From talking about his time in a community gospel choir to describing his sound as ‘honey’ I sit down with soul singer JP Cooper ahead of his sold out show at The Joiners.
Watch: Industry Insights with JP Cooper (JP’s tips to musicians)
So you are from Manchester, what was it like growing up there?
Manchester was amazing actually. The musical heritage from there, especially because I was getting into music in the mid-late 90’s, it was all of the indie stuff coming through like Oasis. I think Manchester was part of the reason why I discovered that music was a thing for me.
Everybody had a guitar, it was just one of those things. One of my friends had an acoustic guitar, and that’s why I started singing really. I didn’t actually pick up a guitar till a hell of a lot later, I was just singing. I’d go round to his house and we’d cover Oasis songs and that’s how I discovered it. As a beginning seed of something, it was amazing. As I got a bit older and started playing my own shows, it was an amazing city because it wasn’t so big that you get lost in it, like in London I think it’s very difficult for bands to get a buzz going. In Manchester, you can very quickly make a bit of a name for yourself.
‘..it was big enough to make a noise so the rest of the country would listen, but small enough to make a footprint.’
Back in the day, it was quite ‘scene-y’ – you were either an indie kid or a rock kid or you were into raving. Everybody was drinking in the same bars if you were into that thing, so everybody very quickly got to know one another. So for us, it was perfect – it was big enough to make a noise so the rest of the country would listen, but small enough to make a footprint. There was always hope coming from Manchester. It was wonderful.
You mentioned Oasis, were they your musical influences or was it a completely different scene that started you on music?
I wouldn’t say that I listened to them and studied them. They were actually my first gig but it was more because all of my mates were into them. I kinda liked the attitude of it. It was cocky and as a young lad, I was like “Oh, these guys are kinda cool”. But, in terms of influence, not so much. My first thing was the grunge thing and I started getting more into guitar music as a result of that. I was really into Pearl Jam and Sound Garden and all of those bands. There was loads of blues and soul influences in there, underneath it. I loved their acoustic and more downbeat moments on their records. That was the first thing that influenced me. From that, I wanted to delve more into the soul part. I started seeking that out more for myself.
What soul musicians did you get into as a result?
The first stuff I ever came across that would even come under that umbrella would be… I can remember when The Fugees came out, and that was more hip-hop with Lauryn singing. I remember all of my friends being like “What? You like that?” and I was like “Yeah man, this is cool”. They didn’t quite get it, so I kept it quiet for a while that I was buying and listening to those records. Lauryn then bought out her solo album which is still one of my favourite albums of all time.
I then started to delve back into Aretha, Al Green, Donny Hathaway – I’m a big fan of his. And from that, I really wanted to join a gospel choir because of all of the vocal arrangements and just black music in general, it did something to me. It took me ages to find one because they are either affiliated with the church or with the universities. Because I was singing in bands quite a lot, I couldn’t commit much of my time. I soon found a community based one in Manchester which opened a whole new world of sound and influence for me.
I remember all of my friends being like “What? You like that [Lauryn Hill]?” and I was like “Yeah man, this is cool”.
For those who don’t know your music, describe your sound in 3 words
*pauses to think* I’d say soulful. *thinks again and stares at his snack table* I’d say honey, and let’s say *another long pause* It varies. The actual sonic sound of it changes so much from one track to the next. The thread going out through the middle of it isn’t really about the sound. It’s more about the lyrics and the delivery of that sound. The important thing with that is intimacy, honesty and vulnerability. They are the three important things that I try and allow. I wouldn’t say those words describe the sound, I’d say it’s more the spirit.
What song are you most excited to perform live?
I’ve been really enjoying The Only Reason. That was the first song where I really saw people going “Oh shit, this guy is something”. I wrote it a long time ago so I’ve been playing it for years with an acoustic guitar, but I’ve done a new version of it for the record and I’m really enjoying that because I don’t actually play on it, I just sing and it feels so beautiful to deliver that song the way it is. I’ve been really enjoying that and every night, I’m excited to see the reaction.
That was the first song where I really saw people going, “Oh shit, this guy is something”.
You feature on ‘Perfect Strangers’ by Jonas Blue, how did that song come about?
I was asked by one of the guys from Island Records, the label I’m signed to. He got in touch and said “We’ve got this instrumental, people have been trying to write a hook, top-line or a melody for it for a while. Jonas had a lot of success before with this cover (A cover of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, released 4th December 2015) but we don’t really know what’s going to happen because he hasn’t done an original yet”. So initially, it was just a writing job, I wasn’t supposed to be singing on it.
I was quite nervous because it was a lot more commercial than anything I’ve done before.
I got together with a friend of mine who has got a bit more pop sensibility than me and we sat down and put it together. We sent over the first draft to Jonas (or his real name is Guy) and he loved it. He got back in touch with us and we just tweaked the last few bits together. So I sent it all off and was like “Brilliant, that’s done, hopefully it will do well and it will be a good little writing credit for me and a nice little thing that works on the side”. They heard the demo and they really wanted to use my vocal on it.
Initially, I was quite nervous because it was a lot more commercial than anything I’ve done before. But one of the things I’ve always tried to be passionate about and worn on my sleeve is collaboration and my willingness to try different things. In the name of that and in the name of my own future freedom, I was like “Let’s do it!” And obviously, it’s been a massive hit. I reckon a few people were like “Oh god, what is he doing?” but I’ve got an incredible album of soul food coming for them people who might be worried. But it’s been an amazing summer as a result of it.
But one of the things I’ve always tried to be passionate about and worn on my sleeve is collaboration and my willingness to try different things.
Leading on from that, if you could collaborate with any artist dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I’ve been saying the same thing for quite a while and it would be Yann Tiersen. He wrote the soundtrack for the French film ‘Amelie’. He’s a French composer and he’s amazing. I’d love to work with him. It will probably never happen.
You have your sold out show tonight at The Joiners, is this the first time you’ve performed here in Southampton?
I think it is yeah. I might have done festivals near here but I’ve never been to the heart of Southampton.
There is something incredible about being in some dingy little room packed full of people.
Are you excited?
Yeah. The tour so far has been amazing and this is in fact the smallest venue on the tour. It’s actually really nice because the first venues I started playing in were kind of this size in and around Manchester, like tiny little sweat boxes. There is something incredible about being in some dingy little room packed full of people.
And final question – what’s going to be happening in 2017?
Big year! The album will be coming out. We’re expecting to have a busy festival season, getting out to Europe a lot more as well. The next two years of my life are basically going to be working my butt off promoting this record and getting ready to record the second one. I’m mainly just trying to get fit, strong and ready for that. But next year is expecting to be a really good year – a lot of fun, a lot of growth, a lot of new experiences for me. And mainly just getting out and performing the new album to as many people across the world as I can. It’s a very exciting time!
Watch: Industry Insights with JP Cooper (JP’s tips to musicians)
Words by Hayley Millross