Barrelling into the music world as a teenager on the Sydney rock and punk scenes, there's few who can merge charismatic swagger with wistful country rock quite like young-gun raconteur James Van Cooper.
Toying with a gritty edge beneath a potent blend of bluegrass, Americana, country and roots, it's little wonder that Van Cooper has so swiftly found himself captivating audiences and airwaves alike, particularly of late with the recent release of his new album 'Coming Home' and his accompanying tour.
But behind the twangy tunes and rockstar threads, there's more than meets the ear and eye when you meet James in the flesh - from his blistering wit to brutal honesty, there's an old soul charm beyond his years that pairs itself flawlessly with his alt-country tunes. Whether crooning into a mic or frankly recalling early days spent battling depression and addiction, James Van Cooper consistently exudes authentic passion and a healthy touch of sass, and in between touring his brand new release and devouring coffee, The Soundcheck sat down with James in the corner of a dimly lit bar to chat inspiration, collaboration and endeavours in mental health advocacy. Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: So James, you are obviously a man in demand of late - you've quite recently had your album 'Coming Home' released into the world, you're currently in the middle of a run of shows as well...what is it like to finally be at this point?
JAMES VAN COOPER: At this point it's nice because...you spend so long not having an album out when you make an album. You spend so long having it just in a Dropbox or just songs in your head, or just ideas like "oh, I might go on tour this Spring". And then all of a sudden very quickly it becomes absolutes and definites. And all of a sudden it goes from "that could be nice!" to suddenly you're sitting in a bar in the morning doing an interview about the album and the tour. It's really interesting how it goes from not happening to all of a sudden: it's only happening, it's all you're doing in your life.
TIANA: On that note, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you tried to write this album a few times?
JAMES: Yes, this was the third attempt!
TIANA: So along the way you took a trip to the US which by all written recollections seemed to be the catalyst for finishing the album...what was it about going there that kind of cemented things for you?
JAMES: I started writing this album in Europe, I was on tour in Europe last year. And I'd promised some people that I had an album ready to make. And I didn't. That's what we call in the business a "lie" (laughs).
TIANA: Oooh, a technical term!
JAMES: Yes, yes, you wouldn't understand, Tiana (laughs). So I'd told these people that I had an album ready to be made and then I went on tour for six weeks through Europe and the UK. And everyday I'd write songs and all this, and luckily I'd just gone through a breakup, so there was a lot of things to write about (laughs). I went to do it then, and it didn't work out, then I went to make it in Melbourne at one point and that didn't work out. And then finally, my team came to me and said we should go to America, get away. Also, being the fact that I'm not your regular artist, I don't ever want to make the regular "next step" album, I'd never want to just do the next thing, I don't want to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row, you know what I mean?
'PASSING THROUGH' (JAMES VAN COOPER)
TIANA: Now on that same note, I've also read you previously speak about the fact that this was the first time that you actually knew what you wanted your album to sound like...?
JAMES: Yeah, this was the first time I knew who I wanted to sound like, what I wanted to sound like vocally and musically. I'd spent so long working on the songs that finally when it happened I kind of knew what I wanted. And working with Scott Campbell (USA Producer - Alanis Morrisette, No Doubt, Katy Perry) who produced the album, he would let me say my peace first, and be bossy cos you know - I like to chat! And then he would come in and we'd work from there, we'd do his things, and we'd do my things. So, having spent so long thinking about this album, working on the songs...so many different songs! I wrote three different albums! (laughs) Yeah - nightmare!! So to finally go in the studio and do it this year in Los Angeles, it just all worked out. The songs were the right songs, the band was the right band and I was the right version of myself.
TIANA: That's a pretty amazing place to be able to arrive at, especially for someone so young. And from a lyrical perspective, it's no secret you are a pretty spectacular storyteller. And you did mention the whole breakup factor...but are all of your songs autobiographical, or are you a bit of an embellisher with these tales?
JAMES: Well, who wants to hear a boring story?! (laughs) But also, I can't write songs about other people. A girl once asked me which songs were about her, I didn't have the heart to tell her that they were all about me (laughs). Cos in the end they're all about me, I can only write from my own experience and I'm lucky that I've had a lot of experiences in my life. And I continue to have a strange, peculiar and macabre way of living. It's insane! I every week go away somewhere and people clap at me just for showing up. Then I go sit in a quiet room and drink soda water.
pic by Maestro Aki
TIANA: One thing I really wanted to ask you - you have been labelled repeatedly as one of the voices of new alternative country, or country rock. What are your thoughts on that label?
JAMES: I guess people are saying it because of how different I look? I think I look so different, and I sound so different, and I come to this world of country music and all the rest of it from a different place. I went a different highway to get here, I started out playing in punk rock and glam rock bands...in fact, I actively from the age of 15 to 19 tried to be in Motley Crüe. I actively tried to be Nikki Sixx. Look at my dumb haircut! (laughs) So that's where I came from, and then I went to Tamworth wearing skinny black flares and just singlets cos it was warm.
