The singer-songwriter has already witnessed his words sung by a chorus of tens of thousands. Yet the echoes of football terraces are far removed on his debut album, replaced by the everyday symphony of working-class Liverpool. Cath Holland profiles the personality breaking through in his original songwriting.
Walking through Liverpool’s north docks, it’s difficult to ignore the conspiracy theories sprayed on to walls in big, angry red letters. If we love our family enough and want a free world, we need to wise up about 5G, or something like that.
A few steps away, in the building round the corner, and I’m inside another world entirely: JAMIE WEBSTER’s modest but well-equipped rehearsal space. There’s a nice selection of guitars hung on the walls. Each has a personal back story, cheerily relayed to me by the affable Webster. The affectionately-told précis of each is in tune with the singer-songwriter’s reputation as a consummate storyteller, a skill evident on his debut album We Get By.
I’ve read interviews and listened to podcasts in preparation for our meeting, and they principally focus on the 26-year-old’s intrinsic relationship with football, with colourful tales to accompany events around the sport, both funny and sad, working-class assurances typically peppered in. And, true to form, he describes We Get By, chockfull of stories, as “a document of the joys, escapes and struggles of working-class life in a nutshell”.
This seems a little too rehearsed. What does being working-class mean to him? It’s tough to define. It can mean poverty, but doesn’t have to. If we go to uni, move to a leafy suburb and have two cars on the drive, can we still claim ‘working-class’? The pair of us chew it over, listing criteria in a ‘how long’s a piece of string?’ scenario. We settle on an awareness of our roots never leaving us, no matter what.
“Having that mindset where you can respect people who don’t do as well as you, you understand their struggle. I could sell three million records but still be working-class in the sense that I still understand my mate’s been laid off and he’s looking round for work,” he explains. “I feel that feeling, that fear. Having that automatic thought, ‘Is there anything I can do, what can we do?’. Having that sense of togetherness, sense of community.”
Webster’s album views the world through a working-class lens, for sure, alternately stark, and in a broader romantic sense. It’s both scathing and affectionate. Witty, too. On Common People he sings, “So officer is it your arse I’m supposed to kiss/I’m sorry lad today I’ll give that one a miss…” Carrying a strong narrative, Webster’s songs can be intensely personal. He lost a couple of friends due to mental health issues, and The Joker is “about how many times someone is abandoned by the system and for how long does someone have to put on the mask of a smiling clown before it cracks”.
He may take a well-aimed swipe at things that get under his skin, like valuing appearances over people, and the Tories – of course – and in the striking Weekend In Paradise he takes to task going out on one bender too many; but, ultimately, it’s a record of affection, warmth and honesty.
Webster’s ascendance is a story in itself, “an anomaly”: winning popularity singing songs long loved by The Kop, videos of football chants going insanely viral before introducing his audience to his own material, all while working as an electrician. His story is the epitome of working-class kid done good, if you like. We get sold the myth of the everydayness of pop stars, politicians and public figures all the time, but scrape the surface and the strong whiff of bullshit clarifies the situation pretty damn quick. Webster literally got his hands dirty, starting work on a building site the day after he left school. “Didn’t even have my summer holidays!” he attests.
At work, at the match, in local pubs, he got to know lots of people. “Some of them have it well, some of them don’t have it so well,” he says. It’s their stories as well as his, he explains, informing his songs on We Get By. In a band when in his mid-teens (“we weren’t very good”), he kept his hand in by doing covers in pubs on Friday nights before moving on to playing what he calls “the Liverpool gigs”.
“I’ve had the strangest route ever into this industry through the football back door,” he admits.
He performs with a full band now, and in true Liverpool tradition, has Scouse music royalty firmly around him. With Lightning Seeds’ Tim Cunningham on bass, Jim Sharrock (nephew of There She Goes-era The La’s Chris Sharrock) on drums, Mick Head’s Red Elastic Band member Danny Murphy on guitar; plus, he’s produced by Rich Turvey (The Coral, Blossoms) in Parr Street.
Jamie is proud of his Lakewood acoustic hanging on the wall in his rehearsal space (“I paid it off monthly over three years. It’s paid for itself”), and his acoustic singer-songwriter roots earn comparisons with fellow anomaly, Scotland’s Gerry Cinnamon. Both men found success by “people power”, as Webster puts it proudly. But he is gutted he won’t get to play legendary King Tut’s in Glasgow on the forthcoming tour. Like the Liverpool date, it’s been upgraded to a larger venue. I suggest it’s a nice problem to have. “Yeh,” Jamie laughs. “It is.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Webster’s musical references are familiar and close to home. Based on his acoustic singer-songwriter origins, 1980s Liverpool scally pop is unashamedly present, with toe-tapping tunefulness and heart-on-sleeve sincerity. The Beatles and Oasis pushed through in his teen years. “My early songs reflect that,” he replies. The La’s are an ever present source of inspiration to him in the here and now as an adult. Bob Dylan’s a big one for him as well, on the surface slightly more random but in the hours before we meet up, he is taken to nearby Dublin Street for photographs, where those famous Barry Feinstein pictures of Dylan with a bunch of Liverpool kids in 1966 were taken. Dylan looked like an alien in black and a noisy checked shirt, Cuban heels and bird’s nest hair against the empty brick backdrop, and yet totally at home at the same time.
Jamie finds solidarity with the logic of Dylan’s “I’ve got three chords and the truth” ideology. “His music’s not unbelievably complicated. Alright, his lyrics are profound, but he says things how you’d say them in a conversation.”
