Music interview – J P Cooper: ‘I don’t think one single is quite “I’ve arrived”’

J P Cooper. Picture: David Levenson
J P Cooper. Picture: David Levenson
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By his own admission, J P Cooper’s debut album, Raised Under Grey Skies, has been a long time coming.

“I’m turning 34 in just over a month. For a debut album it’s kind of late in the day,” quips the soulful Mancunian singer songwriter.

“I got a deal three and a half years ago, so it’s been a slow process, but a process I’ve been really grateful for. I’ve had time to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I think we’re all continuously figuring that out – I don’t think we’ll ever really figure it out – but the label have been really patient with it.

“In the last year they’ve been ready to hit the big red button, but although it has been slow, it has been a welcome pace, and now I’m ready to really go for it. I’m in a good place.”

The schedule for his forthcoming UK tour includes some of the biggest shows he’s played to date. “The Roundhouse in London, the Ritz in Manchester, it’s absolutely amazing. Growing up in Manchester, the Ritz was the place where I used to go out to club night and see bands, and I couldn’t wait to start playing venues like that, so it’s going to be really nice to go back with memories of all the silly teenage drunken nights I had in there. After the success of a couple of the singles you look at the numbers online, how many million people have listened to it, but it doesn’t really sink in until you see people turn up to your shows or turn up to festivals. That’s when you think, ‘Things are going all right, aren’t they?’”

Inspired by Britpop, which happened when Cooper in his teens, he’d formed various bands along the way. The problem, he discovered, was maintaining momentum. “When you form a band and you’re getting later in your twenties people are getting promotions at work or they’ve got more responsibilities, they’re getting settled with their girlfriends and things like that, so it’s quite hard to say ‘let’s be more structured, we’ll rehearse three times a week’. It becomes difficult.

J P Cooper. Picture: David Levenson

J P Cooper. Picture: David Levenson

“It was more just getting older. People in the band that I was working with were unable to put in as much time or it was just a difference of what we were into.

“I found myself playing in rock bands for years and years and years because all my friends were into that but I was a massive lover of soul music so there was a time when I was being in a rock band and at the same time singing in a gospel choir, and I think more and more of that was becoming part of the way that I expressed myself. I couldn’t really find a way of making the two work together and I didn’t want to start cranking up guitars really loud any more. I told the band that I was in one day ‘Do you know what? Maybe I’m going to give this a go myself’, that’s when things really started to change. I knew at some point I’d do a solo thing but it was one of those things where I thought I’d have some success in the band first, but the band thing just didn’t work out.”

Things really kicked off for Cooper in the summer of 2016 when he collaborated with Jonas Blue on the chart hit Perfect Strangers. Cooper admits he had some trepidation about working on a dance-pop tune that was so different to his usual material. “It was a difficult decision to make. Basically what happened with the Jonas Blue track was I was asked to come in as a writer, so initially I wasn’t expected to be the featured artist, so I thought ‘Whatever, it’s a bit of fun, a little summery dance tune, we’ll spend a day in the studio and I’ll write a few lyrics’. I’d been told that somebody else was going to be singing it so I listened to some of their music, listened to the lyrics and thought ‘OK, this will fit the bill’. I wrote it, I demo-ed up the vocal, I sent it through, we tweaked it a little bit and I thought ‘Brilliant, he’s really happy with it, great, I might get a bit of publishing [royalties] from this’. And then the label called me and they said ‘Jonas really loves your vocal on it, he wants you to be the featured artist’. My initial response was that I wanted to run out of the building. But these days it’s so difficult for artists to get their head above the noise, there are so many amazingly talented people out there, so after giving it a bit of thought I realised the only thing that was stopping me from doing that track, that could open many doors, was my own ego.

“So I thought in the name of freedom let’s do it, the worst case scenario my fans hate me for it and it doesn’t do anything; the best case scenario it does really well and my fans are cool with it, which turned out to be the case. I think everyone was happy that I’d finally got a little bit of recognition.”

I think when the album’s out the way that I arrive is when people really invest their time into that record, when they listen and like it, like we did when we bought a record.

J P Cooper

His next release, September Song, clocked up tens of millions of streams, making Cooper a star in his own right. Despite that, he says: “I’m the kind of person for whom these things never sink in. Since signing a record deal, signing a publishing deal, it’s really strange. Obviously the Jonas Blue thing happened but that wasn’t my record, so [when September Song made the top ten] I was over the moon. Even now I’m in a good position but the way the music industry is it’s a fickle set-up, there are five per cent of people who constantly dominate the chart and everybody else is trying to get in there. Albums are definitely dying as far as the mainstream is going, a lot of artists aren’t putting out albums any more, so these are interesting times to be releasing music.

“So as far as have I arrived? I think when the album’s out the way that I arrive is when people really invest their time into that record, when they listen and like it, like we did when we bought a record. Hopefully this is an album that people will grow to like the music on it. I guess the arrival is more arriving in people’s hearts, when they say ‘You’re the soundtrack of my life, I really enjoyed it, I want more of this’, that’ll be my arrival. I don’t think one single is quite ‘I’ve arrived’.”

Raised Under Grey Skies is out on October 6. J P Cooper plays at Leeds University Stylus on October 13.