INTERVIEW – James McVey of The Vamps Chats About Mental Health and Solo Music

Guitarist of The Vamps, James McVey, has recently released his first solo single “Dancing On The Head Of A Needle” – and he’s just about ready to release even more!

After being in a band for over ten years, James has had the time to self-reflect and put aspects of his life into perspective. Whether that be his own mental health, the industry that he has found himself in, his relationships, his marriage and so on. In his new collection of solo music, he puts into words all those emotions and creates stunning music that is purely raw and relatable. “Dancing On The Head Of A Needle” is only a snippet of what’s to come.

In this interview, James opens up about his struggles about mental health and how it has inspired him to create the songs that he has been working on outside of The Vamps. Fear not though Vamps fans, he reassures that the band are still here, he is just exploring other routes!

You’ve not long released your 1st solo single “Dancing On The Head Of A Needle.” Can you start by just telling us a bit about it?

Yeah, so “Dancing On The Head Of A Needle” is a song that, bizarrely, with my experience with releasing music and stuff, stuff can happen where you think you’re kind of done with your first song or whatever, and then another song comes along and you’re like “Ah that makes more sense”! There’s things on this EP that I really wanted to explore which I’ve never really done with my writing with The Vamps, with like mental health, in a way that is really, really personal to me, because when you’re in a band and there’s four different personalities, that’s amazing in many ways, but in another way I would feel like, slightly, it would be unfair on the other boys if I was like “Oh, can you sing this song that’s really, really personal to me”, or about me getting married, or whatever!

So, for this EP I really wanted to just be like let’s dive on the whole mental health thing, let’s be completely transparent and emotionally vulnerable. So, I knew the first song that I wanted to release was a mental health song. I was going to be releasing a song that actually ended up being the last song on the EP. But then this song came along. I had the track that I’d made, and I was walking the dog one day, and the words ‘Dancing on the Head of a Needle’ kind of came into my head and I thought that was a really interesting concept.

Actually, when I thought of it, I’d heard of dancing on a pin or whatever, I get that, but I wondered if anyone has ever said needle. I presumed they hadn’t. Turns out there’s a few songs called Dancing on the Head of a Needle! I’m not the first person to come up with it, however I thought that it was a perfect image of how I was feeling in my life at that specific time. That feeling of juggling things, or being like, spinning plates where I can focus on this element of my life, but then I’m sure there are other areas that are hindered by the fact that I wasn’t really addressing certain issues. Basically, it felt like I was having a good time, but actually the reality of that was I was on a precipice of huge dread and spiral if I wasn’t careful.

So, it was a really interesting thing to write about, and because I lost the ability to sing with my voice, I was able to sing retrospectively about a time in October that I went through. Even though I only wrote the song a couple of months ago, a lot of time had passed, and I’d gone through a process of self-reflection to the extent that I was able to look back clearly. And that song, I wrote the lyrics in a day, and that song is an apology to people. That’s not to say that, I don’t hate myself for not addressing it sooner, but it’s that kind of ‘Oh I know I was going through a dark phase’, and I wasn’t there for certain people.

So, this is my song to address that. It’s something that I’ve produced 100% on my own, and I did it in this room. It’s a really nice initial song to put out, there’s nothing too crazy about the production, and I really feel it’s a nice taste of where I want to take the future of my music.

You’ve mentioned about your voice and your vocals and stuff. How’s your recovery been, is it all good now?

Yeah, like again, in this EP the very last lyric of the last song, that no-one’s heard yet, the last line is “This Is Day One”. And I think that’s interesting because even though I’ve been speaking about mental health for ten years, and been aware of it for longer, especially in October I was like “this is day one”. And I think sometimes it’s important to remember that mental health is not necessarily something everyone’s able to sort or solve or rationalise, and for me that’s definitely true.

So, recovery is an interesting word. I drastically stopped smoking weed, which really, really, in hind-sight, was not good for my mental health, and I’m in a much better place now. I’m able to be like ‘every day is a new day’, and I’ve got a much more positive outlook on life. But again, I’ve always said this, just being open about how you feel is really important. Not like preachy, you know. For me in my life, I’ll speak to my wife, or my close friends, The Vamps boys. I just think that’s what helps.

And the EP for me, is almost like me speaking to myself, as well as to other people. It’s been really cathartic for me, and I think creating this EP, a couple of Eps, this body of work I’ve been working on, has really helped me emotionally for sure.

That’s good. So, you’ve mentioned there’s more to come, there’s an EP coming, and you’ve obviously got that second single “Blood and Bones” coming out. What would you say has been your favourite lyric that you’ve written from this?

