What’s the point in life if you’re not prepared to roll the dice from time to time, to take a leap of faith? There were plenty of reasons for James Mathé, the unforgettable voice behind London’s Barbarossa, to keep the course after the release of his acclaimed debut album, Chemical Campfires in 2008 on Fence Records: a flourishing reputation as one of Britain’s most intrepid acoustic troubadours, a prominent spot in Johnny Flynn and Jose Gonzales’ backing bands, the roar of applause from the audience at a sold-out show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom still ringing in his ears. But Mathé had other ideas.
“I loved the acoustic scene, but knew it was not all I was about,” remembers Mathé, recently seen on tour with indie favourites Polica and Junip. “So I dug out all my old Casiotone keyboards, drum machines and analogue synths and just started writing.” The result is one of the most exciting reinventions of 2013, rewiring his sensitive, tender missives from young adulthood into big elegiac electro anthems, tinted with huge spectral gasps of reverb, slow jam drum samples and searing organ melodies. Call his new direction a gamble, call it what you want – critics are calling it “skewed but wonderful pop… inspiring” (The Line of Best Fit) and “the perfect soundtrack to gazing out of a rain-stained window wondering why she hasn’t called you back after you left three thousand voicemails” (Noisey).
If there’s a gloriously loose, tenebrous feel to songs like ‘Pagliacco’ and the pizzicato synth-lined ‘Turbine’, it might have something to do with the Londoner’s organic approach to songwriting. “I just sit down with my dictaphone and make sense of what comes out afterwards. The best stuff usually comes when I am hungover or not really thinking. The minute I try to be clever with words, it just sounds shit,” Mathé laughs. Instead, the lyrics at the heart of new single ‘The Load’ burn with a simple, simmering poignancy: “I would never take this for granted, I am forever in your hands,” coos its enigmatic chorus.
Recently signed to iconic London label Memphis Industries (Field Music, POLIÇA, The Go! Team, Dutch Uncles), Mathé is inspired by everything from the ’70s soul men Stevie Wonder and Levon Helm to Dirty Projectors and D’Angelo (“his grooves are amazing, so simple and tight,”) but claims it was Jack White who shaped the gritty, evocative sound that belies his new material. “I read an interview with him talking about the process of recording totally analogue and decided I just had to make this record this way,” he explains. “I have always been obsessed with vintage analogue gear and really fancied getting back to basics. I was tired of trying to iron out all the mistakes in modern production. I wanted to record live to tape, keeping all the mistakes in, warts and all.”
Tender and triumphant, Mathé is emerging as one of Britain’s most versatile and adventurous songwriting talents. Some gambles, it seems, are destined to pay off.