Maps: ‘I was trying to get that sense of wonder and optimism’

Maps, aka James Chapman. Picture: Phil Sharp
Maps, aka James Chapman. Picture: Phil Sharp
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Electronic artist and producer James Chapman aka Maps plays in Hebden Bridge this month. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.

The route between James Chapman’s third and fourth albums as electronic artist as producer Maps has been long and winding. Six years – and a side project with labelmate Polly Scattergood – divide his 2013 long-player Vicissitude and his new release, Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.

“It wasn’t intentional,” the Northamptonshire-based musician says with chuckle about the new record’s long gestation. “There was the onDeadWaves album in between them, I was doing that most of the time but then I was working on the Maps’ stuff when I had time in between. I was always working on this album but just not fully until later. It took a bit of time to get there, there was no six-year plan when I started, but it’s good for it to finally be released.”

Colours. Reflect. Time Loss. is Chapman’s most ambitious record to date, encompassing strings and brass as well as the kind of electronic soundscapes that earned his breakthrough album, We Can Create, a nomination for the Mercury Prize. “That was one of my intentions to push everything as far as I could, and just not see any limitations in the scope and sound,” he explains.

“Previously I did make the albums as a solo endeavour, which is great, I’ve never really changed that process but for this one I wanted to bring other people in and just look a little more outward. I knew that I wanted to work with orchestral players and I knew that I couldn’t do that myself, so it was a case of bringing in people that I knew were really good at playing instruments, just working with the best people that I could find.”

Finding sympathetic collaborators in the Echo Collective, a Belgian outfit who have also worked with the likes of Erasure and Johan Johannsson, was thankfully straightforward. “They’re signed to Mute Songs, which is the same publisher that I have, so it was nice, natural introduction, really,” Chapman says. “Because it was a world that I wasn’t used to being involved with I didn’t have wild expectations for how it would turn out but it really did bring so much to the sound of the album, I was really pleased.

Maps, aka James Chapman. Picture: Phil Sharp

Maps, aka James Chapman. Picture: Phil Sharp

“The arrangements I actually did myself, which was another learning curve. I’d never done anything like that before this album, so I did learn a lot.”

Having studied violin to grade eight standard stood him in good stead. “I was the nerdy kid at school that carried the violin on the school bus. At the time you don’t think it’s going to come in useful, learning to play an instrument like that, but over the years I’ve realised how useful it can be to have that knowledge of reading music and basic theory that you can use in numerous capacities, so I drew on that when I was doing the arrangements.

“It was exciting because normally when I’m making music I’m hearing how it’s sounding when I’m creating it. With actually writing to music, you then hand it to other people to play, so it’s a different process. There was a point when I when I went over to Brussels I was nervous because I didn’t know if what they were going to play with the notes that I’d written would be good, I was so out of my comfort zone, but it worked out really well in the end.”

Chapman’s sonic template included the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds. “I have quite a varied range of influences, I suppose,” he says. “I rarely sit down and think about the sound I’m going for, it’s more subconscious, stuff I’ve listened to over the years.”

I was the nerdy kid at school that carried the violin on the school bus. At the time you don’t think it’s going to come in useful, but over the years I’ve realised how useful it can be to have that knowledge of reading music and basic theory.

James Chapman

He feels he has evolved as a song writer through the process he went through making this album. “Over the years sometimes it’s just been more about the sound. I didn’t spend so much time on the song writing aspects, in a way. With his album I really wanted to make songs that could be played in a different capacity, you could just play them on an acoustic guitar, just concentrating on the actual song writing. I think if you do that whatever the sound of the album is, it just comes down to the strength of the song.”

The album features three vocalists – Britons Cecilia Fage and Rachel Kenedy and American Jennifer Pague. “With Cecilia, I’d done a remix of her band, so I got to know her through that,” Chapman says. “I knew that she had an amazing voice so I just asked her if she would record some vocals and we did it just via email, we didn’t actually meet until a lot later, and the same with Jennifer, I did a remix for her band as well. So it was just a lot of persuasion, but they’re just brilliant people and they were really up for doing it, and the nice thing is that Cecilia is singing in the band now, the same with Rachel as well, that was another nice thing that happened. We went to record drums at her studio and she was just singing along while we were recording drums and I thought she had an amazing voice to I asked her to sing on the album, and now she’s singing in the band. A lot of things just happened like happy accidents. Matt, who played the drums, is now playing in the band. It’s nice that a lot of the people who played on the album are now playing in the band.”

Childhood and memory are the key themes of this record. “A lot of the sonics I was really aiming for a kind of innocence and a lot of joy to the music. The lyrics are a bit darker than that but it’s a nice balance between the two. I was trying to get that sense of wonder and optimism. Looking back to when I was a child, you do have that untouched, lack of cynicism that you pick up over the years. I can only speak for myself, but I think it was a good place to draw on, that kind of innocence and joy.”

Chapman was helped during the making of this album by a grant from the PRS For Music foundation. “That was another really nice thing that happened,” he says. “We did two sessions of strings and brass in Brussels and after the first session I’d kind of spent all my money. So I applied for the PRS Foundation’s Open Fund, which to be honest I didn’t know existed or that things like that were available to musicians like me, I hadn’t thought about it before, and I managed to get the funding then go back and finish the album with Echo Collective. It was really nice because a lot of things slotted into place, but I think that was part of just pushing things. In the past I’d have thought, ‘That’s never going to happen so I won’t try’, but with this album I felt if you don’t ask you don’t get.”

Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. is out now. Maps play at Hebden Bridge Arts Festival on June 27. thisismaps.com