Introducing Reuben James.
Hailing from Birmingham, UK,
and for the first time international, coast to coast.
It’s time to get emotional…
And with this opening salvo, Reuben James, one of the UK’s brightest R&B stars ushers you into his private world to experience the velvety smooth soundscape of his debut album, Champagne Kisses, a sumptuous soulful record that pulls you into a smoky jazz club from a bygone era and asks you to stay for a while.
James will act as your gracious host as he navigates you through his catalogue of musical influences from virtuoso pianists like Oscar Petersen and Donny Hathaway, to the Motown groove of Stevie Wonder, and D’Angelo’s idiosyncratic soul. This gorgeous melange artfully combines the singer-songwriter’s gift for slick piano arrangements and complex instrumentation, with the keen eye of New York-based producer CARRTOONS who has infused the album’s old-school heart with a contemporary edge. If you’ve enjoyed the works of NxWorries, Masego, or Tom Misch, you’ll find yourself right at home here.
Sitting across from James at AP House, the Mayfair outpost of watch brand Audemars Piguet, he smiles as I offer my congratulations on the new album. It’s pretty darn great, I say. “I’m just out here trying to make good music, music that I love with amazing harmony that bangs, and has that hiphop feel on speakers,” the man of the moment tells me in that warm self-effacing tone that appears to come naturally to the talented.
It all seems so simple in those terms: stay true to yourself and the music will flow, but it’s a lesson that the artist has had to learn the long way around through ten years of hard work in the studio and on tour as a session musician for household names like Joni Mitchell, Disclosure, Nile Rodgers, Marcus Mumford, and Sam Smith.
I’m just out here trying to make good music… music that bangs
Now, it’s his time to shine, but stepping out into the limelight can seem blinding at first: “I can do any genre to a high level, but that can become a problem when you’re making your own music, because it’s like, well, what’s my music supposed to sound like?” he says.
“Obviously being a songwriter and a session musician for so long gave me the tools to build my own sound, but a lot of the time I wasn’t really sure what my sound was. I was such a chameleon, I could do country music, but then I could easily slip into my work with Disclosure. There has never been a clear vision in terms of the sound I wanted to create.” The one thing the artist has always known is that music is all he’s ever wanted to do. Plan or no plan, he was always going to dedicate himself to his first love.
Reuben James Butler first took up the piano at the ripe old age of three – messing around on the keys before his feet could even reach the pedals from the stool. Two years later, he was copying his elder sister – nine years his senior – in playing the violin. Music made James happy and, coupled with the soundtrack of his parents’ favourite tunes, it was never far from his ears.
The family would take long road trips through Europe in an old Ford Escort and pass the time listening to “this whole melting pot of music” from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan to the joyous Cuban group Buena Vista Social Club. But it was the discovery of his father’s jazz vinyls that would turn an adolescent James into a complete obsessive.
“I remember when I started to show an interest in jazz he said, ‘Oh, you should check my collection out.’ He pulls out all these crazy vinyls and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t you show me this before?’ He just said, ‘You weren’t ready.’ And that was that, I went deep, deep into the world of jazz.”
Not long after, at the age of 14, the youngster was performing at free jazz nights in the foyer of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, laser-set on the path to being a musician; one from which he has never deviated.
James is a phenom on the piano, speaking loquaciously to his audience through the dancing of his fingers. For all intents and purposes, you would assume that he was a prodigy – not so, according to the man himself. “I think it’s very easy for everyone that knows me now to be like, ‘Oh, you were just born with it,’ but that wasn’t the case. I started going to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Saturday school – it’s basically a jazz degree for kids – and I was the worst musician there. Seriously, I was really rubbish. But that’s what kicked me up the bum to really strive for it, because I knew what I liked and I knew what I wanted to sound like, and I knew I just couldn’t do it yet.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about putting the hours in. I obviously had a natural flair and joy and passion, but I wasn’t talented. That just came from eight hours a day practising every day for years and years. But I just put the time in and then your personality comes through from learning the technique.”
James was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College of Music at the age of 18, but the young musician’s life would be inexorably changed when he met an up-and-coming artist in need of a pianist for his next tour. It was a percentage call, but James had a “gut feeling” about his potential employer and, much to his mother’s chagrin, he jumped both feet first into his professional career. Approximately 40 million albums, 250 million singles worldwide and more than 45 billion career streams, and I think it would be fair to say James backed the right horse in trusting in Sam Smith. You might have heard of him.
In the decade that followed, James toured with Smith for seven years and another few years building an impressive credits list as a session musician: “I was the paid assassin, the cold killer that came in for one take. Taylor Swift in one hour, play the keys, done, in and out, and you wake up one day and it’s a hit.”
