Over three days in the fall of 2014, Australian singer-songwriter Jarryd James and songwriter-producer Joel Little (Lorde, Broods) holed up in a Airbnb in Los Angeles with some portable recording equipment, a computer, and a $30 ukulele they found in the house and created the song "Do You Remember." "I was trying to capture the feeling of nostalgia in a song, both lyrically and melodically, and just how powerful that emotion is," James says. "I was in an unfamiliar place all by myself and I guess I was feeling a bit fragile. But when you sit down and think back to a certain time, there's a lot of beauty in that reminiscing." Wanting to share the song with people, James put "Do You Remember" up on Soundcloud in January 2015, not expecting anything of it.
But with its "silky falsetto vocals, pounding drums, and plucked guitars" (as NME described it), "Do You Remember" quickly struck a chord with listeners and catapulted the then-unsigned artist into viral fame. By February, James was touring with Aussie superstars Angus & Julia Stone and the following month had landed a deal with Interscope Records in the U.S. Upon its official release, "Do You Remember" debuted at No. 2 on Singles chart in Australia, as well as No. 1 on Hype Machine and the Australian iTunes charts, and was the No. 1 most Shazamed song in Australia for 2015. James, a humble, soft-spoken native of Brisbane, who had spent several years in a band, followed by six years working with troubled kids before returning to making music, found himself being supported by critics, industry tastemakers like Beats 1 Radio's Zane Lowe, and artist peers like Ed Sheeran, who told Rolling Stone that he had heard "Do You Remember" on Australian radio and "had to find out who the singer was. I just love his sound." When James released his follow-up single, "Give Me Something" (also co-written with Little), Nylon magazine called him "a member of R&B's new wave, an artist who is helping to redefine the genre."
Now James is gearing up to release his debut album Thirty One - 12 minimalist-sounding gems that showcase his ability to live in the sweet spot where unforgettable melodies, soulful vocals, and bittersweet lyrics intersect. Working with his collaborators Joel Little, Pip Norman (Troye Sivan), and Malay Ho (Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, Tori Kelly), James delivers an immersively emotional experience fuelled by the album's sparse sonics and his aching falsetto, not to mention his knack for writing lyrics that shoot straight for the gut.
However ask James what his songs are about and he'll tell you that rather than focus on what inspires them, his priority is the emotions they conjure up. "I never go into a session thinking, 'I'm going to write about this or that,'" he says. "I need the music to tell me what to do. I let it soak into me, then the words come. I just switch my brain off, otherwise I end up overthinking things. I've never liked literal thoughts in songs. I always go for the metaphor or something ambiguous that will convey a feeling. The music I love the most, I don't even know what it's about, but I know how it makes me feel inside and that's literally all I'm ever trying to do."
One of James' earliest and most powerful musical memories is hearing and connecting with Bob Dylan's protest song "Hurricane." "The story he tells is incredible and the fact that it was real "¦ that stayed with me," he says. James grew up in a small town called Dalby, three hours west of Brisbane where he lived with his mother, sister, and ailing grandmother. James' parents split while his mother was pregnant with him and James' father died when James was an infant. "My mom was very protective of me and my sister," he recalls. "My whole childhood was very sheltered." Music drew James out. He played trumpet throughout his school years before teaching himself to play piano and guitar. Eventually, he discovered artists like Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder and spent hours in his room absorbing their stories, melodies, and vocal techniques. "I listened to Stevie Wonder and would try to nail his runs and trills because what he did was incredible."
At 20, James got up the nerve to sing for his friends and began writing his own songs a few years later. "At that point, it was mostly about creating beautiful melodies," he says. "I didn't think I had anything to write about." He eventually formed a band with a few talented friends. Calling themselves Holland, the band were signed to a major label and toured Australia before calling it quits after six years. Feeling a bit lost after the break-up, James took a full-time government job looking after young people with extreme needs. "They were kids who didn't fit into the foster care system so they were either homeless or in lockup in juvenile detention," James explains. He loved the work, but also realized that something was missing from his life. "I got pretty depressed," he admits. "I was just sad all the time. I knew I had to start making music again."
He called a friend with a recording studio in the Gold Coast and asked if he could pay him a visit. The first song to come pouring out was "High," an epic, orchestral-sounding song that now closes out Thirty One. In short order, James found a publisher (Sony/ATV) and attended a songwriting workshop in Sydney where he connected with Pip Norman, with whom he wrote Thirty-One's "Sell It To Me," "Undone," and his third Australian single "Sure Love." With Norman accompanying him, James performed at the APRA Awards in Australia where he caught the attention of Joel Little and music manager, Ashley Page, who offered to represent him and immediately put James on tour with his clients Broods. He also wrote "Do You Remember" with Little and the rest was history. "Do You Remember" has racked up more than 27 million plays on Spotify and is the perfect introduction to Thirty One, a title inspired not only by James' age, but by his realization that his father died at 31. "It hit me last year when I became aware that I was making an album," he says. "I was like, 'Holy shit, if I make it through this year, I've outlived my father and on the same year that I put out this album, which is so special to me.' I feel like I'm kind of continuing on with what he couldn't finish doing."