James Chapman's moody, dream-fuzzed songs spent 2006 evolving from home-taped reveries to NME-charting singles. This year, with a new album in the works, a partnership with Bjork soundman Valgeir Sigurdsson, and a rising tide of blog interest, the Northampton (UK) songwriter is poised to move from off the map to off the charts.
The song starts with little more than a whisper, its wrinkled papery longing cut by the merest hint of keyboard drone and synthesized bass drum. "Yeah, the summer cold can co-ome," sings James Chapman, known more and more these days by his nom de plume Maps, pausing for breath before continuing, "Brings you sounds you thought were go-one." It's just a wisp of melody, barely there but riveting. And yet while the song starts out vulnerable, clearing showing its 16-tracked bedroom taped roots, it gains hazy pop heft in the chorus, a dreamy, floaty, pearlized cloud of sad euphoria, set to the words, "I found a love / But lost my soul."
That's "Lost My Soul", the opening cut to Chapman's blog-inciting EP Start Something, a collection of six superlatively beautiful, densely populated one-man songs. The EP, along with an earlier single, have lately won this Northampton native a deal with Mute, raves from NME, and a production partner best-known for working with Bjork. "Yeah, it's great!" says Chapman, asked about the sudden rash of interest. "It gives you a real buzz when you know people are liking what you're doing. Probably the most exciting thing that's happened was our first London show, which was sold out. They were turning loads of people away on the door -- pretty crazy really." That was on November 24th at London's Luminaire, where hipsters were packed to the walls, drawn by the ever-building buzz around Maps' electro-pop songs.
Not bad when you consider that music has long been a fairly solitary undertaking for Chapman. He got his start at seven, playing the violin. "I still sometimes play it now, when I need it in something I'm writing, but I haven't kept it up as much as I'd have liked to!" he admits. Forming his first band at 17, Chapman invested in a 4-track recorder so that he could keep track of songwriting ideas. That purchase proved to be a more decisive milestone than anything the band itself produced. "Then when the band broke up I carried on writing on my own. I got a real buzz out of it, and still do," he says.
Chapman's delicate balance -- between unearthly electronic atmospheres and flesh-and-blood pop sounds -- may reflect his own love of both chart-worthy songs and experimental glitch. "I was going out and getting drunk for the first time when Britpop was at its height I suppose," he says. "That's when I was in a band for the first time. I was listening to bands like the Stone Roses, Spacemen 3, the Chemical Brothers. I've never really thought about what the specific influences were on this record. I've just been listening to a lot of new electronic music in the last few years -- that's what's exciting me at the moment."
Lately, though, he's been attuned to sound, rather than strict verse-chorus melodies, a progression you can hear moving from the EP's oldest cut "Some Winter Song" to more current compositions like "Lost My Soul". "Some Winter Song", with its gentle guitar jangle and straightforward singing, sounds more like a conventional song than anything else on the record. By contrast "Lost My Soul" and "Tonic Girls" are textures, moods ... a pure distillation of sound that goes directly to the head.
Asked about how he constructs this signature dream-fuzzy sound, Chapman says, "I do take a lot of time over that. I normally think about how I'm going to record the song when I'm in the early stages of writing it. I do try to make each song different from what I've done before somehow, and that's generally through the sounds I use."
The words, then, are evocative but mysterious, not quite linear but tied inextricably to the song's melancholy vibe. "'Lost My Soul' is about wanting to be with someone really badly, but knowing that they're not good for you at all. I think it's a situation that most people have been in at some point," he explains. "The chorus is bittersweet really, I guess."
For this record, Chapman employed a limited palette of instruments. "I mainly used my sequencer, which has synth sounds and drum sounds on it, and a little 'pocket' sampler which I sometimes fed through my effects pedal," he says. "I used my acoustic and electric guitars as well. Then I mixed it down on to my 16-track."
Asked about how the synthetic sounds blend with natural ones -- or what the relationship between organic tones and artifice should be -- Chapman declines (perhaps wisely) to pontificate. "I've never really thought about that really," he says. "I do love experimenting with synths loads though. I love the fact that you can have so much control over everything on a synth. You don't have that with guitars. I guess that's why some people prefer guitars, but I think I'm the opposite!"
Yet, like it or not, Chapman is now making his peace with guitars (and reduced control), as he remakes his songs for a full five-piece band. He's playing guitar, sequencer, and singing himself at live performances now, augmented by friends Ben on drums, Phil on keyboards, Andy on bass, and Matt on keyboards and drums. There's also a laptop at live shows. "It's pretty different to the recorded sound, but I reckon that's a good thing really," he says. "We'll be playing a lot more gigs this year."
Chapman will also be broadening the instrumentation on his upcoming CD, titled We Can Create and due out on Mute in May. He worked with producer Valgeir Sigurdsson (Bjork, Bonnie Prince Billy, Coco Rosie) in Reykjavik, Iceland on the CD, a collaboration that he says was extremely positive. "He was great to work with. I really fell in love with Iceland, too," he says. "We worked from my demos and added new sounds and beats. We also used strings and brass on a few of the tracks which was awesome."
Along with the new CD, Maps will be giving away a Regions CD, a collaborative project in which Maps works with other bands. The first, a remix swap with The Longcut, is already in the can, and Chapman says he's looking forward to subsequent editions. "That's it really," he says, signing off. "Can't wait for this year! Cheers!"