Glasvegas singer James Allan: Why praise and success led to pain


Glasvegas singer James AllanImage copyright
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Glasvegas are currently on a 10th anniversary tour

It’s 2008, and MySpace and NME are still kings of the music scene, record labels are still throwing money at bands, and bands still have something to say.

Glasvegas have come fourth on the BBC Sound of 2008 list (behind a winner called Adele) after the NME declared their debut single Daddy’s Gone the second-best track of 2007 (behind, er, Klaxons).

Alan McGee, who discovered Oasis, is raving about the group to anyone who will listen. Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of their idol Elvis, is a fan after discovering them on MySpace. And Columbia Records has thrown bags of money in their direction to sign them.

Their debut album came out that autumn and was widely acclaimed for its emotional honesty, its dense, enveloping musical aura, and for its hard-worn poetry straight from Glasgow ’s East End.

“You maybe believe in yourself a bit when you’re growing up,” singer and songwriter James Allan reflects, a decade on.

“But you’re not used to all these people being full of enthusiasm about how you’ve made something that’s special, and is really about their life, and is something that’s never been really said in that way in a song… and all these mad, crazy compliments.”

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Getting that reaction sounds like an artist’s dream. But the more the compliments flowed, the less Allan felt he deserved them. He didn’t think he could be the person others expected him to be.

“There was a part of me that subconsciously thought, if I’m just me, that will let them down. So there’s a pressure there. Whatever their ideas are of who you are, if I’m me, that’s not going to be enough. Because I’m me.”

It was only several years later that he realised the experience had made him depressed. “I did feel the pain of it,” he says.

The self-titled debut album reached number two in the UK (behind Metallica) and was nominated for the Mercury Prize (losing to Speech Debelle). Despite the plaudits, it was as if the band were too embarrassed to ever reach first place.

They weren’t embarrassed by the songs themselves, though, and are now playing the album in full on a 10th anniversary tour – their first UK tour since 2013.

Over time, Allan says he’s realised the expectations he felt were unrealistic. “What I am is enough, I think, and I don’t think I thought that before.”

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Glasvegas played at the 2008 BBC Electric Proms

Do the songs still mean as much as they did a decade ago? “Yeah, they do, and I’m quite lucky for that,” the frontman replies.

The album has stood the test of time, he thinks.

“It feels right because it’s got a clear atmosphere and a consistent energy to it that, on a whole, seems like it makes sense. Maybe it makes perfect sense.”

Allan began writing music while playing for football in Scotland for clubs including Falkirk, East Fife and Queen’s Park.

He tried to apply the lessons of football to the band. In both, you begin playing with an innocent abandon, which inevitably gets clouded by the opinions of others.

‘Footballs with teeth’

“The football coming towards you used to be a beautiful thing. And then in time that ball can be coming at you with teeth on it,” he says.

“There’s a fear and an insecurity there, and the way you view that beautiful thing can really change. So I was probably being overcautious about trying my best not to let that happen with music, and trying to hang on to the innocence of it.

“If you can hang onto that innocence, then that brings a freedom of thought, and if that thought is free from one second to the next, you never know what’s going to happen. It could be something really magical, and I always find that quite exciting.”

The treadmill of touring the first album didn’t lend itself to keeping that spirit of freedom alive.

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Bandmates Rab Allan, Caroline McKay and Paul Donoghue appeared at the 2009 Mercury Prize ceremony – minus James Allan

In 2009, Allan’s bandmates said he had gone missing after failing to travel with them from Italy to the UK for the Mercury Prize ceremony. He turned up five days later in New York , and now says he’d had enough of being told where to go and what to do.

“I’d been out that night and I turned up to the airport quite drunk, and when I got there before everybody I was just thinking about that, and I was just like, I don’t actually want to go. Nobody’s really asked me.

“It was just assumed that you’d play the game, but I’ve never really been like that. If somebody thought I was there to play the game, sometimes I’d be a bit over-sensitive and be quite brutal in the way I’d do something. Looking back, it’s probably my own insecurities.”

It was two more years before the band released their follow-up album, Euphoric Heartbreak, which entered the chart at number 10 but dropped out of the top 40 the following week.

At that point, Columbia dropped Glasvegas, and Allan says they asked the band to stay quiet about the fact for several months.

‘Naive and arrogant’

If the band have a signature song, the one that touches people the deepest, it’s still Daddy’s Gone – Allan’s heartbreaking outpouring about the departure of his father from the family home.

Over the years, he’s gone through a gamut of emotions about the track – from sympathy for his younger self, to feeling like “an idiot” for being so “naive and arrogant” as to not consider what was going on in his dad’s life, and wishing he had never written it.

“I’m my father. I’m a million times worse. Sometimes I would feel, how could I be so judgemental in the song?” he says.

“I’ve never spoken to my dad about the song. I love my father and he’s such a kind guy, and he’s hilarious. He is amazing. And now I understand everything. I would have been the exact same if I was him.”

Reconciliation with Daddy

Since the song came out, the singer says he and his father have become more constant fixtures in each other’s lives.

“My sister asked him years ago, did he hear the song? And the thing I always remember, and it blew my mind, is that he said he was so proud of it, and that I should always have complete creative freedom.

“It blew my mind because I don’t think I would have been that soulful towards something like that. I think I would have been much more childish and much more feeling sorry for myself if I was in his position.

“So in a way, my admiration for him has grown through that song. It’s weird how that’s happened hasn’t it?”

He says this with such affection and satisfaction that, even if that album’s journey was a rocky one, there has been something that could be called a happy ending.

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