“Playing a headline show is a bit like your birthday; it’s really exciting but also you don’t know if anyone’s going to show up,” jokes James Page (aka Sivu), just hours before he’ll take to the stage at Hackney’s Oslo to celebrate the launch of his debut album Something On High. The album is the product of more than two years’ work, and Sivu has found himself suddenly thrust into an unexpected flurry of belated media and mainstream interest at the eleventh hour. As James himself puts it: “It’s doing better than I ever thought it would. I’ve been sat with the album for so long, I thought it was just gonna come out and it wouldn’t really do anything.” He’s painfully modest and exceptionally grateful for the response he’s had so far – though it’s thoroughly deserved. This headline show falls in a small gap between dates on a supporting tour with Nick Mulvey where James has been playing a solo set. The album dropped the day before we spoke, but so far there’d been no time for celebration, as the previous night instead spent packing up and driving from Portsmouth to London alone. Page insists that tonight will be the night, and goes on to fulfill his promise by ending post-show drinks in notorious Hackney boozer The Dolphin. The gig goes well, with the crowd largely in silent awe of Sivu’s powerful voice, which dominates the room and is even more bittersweet than on record. Playing with a full band but eventually finishing his set with an encore solo rendition of ‘Cold Hands’, it’s plain to see the broad range of styles and roles Sivu can adapt to – there’s as much fragile folk on show as there is exultant pop and darker moments of rock.
Sivu began when Page moved to South London from a small Cambridgeshire market town just over two years ago, with the sole aim of making it as a musician. It’s a classic story, but one that all too often ends in failure. “When you come from a small town or a rural place, and then come to London everything’s so much more competitive. Having played shitty pub gigs back home, I realized that here everyone’s twice as good as me. I was constantly catching up, but that pressure worked in my favour because it motivated me. There were times when I just thought ‘I can’t do this’ and I never thought this was going to happen. I came here saying I’ll give it 6 months and then I’ll leave.” Page initially found work playing bass as a session musician, and it was on one of these sessions where he met possibly the most instrumental figure in the realization of the Sivu dream in Alt-J and Marika Hackman's producer, Charlie Andrew. Clearly Charlie saw the same potential in Page that he’d seen previously in Marika’s early work – talented songwriters with incredibly unique voices, ready for his golden touch. As Page puts it: “Marika is quite similar to me in that we both write on acoustics, and then we go in there and look for help to create this world around the tracks, and that’s what Charlie is really good at. It would be so easy with an acoustic guitar and a song to make it so generic and standard. I could so easily be a singer/songwriter, but Charlie adds such a left-field element to everything in the way he records and the way he approaches everything. I know Marika feels the same.” Sivu and Marika would go on to produce a collaborative EP and embark on a co-headlining tour in late 2013 and Page was more than happy for the pairing; “Marika’s the fucking best, she’s a legend – that’s the only way to describe her.” However, it must be noted that despite the pair’s initial similarities, Andrew has been careful not to tar them with the same exceptional brush.
Something On High took shape very slowly, but Page is adamant that this was more of an advantage than a hindrance. “Charlie and I didn’t just go in for six weeks and try to make and album. We kind of started the album when we first met and did ‘Better Man Than He’, and after that I’d go in every couple of months between him doing all the Alt-J stuff and just do little bits. It definitely progressed as it went on, because between when we started and when we finished, we were definitely in different places. Thank god we got away with it, it could have gone so wrong.” These gaps allowed Page the time to dwell on the work in progress and take steps back to see the wider picture. “We had space and our heads weren’t in it the whole time. If you’ve been recording for long periods of time, after a while you’ll just go ‘is this shit? Is this good anymore?’ I had time to take things away, play them live and ask friends, just to live with it for a bit.” As a solo artist, Page was limited to his voice and guitar for expression and experimentation, which is why the role of an innovative producer took such importance. “When we go to the studio, we just lay the guitars down and then throw everything else at it and see what sticks. Then it becomes a case of simply taking things out – we’ll make it really heavy and then create space, and that’s normally where you find something that really works. It’s a fine line of keeping the songs true to themselves without pushing them too hard, you have to find that middle ground.” However, to praise Andrew’s talents is not to downplay the musicianship they serve – Page’s songwriting is perhaps the most notable strength on the album, and it’s some of the most simple and bare arrangements that have the most impact.
Something On High has been met with widespread acclaim, deftly sidestepping all the singer/songwriter traps to form a solid pop album scattered with leftfield arrangements which serve to perfectly frame Page’s unique and fascinating voice. His brilliant falsetto remains front and centre throughout as the mood shifts from euphoria to fear and melodies sway from radio friendly earworms to the painfully delicate and fragile. The result perhaps sounds like a Wild Beasts attempt at a folk album, and it’s a winning formula. The future is bright for Sivu, and he’s keen to keep busy: “I want to write my next record in November, or at least a load of stuff. I shouldn’t say it, but I want to have another album out by the end of next year, that’s the plan.” A huge contrast to the way this debut has taken shape, and surely making him vulnerable to ‘different second album syndrome’? “I’m not the kind of artist who will ever have a top 10 album, so this album’s come out now, it’ll do its thing and then I can go away and work on something else without too much pressure on it. I like the idea of getting stuck in straight away. I think because the last record took so long – for me, at least.” With plans for an early 2015 headline tour in the pipeline and a huge show supporting Bombay Bicycle Club and Peace at Earl’s Court in December – “I reckon we’ll be on as the doors open, but at Earl’s Court even the walking in, early doors crowd will be the biggest crowd we’ve played to” – we wish him the best of luck.
Words by Henry Evans Harding