“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 Nashville transplant and North Carolina native’s rare talent is set to be further showcased throughout 2021 with tour dates alongside Danny Gokey, his debut Christian AC radio single, “Brand New,” and a trio of mixtapes, each possessing its own distinct sound.
With his first EP, Mixtape, Side A, James unveiled a set of pop jams. The follow-up, releasing July 30, will shine a spotlight on his acoustic sensibilities, rooted in his masterful guitar skills and penchant for storytelling. “It’s some of my favorite stuff that I’ve been wanting to release for a long time,” he says of the four-track Mixtape, Side B. “All of these songs are kind of stories and parts of my life that I’m really, really passionate about.”
His second installment shines with stripped-back, personal musings and features his first recording of “3 Years,” a fan-requested favorite written for his brother. Side B also includes coming-of-age track “Until I Met You,” rest-inducing confession “In My Love” and romantic waltz “Try.”
A third mixtape, due later this year, will showcase his 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. Riding everything from the resurgent ’80s wave made popular by artists like The Weeknd and Dua Lipa to the hook-laden vibes of the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber, James is in lockstep with his peers carefully crafting music that’s both sonically relevant and lyrically rich.
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.”
This is evidenced on James’ bold single, “Brand New”—a brash statement of belief where his smooth falsetto slides effortlessly over a sonic landscape littered with bright horns, celebratory gang vocals, rhythmic hand-claps and an unmistakable R&B groove.
“As believers, we talk about salvation, we talk about how there’s such a big change when you become a Christian, coming from death to life. It’s an amazing thing, and there are a lot of songs about that, but we forget that every single day is a new beginning and God’s mercies are new each day,” James says of the message behind the song he co-wrote with Paul Duncan and Christian Hale. “We have a new chance every single day to live for Christ.”
Personally, not only has James experienced rebirth spiritually, but he’s been made new physically, as well. Having spent so much time as a kid sick and unable to play sports or do what his friends had the stamina to do, music now feels like a gift.
“I feel as if God’s given me a second chance at life. I feel like He’s made me brand new and made me the person I am so that I can write songs that come from my heart,” James shares. “I hope ‘Brand New’ lets people see that I’m carefree and fun and excited for the future and living every single day in a joyful spirit. I feel like that’s what I’m called to do—to just bring joy into people’s lives.”
James and joy are synonymous in every way, yet as a multi-faceted creative, he is also somewhat of an anomaly. 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.”