Writing a song about Liverpool as Webster does in This Place, about his love and respect for the city, it’s easy to fall face-first into a vat of cheese and sentimentality. He neatly sidesteps that trap.
“It’s about not forgetting where I’ve grown up. To try and make the lyrics like me, rough and ready, but they hold a meaning, there’s a story behind it. Once you’ve got the full story out, the lyrics start to make sense a little bit more. It’s like an argument; you start off an argument but you don’t stop it two sentences in and take questions, do you? You put your point firmly down.”
We go over Noel Gallagher’s songwriting, how Oasis lyrics are often as close to nonsense as you can get. In truth it’s the melodies which capture the imagination. What Webster takes from Gallagher is keeping melodies fresh.
“When I write songs I’ll get my phone out, record [hums a tune], them I’ll listen back, and I’ll be, ‘Is that too generic ,maybe?’ So I’ll listen again and [hums similar tune but not the same], it’s finding the little differences. Wonderwall is a cracking song, but if every line was ‘today is gonna be the day they’re gonna…’, and then another one and another one is like that, it wouldn’t be the song that it is.”
These days he’s more likely to throw on The La’s than The Beatles, he tells me. That’s even with The La’s reaching its 30-year milestone this year, meaning it’s older than he is.
“I think it’s a lot more working-class,” he says after a pause. “He’s talking about Doledrum… without being snobby. I love The Beatles, but I’m looking for something more ‘now’ in lyrics.”
The Beatles were incredible in capturing their own time, from those early fresh Lennon songs to the later, darker, more cynical psychedelic works. Could it be The La’s sum-up your world now, maybe?
He nods. “Looking Glass is one of my favourite ever songs. I think the journey it takes you on – the way it builds – is amazing, but it leaves open-ended questions. The La’s make you think, they sort of make me want to explore, make me want to write. Looking Glass is ‘tell me where I’m going, tell me where I’m bound’: that’s a question everyone asks themselves because no one knows that, do they? ‘Turn the pages over, turn the world around’ that could mean one of a million things, but to me it means let’s keep going, keep moving, see where it takes us.”
Webster’s life has changed so much, going from the day job to full-time musician. Stopping working for the family business a couple of years ago was unavoidable after realising mid-tour he’d been working the equivalent of two full-time jobs. “When I should’ve been at my happiest because I’m doing all these great things, I’m thinking ‘Ah, I’ve got loads of paperwork to do when I get home’. It was an awful lot of pressure, and my personal relationship with my mum and dad suffered because of it,” he explains.
“It’s a good trade, it’s made me what I am,” he says of his days as an electrician. “It’s done everything for me, I wouldn’t change a thing. But it was my dream to be able to get up in the morning and play my guitar and write songs.”
He tells of the support he’s had from his community, family and friends, the Liverpool fans, BOSS Nights, practical advice and support from The Anfield Wrap and label Modern Sky, adjusting to this new stage in his life. When his record label explained to him about booking agents, press, the different people who support an artist, Webster’s response was “what, can one fella not do all that?” Everything was a learning curve, writing songs to a deadline, recording, playing to a click, even maintaining his social media.
“It was a whole new world to me.” He gestures around us. “I sit in this room sometimes 13, 14 hours a day writing songs, thinking about so many different concepts and complexities. Even changing lines, sometimes, because people might think I’m having a go but I’m not. Stuff like that. It’s nerve-wracking.”
He confesses to nervousness when he first introduced his own songs to the world. He sells venues out now, but has recent memories performing to audiences unfamiliar with his songs. The crowd gassing to each other about what they had for tea, waiting for the headliner to come on.
“When it’s not your crowd and you can hear people talking, you can hear people coming in and out. I can’t wait for the album to be out so people can get used to the music and fall in love with it, hopefully.”
So if he has an awkward crowd, how does he cope with it, how does he get them on his side?
“Early on it put me off big, every single thing was getting to me. But you’ve got to win them over, that’s what you do, you can’t let it get you down or moan about it. There’s 300 people there, but 100 people clap and cheer. You take that and move onto your next song. It builds as the gig goes on.”
Recently, he was named on the Liverpool Echo list of most influential people in the city. Does he feel influential?
He laughs. “I just feel like a normal lad who’s had a lucky break, really.”
Oh, come on! He admits younger musicians “might try and emulate how I’ve done things, take a few little tricks off me,” but jokes “it’s not going to add any inches to my height”.
What about your lyrics’ impact?
“I’m hoping so. I’m not trying to start a massive movement where I’m marching down to Parliament, but there’s a lot of things that I know people like me feel, people from my background not only in Liverpool but up and down the country and other countries.”
It seems to me, seeing his audience’s response to him and even looking at comments on social media, it’s a collective sense of shared experiences, that notion of community, which seem to me as much a part of Jamie Webster’s success as his links with a popular football club.
“If you feel on top of the world stood on your own, you’ll feel ten times better on top of the world with ten mates that feel the same. That sense of togetherness is an invincibility.”
Granada TV are due to film Webster after my allotted time is up, but there’s a lot to pull apart in the time remaining. The way the working-class were manipulated over Brexit and blamed for so much of society’s ills, fingers pointed for using the bus to get to work during lockdown, and the first ones to suffer in the bad times. Eventually, I bid him goodbye and return back to town the way I came, the 5G graffiti still very loud and very there. But from this angle I glimpse up ahead rolled up nuggets of chewing gum lined up neatly on a rubbish bin’s ledge, because ‘Only Meffs Drop Litter’, further graffiti reads. Positive community spirit? It is alive, and very well indeed.
We Get By is available now via Modern Sky.