That’s really hard! I think it’s important to say that for me, lyricism is something that I was really, really adamant on focussing on, so maybe musically, the songs aren’t the most complex things. The chord structures are relatively safe, which I like, that’s what I gravitate towards as a songwriter, but lyrically I really try to push it.

On my second song ‘Blood and Bones’ – I’m trying to think because every time I think of favourite lyrics it’s like fucking depths of depression! Yeah, second song, ‘Blood and Bones’, “If I could paint, there would be no colour, no shade that could discover the rainbow of you”.

I really liked that, and I think sometimes it’s important to sing about nice things! (Laughs!) So yeah, I would probably say that one.

Lovely! It is a good lyric, I like that one! Can you maybe describe your writing process for us, if you have one?

Yeah, I mean, typically, before losing my voice, it was a case of singing with my guitar until I find chords that start speaking to me, and then I’ll start mumbling, and then I’ll try and find a word. Normally with me, it’s like (hums/mumbles!) and then I’ll say a word, and it can be anything, like mmmm photograph! ‘Photograph, how we laugh’, you know what I mean? And then I’ll start rhyming. It’s how it always used to happen, and it still does now I’ve got my voice back, but when I couldn’t sing for three or four months it was weird where I’d made all of the music for the tracks here, then I’d recorded the guitar, strings and whatever, and then I would go and walk the dog, and I’d be like ‘Ok if I could sing, what would I say? What feelings am I getting from hearing these chords?’ And I was almost listening to my music, or the recordings of the instruments, just like any other person. How would I feel if I was hearing this for the first time? And that’s how Dancing on the Head of a Needle came about. I was like, well I feel these sort of emotions, and then I would explore those areas.

But I think what’s nice about song writing is, I went through, years ago, probably five or six years ago, a period where I didn’t write songs for a year. Didn’t have a guitar at home. I struggled to find inspiration, and it’s come back to me more than ever before now. I don’t know whether it’s turning 30, or ten years of the band and it’s been an opportunity to reflect and appreciate what we’ve done, but I feel like with me, I’ve lived a lot the past few years. Through the pandemic, obviously, getting married, and really trying to travel a lot more with The Vamps boys. It’s just encouraged me, and opened my mind and heart a little bit, to the prospect of new discovery and learning new things.

I think the writing process, it always centres around me playing an instrument and mumbling, but I think that I’m more interested in words and how certain words feel when I hear them, and then the challenge of trying to formulate a whole song around a word that interests me.

Well I don’t know anything about songwriting, but I can imagine it can be quite difficult putting your feelings across for your listeners to understand that as well?

Yeah, for sure, and I think that people have been used to hearing me sing, but as a backing vocalist, or singing songs about different parts of my life, through our lives as The Vamps, being like a little bit younger, and having a really good time.

I don’t think people have really heard a body of work that has meant as much to me as this does, so I’m really excited. This is my language, this is how I put how I feel into words. I think being able to share this through song, is just something I hope people relate to.

It’s been amazing seeing some of the lyrics resonate, even from the first song, with people, so I’m really excited for the whole EP to come out!

I bet! I’m sure your fans are going to love it though. So, the process for writing and recording, is it different to how you would write in the band? What’s the difference, or is there one?

Yeah, well I was going to say that it’s massively different. It is different. I’ve been working with Amy Madge, who is an amazing song writer, and a guy called Alex Stacey, who is helping me with production. But really, it’s been me in this room. I don’t have speakers, which is funny, like the contrast. With The Vamps, we do make a lot of demos ourselves at home, but then we go into a studio often. Historically we’ve been in amazing studios with different producers and bits and pieces, and we’ve been on amazing labels. But I would say nowadays, The Vamps’ creation process is not too dissimilar to what mine is, in respect of like, the other boys produce. They have really good recording set ups. I think because we’ve been very lucky to work with loads of people who know the process, we’ve kind of evolved to appreciate the working environment that we like the most.

The core of it is the four of us boys in a room, with instruments, making music, and that’s kind of what I’m doing. It’s not saying that we won’t work with other people in the future, and that I won’t work with other people as a solo singer/song writer, but I think when you’ve done ten plus years in the industry, you figure out what you enjoy doing. But also, what gets the best out of you. For me, being put in a studio with ten other song writers, I’m quite a shy person, especially in a writing environment, so I struggle to connect with loads of people in a room.

I think The Vamps has got to that point. We love working with the odd person, but really, the magic comes when it’s the four of us making music.

Who would you say are your main musical influences?

I’d say there are two big ones for my music now, for different reasons.