He’s never forgotten the advice of his early mentor Mike Williams to “always surround yourself with musicians that are better than you” in order to grow. He’s played at the Grammys, opened up for Alicia Keys in Dubai, performed in front of packed stadiums, and been in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion.
I went pling, pling, pling… Six months later I got the call that Stormzy loved it
James tells me the story of how he ended up writing the sombre piano progression for two of Stormy’s tracks on This Is What I Mean: “The two songs are called ‘Please’ and ‘Sampha’s Plea’. My friend Owen Kurtz just called me to do a session and I was kind of going through the motions. We made a few cool ideas for this and that, and then we were wrapping things up when he said, ‘Oh, before you leave I’m seeing Stormzy next week. Can you just play me something really heartbreaking, like ‘Take Me To Church’, just something that someone’s just gonna cry when he hears it?’ I literally just sat down at the piano, he pressed record, I went pling, pling, pling. Six months later I got the call that Stormzy loved it and it was going on the album.”
It’s an experience that James has kept close to his heart ever since. The road to success in the music industry is paved with good musicians, but making it to the top takes more than talent. It takes persistence, patience, and more than a little luck. It’s also about cutting yourself some slack: “You know, I get scared sometimes about even turning up to the studio and I get this anxiety about whether I’ve still got it. Do I even know what I’m doing? What am I gonna play? Is everything just rubbish that I do? But then, you never know, sometimes it’s just about turning up when you really don’t want to and playing something. That could be the song that ends up on Stormzy’s album.”
James’ journey to ‘making it’ as a solo performer has been a circuitous one, to put it mildly, but he knew it was time to make the step. He owed it to himself: “It got to a point where I wanted to be able to play my own music and for people to come and see my show. I’ve done ten years of playing on records, I think it’s my time now.”
Under his own record label, Rufio Records, James has slowly found his voice. He released the EP Adore in 2019, followed that up the next year with EP Slow Down, featuring his biggest hit to date ‘So Cool’ (12m plays on Spotify), and then in 2022 he debuted the 11-song mixtape Tunnel Vision featuring an eclectic collection of singles he’d cooked up over a whirlwind few months. There have been other projects along the way in what has amounted to a period of intense creativity for James, and he’s only getting better with each new release.
With the help of a talented bank of collaborators from across the world, his songs feel fully furnished and meticulously detailed, as you might expect from an experienced studio musician: “I haven’t got this crazy ego, but I need it to be all on me. I want to create the best music possible, so if that means I need the best songwriter and the best singer and the best drummer and the best bass player and the best producer and the best mixer, let’s get the whole team in. Quincy Jones wasn’t his own producer, he had his Avengers. And that’s what I want for my songs. I’m calling in the Avengers.”
It’s Champagne Kisses where James has honed his art into a sound with pronounced mainstream appeal. He’s proud of this one, you can tell, not least because it’s his debut album, but because it’s a sequence of songs that represents the artist he is right now. The man he’s become, you could say.
“Yeah, this one’s special to me,” he admits. “I think my main goal is always to make stuff that I’m proud of, that I love to listen to – that’s got to be number one. But Champagne Kisses, it’s a fun album, it’s funky, it’s a bit more uptempo, a bit groovier. It’s fun.”
He’s a staunch advocate of independent music. I ask if some of his pride is attributed to the fact that he’s achieved this album without the help of a major label behind him. He nods. “There’s a big difference between the music world and the music business, and that’s something I’m trying to get a grasp on,” he says thoughtfully. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to reach as many ears as possible, but that comes with a lot of the politics of the industry, and promotion and marketing and stuff that’s in a different world to the one that I know.”
And the grass isn’t always greener. Losing control of your ownership isn’t a free ticket to the easy life, it’s a cross to bear. Not just from a rights perspective, either, but in the sense that you are not the sole master of your destiny.
“All my music’s very honest and there are no gatekeepers telling me what it should sound like, which I’m glad about. It’s funny… Everyone I know that’s signed, even some really big artists, they’re like, ‘I wish I still owned everything.’ But then plenty of independent artists are miserable because they’ve got no money to do anything. No matter what you’re doing, no one’s ever happy, so I’m just trying to enjoy the ride.”
It’s never been easier to call yourself a musician. With a couple of pieces of software on your computer, a microphone, and the internet, you could be up and running on a streaming site in as much time as it takes you to upload your ‘Hey Ya!’ cover. But to make it in the music industry? It might just be harder than ever for the artists to filter through the noise, the social media content, and the impenetrable industry megalith.
