James Righton on stealing Amy Winehouse’s thunder, ABBA and life as Mr Keira Knightley
In 2007, James Righton’s South London-based “New Rave” outfit the Klaxons surprised everyone by taking home the 2007 Mercury Music Prize for their debut album Myths of the Near Future, which had reached number two in the charts and contained the hit single Golden Skans. They even beat Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. But then the only way was down for the indie darlings, who split in 2015 after their second and third albums failed to keep up the momentum of their breakout success.
Two years later and Righton, still reeling from “some post-Klaxons trauma” released his first solo material under the name Shock Machine. It wasn’t until February 2020, however, when Righton met me to discuss his second solo album The Performer – this time released under his own name – that he could admit how bad things had gotten. “After our first album, there was a good six years of my life where I was so depressed. [I was] in a band where you’re trying to recreate that magic that happened that first time round. When you make records and it gets harder and harder to make them, you get diminishing sales and crowds, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and go: ‘God, this isn’t what I dreamed about doing as a kid! This is depressing! This is tragic!’”
Looking back, Righton still couldn’t believe he had even won the Mercury. “That was mad. I imagine that a lot of people would be aggrieved that [Amy] didn’t win. I remember watching her perform – obviously at the time there was this whole, ‘is she gonna turn up [to the ceremony], is she not?’ Everyone knew the backstory. But she did that performance and it was just incredible. It just knocked me for six and I was convinced she was going to win it after that.”
His dwindling self-esteem, and his relationship with Oscar-nominated actress Keira Knightley, meant that Righton was worried of what people would think of his solo projects. He and Knightley were introduced by mutual friends at a party in Soho in 2011, before getting married in the South of France in 2013. They now have two daughters, seven-year-old Edie and three-year-old Delilah. He told me at the time: “I’m not going to be judged fairly because of my marriage.”
Today, however, 38-year-old Righton is no longer worried about the court of public opinion. His new album, Jim, I’m Still Here – an electronic pandemic-themed work about an artist trapped in a darkened basement – is his most personal to date.
The opening song, Livestream Superstar, paints a picture of his double lockdown life, in which he and Knightley had to straddle both parenting and showbiz: “Some other life, domestic god, couldn’t be more normal if I tried… Feed the kids, wash the dishes... Come night, James is dead… Dressed in Gucci head-to-toe, loafers on, James has gone… You’ve got me now…”
With The Performer having been released in March 2020, three days before the UK’s first stay-at-home order was imposed, Righton still had to promote it – just as Knightley had to do with her film Misbehaviour, released in cinemas (very briefly, as it turned out) one week before her husband’s album.
“I’d be dad in my shorts, relaxed T-shirt dad, changing nappies, cooking, domestic guy. And then I’d go downstairs, put on this Gucci suit, dim the lights, log on and then start speaking to these people through various social media platforms,” relates Righton when we meet again for breakfast in a corner of North London, a 10-minute bike ride from their family home.
Being stuck inside together for so long was a new experience. When Edie was a baby, the family had been mobile. “We were travelling a lot still, and we probably still thought that we were living our previous lives. So we could take Edie with us and go to New York and Keira could be on Broadway for six months.”
But in the dark days of the first lockdown, Righton felt his reality become warped. “Suddenly, I felt like I was this character every time [I logged on]. I think that was my way of dealing with it all, becoming this other person. So I would be James upstairs, and then here’s Jim: this guy I become who [has this] tragic, lonely, empty form of fame, living out his fantasies from his garage.”
But the album is far from a clever meta moan from a privileged, well-connected artist. Rather, it's an intimate, relatable account – at times witty, other times full of pathos – of a time when none of us could do anything except circle the wagons and dream, with these letters from lockdown embedded in light-touch, ear-wormy, home-made electronic landscapes.
Overall, Righton says, these are the most autobiographical songs he’s ever written. The minimal glide of the beautifully sung A Day at the Races is a tribute to an old school friend’s father who died early in the pandemic, and who had been a hero to the young Righton. The funky burble of Touch was written for his infant daughter Delilah about how much he enjoyed spending so much time with her in lockdown, when “our physical bond was so great…” He adds: “I feel like I can now be fearless in my writing because I am older. I've got kids. I don't care about, you know, putting myself out there.”
What’s the song that most touches on his marriage? “Maybe Pause, actually. That’s a combination of [talking about] life at that time – because it was on pause. But it's also about someone who comes into your life who's so special, and life does just shift. Someone stops you in your tracks. Suddenly the life going forward is something other, and something brilliant, and something wonderful. And magical.”
Indeed, he credits with Knightley with much of his inspiration. On previous album The Performer, the song Devil is Loose was inspired by The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s magical realist masterpiece to which he was introduced by his wife.
“I think the reason why I’m becoming more interested in the words and characters is because of her. And also because of my mother-in-law,” he says of Sharman Macdonald, the actor and playwright. “She’s an incredible person, brilliant playwright, controversial in the ’80s, very edgy, interesting work. Brought up in Glasgow and had this amazing life… I show her loads of my words and lyrics, I ask her to look at them, because I think she's amazing. And she’s really truthful and honest.”
Actors, he continues, “they mind. Whenever they do a role, it’s not just reading the lines with an accent. They spend all of their time creating the backstory of every character that they play. And it's incredible to see the amount of work that goes into something. I find it so inspiring to see what Keira does.”
From the very beginnings of their relationship, he says, that impressed him. “And it informs what I do. It makes me want to [do better]. And it’s funny: she doesn’t listen to music that much. But if she does, it’s the words that she connects with.”
Righton’s second wave of success isn't just limited to his new album. Just before lockdown, he was also busy with a top secret project helping mastermind the greatest comeback in pop music history as Musical Director on ABBA Voyage, which opened in May to rave reviews.
And so Righton found himself, in January 2020, enjoying “one of my happiest, most unbelievable musical moments in my life, sat there in the studio listening to the stems of Dancing Queen, just Benny and I isolating all the parts…”
Then, buried in the mix, “I found this incredible, distorted clav[inet] line that runs throughout the whole of Dancing Queen, which you can’t hear ordinarily. But it's beautiful. It’s melodic. It’s something that only Benny could have written. And you take it away from the mix, and it’s not Dancing Queen any more. But you add it, and it’s Dancing Queen. Wow! That kind of detail!” he marvels.
Now, Righton is firmly free of his garage and is in the thick of live shows. When we meet, he has just completed three support slots with LCD Soundsystem at South London’s Brixton Academy. As the middle show wasn’t a school night, he invited his eldest daughter Edie to come with him.
“She’d never been to a gig before!” he beams, “And it blew her mind. I mean, she was up till way past her bedtime. She was there on the side of stage watching, with massive ear defenders on. And James [Murphy] from the LCDs has a son, and him and Edie were making paper aeroplanes and throwing them out into the crowd through the whole of the LCD Soundsystem show! I was like: I’m not sure if this is post-rock’n’roll here! It’s almost like when Lou Reed had a Buddhist monk on stage, doing tai chi...”
“The most terrifying thing was that she said: ‘I really liked being onstage, especially playing in front of a lot of people.’ I said to Keira: ‘Uh-oh….’ Oh, God, what have we created?”
Jim, I’m Still Here (Deewee) is out now