Jamie T: Wimbledon calling
Jamie T is influenced by the Clash and the sounds of London but his songs resonate right across the UK, says Chris Mugan
Friday 26 January 2007
If you believe The Rough Guide to Britain, Aberdonians joke that their Winter Gardens are popular because a visit to them saves on heating bills, but this can't explain why 200 music fans have packed the One Up record shop to hear a Londoner who is barely distinguishable from themselves.
With his unruly shock of hair and blue hoodie, Jamie T blends in with the local gelled-hair casuals and scruffy art students. The Wimbledon troubadour is ready to oblige, signing records and posing for camera phones long after his session was due to finish.
You would hardly believe that Jamie's tour bus had been trapped in snow storms to the south of Scotland and he has had no time to rest after soundchecking for the opening night of his current tour.
His instore gig, meanwhile, is a throwback to the 21-year-old's beginnings as a solo artist in the pubs of south-west London. His tales of rubbish New Year's Eves and falling asleep on the Underground had resonance there, but how do such stories translate so well to Scotland, given how his music and vocal style have such a sense of place?
Some commentators have hailed him as the definitive sound of the suburbs, in the manner of Woking's Paul Weller. But Jamie muses there is little difference between kids from the Highlands and south of the Thames.
"I haven't connected myself with Wimbledon, everyone else has picked up on it. I don't mind where I live, and music isn't made to be confined. Sometimes I listen to stuff because I don't know what people are talking about."
Having said that, Jamie is keen to point out that despite its connection with tennis, Wimbledon is not as suburban as people have made out.
"I don't have this alienation thing that a lot of kids do. I'm only 15 minutes from Waterloo, so I'm lucky in that way to be able to go out to the suburbs or into the city. I feel an affiliation with the suburbs because I know kids from there and I had it a lot better than they did, all the boredom and that."
It was in nearby Putney, though, that Jamie was most fond of going out. As an underage drinker, he and his mates befriended bar staff to gain entry, and its pubs have provided a rich source of characters for his songs, especially minor hit "Sheila".
"I've changed names and mixed people together to make them more interesting, but they are all things that have gone on. When I was writing songs, I didn't think this album is going to be true and from the heart. It is just a mix of things I thought were funny - or not funny at all."
In the song, Georgina dies from an overdose, possibly with drugs bought from a dealer known as "smack Jack the cracker man".
"He is part of a gang and decides they are really honest with him, but he doesn't realise they are high off their faces and everyone's true when they're like that," Jamie explains. "He doesn't realise they're leading him down a trail of dishonesty."
It is less a moralising tale, more a lesson learnt at some personal cost. He had his fun in a few packed, precocious years and is keen to draw inspiration from them, something he reveals as the anecdote proceeds.
"That's what's intriguing about drugs. You do your first pill and you think it's the best thing in the world, because you can talk to people, but it's not real. Some people can use the experience, but others can't."
Jamie has an ear for capturing shiny nuggets of conversation, such as "I ain't no abacus, but you can count on me" from album track "Operation". It suggests he is one of life's listeners, preferring to stand in the corner and watch the mayhem unfold around him.
"Depends on my mood, really. I tend to get quiet sometimes, but that's normally after I've been loud and had my fun."
Jamie writes lyrics every day, not whole songs, mind, but one- or two-line fragments that somehow coalesce into a slightly more meaningful whole, something that makes the album hard to follow.
"Being crap with music, everything's in the same key, so you can fit them all at the end. "Sheila" was three different parts put together, with the bit on Georgina something I'd had for ages. I wrote them all round the same period, when I was in Putney, so there is some connection." Elsewhere, he loses himself in a stream-of-consciousness writing style similar to freestyle rap, most notably on debut album Panic Prevention's epic closing track, "Alicia Quays', so named because he originally attempted to copy a piano part used by the R 'n' B star with a similar name.
