Exclusive Pop Expresso interview with Daniel James who together with British Pop duo Yell! scored the 1990 hit “Instant Replay”
An interview with former Yell! singer Daniel James
By David Warren for Pop Expresso
After a hiatus of several years, Daniel James has returned to music with the new self-penned single “Set Your Spirit Free”, a positive message inspired by coming out of the lockdown. In this exclusive interview, James recalls some of his memories as a Pop music star in the 1980’s, working with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, of the iconic team Stock, Aitken and Waterman, being signed to Fanfare records through Simon Cowell, meeting and working with legendary music publisher Dick Leahy and even some curiosity stories about how George Michael’s late sister Melanie once dyed his hair blond. He also candidly talks about music and acting and his views on today’s music industry.
What inspired you to make music your career?
I was in a school production of The Nativity playing Joseph. I had a solo song near the end. There was total silence during my song…it was like having a secret power. Then at the end when hit and held a high note the audience including my parents erupted in applause. I suddenly felt that this may be something I could do.
What were your earliest musical influences?
I love great songwriters and composers…Bacharach and David . Benny and Bjorn from Abba. The Bee Gees. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. Marvin Gaye, Henley and Frey. Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka. Gamble and Huff. Holland Dozier Holland. Carol King. Gerry Goffin. Smokey Robinson. John and Paul. All wonderful songwriters. A feast of talent .
How much do you think your participation in the “A Song for Europe “ contest and the work “No Easy Way to Love” influenced your popularity?
It was a lovely moment. A strong ballad. I think the song still sounds strong now. Its on Youtube. So people can continue to enjoy it.
Earlier in your career you were produced by Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, of the iconic team Stock, Aitken and Waterman which released some of the 1980’s biggest pop hits. What do you recall from working with them?
It was fun working with Mike and Matt. They were hungry and very creative. We recorded at Mikes house in South East London. He had built a studio in his home. During breaks in recording we we would play football in the big garden. My brother would come down and we would all unwind. It was a great balance of great studio work and friendly play. Lots of big energy from us all.
How did you meet Simon Cowell?
Yell! had been together nearly 2 years and our manager thought that it was the right time to do some showcases. He was based at Nomis studios in West London. A very famous rehearsal studio at the time. A wonderful place. We had honed the act touring the country playing clubs and bars late at night. By day we would play school lunch clubs. We and been writing great songs for the album. So we were sharp and ready. Simon was one of the record companies that came to watch us. We had a couple of offers. Initially I wanted to sign with CBS however I was persuaded to sign with Fanfare records and work with Simon Cowell.
“Pop music always goes in cycles. Its all about timing and catching a wave.”
When you released the song “instant Replay” with Yell, there was a wave of Pop music duos and trios in Britain who were achieving phenomenal popularity across Europe and more, such as Bros or Big Fun. In your opinion was that wave the logical response of the record labels to the void that Wham! left in Pop music after they split in 1986?
Pop music always goes in cycles. Its all about timing and catching a wave. Yell! had worked incredibly hard honing our songwriting and the polishing the act. We were so wrapped up in our work.
All our energy was put into the group 24×7. Once we where gigging and writing it was all about our songs and work. We truly never looked at any other acts around. We didn’t have time. Every few years there is a new band or duo or solo singer that comes along and as is human nature another couple will come along a the same time. Look at the sixties…The Beatles The Hollies The Stones. Cilla Black,Dusty Springfield, Sandi Shaw, Lulu. The big glam bands and singers from the 70s wave. Then the fabulous bands of the 80s. Human League, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode to name but a few. Every decade we have a new wave. We were part of one of those waves in the 90s.
Many music purists recall those days as some of the best in Pop music over these last 30 years. An example was one of the artists also on Fanfare label Sinitta, that scored a string of memorable pop hits during that period that still endure to this day, something that new artists cannot seem to match. What is your opinion on it?
The music industry has changed so much. The huge advancements in technology has made the industry so much more accessible for anyone to have a hit. On one level this is fantastic. However on the other level sometimes artists don’t have longevity like before. People invested in artists in the past. Buying albums and supporting many singles. That still happens but to a lesser degree at times. People love the feeling of following an act or an artist through good times and not so good. People want to invest in an artist or band. Its about the music and words connecting. About the energy. But also timing. Some great artists never make it…because of circumstances and often little to do with talent.
Look back at the Yell! 1990 hit “Instant Replay”
Soon after the end of Yell! you were signed by George Michael’s music publisher Dick Leahy. Have you got to work or collaborate musically with George?
