A (recent) history lesson. Talking about his last album, which he released a pacey 18 months after his previous, Jamie Lawson said this:
“The thing is, you don't need to take four years. It took me a long time to get started. And I've got time to make up. I feel like I need to keep making records while the audience is there. I'm making the most of it. In fact, I wrote so many songs for this record, I have enough for another one. So I'm already thinking about that."
He said that – guess what? – four years ago. To be fair, up to that point the Manchester-based singer-songwriter had been hard at it. There were those back-to-back records, Happy Accidents (2017) and The Years In Between (2019). They’d been preceded by Jamie Lawson (2015), his self-titled third album, which entered the UK charts at Number One and gave the world Wasn’t Expecting That. That breakout classic scooped the then-largely-unknown artist the 2016 Ivor Novello for Best Song Musically and Lyrically.
All told, those triumphs were the perfect launch for a new label, Gingerbread Man Records, to which Lawson was the first signing. It was only fitting, then, that the label boss invited him on tour. And so Lawson joined Ed Sheeran for a run round some of the world’s biggest stadiums and arenas. It was the start of a hectic, globe-trotting few years, Lawson’s non-stop touring schedule ultimately informing the making of The Years In Between – it was written and recorded between Nashville, Paris, London and Dublin.
And now, finally, Jamie Lawson is back with glorious new album Little Weaknesses. It’s 14 tracks of concise, emotive, painterly beauty. Only one song crests the four-minute mark, four of them say what they need to say in less than three minutes, six are blessed with strings arranged by multi-genre violinist Isabella Baker, and all of them were crafted in Lawson’s music room in his family residence in Manchester and recorded by producer-collaborator Tim Ross at his home studio in Twickenham.
But, say it again: it’s four years since The Years In Between, which was his third record for Sheeran's Gingerbread Man imprint. What took him so long?
“Yeah, that's a good point!” Lawson answers with a rueful laugh. “In fairness, it wasn't four years ago in normal years! But I would stick to that statement: I don't think it should take four years. The fact that it has taken me four years is another matter. Obviously, we had a pandemic where things couldn't happen.
“But the main thing for me, as is quite obvious across the record, is that we had a boy in 2020. Originally, I had intended to take six months off when he came along. And then the pandemic hit, and I had what felt like three years off.”
Well, he says that… An instinctive, inveterate songwriter to his very core, during the first six months of his son’s life Lawson made two EPs, Moving Images and Talking Pictures, across the first lockdown. He learned how to write and record remotely – and how to run his own career. After The Years In Between meant the completion of his three-album contract with Gingerbread Man’s parent company Warner Music, Lawson struck out on his own, setting up his own label, Not Too Bad. Now he was fully in charge.
“That spirit and idea carried on into this album,” he says of a project that began in July 2022 and that drew from a pool of some 60 songs. “I like to do the singing in my room at home, because I'm just at my own pace. Nobody's watching me, I can hit all the bad notes I want to in trying to find the right one! That definitely helped pave the way for this record.”
That enforced lay-off was beneficial in other ways, too. Fatherhood and the pandemic gave Lawson time to restock and reassess. Performing at Wembley Stadium and Croke Park, playing big tours with Sheeran and James Blunt, are great and all that. But taking his foot off the gas allowed Lawson the time and space to ask himself questions about what he wanted to achieve as an artist and a musician. Certainly as a new dad he couldn’t conceive of leaving his young family to play, perform and promote music that didn’t fulfil him completely and move him wholeheartedly
“Having that time settled me into a style of music that I wanted to make that I wasn't making. Now, I would say this record is not that far away from the others,” he clarifies, lest his 840,000 monthly Spotify listeners think he’s thrown the melodic baby out with the stylistic bathwater. “But it does feel much more cohesive. I remember listening to some playlists, like Lost In The Woods or Fresh Folk, and just thinking: ‘Oh, this is where I should be sitting. This is the music I love. This is the music I get the most out of.’ It's all quite simple, but it's all quite beautiful. And there's proper lyrical content, something going on that makes me think about things. Those are the songs I wanted to write.”
So that's what he did. He paid no heed to the demands of radio playlists, “whereas possibly I had done before, being on Ed's label, feeling a pressure to get airplay. But I could take that away if I'm doing everything myself. So I set out to write songs that might fit alongside those sorts of other songs.”