"A lot of things have been freestyled and then rewritten, though for that track we went into the studio a little worse for wear and just ran it for 25 minutes. We had to cut a few verses out in the end [down to six-and-a-half minutes]. I've always got little lines going on in my head, so it's not quite off the cuff."
Rather than hip-hop artists, Jamie was inspired to freestyle by Tim Armstrong, vocalist in US 1990s punk revivalists Rancid. Through that scene, he was turned on to the the Clash, the Specials and the classic reggae of Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, from which he picked up some exotic turns of phrase ("a fickle way to tickle on a young man's ting", again, from "Sheila"). Nothing to be ashamed of, he shrugs, in his own south London idiom.
"I didn't know I was doing it, until a journalist said: 'You're singing in patois.' I mean, what's patois? I've watched The Harder They Come and I didn't understand a word of it. I have a bit of swing on certain words, because I'm influenced by what I hear."
Nowadays, he is excited by the compelling narratives of New York's Russian émigrée Regina Spektor, though as a teenager he picked up first the drumsticks and then bass guitar to emulate his punk heroes in school-age bands that barely lasted for a handful of rehearsals; but he made firm friendships with musicians who formed his new band and set the course for his own style. "I wanted to play the guitar, but found it too hard with the extra strings," he says. "I was hanging out in Putney and went to the acoustic nights because I liked a bit of quiet and it doesn't matter if you go on your own."
After a month, Jamie found the courage to perform solo himself, albeit with an electric bass rather than the more usual six-string guitar. From Putney, Jamie went on to play round London. It was only when he met folky indie outfit Larrikin Love that he came across the instrument he is most identified with, the acoustic four-string.
Now he performs with a backing band to fill out his home studio sound, but on Panic you can still hear glimpses of his solo roots in opening track "Brand New Bass Guitar" and "Back In The Game", so intimate it could have been recorded in the bathroom. From performing solo, it was an easy step to DIY recording. His current home studio, in a house he shares with his brother, is seen in all its messy glory on the album cover.
Jamie had kept a four-track system from his band days aged 15. With inheritance money from a distant relative, he could buy a computer and some basic studio software.
"I just wanted to make music that sounded slightly like things I liked, not because I wanted other people to listen to them. By that time, I was very into the Clash and all these other influences would come and go, so I would be happy staying in my room making a synth sound like Scratch Perry."
It is intriguing to imagine Jamie working a few roads away from the producers of a vibrant UK garage scene. I wonder if he picked up some tips from them, but Jamie only admits a fondness for drum and bass. You can hear echoes of this in the trip-hop bounce of "So Lonely Was The Ballad" and the more propulsive "Ike & Tina".
Just as the Clash were attuned to the sounds of London's melting pot, so Jamie opens his ears widely, perhaps even to primitive rock 'n' roll. Could his album's opener pay tribute to his heroes' cover of "Brand New Cadillac"? Is the reference to the United Nations on "Operation" a tribute to Eddie Cochran? And why name his band the Pacemakers after Gerry Marsden's group? Jamie rolls his eyes in exasperation. "Isn't he dead? Someone told me he was, but then another guy told me the other day: 'Actually, he might be alive', and I thought: 'Here we go', but that's not why I chose the name."
With a growing reputation on London's indie circuit, Jamie was encouraged to make his own mixtapes, a combination of his own songs and tracks by favourite artists. He set up his own club night at the tiny 12 Bar Club, where A&R men flocked and the singer was able to find a sympathetic label. Jamie called his club night Panic Prevention, named after a self-help CD given to him by his mum. Sampled on the album, it hints that his journey was not entirely smooth, as high living at a young age came at a cost.
"It was high anxiety rather than panic attacks," he admits. "I got agoraphobic and ended up in hospital after I had an attack in the street. I have this thing nowadays where I get overanxious and complicate things, but it's all in your mind and you can calm yourself down."
Past emotional problems don't prevent him from wooing an exuberant Aberdeen crowd, as he and the Pacemakers speed up the tempo and give his songs more punk edge. The Jamie T bandwagon is off to a flying start.
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