Go ahead, call it a comeback. Singer James Arthur does
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NEW YORK — It's time for James Arthur's next interview of the day and the soulful British singer gets up off a sofa at Sony headquarters, dutifully tucks away his phone and greets a visitor with his full attention.
"So what we doing, chatting about me? I don't do that very often," he says with a wry smile. "It's interesting how artists get narcissistic. Wonder how that happens?"
Arthur's bemused perspective on life has been earned the hard way. His story is one of rags to riches to rags and riches again. It has made him almost anti-narcissistic.
"I was dealt quite a few bad hands in this life. My gift is my ability to express myself through my voice," he says. "I think I'm able to do that with sincerity because I really feel it. I really do hold pain in my heart from the life that I've led."
Arthur went from uploading his music onto MySpace and having his electricity cut off to earning a record deal after winning Britain's version of "The X Factor" in 2012. He then had a very public falling from grace after a series of ill-advised tweets and was dropped from his record label.
The 29-year-old has bounced back with a superb second album — "Back From the Edge" — with the hit single "Say You Won't Let Go" — and a book about his rocky journey, "Back to the Boy." He's touring the U.S. with OneRepublic and hoping America will embrace him back.
"I was very lost. Very, very lost before I embarked on the journey of creating this body of work, and it was cathartic and therapeutic," he says. "The aim was to find myself."
In his new batch of songs, Arthur doesn't hide from his sins. "I've been burning in hell/ But now I'm back," he sings in the title song. In other tunes, he refers to himself as a "condemned prisoner," asks to be pulled from a "train wreck" and is "a dead man walking," confessing, "I am the one who beat me black and blue."
There are moments of levity — Arthur raps playfully and name-checks Lana Del Ray and Beyonce in one song — but there's no avoiding an artist seriously beating himself up for mistakes. "If only/ I could go back in time/ When you were a friend of mine," he sings.
"I just made the most honest, conversational stuff that I could, the most soulful stuff that I could at that time," he says. "The mantra was honesty. That was the main thing."
Arthur's other rehabilitation project is his book, which he didn't want to become a typical tell-all. He has suffered from panic attacks and depression and says he wants it to be a self-help guide.
"The only way that my fans and people who don't know about me and don't understand why I've gone off the rails and done these crazy things — they need to know the boy before they can know the man," he says. "The aim is just to inspire people and get people out of bed that are feeling depressed."
Neil Rodford, CEO of James Grant Management, which manages Arthur, says he has "undeniable talent" who has practiced his craft for many years: "It's pleasing to see his efforts paying dividends on both sides of the Atlantic."
Arthur's music reflects his various interests growing up in the northeast industrial British city of Middlesboro. His mom played David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Lauren Hill and Prince, while his heavy metal-loving dad passed on his love of Black Sabbath. "I was an angry teenager, so I wanted to put my hood up and be Eminem," Arthur says. "When I heard Nirvana, that was game over."
Arthur's childhood included foster care and abuse of antidepressants. He once had to sell his guitar to pay the rent. His mother blackmailed him to audition for "The X Factor" by offering to lend him enough money to turn his lights back on. That came after his sister forced him to audition for another reality music show.
"They were so frustrated with me. I was this kid that was in a band and I wanted to make it like that. I wanted to make it in a band. I wanted to do it the organic way," he says. "But everyone looked at me and went, 'He's got no money, he lives five hours away from London, there's no opportunities around here. He's got no backing, no management, nothing. He's going nowhere.'"
The glow from winning the contest didn't last long. Arthur soon denigrated One Direction as a "marketing product" and feuded with member Louis Tomlinson. He also got into an ugly spat with a British rapper, using a homophobic slur and urged the other man to kill himself. He has repeatedly apologized and mended his relationship with Tomlinson.
"I'm a grown-up now, I think. As much as I'll ever be. I'm grown-up now. I was a little lost boy four, five years ago," he says. "I'm probably in an even better place to create relatable music now being that I'm happy."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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