James Arthur: 'My parents put me up for foster care, no-one cared about me ... I've always been trying to survive'
He freely admits he could have ended up on the 'scrapheap', but now James Arthur is reclaiming his dreams. The former X-Factor winner talks to Joe Nerssessian about growing up, and why arena tours and a self-help book are up next.
The night before the Brits last month, James Arthur tweeted that if anyone had told him a year ago he'd be up for two awards, his response would have been, 'F*** off'.
And who could blame him? His tumultuous period after winning The X Factor back in 2012 was well-documented.
He rowed with fellow musicians online, offended the LGBT community and got dropped by Syco, Simon Cowell's record label.
It all read like a tale of self-destruction, rather than one of music success.
But now the Middlesbrough-born 29-year-old is back - and as far as surprise turnarounds go, he's crafted a career revival that bows down only to Craig David's.
Arthur may not have taken any gongs home from the Brits but says it was an "honour" to be nominated. Before that, his sophomore album, Back From The Edge - released in October, shot to number one in the charts, as did lead single Say You Won't Let Go; he's back on the books at Syco, and has just started on a UK tour that runs throughout this month.
"It's mind-blowing," he mutters softly, rolling his rings around his fingers as he speaks.
"At the Brits two years ago, Jimmy Carr got up and made some crack about me having a meltdown, and I remember watching it, thinking, 'I am a joke in this country, there's no coming back from this'.
"Not only was I an X Factor winner that got dropped by Syco, and when that happens you're never heard of again, but everyone thought I was a clown. I was in those 'where are they now' articles and I was like, 'F*** me, I'm that guy, I'm on the scrapheap'."
Leaning back in his chair, the top of his tattooed-chest exposed by loose buttons, Arthur credits his escape from the overcrowded pop scrapheap to a spirit forged through his unbalanced upbringing.
"I remember when my parents put me up for foster care and no- one cared about me. I've been a survivor for long, I've always felt like I've been trying to survive and always found a way to climb out of the s***.
"That's just been a theme of my life, it's the mentality I've had to get out of the mire."
Opening up about that journey - from living in a bedsit, to winning The X Factor, and then watching it all crumble down around him - he says it left him feeling 40 or 50 years old.
"It's like I've been around for a long time, and to some people it might seem a bit bizarre me saying, 'I'm back from the edge', but it is wild when you think about it." He says the comeback was fuelled by his on/off girlfriend, professional dancer Jessica Grist.
"I pushed everyone away, I ignored everyone. It was just me and Jess, who was so supportive and helped me through a million panic attacks and a million calling ambulances."
Arthur has suffered from "crippling" panic attacks since first appearing on X Factor, and reveals he has plans to pen an autobiography that will also serve as a self-help book for fans who endure similar issues.
Music's helped him cope with his anxiety, he says, and he wants to use his public platform to inspire others who feel overwhelmed.
"I'm really passionate about it and I really care," Arthur explains.
"My message to those that do have anxiety is, I know regular things can be so difficult - going to the shop, just going outside - but I'm doing it. And I'm having to go out and be judged by it and by the world. So if I can travel to France and play a gig in a train station with thousands of people around, then you can get up and go to the shop, buy a pint of milk and you will survive, you will be all right."
As for returning to Syco - the label reportedly wanted him back after Cowell listened to Arthur's second record - the singer says he initially wanted to reject their offer, but relented because he's a "sucker for a story".
"When they asked me to come back, I thought, 'Well I'm number one on iTunes already... but I'm a massive fan of fairy tales and underdog stories. I'm the one person in history that they came back to, I like that that will be written, it's a bit of an ego thing. I felt like I had to prove myself to them, to let them know how good I am, how mature I've become and how much I've grown up."
For Arthur, that sense of maturity means having more diplomacy when dealing with the label's A&R - those responsible for looking after musicians and their output.
"I'd never experienced A&R before and it p***** me off. I hated A&R. I was like, 'Don't tell me how to make music, I've just won The X Factor, have a bit of faith in me ... I'm James Arthur, I'm the best thing that's ever come from this show. I'm gonna make you a lot of money'," he admits.
"But that's not how it works. If you're signed to a major label, you have an A&R, they do have to give opinions and if I was left to structure songs, we'd have eight-minute, obscure left-of-centre tracks."
He's pleased that Back From The Edge's success means he can now perform some different songs live. No doubt his fans felt the same; Arthur's UK tour sold out in just over 10 minutes.
"We could've done arenas this time," he says, "but I'm happy because I love to do those packed out rooms."
The singer will visit a number of towns and cities for the 16-date run, but it's Glasgow that excites him most, because he'll get to spend time with family there.
"It's always good fun, they're rowdy. Manchester is great too, and London's always the toughest crowd, everyone's trying to look cool."
But why no stop-off in his hometown?
"Newcastle is pretty close, plus we want to do something special for Middlesbrough," says Arthur. "We've got some cool ideas, maybe we'll do the Riverside Stadium or something."
If his current winning streak continues, he'll be playing those arena tours in no time...
- James Arthur is touring the UK throughout March. Visit www.jamesarthurofficial.com for information