A thought strikes you when you meet Mitch James for the very first time: this is a man who would probably have a beer with anybody.
The everyman character that’s supported his stellar singer-songwriter career for almost a decade now becomes less persona and more person. Some artists don’t match your vision of them through their songs, but James is definitely the person who wrote, “Pulling smoke into our lungs / Oh lord, take me back to 21”.
“The fact I’m doing a headline world tour and selling out gigs in Europe is just fucking bonkers,” he says on a Zoom call from Auckland. Because James doesn’t really have time to be grabbing a beer: he’s embarking on his first-ever headline world tour, which will see the musician perform 50 shows across 15 countries.
It’s also been a long time since he’s done this properly, with his last headline tour coming four years ago. It would be enough to worry the most seasoned of touring musicians.
“I was pretty scared, to be honest, to announce these shows and see if people were still fucking with me,” James confides, but he needn’t have worried. “It’s looking like we’ll sell out most of these dates, so it’s pretty humbling. The fans have stuck around and been loyal to me, so I’m very grateful for it.”
It helps that James has technically done this before, supporting English pop star Calum Scott on his global tour last year. “I got the call-up basically two weeks before it, so it was a real baptism of fire,” he says with a shake of the head. “I went all the way from Estonia to South Africa! By the end of it I was fucking knackered.”
What the hell is an Estonian crowd like? “They’re not exactly ravers,” James says diplomatically. “I think I won them over by the end.”
A far-flung Baltic nation wasn’t the only surprising spot that James discovered he had fans. “The Philippines was a major one for me,” he says. “I’d got there and one of my songs was number three on the AirPlay charts. I’d never been to the Philippines before!”
But world tours are never plain sailing, and South Africa presented myriad problems for the singer-songwriter when he supported Scott. “I spent more time flying to and from South Africa than I did in South Africa,” he laughs. “It was just crazy bro.”
His performance in Cape Town was plagued by technical issues that required an unexpected solution. “There was a massive crowd – it was like 5,000-10,000 people – and it was just me and my guitar. The cables weren’t working and I had to basically do a stand-up set to win them over!”
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It’s not a disservice to say that James probably shouldn’t be in the position to do a solo world tour. He has just two top 20 albums in New Zealand; in another decade, another life, he would be performing to small-but-generous crowds around his home country, his music not really reaching elsewhere.
It’s a fact James readily admits to himself. “I think you see the impact that platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have – what you lose in CD sales you’re getting in exposure to crowds that you know you could have never got in front of before,” he says. James playing to full houses in Europe, having songs sung word-for-word back to him in Asia, is proof of the globalisation – and democratisation – of music, and it suits him perfectly. “The dream for me growing up was to be a touring musician and get to play around the world,” he adds.
How has he been preparing for his mammoth tour? James openly admits that he wouldn’t be as well-prepared if it wasn’t for the help of Scott. “Cal and I have a special relationship. He shows up every single night and gives 100%. I’ve definitely taken a leaf out of his book. It’s always good to be a true professional at work.”
Scott’s example led James to invest in a vocal coach for the first time. “It’s very unlike me because I’d usually drink beers and fucking shout,” he says. “I would have gotten too drunk in Dublin or Glasgow or something.”
James will return to Australia as part of his world tour, and he couldn’t be more excited about the prospect. “They were respectful, a switched-on music crowd,” he recalls fondly of his last time performing Down Under. “They understood that they needed to be a little quieter to understand what was going on onstage.”
His tour is in support of his second album, Patience, which placed 13th on the New Zealand Albums Chart late last year. A few months after its release, he became an independent artist. When I ask what happened with his former label, his tone lowers a little.
“There was so much frustration butting heads trying to get music out and not being allowed to release it and then COVID coming,” he says. “The second album is such a big deal and there was such high expectation and quality control (from the label).
“I’ve always been a prolific as fuck songwriter, so not being able to release music for four years crushed my artistic soul a little bit. I didn’t care how polished it sounded, I just wanted to get out my fucking music and my thoughts. I was just glad I got through the process and got it out.”
Perhaps the world tour is a confidence boost, but James appears enlivened by being independent. “I have the financial freedom to release independently, which is half the battle with labels. Now knowing that I can release whenever I want is really invigorating.” Not that he’s turned his back on major label life for good. “I would work with the right team again, if that ever came across my desk,” he adds, flashing a grin.
Being independent also means he now has more control over his own sound, something he thinks fans will soon appreciate. “I went over to LA earlier this year and worked on some stripped back songwriter stuff, very much like the first album,” he explains. “It’s back to my passionate songwriter roots.
“I would assume that most of my fans liked the rawness of the first album. Most of those songs are just guitar work with a few basic production elements to help get it there, but with my second album, I tried to evolve and try something a bit different sonically.”
I ask what he’s got planned for when the tour finishes. “I’m not going to pick up a guitar for at least a couple of months!” he quickly answers. “I’ve got to give myself two, maybe three months, and then I’ll start writing again.” He can’t give too many details away right now, but he adds that he has a new project ready for release this year.
And he already has a plan laid out for further down the line after his well-earned rest. “I think I’ll give myself another good three or four years of really fucking giving it a go, and if by the end of it I’m not where I want to be then so be it,” he insists.
Our Zoom call is about to come to an end – James has to start preparing for the first shows on the tour – but he has one last thing to say: “Let’s grab a beer sometime, in Sydney or Auckland.”
Mitch James 2023 Australia and New Zealand Tour
Friday 9 June
The Whalers Hotel | Warrnambool, VIC
Saturday 10 June
The Workers Club | Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 11 June
HABA | Rye, VIC
Wednesday 14 June
La La La’s | Wollongong, NSW
Thursday 15 June
The Lansdowne | Sydney, NSW
Friday 16 June
The Cambridge Hotel | Newcastle, NSW
Saturday 17 June
The Northern | Byron Bay, NSW
Monday 19 June
The Brightside | Brisbane, QLD
Fri 23 June
Clarence Street Theatre | Hamilton
Sat 24 June
Leigh Sawmill | Leigh
Tue 27 June
Athenaeum Theatre | Arrowtown
Thu 29 June
Glenroy Auditorium | Dunedin
Sat 1 July
James Hay Theatre | Christchurch
Sun 2 July
Regent Theatre | Greymouth
Mon 3 July
Theatre Royal | Nelson
Wed 5 July
TSB Showplace | New Plymouth
Fri 7 July
Meow | Wellington
Sat 8 July
Toi Toi | Hastings
Mon 10 July
War Memorial Theatre | Gisborne
Wed 12 July
Baycourt Theatre | Tauranga
Sat 15 July
Powerstation | Auckland