Mitch James: Making It Happen With 20 Pounds and a Guitar

January 9th 2017
Self-taught - or "YouTube-taught" as he calls it - on the guitar from the age of 14, James says school (at Saint Kentigern College in the Auckland suburb of Pakuranga) "wasn't fun" for him, and music became something of a refuge.

"I didn't really have too many mates at school, so I just went into the music centre at lunchtime and picked up the guitar - YouTube was my best friend there," he says.

"It was basically guitar in hand through all my spare time at school, at lunchtime, at break - every moment was spent in the music centre, just playing guitar. But it all paid off in the end I guess."

The pay off James is talking about is the contract he's signed with Sony Music NZ, who released his debut single Move On last month and with whom he will put out an EP of original songs in February.

But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves.

It wasn't like James simply walked out of school and into a recording contract - there's a lot more to this story than that.

First comes several years of hard slog - starting with a one-way trip to London at age 17 with nothing but a guitar and 20 pounds in his back pocket.

Again, this is starting to sound like something out of a hackneyed movie script, but for James it was very, very real.

"I walked out of Heathrow with a 20-pound note and multiple tears in the eye," he remembers. "I had to jump the gate to get onto the tube, because I didn't know it was going to be more than 20 pounds - and I needed that for a hostel."

"So I went to the cheapest hostel I could and then straight away the next morning I was onto busking. It was pretty much as close to square one as you can get."

Literally penniless, James made "about 10 or 15 pounds" that day, busking in and around Hyde Park and Leicester Square. "A lot less than I expected," he says.

With no other source of income, a roof over his head wasn't always easy to come by, and the 17-year-old singer would often spend his nights sleeping rough.

"My priorities for life were firstly food then accommodation," James explains. "I'd say probably 50 per cent of the time I'd have enough to stay at accommodation for the night. So it was kind of a bit bumpy for a bit."

"A bit bumpy" seems something of an understatement. During his time in Europe - he was based in London but also busked across Munich and Amsterdam - James was robbed twice, beaten once and also witnessed a stabbing.

"I got robbed in Amsterdam sleeping on the street, and got beaten up after a football game in London - I just kind of got myself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The stabbing was actually two nights after I got robbed, so I was having a bit of a nightmare in Amsterdam. I was parked up under a shopfront with my bags and basically saw this confrontation going on. One dude kind of just fell, and then a whole lot of blood started coming out. Amsterdam was pretty loose, that's for sure."

At this point the question has to be asked - what prompts a kid fresh out of school to put himself through this, travelling to the other side of the planet with no money, no contacts, and apparently what seems like very little in the way of a plan?

Part of the blame - or the credit - goes to James' fellow singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who also busked and gigged around London - and Los Angeles - before making it big.

"I think it was 2011 when I found Ed Sheeran and just kind of loved his music," James says. "I found out a bit more about his story and his blueprint was really gigging every day in London and just going hard at that basically, so I thought that's what I gotta do to go and make it somewhere."

"It didn't really pan out that exact way, but it definitely carved out my niche, for sure."

There's a whole lot more to the Mitch James story - and more chapters yet to be written no doubt - but to cut a long story short, James got an email from Sony earlier this year while working in a German hostel.

They'd seen some song covers he'd put up on YouTube and Facebook and wanted to know if he had any original material.

"So I went into the basement of this hostel with my shitty little mic that I plug into my phone and played an original into it. They enjoyed it, got me to play a few more originals when I came back to New Zealand, loved it, signed me up and here we are."

"Without getting all religious, it's a blessing ay - it's just crazy to be where I am from where I was even six months ago, let alone a year or two. Just crazy."

- Article sourced from

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