James Smith is just 20 years old, but the singer-songwriter from London’s East End already has a life story that reads more like something from a different time—a pinch of nostalgia fitting for a self-described old soul. In some ways, Smith’s story began generations ago. He proudly comes from a long line of market traders, and while he was called toward music, he’s committed more than anything to carrying on his family’s legacy.
An EP By James Smith (via Virgin EMI Records and Universal Music Group, co-produced by GEENUS) is the foundation for a new legacy.
“My family’s legacy is so important to me as it’s so unique,” Smith tells tmrw. “I don’t know anyone else who has a background like mine. Literally everyone has worked on the markets. I wanna bring the market lot to the limelight. They don’t get enough credit. I’m proud of my family because we really embody the whole idea of being ‘working class’ in the fact that we love ‘working.’
“Graft is so important in our household, and I think this reflects in my work ethic. I wanna get to the top, and I think I’ll get there by working as hard as I can on my music. This project was hard for me because of how raw it was. But it’s just the first step.”
Smith adds with a laugh: “I’m prepared to get deeper, so watch out.”
He jumped into the deep end with the EP’s lead track titled “Say You’ll Stay”:
“So I’d rather be alone than let you hold me / And leave me lonely / Unless you show me / That you mean it when you tell me you won’t go / Say you’ll stay,” Smith sings in the song inspired by his first love and subsequent first heartbreak.
“I’ve learned that things don’t always happen the way you want it to,” Smith says, then adds with some laughter. “And I’ve learned that you never really get over your first love. When I wrote ‘Say You’ll Stay,’ I was feeling super sorry for myself.”
In other matters, however, life not unfolding the way he wanted in the moment was for his betterment in the long run.
At nine years old, Smith started strumming guitar and modeled his playing after ultimate nostalgic figure Johnny Cash. That influence can be heard throughout the EP. Smith doubles down on that tone by including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” his father’s favourite song.
Smith spent most of his time with his dad when he began working alongside him selling soap in the Green Street market stalls after he was kicked out of school at 15 years old for talking back too much.
“Having to constantly graft has been the benefiting factor in my development as a person, not just as an artist,” Smith says of that time. “I’ve had a quite a few challenges to face and each one has helped me grow. A particular stage that changed my life is when I was out of school, at 15, working on the market, travelling across London and listening to music in a different way—appreciating the lyrics and relating to the struggle for the first time. It was around this time that I fell in love with music. It might sound cliché, but music really moulded me as a person at this point.”
That would explain why his music feels worn in and textured. James made a deliberate choice “to sing the songs with feeling rather than getting everything pitch perfect.” The prime example from this set is “Rely On Me,” which showcases natural breaks in his voice that make him “cringe” but were kept because real is better than tidy.
The boy who got in trouble for talking too much at school still wants to be heard exactly as he is, not how others would prefer to hear him.
“I was outspoken ’cause I was being truthful,” Smith says of his expulsion from school. “I wasn’t scared to stand out and be individual. In this EP, I’m being truthful to myself for the first time since releasing music. These songs are all about real life shit!”
And so he made sure to include, among other real-life anecdotes, the Dylan cover. “I decided to go with the Bob Dylan cover because it’s a song that feels like home to me,” he explains. “I have so many fond memories listening to that song as a kid. It reminds me of me and my old man listening to it in the car. My whole EP is about one particular situation and it felt like the lyrics to this song fit so well with the stories in the EP.”
James Smith is just 20 years old, somehow, but he has already done enough to cement a legacy in his parents’ eyes. He has worked alongside his father in the family business, followed his musical passion, hustled in local pubs from age 14, put himself out there to love and be loved and eventually heartbroken and then revealed vulnerably how he’s grown from it all.
“My parents are just super proud of me now,” he says, comparing their relationship on the eve of his EP’s release to his adolescent rebellion. “I felt like that whole experience was a blessing because my decisions since have been more considered, and I’m on a similar wavelength to them now. They were gutted at the time, but we all grew stronger from it. They are my biggest fans.”
If Smith’s roots are an indication of anything, though, it’s that he is far from finished. His 2.3-plus million monthly Spotify listening base stands to grow, and his loved ones stand to gain competition as his biggest fans.
Listen to the full EP below: