Photo : Leleita Mckill
We got on a call with the super-talented British singer, songwriter, and pianist Reuben James on the heels of his latest track, ‘Tunnel Vision.’ Reuben talks to us openly about his new collaboration, the journey so far, and his love for Vinyl. Best known for his collaborations with Sam Smith, Reuben has come into his own as a singer over the past few years. A regular at Ronnie Scotts Iconic Jazz Club, Reuben feels at home on stage, bringing an energy to his performances that are second to none.
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood? Did you grow up in Birmingham?
Yeah, I grew up in East Birmingham with my Mom, Dad, and sister, and we were a super musical family. My mom liked a lot of reggae, and my dad loved Bob Dylan; Lots of Vinyl around the house too. We listened to artists like Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, and Frank Sinatra.
There was a piano at home, so I was always trying to run away from my homework/chores to practice piano all day. That’s how it started for me.
Growing up in the UK, can you tell us a little about the music you’re producing/making today?
My older sister listened to a lot of R&B like Usher, Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, Brian McKnight, Sweet Tee. So, that heavily influenced me. She got me big into gospel music as well. My dad really got me into a lot of Jazz music. I’ve been listening to a lot of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, and a lot of piano-type music like Robert Glasper. That’s kind of what shaped me. Local people like Soweto Kinch, too; He was someone I looked up to around Birmingham and really inspired me to get into jazz music.
Didn’t someone that worked on Robert Glasper’s album work on yours too?
Yes. Qmillion mixes all of my music, and he mixes Robert Glasper’s music as well. He is an incredible mixing engineer. I’m such a huge fan. He gets an incredible sound and brings my music to life.
I wanted to ask you about your inspirations – Art, Films and Cities.
My dad is a painter, and that really inspires me. I love paintings. Mostly, all of my friends are actors, painters, artists, jazz musicians, gospel musicians. It’s easy to stay inspired because most of the people I know are artists, so it just keeps me creative all of the time. I love to do my exercise and my sports as well; That kind of keeps me sane. Other than music, I get inspired by different paintings.
There’s such an incredible community of artists and musicians in Birmingham and London that have taken me in and have grown/groomed me into the musician I am today.
UK’s jazz scene has been an exploding pool of talent in recent years. 2020 blessed us with Bluenote Re: imagined. If you had the chance to recreate some old jazz classics from that esteemed label, which one would you go with?
It would have to be something by Nat King Cole because he’s my hero. Having worked with Sam Smith for so many years, I got to spend a lot of time at Capitol (Capitol Records) in LA. Bluenote’s there too.
I actually recorded with Chris “Daddy” Dave on my record in Capitol Records as well, so it was in the same room and on the same piano that Nat King Cole played and on the same mic that Frank Sinatra used.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new single, “Tunnel Vision?” How did the song come together, and the people involved with it?
I made the beat with Linden Jay, whom I also worked with on “My Line.” We put all the instrumentation together, and then I thought, “This will be crazy with some strings.” So, I sent it across to my boy Harry Robinson, and then I sent it to my friend Elliot Skinner, who used to be in a band called “Thirdstory” – He’s an incredible vocalist based in New York, and he sang the choirs on it. I got the instrumentation where I wanted it to be, and I sent it out to two singers(Daley & Friday Touray), and they both sent me different vibes and different concepts on it. They both sent me acapellas, and I kind of just chopped and switched them around and fashioned a chorus together from what Frida was singing and a whole other section with Daley, and then me and Linden got together and pieced the whole thing nicely. I slid my two verses in it.
It’s kind of similar to how I made “My Line.” I’m all about collaboration, and I’m a massive fan of Daley and Frida. To have them on the track was incredible. And Elliot’s voice is just next level, so he just took it to great heights. I’ve also been working a lot with Tom Misch on his last album and his new album. He was in the studio, and we asked him to do a little solo on it. There might be an extended version of the solo coming out at some point.
In terms of output, do you think you would get more out of a studio session versus doing stuff remotely?
I’m all about being in the same room with people and feeding off their energy and them feeding off mine and flying ideas around.
That being said, the song wouldn’t have turned out this way if we were in the room together, so I think both have their benefits.
I can definitely vouch for that bit you said about feeding off people’s energy because I saw a video of you at the launch party for 2019’s ‘Adore EP ‘; the energy in that room, especially from you on the keys, was incredible to watch. Do you remember that night?
That was a special night. It was my first night coming out as a solo artist gig. It was a packed venue, and the energy in the room was crazy. I can’t wait to get back to that.
Between 2019’s ‘Adore’ and 2020’s ‘Slow Down,’ How would you say your sound has evolved?
‘Adore’ was a moment in time, and it had six-piece brass on every track. It had a strings section. It was my first real offering into the music world in terms of my solo stuff. I know I’ve collaborated with many people, but this was kind of my first baby, and it meant a lot to release music and see what it meant to the world.
I feel like ‘Slow Down’ was a natural evolution to that sound. ‘Slow Down’ came at a time when the first lockdown happened. With all of the social media and all of the Madness that was going on, it was necessary to put out a project called ‘Slow Down’ and just really let people relax and enjoy the music.
I feel like my voice has changed. I’m getting older and feel like my sound is always evolving, and I never want to do the same stuff. I want to keep it moving. As long as the beats are hard and I’m happy with the vibes, then, yeah, I guess I like them both. There’s no favorite. They’re both my babies but “Slow down” is a move forward, and it’s going to keep changing.
