I first heard Jamie Lawson five years ago when “Wasn’t Expecting That” blew up on mainstream radio.
It’s a brilliant track. It’s got hundreds of million of plays, but if somehow you missed it, you should know that it’s The Notebook in song form, and I mean that in the best way; driven by simple strums on an acoustic guitar and Jamie’s earnest vocals, it walks through the story of a relationship from first meeting to final goodbye, using the utterly relatable refrain “I wasn’t expecting that” to weave together a narrative that’ll fill then break your heart. It was absolutely bound to be a hit.
It’s also not the kind of song Jamie usually writes.
I’ll admit that I didn’t know this. I assumed Jamie was an expert at writing radio-ready love stories (and he kind of is), but here we are in the middle of quarantine, and I’ve got Jamie dialed up on WhatsApp, and he’s telling me his biggest hit isn’t his typical style – or at least it didn’t used to be.
“Actually, I hadn’t really written songs in, like, a narrative format before [‘Wasn’t Expecting That’],” Jamie tells me. “Usually I wrote things that were more abstract.”
“Well,” I reply, “It seems like you definitely found something with the narrative approach.”
Jamie agrees. He has to, really – there’s no denying commercial success. And so, for five years, he’s embraced it. From 2015 to 2019, he put out three full-length albums built largely around straightforward story songs. He racked up plays, toured stadiums with Ed Sheeran and Vance Joy, and, in the midst of it all, kept writing undeniably good tracks. But they somehow didn’t feel quite as deeply personal.
“I wasn’t quite channeling what I wanted to write,” says Jamie. “I kept steering away to make things fit what I thought the radio might want to play.” Listening through the music from those years, you can tell, but only if you listen with the right ear; the songs are artfully crafted, but similar in approach, like a matching dinnerware set that might be handmade if it wasn’t so uniform.
It makes sense, then, that as he began to look toward the new decade, Jamie realized that he wanted a bit of a refresh. He was going to take some time off from touring so extensively. He was going to put out a few EPs instead of pushing through another full-length album, and he was going to fill them with songs that were less radio-focused and more personal.
He was going to recenter himself.
No, he wasn’t expecting 2020. He’s not a fortune teller. But his year at home was good timing.
It’d be wrong to call Moving Images (the first of four expected 2020 EPs from Jamie) a product of quarantine, seeing as it was recorded when coronavirus was still second-page news, but it does feel strangely suited to the world as we’ve found it this year. It’s intimate, almost lonely, built on strings and piano and laced with the reserved beauty of acoustic bedroom pop; in other words, it’s perfect for solitary listening. While it’s all about relationships, it reflects on them through the separating pane of nostalgia, viewing them as if from behind glass with lyrics that feel less like active participation and more like aching memories.
EP-opener “A Perfect Year” is a perfect example. It’s a story song, but unlike “Wasn’t Expecting That”, it’s really Jamie’s story of a year gone by; the track was written as a last-minute anniversary present for his wife when he realized that the gift he’d ordered wasn’t going to arrive in time. The chorus is achingly sweet:
And this is love
This is love
It’s the story of falling in love told through everyday memories – the ones you cherish most when the definition of “everyday” changes.
“And You Saved Me” is another standout track. At just over five minutes, it’s by far the album’s longest. The length, as Jamie admits, might preclude it from being a radio fit, but the pace feels natural, like every bit of it’s necessary.
“We’re starting to make songs shorter and shorter,” Jamie says about the music industry, when I ask him about the song. “It’s almost like you have to hit people over the head with something immediately.”
I know what he means, and, honestly, it can get exhausting. You can only be hit over the head so many times, after all, before things blur together. Through that lens, “And You Saved Me” has a welcome subtlety to it. It taps you on the shoulder and politely engages you in conversation. Starting with percussion – toms, bass, a shaker – it draws you in, piano and strings easing in underneath poetic lyrics that include life, death, lightning, and a first-verse shout-out to Dr. Who’s tardis:
I was chasin’ after meteorites
Trailing in the darkness
Stumbling from drunken nights
As if tumbling in a Tardis
I used to live all by myself
Now I rise with the sun in your eyes
For all of its initial gentleness, though, the song ultimately reaches an impressive emotional peak, which, Jamie notes, isn’t his standard approach. “I usually pare things down, I guess,” he explains. “But with ‘And You Saved Me’, it was the other way around. We just built the music underneath it up and up and up.”
The track swells to a crescendo before cutting away to let the title lyric echo one last time. The payoff is worth it.
The EP’s payoff is worth it, too. The final track – fittingly titled “Closure” – is, I think, my favorite on the record. Jamie co-wrote it with Jez Ashurst, and he says that, to some degree, he owes it to Tom Petty.
“I love the simplicity Tom Petty wrote with,” he says. “He used these simple rhymes but he made them feel so profound because they were true. We were trying to do the same thing with ‘Closure’.”
It works, I tell him. Because it’s true.
What is this closure
When you don’t want love to be over?
That’s the chorus, and while it’s straightforward, it also cuts deep, because it’s a question there really isn’t an answer to. Jamie and Jez Ashurst recognize that reality. They’ve both lost their fathers, and this song is about their experiences. But it’s also about any relationship ending. And that’s why I love it; it’s unique to Jamie, but it helps other people tell their own stories, too.
It starts personal and becomes unifying. In the midst of quarantine isolation, it’s the kind of song I’ve needed.
Maybe, after five years of writing for radio, it’s the kind of song Jamie needed to write. After all, radio offers broad unity, but it sometimes does so without the personal stakes. In 2020, personal stakes tie us together, and Moving Images is filled with them.
“All right,” I tell Jamie, “Last question. What’s your best advice for other songwriters?” I always ask writers this.
Jamie’s silent for a moment, reflecting. Then I hear him shift on the other end of the line, and he offers, “Work at it. The more you write, the easier it’ll come. If you haven’t written in three months, you can’t expect to churn our hits. You have to be well-oiled, and songs will come easier.”
“That’s good,” I say. “Thanks.”
“Oh, and you should always finish a song. You never know where it’ll lead. You could hit on something that reframes it all and you might end up somewhere you weren’t expecting at the start.”
That’s good, too, and Jamie’s the living proof. He’s been on mainstream radio, and now he’s on a new label and refocused on what’s personal. I don’t know if he was expecting that – in either direction.
But I’m glad I get to hear both.
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