Bang Baby (genuinely), and there’s this song on it called USSR, the synths on it are terrible but brilliant.”

Obscure 80s pop aside, one of the things James does best is pay homage to legendary crooners like Scott Walker and Harry Nilsson, particularly on album closer She Makes The Rain Go Away, his take on a retro love song.

I suppose over the pandemic I must have felt quite lonely and a bit gutted,” he laughs. “Maybe it was a lot of the way movement was restricted, it made me yearn for that romance sadly. I kind of wrote about it cryptically and directly through these songs. With She Makes The Rain Go Away I wanted to do something a bit like Scott Walker, but I think it turned out as if Jonathan Richman was trying to sing a Scott Walker song. My writing is very much a what-pops-into-my-head technique, and I was driving and it was raining really heavily. I love that song, I think it’s proper weird in the context of now.”

There’s something about James’ sound that could only come from growing up in a faded North Eastern town – those ironic observations on everyday life. He still lives in Hartlepool, though he sometimes feels the way his Hartlepudlian roots are described can seem a bit of a gimmick. “It’s a shame, but that’s how it sort of starts to feel, within the context of the North East, everything is so Newcastle or Middlesbrough-centric, so being from somewhere a bit smaller can almost feel gimmicky.

Hartlepool itself though…God, where to begin? It just kind of does what it wants, it votes how it wants, you can’t tell it what to do. It’s totally its own thing, I just happen to be from here. I don’t know if I’m someone who leads with the whole local identity thing, it’s just a fact about me.”

With More Pop, James has created a near-perfect idiosyncratic pop album, cementing his status as one of the most astute songwriters around right now. When asked about goals and hopes for the record, you expect a typically self-deprecating response, so it’s a surprise to hear him speak with the sort of self-belief his music rightly deserves.

What I want people – in the North East or whatever – what I want people to realise…is that I can really fucking write. If they didn’t believe me the first time, believe me now. I can write music, I can write songs, and I’m good at it.” Well said.

James Leonard Hewitson releases More Pop on 31st May. He plays The Head of Steam, Newcastle on Saturday 1st June and The Green Room, Stockton on Friday 14th June.

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