“I’m not one of these instant successes who hasn’t had to work. One of the Gallaghers said that the trouble with singer-songwriters is that they’ve never stuck it out with their mates or fought with their musicians. I’ve done all that. I’ve had all the highs and lows, which is why it’s so nice to have things finally happening,” – JP Cooper.
It’s often said that today’s musicians don’t “pay their dues” in the way previous generations did, whether it was the Beatles’ residencies at the Star Club in Hamburg or David Bowie hauling himself around clubs for years. However, JP Cooper has done all this and much more. He may now be scoring multi-platinum hits and collaborating with the likes of Stormzy. However, He’s been the guy standing outside a venue, handing out flyers for his music and tracks on burned CDs. He’s humped gear into the back of his Dad’s Nissan Micra to drive 200 miles to play for 20 people, a sound engineer and his dog. At one point, a band he was in even had to take their drum kit to a gig on the bus.
However, such tough – but fun – times are the ground on which the young Mancunian’s success has been built. He may have had two enormous hits in 2016 and appear like an overnight sensation, but behind that lie years of learning his craft, endless persistence and a powerful belief that things would come good in the end. Now they are doing so, but the northern soul man’s work ethic is as strong as it ever was. As he puts it, “I’ve never been one to celebrate success by thinking ‘I’ve got it made, where’s the party?” or whatever. I’ve always been focused on the next thing, the next bit of progress. That’s the way it always has been.”
JP’s musical calling came relatively late, although the arts run in the family. JP’s grandfather and his father were both what he calls “struggling artists.” When JP’s mother died when he was eleven months old, his father was left to bring up the baby son and four older sisters in a three bedroom house in Middleton, Greater Manchester, so painting became “therapy” and JP became accustomed to a household driven by the arts and creativity.
The music bug bit in JP’s teens. Initially inspired by the guitars and songs of local(ish) boys Oasis, shortly after he discovered grunge and bands such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden he knew he wanted to become a musician. Such influences aren’t obvious in his music now, but they have left a mark. As he puts it, “once you strip it down past the noise and bravado, it’s blues and soul.”
Although his first foray into music came in a rock band, a voyage of musical discovery led him towards the music he makes now. He and his mates used to visit Manchester’s Vinyl Exchange store to discover music. “It became almost a race to outdo each other,” he chuckles. “The shop had signs over the racks: ‘Lovers of Portishead, check this out’ and so on. I got into everything from Aphex Twin to Erykah Badu to Donny Hathaway. By this point, I’d completely fallen in love with music.”
After various friends kept telling him he was a really good singer – something he took a long time to accept - an access to music course helped him understand how to make music. He spent much of his twenties alternating “shitty jobs” with various bands until one, the folk-soul Eskimo Cowboy, expanded from a trio to a seven-piece and were forever being distracted from the music by relationships or jobs. “I had to ask six people before saying ‘yes’ to every gig,” JP remembers. “So I thought, ‘I may as well do this on my own.’”
Becoming a solo artist in his mid-twenties was by no means easy, although downloading software meant he was able to make bedroom demos, which led to three self-released EPs, one of them launched at Manchester’s Deaf Institute, where he was supported by one Jake Bugg. Along with JP’s £100 guitar, another valuable tool was his bicycle. “I’d get on my pushbike and do open mic nights in Rusholme, Failsworth, Northern Quarter, hitting them all within a night.” At the same time, the Catholic raised singer had got involved with the Manchester Inspirational Voices gospel choir, and impressed the organiser so much he ended up singing lead vocals a lot of the time. “The choir was mixed but heavily West Indian, so I think a lot of them were intrigued by the fact that I was a skinny white kid from Middleton, but I was doing soul and gospel and singing with my heart on my sleeve.”
Although years of slog were starting to pay off in terms of larger gigs, a bigger break finally arrived when he landed a spot on Birmingham-based internet video blog Soul Features, which led to a string of shows at soul nights and spoken word/”vocals and verses” events around London. “All of a sudden I found an audience who understood me, and the industry started looking in,” he remembers. “By this point I was selling 600 tickets everywhere, so something had to give and Island Records took a chance.”
Many artists treat signing a record deal as if they’ve won the pools: splashing out on cars or stupidly expensive new equipment. Not so JP. Although the Island development deal meant he could finally quit the day jobs, he paid himself a modest £600 a month and moved back in with his father to save any other funds for recording. If anything, becoming a father two years before the record deal had intensified his focus and further spurred him on: “I knew more than ever that I had to make it work.”
JP’s first two Island EPs – 2014’s Keep The Quiet Out and 2015’s When The Darkness Comes – notched up some success and 10 million plays between them. Stars from Ed Sheeran to Shawn Mendez have sung his praises. However, the big bang happened when a song he wrote and sang on – Jonas Blue’s Perfect Strangers – hit No. 2 and went multi platinum. As JP tells it, he wasn’t just approached to sing on the track but to write for it – which captured his attention.
“We went in the studio for a day and they used my demo vocal,” he reveals. “I learned a lot from that. Because I wasn’t writing for me, I wasn’t worried about going too deep and I realised that I could write a big, summery banger. It would be easy to be snobby about it but for a throwaway thing that I did in a day, the amount of joy it brought to people was unbelievable.”
Perfect Strangers also set JP up for successes under his own name. The old school soul of Birthday featured on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack and September Song, which reached No. 7 in September 2016 (of course) has now notched up over two million global sales and millions of streams. Like many of his songs, it draws upon his past but is relatable to all. It began as a song about “a kind of anti hero, a teenage kid at school who doesn't get the girl”, but became more universal, drawing on JP’s own early relationships. “So much music now is sexualized, which is fine, but I wanted to do something that felt young and innocent and sweet.”
JP’s songs are built on his values - positivity, empathy and soul – and 80 + of them have been whittled down to 13 for his debut album, Raised Under Grey Skies, which has been inspired by his life and times. Good Friend, for example, draws on the times when he was first signed and was “uprooted” away from family and his son. “I think labels should have a psychologist to hand,” he chuckles. “It sounds like first world problems but it’s hard, and you really find out who your friends are. I wanted to do something like Florence’s cover of [Candi Staton’s] You Got The Love. I’ve seen so many girls in clubs turn to their best friend and sing ‘I know I can count on you.’ It’s a celebration of that, really.”
Similarly, Passport Home is about people. “It’s about how they are your passport to destinations and how you can’t get there without them,” JP explains. The track is relatively unusual in modern pop in that it features whistling. “I love whistling,” JP smiles. “I was just whistling the tune and someone said, ‘That’s really good.’” Another highlight, the lovely All This Love is impassioned, old school soul.
The Stormzy collaboration, Momma’s Prayers, came about after the pair set up something of a mutual appreciation society, attending each other’s shows in London and New York, although both artists are so busy at the moment that finding a mutually suitable time to get to work wasn’t easy. “We talked about doing something together for ages and finally got in the studio,” JP explains. “We both love what each oher’s doing. Stormzy is my favourite artist at the moment, so working together came from mutual respect.”
Opener We Were Raised Under Grey Skies is JP’s most personal song: it’s about Manchester, his childhood, his father, and his mother’s death.
“I love the wetness and the backstreets,” he says, “and the grit that says, ‘We’ll get through it.’ It’s a song about turning a dark event into something positive and making the best of it.
JP’s benchmark for his songwriting is Bill Withers’ Lean On Me. “It’s a song that anyone can understand instantly, whether they’re rich or poor, educated or uneducated. That’s what I want from my music. Just honesty and simplicity. No bells and whistles, just straight up songs.”
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