With his slightly husky, silky evocative voice, easy smile and casual manner, singer-songwriter and pianist Reuben James has become one of the most exciting artists to have emerged in recent years on the music scene.

    Reuben grew up in a musical house in Bromford, Birmingham, with parents who loved music and had a huge vinyl collection. He listened to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and reggae and started playing the piano at the age of just three – by himself, without any formal tuition. By his teenage years, Reuben had developed a fascination for jazz and was playing with the charity responsible for Symphony Hall and Town Hall in Birmingham (now rebranded B:Music). Reuben remembers those days with true fondness. “B:Music gave me my first real platform and a chance to showcase my skills. They had me playing after Jamie Cullum and they even let me open for saxophonist Wayne Shorter at the Town Hall. With them I learnt about the craft of performance and how to interact with an audience.”

    His success though is not just based on his natural talent or his discipline (he used to practise piano up to six hours a day) but as he says, “There are many other factors to consider,” he adds, “The most important to me is to have personality and stories to tell, so your music connects with people at an emotional level, but it takes a very long time to realise who you are. In my case, I found a community of artists that inspire and push me to be a better musician.” It was the influence of another artist, John Legend, whom he saw performing at the Birmingham Academy, which encouraged him to pursue a career in music. 

    It takes a very long time to realise who you are. In my case, I found a community of artists that inspire and push me to be a better musician.


      Reuben James

    His talent earned him a scholarship to Trinity College of Music, which, to his mum’s dismay, he gave up to go on tour with an up-and-coming artist he’d met. Reuben famously said to his friends that he had a gut feeling this guy was going to be big. That guy was Sam Smith, with whom he co-wrote songs for his four million-selling album The Thrill of It All. A couple of years later, Reuben found himself performing at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles and sitting next to Stevie Wonder. Since, he has worked with living legends such as Nile Rodgers, Joni Mitchell, Liam Payne and Bonnie Raitt among many others. My colleague Papa, a devotee of jazz, defines Reuben’s music as “an intricate fusion of a classical jazzy style, made with authentic original instruments but also sweetly blended with a contemporary sensational sound. Like a blast from the past, a journey into sound, played by the greats, but in a 21st-century studio, with state-of-the-art equipment”.

    Reuben shows his range and variety of skill throughout all his albums. Papa mentions how he feels the influence of some of the old-school jazz gods, such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker but also detects some new-school flavours, which make him think of D’Angelo, Justin Timberlake or Anderson Paak, even Michael Jackson, particularly in the Adore album. Reuben agrees, “I grew up listening to Michael and love his music. He has definitely influenced my work, especially my singing, where I like introducing falsettos; him and classics like Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye.” 

    In music, timing is very important. From measuring beats to when I improvise on stage and get completely lost in time, a kind of zen feeling that I am always chasing.


      Reuben James

    Even if his singing has been received with open arms by his adoring fans, Reuben still sees himself as an instrumentalist with jazz and soul at the heart of everything he writes. As such, he feels heavily influenced by the likes of Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and his piano style pays homage to musicians such as Ahmad Jamal “and some of the jazz guys that really get me going in the morning”, he adds. Reuben was mentored by artists such as Roy Ayers, Jon Batiste and Eric Lewis. “Education is everything,” he states, “so I want to get involved and work with the next generation, especially in Birmingham, and with B:Music.”

    This self-taught talent, who by his own admission, “can’t read music”, left critics and music enthusiasts with their jaws on the floor with his debut album, Adore, released in 2019. The eponymous track, maybe the most popular, “came to me in a dream,” Reuben shares, “well, rather that time when you are kind of both awake and asleep. I got out of bed and recorded the whole thing there and then. It was mental.” It is worth mentioning the last track in the album, “Outro”, which sounds like a poem, but he explains “is just my friend Michael Mwenso, who used to feature with James Brown from a young age and is one of my most important mentors. I asked him to send me a voice memo speaking about jazz. I liked it so much that I just chopped it up a little bit and added it at the end of the album.”


    From left to right, Reuben’s albums Adore (2019), Slow Down (2020) and Tunnel Vision (2021). 

