It’s undoubtedly a complicated time for artists in Australia and doubly so for Melbourne-based creatives, who are currently subject to an extended stage four lockdown. This includes singer-songwriter Shannen James, who is a fortnight away from releasing her debut EP ‘Arrows’ when she catches up with NME.
Even over a Zoom call, James speaks with a bubbliness and warmth that you can also hear in her music. She shares anecdotes with candour, occasionally letting out a giggle or two. She’s in high spirits – not an easy thing in a global pandemic.
“I’m excited. There’s always a little bit of nerves that comes with releasing music, but I’m excited since I’ve had these songs ready to go since the start of 2019,” James says. “We’ve been drip-feeding these songs out over the last two years and it’s going to be a big relief to finally get to release the whole sort of body of work.”
The last several months have been something of a whiplash for James, who was previously riding a wave after supporting G Flip in November and Men I Trust in February. At that time, it seemed as though nothing could faze James en route to her EP release.
But that momentum abruptly evaporated when coronavirus-imposed restrictions came into effect, enforcing a smothering chokehold on a nation already reeling from the devastating 2020 bushfires. The inevitable fallout wrought on Australia’s music sector was presented to James as a fait accompli, thrusting her into a downward tailspin. Thankfully, that phase didn’t last long.
“I’m not gonna lie and say I wasn’t disappointed. I felt like I was getting quite a bit of momentum happening with the live shows,” James admits. “And I felt like as a band, we were performing the best we had yet. We had just been doing quite a lot of shows, and I felt like we were at a really good spot. The plan this year was to play as many shows and support gigs as we could – and then obviously, all of this happened.
“But I soon realised that it was a really good opportunity for me to write more songs and hone my skills a little more. I feel like I’ve kept a good work ethic happening throughout it all.”
James’ musical journey commenced early in her childhood, where she regularly performed at family gatherings, birthday parties and shopping centre singing competitions. The Spice Girls – whom James passionately hails as “the epitome of music” – were at their peak at the time, and James was instantly mesmerised by their entrancing pop melodies.
“I just wanted to be a Spice Girl, just like every other six-year-old girl at the time,” she laughs.
“I actually feel really lucky that I grew up in that period – not only because there were the Spice Girls, but there was Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore. It was just so amazing to see huge female artists that were so successful. They were definitely people I looked up to as a kid.”
While James added ABBA, Shania Twain, The Maccabees and The Strokes to her lengthy list of inspirations, her original affinity for pop remained a cornerstone of her own music. Her debut EP – while only six tracks in length – is a masterful showing of James’ ability to craft earworm after earworm, each bearing their own danceable, singalong chorus. Each song hints at one of her many influences, from Fleetwood Mac’s warm, punchy drums in ‘Something In The Water’ to Danielle Haim’s hallmark staccato delivery in ‘Collide’.
“The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore: It was just so amazing to see huge female artists that were so successful”
“I’ve had a lot of different musical phases – and I know this sounds silly – but I’ve always come back to music that just feels good and makes you want to sing along to it,” James explains.
“I’ve always been drawn to really strong songwriting, and I feel like it’s pop songwriting and pop structures that anyone could listen to and enjoy. I guess that’s how I try to write music as well – I try and write in quite a universal way. You just hope that people can connect with the stories that you’re telling, even if they’re personal to you. Hopefully it’s something that they’ve gone through and can connect with and understand as well.”
No matter how inspired she was as a teenager, though, the idea of writing original music didn’t occur to James (“I thought I’d just sing other people’s songs”), until her vocal coach prodded her to come out of her shell. She sheepishly admits her first attempts at songwriting were “awful to begin with”, but quickly gained experience through co-writing with other lyricists across Australia. Album closer ‘Golden’ was co-written with Will Cummings (LANKS) on the second anniversary of her grandmother’s passing.
“‘Golden’ was the very first song I co-wrote. I was super nervous as I’d never written a song with someone else before,” James says.
“On the plane to Sydney, I wasn’t able to think of anything else for the whole day. When I met Will for the first time, I just said ‘This is what I want to write about today’. The song means so much to me: not because it’s the first song that I ever co-wrote, but because of what it means to my Nana. It’s probably the most special one to me on the EP.”
“You just hope that people can connect with the stories that you’re telling, even if they’re personal to you”
Title track ‘Arrows’ is another song equally close to James’ heart. It was written in a time where her future and career direction seemed uncertain, and the resulting track produced had a quality that she notes as both “cathartic and anthemic”. The track contemplates on the uncertainty of the future, but ends on a defiant, optimistic note: “What if things turned out the way that you wanted? / It’s weighing on my mind if I’m honest / Can’t see ’round the boat in the river / Still got some arrows in my quiver.”
“I was writing all of these songs and just feeling a little bit unsure of what the next six months, the next year, the next whatever would be,” James explains.
“Once that song was written, it made me feel that things may not work out the way you want them to, but it’s okay because there’ll be another time, another place and another person that might be able to give you that opportunity. It’s quite a personal song to me, in terms of just going: ‘These are my dreams. These are my ambitions. I’m not sure how I’m gonna get there but I’m just gonna give it my best shot, and see where it lands.’”
It’s an outlook that James still abides by today, especially under lockdown. While she’s itching to get back out gigging and touring, her eyes are fixed on the future with a debut full-length album on the cards.
“I feel like ‘Arrows’ really does showcase me as a person and as an artist, and I’m really proud of it,” she says.
“I think that’s the most important thing: not just saying ‘Well, I can do that, and I’m going to stick to this’. It should be wanting to try and showcase as much of yourself as you can as an artist. While I’m really excited to be finally releasing this EP, I’m also looking forward to what’s next.”
Shannen James’ ‘Arrows’ is out now