I never worked with George. Dick had a fabulous ear for songs and hits. Dick told me that he loved my writing and my voice. Can you imagine how wonderful that felt. He came down to the studio late at night and listened. It was an honour to have him in the room. Have his knowledge, experience and calm laid back energy. Dick was old school cool. Although I didn’t work with George his sister did dye my hair twice. Melanie, god rest her soul worked at a very swanky hairdressers in Knightsbridge and when I was singing No Easy way To Love it was decided I should be blond……I’m very dark so it took me by surprise. I gave it a try. It looked ok but I preferred my own brunette look. So after one photo session with the legend that was Sir Terry Wogan at TV Centre it was decided I would return to Melanie in Knightsbridge and return to my own colour. It was a fun experience. I was a blonde for a week
“I have had some great roles in TV dramas and have auditions regularly so hopefully I can combine both arms of my career in the future.”
The acting was one of your first passions and for a long time you decided to leave music in favor of acting. Do you have any plans to return to the stage as an actor?
I love acting. Particularly screen acting. I have had some great roles in TV dramas and have auditions regularly so hopefully I can combine both arms of my career in the future. I wish Glee was still on TV I would love to do a film or tv musical series. Or should I say a drama series with musical numbers in. I love the movie La La Land. Probably because I love California and LA so much. Ive lived, recorded and filmed tv drama in LA. I often hear celebs returning from LA and mocking it. I can honestly say that I love it . It really is not all showbiz shmaltz. Only a few streets away from the main drag there are lovely ordinary people living ordinary lives. There are many fabulous areas in and around Los Angeles. As I say away from the tourist areas its a fabulous place. The weather is great 98% of the year and there are so many gorgeous places to be, on the coast or in The Valley. There is a great working atmosphere. The thought of living there or shooting a tv series there would be a thrill for me. Or combining singing and acting. Sign me up!
“I would go for very long walks during the first lockdown. Alone. Long long walks.”
You are now releasing a new song, the self-penned ‘Set Your Spirit Free’, what can you tell music fans and your fans about this new work of yours?
This song is inspired by the long lockdowns. The world has gone through a huge emotional trauma…and still is. I would go for very long walks during the first lockdown. Alone. Long long walks. Like everyone else I had been watching the daily TV News bulletins about the numbers of deaths. Haering eerie sad true stories about elderly people trapped in care homes not being able to see or hold their family members. Children not being able to go out and play with friends. Lives turned upside down. People frightened not knowing what their future held or for their family or work. I walked and walked and Set your Spirit Free came into my head. ‘As the world turns its head, there are people around me with their hearts in their mouths not knowing the right way they should turn. Watching hair turning gray. Seeing children turn into adults days running away….its falling apart at the seems They’ve got to let us know now.. They’ve got to let us go now They’ve got to Set Your Spirit Free…’
How do you think the pandemic has influenced the music industry? Do you believe it brought in an unexpected wave of inspiration across musicians worldwide?
I’m really not sure about other people. Overall I think most artists realised how much they valued their careers over the long months of not being able to perform on stage. Personally I found lockdown incredibly tough and I am so grateful that I have managed to release Set your Spirit Free and receive such a wonderful response. For so many years I never thought I would sing again. The sudden end of Yell! so abruptly tore me apart and I felt broken for a long time. I truly never thought I would sing again, record again or anything like this would happen again. I am so grateful for this opportunity of connecting to new listeners and reconnecting with the wonderful loyal Yell! fans those fans have stuck with me for years and years. They are an incredible bunch.
Which of your recorded songs do you consider your favourite?
As this return is such a thrill I have to say that all my new material are my current favourites. I have a follow up single ready to come out in the summer. Everyone who has heard it so far, say it will be a great track to enjoy driving along with the car windows open or roof down. Or sitting by a pool or on the beach or even cycling along a country lane. Its a really upbeat summery song. I hope fans new and old will continue to enjoy Set your Spirit Free and vote for it on The Heritage Chart were it is currently in the Top 20 and then enjoy the next single in the summer.
“Set Your Spirit Free”
This fresh new single by Daniel James puts contemporary Pop music closer to a place which for music purists should had never left. By looking back at Pop songs from decades such as the 1980’s, and seeing how they still endure to this day, some cannot help but wonder how somehow the art of crafting certain song genres was lost.
Daniel James, who was a living part of the Pop music organism of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, hasn’t forgot the right chords, beats and substance in making music. “Set Your Spirit Free” presents a contemporary take on classic Pop music, pleasant to listen to and catchy enough without sounding excessively commercial. James composed the song inspired by the pandemic and the lockdown the world is still going through, and the positivity of the song can transpire not only through it’s lyrics but also the upbeat. Also worth to notice this is James return to music after several years, and his voice has matured pleasantly, which can perhaps open up new perspectives in his long career, that reached the peak of it’s popularity as a member of the duo Yell! with the smash hit “Instant Replay” in 1990. “Set Your Spirit Free” is undoubtedly one of the greatest Pop songs of 2021, will definitely please to music fans who want a break from some of today’s less endurable bluntly commercial tunes, and it is guaranteed to remain in your ears for your years to come.
Watch the lyric video for “Set Your Spirit Free” by Daniel James
Read more on Daniel James new single
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