    From Adore (2019), to Slow Down (2020), an album conceived during lockdown, which received general critical acclaim. “I had moved back with my parents as my life dramatically slowed down,” he explains. “I wrote the album mostly to help me relax and heal and I thought that if it helped me, it could help other people at such a difficult time.” By the time his third album, Tunnel Vision, was released in 2021, the world had gone back to some kind of normality and one can feel that effervescent mood in the songs. “Tunnel Vision is like a mixtape of loads of new kinds of vibey singles that have been weighing on me. I’m not stuck in one style. I want to experiment and try new things and if people don’t like it, so be it.” Well, people loved it and so did the critics, who have openly praised the album and Reuben for his top instrumental talent and the skill with which he has ventured into a jazzy nu-soul R&B style.

    Hearing how influenced Reuben’s work is by great artists of the past, Papa wonders what he makes of the mainstream music that most of the youth listen to these days. “I am not really into that scene; not in a bad way, it is just that I don’t listen to much radio pop, I am an old soul so I am into different stuff, but some of the mainstream music I hear is very good. I like bands like Khruangbin and Thee Sacred Souls.” Reuben particularly likes the jazz-influenced R&B that is coming out of America these days. “Artists such as Kamasi, Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin. That’s why I feel that maybe my music is more appreciated out there.”


    Reuben has just finished recording Sam Smith’s new album and is currently working with several other artists such as Tom Misch, Marcus Mumford and Disclosure.

    For the last few years, Reuben has been a friend of the luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet, and as such, played at many of its private events as well as larger gigs, such as the party it threw in London for the 50th anniversary of the iconic Royal Oak watch. “It doesn’t really feel like work when I come to AP house [London] to play, it feels more like visiting friends and family,” he comments. “Also, it is kind of fitting, a musician partnering up with a watch brand. In music, timing is very important. From measuring beats to when I improvise on stage and get completely lost in time, a kind of zen feeling that I am always chasing.” His rich history and lineage in jazz music allows Reuben to transport his audience to different times, different worlds. Listening to him playing, I certainly feel that way, as if suspended in time – “suspended chords are my favourite” – he comments.

    Reuben has just finished recording Sam Smith’s new album and is currently working with several other artists such as Tom Misch, Marcus Mumford and Disclosure, to mention but a few. As if this wasn’t enough, he reveals to us that he has just finished writing a new album, working with New York-based producer Carrtoons, and plans to release it either end of this year or early in 2023. He looks very proud when he says, “This album is groovy, very cool, a bit more fun than the previous ones. I think it has some of the best stuff I’ve ever made.” He is not sure about the name yet but Papa presses on a bit and he shares, “It may be called Champagne Kisses but that may change.” The celebratory title could be owed to the fact that Reuben’s first child is due in just a few weeks. Definitely an occasion for champagne and kisses. 

    I want to play in bigger venues, make better music. I want to push myself to be the best musician I can be…

      Reuben James

    Alongside this new album, Reuben is set to release his first ever collection of solo piano music. Piano Love 1 is a five-track EP based around the theme of love. It features a selection of music recorded at his home studio in South-East London. The repertoire includes Reuben’s version of the Bob Dylan’s classic “Make You Feel My Love” as well as three original compositions. A restlessly creative spirit, Reuben is determined to keep developing and growing as an artist. “Within the next five years, I’d like to reach three, five, even 10 times as many people as I do at present with my music,” he shares. “I want to play in bigger venues, make better music. I want to push myself to be the best musician I can be.” 

    Piano Love 1 is out on December 2nd.

    Track list: 

    Love At Christmas Time (Reuben James)
    A Mother’s Love (Reuben James)
    Make You Feel My Love (Bob Dylan)
    I’m Through With Love (Kahn/Livingston/Malneck)
    Love From The Other Side (Reuben James)

    Reuben’s recently released Tunnel Vision mixtape is available HERE and 2020’s Slow Down HERE.  

    Interview by Julia Pasarón and Papa Abebrese, conducted at AP house, London.
    Photography by The Best of Simple (except for the album covers)
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