JAMES: (laughs) It was a bold statement. I'd come from a different world, you know? I wear suits onstage that are far too tight, I wear lots of makeup, I wear boots that hurt three days after you wear them. And also the way that I sing and play guitar is very different than a lot of people. I thought I was going to do regular country music. I wanted to be like Little Big Town, or stuff like that. It turns out - I just can't do that. I tried, and it didn't work that way (laughs).
TIANA: It's funny how we often inevitably fall into things we didn't necessary plan...and here you are absolutely killing it! And on the note of killing it as well...
JAMES: "You've killed a man!" (laughs)
TIANA: I thought that was off the record?! (laughs) But your current tour right now I believe marks the first time that you've toured with a full band in quite a while?
JAMES: Yeah a long, long time. It's amazing! It's been so much fun. I basically hired most of my best friends to come along. It's great, for a job I get to go be in a car with my three best friends and then go sing songs that I wrote sitting on a couch. I started out playing in bands, I've played guitar for lots of people and to now finally be able to go have my own band again is so nice. I love doing the solo shows, but I got tired of being sad every night. It's time to go have fun! I'm way too sober to not have fun now.
TIANA: You are currently an ambassador for R U OK day, which does stem from your backstory a tad. Can you talk me through what led to this?
JAMES: I've been an ambassador for R U OK for about a year and a half now and I'm really passionate about all of those things because when I was younger and we'd have those similar sort of events come to my school...I was the kids that we're talking to now. I didn't know how to deal with life on life's terms, I didn't know how to take things on. And I was hurt. I was really hurting. And in school you had your principal or some youth preacher in DC shoes and a polo. That's exactly who you had come to you and say "hey kids, let's rap about the lord! Don't do drugs!". And I wanted to do them more then. I wanted to drink more. So I'm very passionate about maybe the fact that I have this dumb haircut and these tight skinny jeans...maybe kids will listen more?
TIANA: It's more relatable.
JAMES: It is more relatable. And I did all that stuff. I've really done it. Recently. I've really been hurt. I'm more likely to be hurt, I'm not there because I'm better than anyone. I'm there because I'm worse than them. I'm more hurt, more sad, more happy, more moody, all the rest of it. And so that's why I work with R U OK, it's a simple conversation-based project. And a conversation can change a life. A conversation did change my life. Someone said that if I wasn't going to stop living the way I was, I was going to die. I was 18 and I'd lost everything, and it's thanks to that conversation that I'm here.
TIANA: I think it's so important that things like R U OK are in operation, and also that these conversations are ongoing too. A lot of the time, especially when you're younger you don't always know how to talk about those things. But it's so prevalent in the music industry as well, and I frequently and unfortunately come across it being a significant issue facing men in the music world.
JAMES: Most definitely, I think there's that whole thing that you've gotta be a dark, broken, brooding poet if you're a musician. And you don't! You're allowed to have fun. It doesn't have to be all painful. Life can be fun . You're allowed to go eat buffalo wings. Do you wanna go eat buffalo wings? Cancel your day.
TIANA: To slowly wrap things up, you've played your fair share of shows both locally and abroad...but have you got a bucket list band or artist you'd love to tour with one day? Or are you just enjoying the ride?
JAMES: There's so many...in Australia I would love to play with Jimmy Barnes, that'd be really cool. But abroad - Jason Isbell. He's the reason I'm singing these songs, and he'd be amazing. We'd both like sneakers. Actually, I never used to wear sneakers, but then I started to because a doctor said that if I don't stop wearing boots I'll have to have surgery on my feet. Which sounded aggressive, no thank you! So I started buying sneakers, and now I can't stop!
TIANA: They are extremely addictive!
JAMES: They are addictive. We say that as we both sit here wearing boots (laughs).
TIANA: Final question. Your new album is obviously called 'Coming Home'...when you're on the road, what makes you feel most at home?
JAMES: I drink a lot of coffee on the road. I drink a lot of coffee everywhere. And also I'm bringing more friends on the road with me. So, I've got my best friend, he's in my band and we can go hang out and be normal. And also, I'm an elite athlete, so I've stared to run on the road (laughs). I like to take vitamins and run. The punk in me wants to beat me up. The kid who used to play songs about tattoos wants to beat this me up.
TIANA: But how amazing to have been able to have this evolution!
JAMES: Evolution is good, you can't just stay. I mean, you're obviously very, very young. So when you were 18...
TIANA: Ahh...yep. Yesterday...
JAMES: Yeah, last week when you were 18 and who you are now...if you were that person, I don't know about you, but that 18 year-old me was a bad person. This guy got banned from Frankies, you know how hard that is?! You can do anything there.
TIANA: That's almost impressive by the degree of difficulty, but a testament to who you are now and how far you've come. And I'm very excited to see where you're headed next..
JAMES: Thank you so much Tiana!
JAMES VAN COOPER'S NEW ALBUM 'COMING HOME' IS OUT NOW, PLUS YOU CAN CATCH HIM LIVE IN ACTION OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS. FOR TOUR INFO AND MORE, HEAD TO:
JAMES VAN COOPER:
BY TIANA SPETER