Ahead of his Dubai gig, Starsailor's James Walsh on working with Phil Spector, his next solo album and the dangers of falling into the "retro trap".
Starsailor's James Walsh in Dubai
When the lead singer of one of the past decade's biggest bands enters one of London's trendiest cafés, you might expect a brief flurry of excitement.
James Walsh hardly turns a head, however, and clearly has no interest in doing so, as he quietly sits, sips a cola and ponders long-term rock stardom.
"It's easy to fall into the retro trap, just taking cheques for playing your old songs to a willing audience," he whispers. "Don't get me wrong, I can understand why bands do it, it's an honest way of making a living. But if there is a way out of that you've got to be brave and take it, really."
Walsh is - or was - the frontman of Starsailor, a position that remains fluid. The Lancashire quartet who once rivalled Coldplay as Britain's hottest young band are currently on hold as their driving force explores new territories, geographically as well as musically.
On Friday he appears at Dubai's Barasti Beach, having already played in Qatar and India since going solo. His first self-released EP, Live at the Top of the World, was recorded in the Arctic Circle with a northern Norwegian orchestra, and later this year he will tour the UK with the veteran rockers Simple Minds, playing shows in various forests. Walsh now seems determined to do things differently.
"I guess I'd had enough of that feeling where you put everything into this one album, months of work writing songs, just perfecting the vocals and everything," he says, "and it all comes down to that one week, what else is coming out. You've got radio, and if it doesn't perform then you're devastated. The thing I'm doing now is, if the solo album isn't a huge success, I've still got the soundtracks, still got the writing side."
Now married with children, Walsh is taking a more leisurely approach to recording his debut album, while keeping busy as a writer-for-hire. A few days after we met he was due to work with Diana Vickers - a former contestant on the blockbuster UK talent show The X Factor - and is providing music for two movies.
The singer is sworn to a certain amount of secrecy, but several new compositions should feature in a forthcoming adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's 2002 novel Lullaby, while on the British film Powder, he worked as a "voice double", singing his own songs as an actor mimed. For the latter recordings Walsh briefly formed a new band, with members of the younger UK band The Rascals, who, he was delighted to discover, were fans.
"I'm always surprised by how much respect [for Starsailor] some of these people have, as I sometimes get the impression I was part of something that young bands are trying to rail against," he smiles. "I keep meeting people at gigs and it's like 'oh yeah, I love that album'."
They did sell several million of them, in fairness. Starsailor, along with Coldplay, Keane and the like, were among a group of sensitive, literate rock bands famously dismissed as "music for bed-wetters" when they emerged at the turn of the millennium, but who would go on to become unlikely stadium acts. The high point for Walsh was a gig with U2 at a vast Parisian football stadium in 2005, where their single Four to the Floor provided one of the night's biggest singalong moments. "It was number one in France at the time," he recalls.
The band were far from universally loved back in Britain, though, and Walsh's distinctive wobbly vocal style clearly grated on many. Curiously though, as their record sales gradually decreased, their ability to attract big-name guests improved. The Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers both appeared on Starsailor tracks, but the most intriguing collaborator was the legendary producer Phil Spector, whose daughter alerted him to the band. Spector began work on their second album, but the liaison failed to last.
"I persevered longer than anyone because Dion's Born to be with You is one of my favourite albums of all time, and I know he had a hard time with Phil Spector and still came out with this amazing record. I just thought this must be part of a bigger plan, that it's all going to come together eventually, but the people in the band who were less in awe of him just said 'this sounds wrong'. Then the label started to worry about all the money they were putting into this strange album that's not going to get played on radio in a million years."
Starsailor made two further albums, but after 2009's All the Plans, Walsh pressed pause. "I think there's definitely a thing where you get on a bit of a treadmill, and you're moving lower and lower down the festival bills. The writing's on the wall, really. Not that you call it a day, but you take some time away and regroup, let the new ones coming through have their fun for a while."
Walsh is very much a one-man-band at the moment, "just enjoying writing for another purpose than trying to please everyone", but he continues to collaborate if the right person comes along. The renowned singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, for example, whom he "just sort of met up with" in a New York hotel and enticed into a duet. "My only regret is that we didn't do it in a studio. The recordings I've got are quite distorted. We need to regroup and do something."
The aforementioned solo album may emerge over the summer, but its overall sound remains in the balance. While Walsh has been plying a fairly traditional brand of folk-rock recently - and the voice is noticeably less tremulous these days - he retains the right to change tack completely. "I've been doing some more electronic and orchestral stuff, so I could marry the two," he muses. "It'd be quite interesting."
Friday's gig will be acoustic, however, and "a totally open book", with some Starsailor classics dropped in on demand. He may be forging a bold new path, but after a decade in the business Walsh knows how to work an audience, when required.