Damien Rice is someone I discovered, probably around the age of eleven or twelve, and I love the simplicity; he’s got this bizarre ability with the production to be both simple and overwhelming, and I find that a really interesting attack on my senses, as a musician. And lyrically he is amazing.

But also, Taylor [Swift], at the other end of the spectrum really. I love the melodies, especially the popier stuff, it’s just fucking genius! But what I’ve taken from Taylor more for my stuff is, again, how colloquial she is with her lyrics. How conversational she can be when she wants to be, and I think that’s really interesting. I feel like often with a lot of Taylors’ stuff you can imagine her saying it, and that makes it a lot more believable and relatable as a listener. Also, I think what I’d love to take from Taylor is how she is able to adapt and evolve. The Vamps definitely took a lot of that inspiration when we were doing earlier albums. So, Damien Rice and Taylor.

Also, Dermott Kennedy I absolutely love, and have done for years. Again, I just love his lyricism. He’s got such visceral songs where you can paint pictures when you listen, and that’s an amazing quality as a song writer that I would love to replicate in my music.

I’m actually glad you brought Taylor Swift up because I really wanted to ask you if you are going to the eras tour?

I’m not! It’s weird, I’ve sort of developed this thing where I don’t really enjoy the thought of being in a stadium full of people. And I’m not saying I have social anxiety, it’s just not my idea of a good time. I’d much rather watch the show on a TV, which sounds really sad! I saw her in Japan, on the Red tour actually, we supported her, but then I think we were in Japan at the same time as she was there, and I saw her in a stadium there, which was amazing, but I think the thought of a big crowd, probably not!

I’m blown away by how she’s able to, she must be coming up to twenty years: how old is she, like thirty-two? So, she’s been doing it a long time! I just find it amazing that she’s able to do the biggest tours of all time at this stage in her career. I think she’s such an inspiration, and amazing as well that, there’s a woman who’s clearly so switched on, just showing and being an inspiration to younger people, and to young girls in particular, how successful you can be.

Yeah, she’s great!

She’s killing it! Honestly, I did get tickets. Not to sound dramatic, but buying those tickets was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had to go through! I hate buying tickets in normal cases, but hers were impossible!

So, you’ve been in The Vamps for eleven years. Why did you think that now was the time to kind of branch out and do a few bits on your own?

I think being thirty is the main thing. I think ten years of The Vamps as well. But actually, I think that I’ve had enough time to really compose what I want to say through music on my own.

The Vamps is really busy doing other things actually, like we’ve been in the studio, and we wanted to do some things next year, and that’s great, and I think we’re at a point now where we’re so close as a four that there’s no, well we hope that there’s not going to be anyone thinking that it’s falling apart and it’s like a power play, or like… I don’t know! It just feels like these songs that I’m releasing now wouldn’t have made sense for me to do at the age of twenty-five, I don’t think. Enough time has gone by that it makes sense. And I’d like to think that the fan base does understand that we love doing The Vamps and we’re still going to do it, it’s just, you know, it’s nice to explore other things as well. Connor is doing The Lunar Year, that’s been really cool, and you know, people thought that The Vamps weren’t falling apart when he did that (laughs), so yeah, I just thought it’s a good time now.

Yeah, you know I think it’s healthy to be honest. I think it’s good that you can all go off and do other things. You’ll probably last longer in my opinion.

So how have you actually found that transition from being in a band with three of your best mates to then being completely by yourself?

We were together last weekend, we’d just done our last summer show actually, until we go to South Africa, but it’s been nice to be releasing. I’ve been doing this music for two years now really, figuring out what I wanted to do, and they’ve been there the whole way. I’ve been sending demos to them all, they’ve been sending demos to me and stuff. So, I don’t really feel like I’m on my own. I don’t feel a contrast between The Vamps and me from like a loneliness perspective, but what I have found an enjoyable and sometimes frustrating challenge is the fact that I decided to not sign a record deal. There were options to do so. I just thought it would be nice to be able to have complete control over everything, whether that’s from a production perspective, or wanting to do gigs, or I don’t know, literally anything! I can do that, there’s no bureaucracy or red tape, so that’s been really hard to get my head around, that I’m actually my own boss in a way. Because with The Vamps there’s four of us who are able to, if someone is struggling in a certain area, then other people can pick up the weight for a little bit and vice versa.

I’ve not been asking people, like my EP cover for example, that I designed myself. If it was The Vamps, it would be a lengthy thing of ‘ok well who likes that? If we change that, maybe we’ll do that’. But with me, I’m just looking in the mirror like ‘is this good James? What do you think?’ (laughs)

So that is the biggest difference, but yeah, it’s been nice at the same time.