It’s hard enough for James to keep up: “The whole industry has changed multiple times since I started, especially in terms of how people try and monetise themselves. And it’s constantly evolving. You look at even the past two years and TikTok has become a fundamental part of the business – people are falling in love with songs and they only know 20 seconds of it. I grew up listening to entire albums back to front. That’s what I want. I’m out here trying to make real authentic music and build this sound. It’s different gravy.”
If there’s one thing that you can rely on in the music business, it’s the unpredictability of a hit. “I can’t fucking stand that fucking song!” Liam Gallagher once lamented of his Oasis hit ‘Wonderwall’, believing it to be antithetical to the band’s rock’n’roll image. (Ironically, as a solo artist, it remains one of his most played songs. Unlucky, Liam.)
In the case of one Reuben James, his most popular song, ‘So Cool’, was far from a hit with his biggest fan, his wife.
There’s a big difference between the music world and the music business
“No one really liked that song at first. My wife really didn’t like that song, she wasn’t feeling it, and even when it first came out it didn’t really do anything. And then something weird happened. After about a year, it just started picking up and all of a sudden it’s got 12 million streams,” James laughs.
“Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to a song blowing up. You just never know. I wrote that song in about five or 10 minutes with my mates. We were just drunk in Hastings, and it came together really fast. It just goes to show that the less you get in your own way and the more you just have fun and throw ideas down, then it translates on record. People can tell you’re having fun and you’re not overthinking it.”
Not long after ‘So Good’ started to pick up traction, James was hosting a night in aid of the charity War Child at Ronnie Scott’s. He was wailing away on the keys alongside fellow artists Gregory Porter, Marcus Mumford and Brandi Carlile. Unbeknownst to him a certain Dan Compton, UK general manager of Audemars Piguet, was watching in the crowd. He was quite in awe of the talent he saw on stage and by the next morning had sent a message off into the world in the hope of sitting down with James for a chat.
“I actually missed the message and it kind of sat in the ether for about a year,” James tells me sheepishly. (Musicians, eh?) “But eventually they tracked me down and we just immediately started hanging out and becoming like family essentially.”
AP has a rich heritage when it comes to musical affiliations. Indeed, it was the first watch to ever endorse a black musician when it revealed a collaboration with Jay-Z in 2005. AP revealed its first collaborative piece to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the rapper’s career. Since then the watch brand has been frequently cited in hip-hop lyrics, and become something of a cultural touchpoint.
James has found kinship in watches and music in his time associated with the brand: “To support me at the start of my career, like really backing me and giving me a platform, it shows that they really do care about bringing through new artists as well. It’s amazing.
“There was no pressure. The team has come to my shows and they’ve connected me with amazing artists like Dave, Stormzy, and Che Lingo. We’ve also started having conversations about hosting a series of curated music evenings called AP Sessions, which gives artists a great platform to show their stuff. We do cool shit together, what can I say?”
James has found kinship in watches and music in his time associated with the brand – and learned through experience that the two distinct fields, while worlds apart in execution, they share a common goal.
As he explains, “I’ve had the pleasure of going out to Montreal Jazz with AP and going to the factory a couple of times and seeing the craftsmanship, the level of intricacy and hard work that goes into every watch. It’s a serious business. It’s something that should really be cared for and loved and passed down through the generations. I approach my music in exactly the same way. It’s art.”
With the launch of Champagne Kisses, James has found that anxious excitement to release something out into the world has quickly been overtaken by the itch to get back into the studio and start the process again: “At the end of the day, once it’s out, it’s not for me any more. It’s for the people. I’m kind of over it now; I’m already thinking about what’s next. It’s only just come out and I’m already over it – that’s how excited I am to make more good music.”
I mention reading something at university called ‘The Death of the Author’ by Roland Barthes – a literary theory that suggests publishing something is an act of metaphorical death. “Well, I guess I’m dying over and over again,” James smirks at me.
For what it’s worth, he’s certainly alive with new ideas. He mentions the limitations of producing a song digitally and how he’d love to play live on his next record: “I’d love to hire a big studio and create something a bit more organic and live and just groovy. Round up all the best jazz musicians in London and get everyone involved. I think that’s got to be the next album, maybe next year.”
My main goal is to always make stuff that I love to listen to – that’s number one
Has he thought much further into the future? He certainly has. It’ll come as no surprise that he hopes to have quite a few more albums and for more fans to discover his talent. “A couple more APs would be nice too,” he flashes that broad grin again. “But, you know, just to be healthy, to be happy, to be content. I want to still be pushing for new sounds, still creating the best music possible, and just grinding. Maybe living in America who knows? We’ll see, we’ll see.”
Whatever the future holds, it feels like we’re still in the early chapters of a fiercely talented musician’s story.
It’s time to get emotional…