In two short years, Auckland-born singer/songwriter Mitch James has seen his music detonate into New Zealand’s music consciousness. Armed with little more than a guitar and a set of hook-filled pop songs, his audience has grown from a smattering of nonchalant onlookers on the streets of Europe to a sold-out solo tour of Aotearoa, filling substantial venues like the Powerstation in Auckland and Dunedin’s Town Hall. He talked with Mike Tweed about the climb from sidewalk to mainstage.
Following up a string of popular pop singles, Mitch James’ self-titled debut album bounced straight into #2 on our Official Top 40 chart in September this year – dividing (fun fact!) Eminem and Ed Sheeran. Dispiriting years spent busking around Europe, and playing to empty hostel bars must only have made this sudden success all the more special for the 23-year-old Aucklander.
Mitch smiles when he thinks back to those harrowing days scraping a daily income on the other side of the planet. The PR legend has it that he arrived in London with £20, zero contacts and no experience – busking became a necessity and a limitation. Often sleeping on the street, he was beaten up once and robbed twice. Now with a major label behind him, and an evidently-growing legion of fans, it seems the sky is more the limit.
“Looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I would hate to have a sense of entitlement or think that I deserve any kind of success. When I was playing to no one in Europe I would just close my eyes and visualise bigger situations, bigger audiences and stuff. I’m super grateful for everything that happened before. When people start listening to your music and coming to see you organically it’s the most rewarding feeling – especially when no one gave a shit for so, so long. It’s something you want to grasp on to.”
Finishing high school at 17, Mitch decided to buy a one-way ticket to Europe (with dreams of emulating Ed Sheeran as it happens) and busking his way to superstardom. Soon finding out that things weren’t going to work the way he’d hoped, simply affording to survive became more important than anything else.
“I was a bit of a hippy, just playing my songs for month after month. I had this mindset of ‘no phone, no laptop, no social media, let’s do this the old fashion way’ kind of thing,” he laughs. “Well, it didn’t work! I remember playing in a hostel bar in Barcelona to two people. After a couple of songs, they told me to shut up because the football was on! Now I have people singing every song back to me, which blows my mind”.
It wasn’t until he swallowed his self-starter pride and started posting his music online that his fortunes began to change. As luck would have it one song was spotted by Maala, another Kiwi singer/songwriter, who passed it on to his label, Sony NZ. Before long Mitch was offered a record deal, which he accepted immediately.
“Once I got over myself and started putting videos online and stuff, things started to happen! If you are an idiot, like I was, and don’t see social media as a positive thing, then you’re going to keep yourself from reaching anyone at all.”
Returning to NZ, and living in Dunedin, his brand of heartfelt guitar pop soon birthed a series of successful singles. Move On only just brushed the NZ Top 20 chart in December 2016, but that back story proved worth way more than a few radio spins and it soon bounced back into top 10 view. All The Ways To Say Goodbye followed a similar re-entry trajectory late in 2017, and was still in the local’s Top 20 in June 2018 when 21, the first single from his debut album, bust through, peaking at #2 in the NZ Singles chart and spending long enough in the upper reaches to achieve Gold status.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I started out, but watching and observing and being in the label machine has taught me so much about how this industry works, and what needs to be done to keep the ball rolling. It feels to me like there is a bit of a negative stigma attached to major labels these days, but I’m proud to be a Sony artist. I wouldn’t be in this position without the hard work they’ve put into me.”
His self-titled album was recorded early in 2018 at Auckland’s Roundhead Studios. The owner would frequently drop by, something Mitch admits was slightly nerve-wracking.
“Neil Finn is an incredible human, and the engineer Simon Gooding is absolutely world class. Just having Neil wandering around was really insane!”
The album also marked the producing debut of Eli Paewai and Ji Fraser, of Six60 fame. In the preceding months, they had spent time songwriting with Mitch, and he was thrilled to have them behind the mixing desk. Despite all three being in uncharted waters the recording process, he says, went smoothly.
“Ji said to me, ‘You can pay a guy hundreds of thousands of dollars to make your record, that doesn’t mean he gives a shit!’ Him and Eli definitely, definitely did. I knew that if I was going to spend months in a studio with someone I really wanted it to be with those two guys. I get along with them really well and I’ve respected them and their craft for the best part of 10 years. At that stage, they hadn’t produced a record before, but they believed in what I was doing and with Simon’s help we were able to pour ourselves into the record.”
Without the confines of a band dynamic, he remains free to write music exactly how he feels, without outside influences.
“As selfish as it sounds, I get to do exactly what I want. There isn’t another guy in the rehearsal room saying, ‘Ooooh Mitch, not sure about that mate!’ There are no egos clashing.”
That said, he now has a small band to bring the record to life on stage and is relishing the change.
“I’ve always played music as a personal thing, by myself, so it’s all new territory. At the moment I have a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist handling keys and lead guitar. It’s going to be awesome to have a bigger band set up in the future, but I can’t afford it just yet.”
The seemingly inevitable online backlash that comes with success is something else he’s has learnt to deal with. He scrolls through messages from people who seem irate about both him and his music – each rambling spiel greeted with a smirk and a shrug of the shoulders.
“It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I even got a message the other day from some dude who told me my music is turning South Island men into pansies! Pretty funny really. All I can do is try and tell stories that mean something to me.
“I’m really happy and grateful to be in this position. Music is the most subjective thing in the world. As artists, we should have a mutual respect for each other’s stuff, whether it be reggae or black metal. I just want to keep busy. Busy is good. More recordings, more shows, let’s see what happens!”