You’ve been on tour across the World with Sam Smith, so I’m assuming you’ve had the chance to meet some fantastic people along the way that have helped shape your unique sound. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being a part of Sam’s band and touring with him?
It was an amazing experience to travel the world for seven years alongside Sam. It was an amazing life experience to get to see cultures, travel around the globe, perform for different people, meet people in the industry and work with people that I never thought id get a chance to.
If you could be a fly on the wall in any studio session, past or present. Which one would it be and why?
I’m a massive Chris Stapleton fan, and I’ve been working with Dave Cobb recently, and I would love to see how he works with Chris and how they got those records to sound so good. I’m sure it’s just them playing in a room, but I’d love to have been there to see it all.
What about you? Any collaborations you’d like for yourself?
Yeah, I’d love to write with Chris Stapleton; he’s amazing. I’d love to work with PJ Morton, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin (God bless her Soul), SAULT, Norah Jones. There’s a long, long list. I’m down to work with anyone good.
The UK is going through its third national lockdown. Has this affected the way you’re approaching your music? On the one hand, touring has freed up a lot of your time, and I imagine you’ve had a lot of time to work on your music, but 2020 has been an emotional rollercoaster for many of us. What’s this experience been like for you?
It is a rollercoaster. As a working musician, you earn your bread and butter from doing shows. It’s tough. Even if you’re going to put music out there, you can’t really feel how it’ll go down in a live scenario. You can’t feed off people’s energy and see how you’re music feels in front of people, which I think is insane. There are silver linings. People are getting to spend more time with their families and loved ones and to be able to hone in. I’ve been practicing a lot of piano, which I’ve been putting off for about ten years, and I’m getting to spend more time in my studio. But you know, I can’t wait to get back to live music. That’s where I feel most happy.
I do feel for musicians because our bread and butter is live music. It’s a real struggle right now, but fingers crossed, there will be a boom further down the line.
When I make my way down to London eventually, I’d like to see you playing at Ronnie Scott’s Iconic Jazz Club. It’s such an Old Club with such a rich history. I’m sure you’ve had some amazing experiences over there. I imagine you’d love to record an album there as well?
That’s definitely something that could be on the cards. I’d love to do that. Also, I’ve had the experience of playing with some incredible artists there, like the late great Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, etc. Many Jazz greats have come through that club, and to be a part of the furniture there is a great feeling that keeps you on your toes as a musician.
I caught your Soho Radio performance where you cut directly to Vinyl. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
I haven’t been singing for that long, to be honest—two years in a live scenario. There’s also the pressure element because you’re cutting straight to Vinyl. There are no re-dos or do-overs. And we didn’t get a chance to rehearse either. It was what it was, but we nailed it, and I think it sounded great. It was straight to Vinyl, and as soon as the red light was on, it was do or die. We just made it funky. I had an incredible band – Shaney Forbes on the drums, Ferg Island on the double bass, and Ruben Fox on the tenor sax.
What Artists are you listening to right now?
Right now, a lot of Oscar Peterson. I’m getting heavy into Bill Evans at the moment. Beuna Vista Social Club, Khruangbin (I absolutely love that band), Jordan Rakei (Funny funny guy). I’ve been listening to Reuben James a lot, Bach and Chopin and PJ Morton. There’s a lot of old stuff that I haven’t checked out. And I don’t think ‘Old’ is necessarily the right word. A lot of music from a long time ago is still super relevant and fresh.
Tell us a little bit about your Record collection?
There’s a few hundred on me at the moment. I just bought this record – Solomon Ilori Afro Drum Ensemble – African high life.
Where do you usually pick up your records?
All over. Some of them online. As soon as I see a record store, I hop in and get at least one.
Is shopping for Vinyl something you do when you’re on tour?
Yeah. It’s kind of a problem because I have too many at the moment. It’s something I used to do when I was 18/19/20 years old. I’d always buy a shit ton of Vinyl. Nowadays, it’s like one every couple of months. I had to slow down. If I really love an album, I have to get it on Vinyl. It’s something special to do, you know?
Tell me about the first Vinyl you ever bought?
My parents have got a massive collection, and when I moved out when I was 18, I wanted to start my own collection. I started off with the classics like Michael Jackson – Off the wall, Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine, etc. It just evolved from there to Artists like Errol Garner, D’Angelo, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter, Justin Timberlake, etc. The first one might’ve been a Miles Davis Record – Kind of Blue.
My favorite right now is ‘The Piano’ by Herbie Hancock. I think it was just after a session, and he was playing the piano, and they kept the tape rolling. I got that one in Japan. [Reading titles off the wall] Brian Blade Fellowship, Daniel Caesar, Hiatus Kaiyote, Kaytranada, John Legend, Mac Demarco, Kendrick Lamar, Pharell.
What turntable do you have?
I’ve got one at the studio, and I’ve got one here. It’s just like an Audio Technica (Classic). Nothing super fancy. I bought my dad a (Clear Audio) Concept one, which is super fancy, but my one is pretty standard. One day, when I start doing gigs again, I think I’ll upgrade.
What’s the best piece you were given that’s helped you stay true to your artistry?
My teacher Mike Williams told me to always surround myself with people that are better than myself, and that’s something that I’ve done since I was a teenager. I’ve always played with musicians better than me and have always hung around artists that push me. I don’t hang around people that are going to kiss my arse. It’s best when your peers are telling you when you’re bullshitting.
The best advice I’d give is, “Don’t get comfortable. Surround yourself with people who will push you and keep you on your toes and keep you improving all the time.”
Thank you, Reuben