Feature/Interview

Reuben James (New Single ‘Closer’ and Nordoff Robbins’ ‘We Are Listening’)

Pianist Reuben James has a new single Closer – featuring Sophie Faith, Prince and Carrtoons – out today, 4 June 2021. A summer mixtape BBQ Energy is coming soon. He has also been working with Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity to support their work. Interview by Mark McKergow

LondonJazz News: How do you describe yourself these days?

Reuben James: First and foremost as a music lover, musician, pianist, producer, singer, songwriter and overall a very excited person! I’m very happy to make the best music possible.  I’m adding more strings to my bow – I was a pianist coming up, but I felt that in order to tell my story and connect to my music it would be nice to add lyrics and start singing – I’ve always sung. I love the production side, marrying the worlds of jazz, R&B, hip-hop – it’s never just been jazz. Although I’d love to do a piano album one day.

LJN: Listening to your Slow Down EP from 2020, you’re collaborating with a lot of people at the moment…

RJ: I’m not a very selfish person, it doesn’t have to be just Reuben James even though I can produce and play drums and bass and keys and guitar, it would be way cooler if I got all the best musicians in the world instead. That’s the beauty of having such a network built while I’ve been travelling around the world.  For most of those musicians it’s a very social thing and it’s all about collaboration, it’s what I thrive off.

LJN: Who have you particularly enjoyed collaborating with?

RJ: I’ve done a couple with (trumpeter) Keyon Harrold which have been really exciting, (US saxophonist) Braxton Cook, some amazing vocalists like Vula Malinga.  My friend Tom Ford from Birmingham – it’s like a little collective.  And I’m producing more these days too, my own stuff as well as working with other people from overseas, working remotely. I’m always open to finding new people to make new music… they’ve got to be good though! I produced the title track on Sinead Harnett’s new album Ready Is Always Too Late which has just come out. I’m still collaborating with Sam Smith too, writing music together, and I’ve been working with (English electronica duo) HONNE as well – they are killing it in Asia right now. Lots of artists have been coming to my studio to make music, which is probably why I haven’t put out much of my own music lately.

LJN: You have a mixtape coming out soon?

RJ: Yes, no date as yet but it’s going to be this summer. It’s something between an EP and an album, called BBQ Energy. It’s a load of ideas, a mix-and-match of my latest music and collaborations. 

LJN: And the single?

RJ: Closer is dropping on June 4th 2021, with New York producer Carrtoons, Sophie Faith who’s an amazing singer, and frequent collaborator Jay Prince is rapping.  I’m really excited about it.

Reuben James. Publicity photo supplied

LJN: You’ve also been working with Nordoff Robbins…

RJ: Yes, they’re an amazing charity, an incredible cause, it’s such a privilege to be associated with these guys, they’re doing wonderful music therapy work.  We did a show for them at Lafayette, a new venue in Kings Cross London. I put together a 10 piece band and even though it was virtual, we set it on fire! I was standing on the piano, it was like a movie.  The show was
streamed as part of their ‘We Are Listening’ series to raise money and awareness of the charity’s core values.  Music really does heal people, and it can be such an escape – it was for me! I am very proud to be associated with them.

LJN: Tell us your story, where the musc came from…

RJ: I’m a Brummie, an Aston Villa fan, I love my chips and mushy peas, Peaky Blinders… I live in London now. I started with music at school, violin and piano and recorder. I realised that something was up when everyone else was looking at the paper and I was just thinking in my head! There was one moment where the teacher was trying to roast me a bit because I didn’t have any music, and I played the whole piece without music.  She took it as a bit of an insult, because everyone started laughing. It got me into deep trouble.

The violin was a deep passion back then. I was always leaving it on the bus on the way to school. My dad used to be a bus driver and we’d go to the depot every day to get my violin back.  I think that was a sign that I really wanted to play piano!

When I was about 16 I started playing with Birmingham legend Ruby Turner, then with the late great Abram Wilson, then I moved down to London when I was 18, played at Ronnie Scott’s, met Sam Smith and we went travelling the world for about seven years doing the Oscars, the Grammys, all that jazz. Now it’s the chapter of my life when I get to put my own music out and hopefully people like it.

LJN: You got the gig to reopen Ronnie Scott’s after the lockdown…

RJ: Yes – I somehow got the nod from the gods.  They must have wanted to come back with a bang, so they invited me! Sold out, to a limited capacity audience, it was a big party, and I was performing brand new music as well as material from the last two EPs. Sam Smith came down, it was very sensibly distanced and at the same time everyone was loose and dancing.  Reuben’s bringing live music back in London!   

LJN: What’s coming up next for you?

RJ: I’m getting married to Vanessa very soon. I’ve got to finish this mixtape, my manager is on my back about it. Then I have residencies starting at The Ned and Annabel’s, and I’m planning a tour for the end of the year – lots to look forward to, lots of music to release.  I want to get back to doing shows and entertaining the people. All the details will be online on my website – lnk below – , and people can order my music there too.  And I’ve been working on my piano – woodshedding Bach! I’m working on the Preludes at the moment, I’ve been learning to read music since lockdown so that’s a new thing for me.

Reuben James’ new single Closer is released today, Friday 4 June 2021.

LINKS: Nordoff Robbins’ We Are Listening series (including Reuben standing on the piano) runs until Monday 21 June 2021.

Reuben James’ website

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