The pandemic has forced artists to turn inward, writing about the ways in which COVID has kept them locked in, without shows to play and a livelihood taken away. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg that Tim Booth touches on “Recover,” off U.K. rock band James’ latest album, All The Colours Of You.
The song is about his wife’s father, who passed away in England’s first COVID wave, in April 2020. The 61-year-old Booth and his wife, Kate, were in the U.S. and unable to travel to be with him in person. Their last conversation was via FaceTime, while a nurse held the phone up to him. His wife, also unable to visit even though she was in the same city, was on another phone that Booth’s wife held up to her “in a very strange technological hall of mirrors,” Booth said.
Shortly thereafter, Booth’s father-in-law came off a ventilator to make it available for someone else—it wasn’t doing him any good—and passed.
“We had a very powerful emotional farewell, which was a godsend, I think, because otherwise it would have been so unreal,” he said. “Kate said, ‘I know you’re afraid, Dad.’ He was shaking his finger. The nurse leaned in, and he said, ‘I’m not afraid.’ And he wasn’t afraid, and it’s such a relief when you see that.”
Booth said he had the opportunity to be with both his father and mother when they passed, and that the effects of being separated from loved ones in their final moments—as has happened to so many during the pandemic—are immeasurable.
“It was very hard to my wife not to have that opportunity to be with [her father] when he took his last breath and hold his hand,” he said.
“Recover” came easily to Tim Booth, who added that Grammy-winning producer Jacknife Lee, his former neighbor in Topanga Canyon west of L.A., called it a “dancing and crying song.” It’s one of several songs on the album that are overflowing with emotions like sadness, love and anger.
“ZERO” begins the album with a declaration—“We’re all gonna die”—that sets up life as a make or miss experience, a climb without a rope or safety net. “Wherever It Takes Us” zooms in on Booth’s friend, teargassed in Portland and having an out-of-body experience.
“Beautiful Beaches” is based on a story Booth was told by a man who lost his home and nearly his life while escaping the deadly wildfires near Malibu. The “beaches” in the song have two meanings. Literally, it’s the story of the man deciding not to follow evacuees to a nearby beach, which could have proved fatal. But more personally, it was about Tim Booth and his family deciding to leave L.A. and the U.S. themselves, and going to Costa Rica, where they briefly entertained moving permanently.
“We sold our house. That’s how [the wildfires] affected me, personally. We’re moving. The song is about that,” said Booth, whose family has been staying with his sister in Ealing, a suburb west of London, for the last six months. “I don’t think California is going to be ecologically sustainable. I think that America is about to get hit with global warming in a way that we imagine, unfortunately.”
The album’s most overtly political song is the self-titled single that came to Booth following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. It takes on not just the blood-boiling policy of Donald Trump but the groups of people who Trump’s administration “othered.”
He said he wrote the song in a heightened state of emption—”when the thermometer is raised, it’s easy to write songs”—and frustration; of wanting to protest but while fearing for his and his family’s safety from a deadly virus.
“I think quite a lot of the appeal of [‘Tiger King’] was you’re looking at these wild animals stuck in their cages, and we were wild animals stuck in our cages,” he said of the line, “We’re stuck in this cage.” “So, everything ends up in that song without even thinking. The best lyrics for me come when I don’t think.
“I had this lyric, ‘He’s the Klu Klux Klan … the president’s your man, K coup, K coup.’ I sang it to my friends, and some of them were like, ‘You can’t sing that, Tim. It’s just too taboo.’ The lyric would not go away, and I have to stand by my lyrics when a lyric like that comes. … And then, of course, he attempted a coup eight months later.”
All The Colours Of You was partly recorded before the pandemic, but by the time James went looking for a producer, lockdowns had begun and options for tracking together in a studio were nonexistent. That’s how Booth and co. ended up partnering with Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Snow Patrol), his neighbor.
Booth has said that in the before times, he wouldn’t have thought to work together because of Lee’s high-profile status. Lee left his fingerprints all over James’ demos. Much of that work was done in his “cave,” full of keyboards and guitars. Lee contributed to the album as a musician.
“I was looking for grooves and a kind of a contemporary psychedelia. I wanted some level of not quite knowing where your footing is, not quite knowing if you’re in this world or another,” Booth said. “He went looking for it, and he’s fucking genius.”
In the process, Lee made the band more accessible to listeners’ ears. That turned an originally bleaker song like “Recover” into something uplifting.
“I didn’t know we weren’t accessible before!” he said.
On “ZERO,” currently Booth’s favorite song on the album, Lee completely tore out a verse that the songwriter had been incredibly proud of, as well as the melody. Booth was blindsided by the decision but trusted the producer completely and the end result was even better, he said.
“You just go with it, man. We’ve been doing this for 30 years; we know when to get out the way, and that’s why we’ve lasted so long,” Booth said.
The bandleader said he has no plans to revive the missing verse in a future song, even though he still loves it. It’s how the band has always worked, he said. There are thousands of potential James songs laying around on cassettes and computers that he has no plans to allow anyone to hear.
Other than working on the album, Booth has passed the pandemic finishing a key draft of a novel that he’s been working on for seven years—appropriately about a singer (with issues) in a band—and has been supporting his wife in her trance-state-inducing dance classes on Zoom.
“Her classes in L.A had 120 people every week. We moved onto Zoom, and it’s been going really wonderfully. … That’s kept us financially afloat the last year.”
Tim Booth isn’t sure where he and his wife will land next, and most of his possessions are currently in storage, but he’s had his heart open and taking stock of what the pandemic has taught.
“We did that like everybody else,” he said. “We had some really sad things happen… and we had very beautiful things happen within it all.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.