Not that he hunkered and bunkered completely. A songwriter’s songwriter, Lawson reached out to a select group of collaborators, old and new, to help him fully colour his ideas. Prior to recording, he and Ross pitched up together in a Cotswolds Airbnb, setting themselves the challenge of writing to the “Nashville rules” Lawson had experienced during sessions in Music City: three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, a different song in each.
“I set a task of writing a song in those three hours. Regardless of what state you're in at three hours, you had to move on. And every song bar one was finished in three hours.”
Elsewhere, for Blindsided, a stately strings-and-piano tribute to life-partners, he re-teamed with the brilliant Simon Aldred, aka Cherry Ghost, with whom he’d written Happy Accidents track A Little Mercy. With Jack McManus he created Precious Time over Zoom, a tender ode to making the most of every moment that’s suffused with both mortality and vitality.
Setting the scene and the tone is opening track and first release Napoleon Dynamite. A showcase for Lawson’s tenderest vocal, it’s a capsule classic of 128 seconds, written with young Kent singer-songwriter LAKY, with whom he also duets.
“It’s a great opener, in that you've got this mix of a very folk, Americana-type song, but maybe produced a little bigger than that as it goes along. The lyric is a bit odd for me – “we could go out or stay inside, watch Napoleon Dynamite, I'll be your friend until the end of the night...” It reminds me of those American indie teen films, like Juno, where these songs could really fit. I really love those films, their innocence, the coming of age of those films. This song is like that.”
When It Comes To Love is a Van Morrison-meets-Jack Johnson singalong, a warm, joyful Lawson song for his son.
“I very rarely go into a song thinking I’m going to write about something specifically. I want to react to the music or just see what is in me. And that came out. It's a co-write, with Mark Caplice and Megan O'Neill. Megan's very good at organising things. She can see the steps, the logic of the steps, that I don't always see, which is why I like writing with people that have another element to how they work compared to how I work.
“It's interesting co-writing personal songs like that," he notes, "because you have to be very open. It's a very vulnerable place to be. And if they don't have kids, which neither of them do, they're not going to get that kind of feeling, this difference in you. So you have to deliver.”
In an album that is, overall, playful and positive, Matter To Me is an uplifting stand-out, the product of a session with two younger writers, Kaity Ray and Nina Sundstrom. “They come at music from a different angle to me, maybe it's a generational thing, but they're certainly more in a current pop bent than I am. That's one of the reasons why co-writing is such a brilliant thing. It's going to, again, shift the way you think, shift the way you sing, shift the way you play with words.
“They really run towards and embrace this brightness, which I may have slightly balked at before. But when they're so excited about something you can’t help but jump into it.”
Then there’s the title track, which already feels it’ll be a special singalong moment when Lawson starts touring this autumn.
“That started out as a piano ballad, written over Zoom with Tim. I wanted to write a song where the vocal melody followed the piano line. I’d been listening a lot to a brilliant record called Mid Air by Paul Buchanan,” he says of The Blue Nile man’s 2012 solo album. “It’s a hauntingly beautiful, effortless and gentle record and I wanted to write something similar. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt in songwriting, though, is to follow the song. Sometimes the song just wants to go somewhere else. This was one of those songs. It kept wanting to go faster, and bigger, and faster still, and even bigger, until we arrived here, at the album version.”
From little weaknesses to greatest strengths: this is the album Jamie Lawson needed, wanted, to make, and it certainly didn’t matter how many years it was since his last one. He’s already had crucial validation: a brains-trust of 15 or so friends who are musicians and/or deep music fans helped him crowd-source the final tracklisting from a pool of 20. And one amongst them gave a key seal of approval.
“Ed said it was probably my strongest body of work so far,” he says, declining to reveal any more about a private friendship and musical connection that endure as strongly as ever. Equally, the encouragement of Sheeran is no more important to the completed wonder of Little Weaknesses than the demands of another man.
“I've done bass takes on this record whilst running my son’s bath! I would know I had two goes through a song: I can do two bass takes and then go in, put the cold water in. I definitely did that!” Lawson laughs. “Even 10, 15 minutes, I can do something. Even if it was just listen to a song again. I learned to use that time efficiently.
“Being a dad has definitely made me more aware of how much time there is in which you can get things done. Same with the songwriting and trying to write those songs in three hours. It was a real case of trusting your instincts for what's inside you to come out – and knowing that something good would.”
Snatched inspirations. Instinctive gambles. Little Weaknesses. Mighty songs.
Craig McLean August 2023