That’s good! In terms of genre of music, I guess The Vamps could probably be best described as pop music, and then you’ve got Connor over there doing his pop-punk/pop rock stuff. You’ve been doing, from what I can hear, more like folk-pop. Is there any other genre that you’d ever like to explore?

I don’t know. What I’ve learnt when I’ve just been producing this EP is I really enjoyed trying to figure out how strings work. I think, I’m still not great at it, but I think when I first started the process, I thought ‘oh, every string instrument just plays the same notes’. But actually, now I’m learning that like an orchestra is obviously an assembly of different things playing different parts, so Dancing On The Head Of A Needle is a good example of how, if you actually listen to the strings, they’re sort of doing their own melody. So, I’m not saying I’m going to make a fucking classical album, but I’m interested in that a lot!

So, maybe it will be just like an exploration of production as opposed to genre, but diving in a little bit more into an orchestral instrumentation.

I’d love to do something like slightly more folk, but not necessarily with me singing, whether it’s collaborating with a proper Irish folk singer or something. I think that would be really interesting. I’ve done the odd bit of country over the years, so maybe that too, but I’m kind of loving the singer/song writer acoustic genre at the moment, because that’s what comes more naturally to me.

The orchestra idea is an interesting idea, because you had an orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall, and it sounded amazing!

You’ve also hinted that you will be doing some sort of live show. Sort of similar to what I was saying earlier about writing and recording without your other band mates, how do you feel about being on stage by yourself without them beside you?

I’m quite scared actually!

It’s a funny one, because I’ve been performing for nearly twenty years now. Ten years with The Vamps, and the best part of ten years before, on my own, but I think, because the music I’m making is a lot more stripped back, there’s not really anywhere to hide. I can’t hide behind a massive drum beat or something, it’s just me!

So, we’re doing a show in November. It’s in partnership with a charity.

It’s going to be a really small thing, and I think that’s the best way of playing it. I wanted to do something really small where I know that, hopefully everyone that’s there is a genuine friend or fan, and it’s not like putting on a Wembley arena, and there might be like a few thousand people that don’t know who you are, or really care, or have been dragged along by their partner, or parent or daughter!

So hopefully this is just like an initial thing, it’s just like a test really. It’s a test to myself, because being on my own, I’m going to probably put a few musicians together, but it’s going to be me singing songs that mean a lot to me, on my own, which is a stark contrast to doing a full production Vamps show.

I mean The Vamps music means a hell of a lot to me, but it’s slightly different when it’s about an episode of mental health, or getting married or something. So, I’m excited about it, but really nervous as well.

I’m not surprised. It sounds really intimate!

So, as a band you went on tour last year as part of your ten-year anniversary, and you have been quite busy doing your summer shows.

How do you manage to coordinate your individual projects with your band commitments?

I mean the reality is, I’m a bit of a workaholic with it. If I know that something’s not finished, whether it’s a song that I have, like an idea, I just do it. I’m quite a boring person as well, so normally I’d be doing production from 7am a lot of these days, and I can’t let it go, I have to finish it.

I’ve been lucky as well with The Vamps schedule. Through the summer we had busy weekends, but quite quiet weeks. And I’ve got a bit of time now until the South Africa show to really focus on it.

So yeah, it’s been good!

But again, because this sort of music comes naturally to me, it’s not really felt like I’ve had to carve out time yet. Whether that will change next year, I don’t know, but yeah it’s been alright!

You’ve been in the industry a long time, as we’ve already established. As an artist, what would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face?

The biggest challenge that I’ve had to face is probably accepting the sort of person that I am. That can be something as simple as not feeling like I have to have ten pints and go out until 5am if I don’t want to.

Or something more serious as acknowledging if I’m going through a mental health episode. I think maybe it’s just the nature of being a teenager, or a young adult, when you try to carve the sort of person you think you want to be, or that you think perhaps other people want you to be.

I think for me, it’s taken me a long time, probably only been the last couple of years when I’ve found this equilibrium where, yeah I can do the odd thing that’s a little bit outside my comfort zone, but really I don’t do things to prove myself to other people. I’m very lucky that I’ve got a really solid group of people around me. I think that’s a big thing as well. It’s so important in the music industry to have a group of people that you trust, like a tight circle. There are probably people just outside of the circle that you’re friends with, but that trust thing is so important.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt to do is get people around me that I know are on my side and are there for me, and hopefully they will say that I’m there for them as well.

“Dancing On The Head Of A Needle” is now available to stream via all major streaming platforms, and “Blood and Bones” is due to come out on 22nd September! You can follow James on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok for further updates!

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