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“I used to have an issue with writing happy songs. I didn’t know how to.”
This statement immediately seems contradictory when you meet singer, songwriter and guitar aficionado Coby James. The exuberant 19-year-old appears as carefree as they come, his smile as big as the heart on his sleeve. One would think his cheerful personality would naturally lead to happy songs. Yet, his first two decades of life have dealt some difficult blows, instilling in him a maturity and inner strength that lends itself to crafting songs out of hard truths versus happy endings.
James, however, has channeled his pain into melody, making him something of a prodigy as he writes, produces and performs all of his own music. Happy or not, James is building something far greater than a feeling. He’s assembling relatable moments, packaged in vibrant sonics and carefully curated from a wide range of artistic influences.
Although he’s still a new artist, James has already notched a No. 1 song on Billboard’s Christian Hot AC/CHR chart as a contributing writer on Courtnie Ramirez’s track, “Who We Are.” Moreover, he’s also scored a Top 5 hit on the same chart with “Born Ready,” a song on which he serves as the lead artist, co-writer and co-producer. James is no doubt a triple threat.
The North Carolina native’s rare talent is set to be further showcased throughout 2021 across a trio of mixtapes, each possessing its own distinct sound. With the first EP, James will unveil a set of pop jams. Additional releases will shine a spotlight on his acoustic sensibilities, rooted in his masterful guitar skills; as well as his more artsy, experimental side—the side that isn’t afraid to tinker in the studio.
The oldest of three siblings, James wrote his first song at age 7; but he became obsessed with songwriting when he turned 15. An avid student of John Mayer, the burgeoning guitarist studied Mayer’s Room for Squares, attempting to emulate every chord and sonic embellishment. While he loves a good lyric, he’s equally at home with an extended jam session and admits to being completely enamored with every part of the production process.
“Sound is, in a way, like a science. It’s just so much fun to shape and mold and make something that sounds unique,” James says.
“The way it’s all put together, the way the pieces fit—that is something that’s just so beautiful. I love how it all comes together. That’s the most exciting part for me.”
At first listen, his music immediately draws you in because it’s hard to peg. It doesn’t sound like anything else, yet at the same time, it’s vaguely familiar. “Music’s a sweet melting pot,” James offers. “I’ve always been a big believer that the only way to grow is to learn from other people. I love collaboration. I think everybody brings different things to the table. I’m inspired by other artists, and hopefully one day, I can inspire somebody else.”
His appreciation for pop music runs deep with a sound that melds a clear mix of beats directly influenced by current chart-toppers with his own experimental edge evident in even the finest sonic details of his songs. “Golden” incorporates the uplifting vibes of the Jonas Brothers and Julia Michaels, while pop smash “Simple” blends elements of Alec Benjamin and Justin Bieber. Meanwhile, “New Roots” is reminiscent of Coldplay, and “Castles” rides the resurgent ’80s wave made popular by artists like The Weeknd and Dua Lipa.
While his production prowess behind the board shines, the astute listener will wisely take a deep dive into his lyrics. “I’m a storyteller,” says James. “I want to tell my story; I want to tell other people’s stories, and it’s always going to come from a Christian perspective.”
It’s a perspective he gleaned growing up in church in his small hometown outside of Raleigh, where he eventually began leading worship. It’s also a point of view he derived from listening to Christian music as a kid, who was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. As a child, he additionally battled Lyme disease, as well as half a dozen other illnesses that accompanied Lyme. Treatment included large doses of antibiotics and up to ten hours a day receiving IVs. “That’s one reason why I want to be in Christian music, because I definitely feel like I have a lot to say when it comes to trials and tribulations,” James offers. “I feel like I’ve definitely been through the wringer in a way, but God used those things that I went through to give me something to talk about and a layer of depth that I can dig into when I’m writing.
“I think it’s helped me in ways I could never imagine,” he continues. “I thank God for the fact that I went through those things. In the moment, I didn’t quite know why, but I now think it’s because it gave me something to say.”
He rips a chapter out of his own backstory for “Happier,” a darker Billie Eilish-meets-Shawn Mendes track written as a letter of sorts to his paternal grandfather, whom he’s never met as a result of an estranged relationship between James’ own father and his dad. He penned the heavy cut with We The Kingdom’s Scott Cash. “I pray for him and think about him often,” James says of the mysterious man who shares his DNA. “We have the same eyes. He shares my blood. There’s somebody out there who looks like me that I don’t know.”
It’s a song that’s resonated with numerous fans, who’ve come up to James after shows or messaged him on Instagram to let him know they can relate to the heartbreaking relationship dynamic.
Meanwhile, new songs like “Simple” drop a beat that’s as pop as they come, but travel into thoughtful, descriptive lyrical territory as James explores the cost of fame vividly set in the Hollywood hills.
“When you’re chasing fame and chasing money, you lose yourself,” he asserts. “It’s a very real thing that a lot of artists and people in this industry deal with—slowly forgetting why you’re really here.”
“Simple” was born in a writer’s room in Nashville after James and his fellow co-writers hit a creative wall. That’s when James started strumming four chords and singing the song’s initial line: “Mama says she don’t want me to go.” They chased down the idea from there, landing on a concept and a hook that have all the makings of a massive hit.
Then there’s “Golden”—James’ first self-described “happy song.” He wrote the positive track with his longtime collaborator David Spencer shortly after he moved to Nashville and spent the next month sleeping in Spencer’s vocal booth and eating dinner every night with the producer’s family. “The song is about the transformational love of God. It feels really good to be loved by Him, and we should celebrate that,” James enthuses of the track penned during 2020’s quarantine. “His love’s golden, it’s one of a kind.”
James, himself, is golden, one of a kind. He’s an anomaly in every way. As an artist, he’s drawn to unorthodox modern pop beats. As a believer, he’s led by his Christian values. As a guitarist, he’s driven by a singular instrument, intent on honing his craft until he’s every bit the expert. As a 19-year-old on the cusp of full-fledged adulthood, he’s a thoughtful extrovert, who admittedly eats, sleeps and breathes music. He occasionally surfs, too, but even on days when he’s lucky enough to catch a wave, he’s writing. And his music is proof that his work ethic is unmatched. He writes every single day—that’s what makes him happy. It’s a habit he’s been cultivating since songwriting lit a fire under him at 15.
“I started this whole journey writing and producing songs in my bedroom, so for me, that’s where I’m the most comfortable,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m still that same young kid in my bedroom hoping I’ll create something the whole world will sing one day.”