Reuben James: Music Without Borders

Ahead of his performance on London City Island on 25 August as part of our Penthouse Conversations series, musical star Reuben James talks to Rob Ryan about working with Joni Mitchell, hogging the piano as a child and where his R&B, jazz and hip-hop influences comes from

It is just as I am winding down my interview with Birmingham-born musician Reuben James that he drops the bombshell. We are talking about what he has been up to since compiling his extremely enjoyable and eclectic “mixtape” Tunnel Vision (available on Spotify and other streaming platforms), which acted as a summary of his recent recording history. There is, he says, his first child due soon and an “upbeat” album nearing completion and, he adds casually: ‘I’ve been working quite a lot with Joni.’

Hold the phone.

At the rarefied musical level that James now operates at, there is only one “Joni” – the legendary Joni Mitchell, who recently made a surprise and joyous appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, her first since the debilitating brain aneurysm that she suffered in 2015. ‘Yeah, I was gutted not to be there, but I had a show at Latitude Festival.’ Let’s be clear about one thing: you don’t get to “work with Joni” unless you are at the top of your game. And Reuben James, still only 29 but already a veteran of both road and studio, is certainly that.

Reuben is not from a musical family in the sense that his parents played. But they and his older sister bombarded him with a wide range of sounds, jazz to reggae, hip-hop to soul. ‘Don’t forget the gospel,’ he adds. ‘I used to play in church on Sundays and that definitely influenced me as much as, say, the grime my friends were listening to.’

Reuben James will perform in the London City Island Penthouse on 25 August

There was also a piano in the house, originally bought for his older sister, which he soon “hogged”. By his teens he was playing gigs. ‘Functions, mainly. You know, weddings, birthdays, that kind of vibe. My dad used to drive me and carry the piano and they’d all think he was the performer. You should’ve seen their faces drop when they realised it was the little kid who was up.’ What did he play? ‘Whatever they wanted. But at the same time, I started to play Jools Holland’s venue The Jam House and the Yardbird Jazz Club as well. That’s where I really cut my teeth.’

There were more formal lessons in the mix, too. ‘I took violin lessons and piano lessons. And then I started going to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire course.’ A major turning point, though, was when he met saxophonist Soweto Kinch, now, at 44, an elder statesman of the “Nu jazz” scene and one of the first UK jazzmen to successfully incorporate raps into his live shows. ‘I was in a community big band called the Notebenders,’ says James, ‘and Soweto did a workshop. I was totally in awe. To see someone who was young and black creating this incredible music, I was like: that is what I want to be doing.’

And he did. At 16 he was in a friend’s band who supported BB King touring around Europe. That was a tender age to be on the road, I suggest. ‘Yeah. My mum was freaking out because I had exams and that and she was worried about the musician’s lifestyle. Probably still is. But both my parents were very supportive. Then, at 17, I got the gig with [legendary R&B and soul singer] Ruby Turner. Then it all kicked off.’

The kicking off included playing with his hero Soweto and, eventually, going on the road and co-writing with Sam Smith (he has also worked/written with Disclosure, Bonnie Raitt, Little Mix and John Legend among many others). And all the time he was keeping his jazz “chops” sharp with his own bands. No wonder his music covers so many bases.

Reuben James, who toured with BB King age 16

“I’ve been flying out to Los Angeles and playing in Joni’s living room, which is cool. Just her and a few friends jamming about once a month. It’s not recorded. No phones, no cameras, it’s just one of those things where you got to be there, in the moment”


I know that artists often dislike being compared to other players, but I venture that his ability to hurdle barriers and navigate through the soundscapes of jazz, soul and R&B reminds me of fellow pianist Robert Glasper. ‘Yes,’ he (thankfully) agrees. ‘He was a big influence on me.’ Other musical heroes include J Dilla, Kendrick Lamar – who both have incorporated jazz into hip-hop structures – Stevie Wonder, Bill Evans and Nat King Cole. He also mentions Steely Dan – ‘They have great hooks, but with jazz chords at the heart of it and it can still make you dance.’

How does this disparate palette of influences work out in practice? Well, having seen him perform at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho several times, I can say that the joins do not show. James has a seamless style that is rooted in jazz but also comes with a love of a funky melody, a great beat (‘I’m really a beats head and a production head – I don’t always notice the lyrics on a song first time round, just the chords’) and his distinctive vocals.

The new Penthouse at London City Island

He describes his new album, due in the new year, as: ‘Super groove R&B and hip-hop but with the jazz chords and then me singing on top. I’ve got six songs finished and mastered and another four to finish. I think it is some of my best stuff yet.’ It is produced by NY bass and beat maestro Carrtoons [aka Ben Carr] and James promises it will be: ‘A bit more up-tempo than usual, a bit more groovin’. Plus, there’s lots of guests, mostly from the UK this time, like the great Vula Malinga, who I toured with in the Sam Smith band for, like, seven years. She’s all over the record! Which is fine because she’s like, the best singer in the world.’

It is at that point he mentions another vocalist and songwriter – Joni Mitchell, who, of course, has impeccable jazz credentials herself, having worked with Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus.

‘My friend Brandi Carlile introduced me to Joni and we really hit it off. And yeah, I’ve been flying out to Los Angeles and playing in Joni’s living room, which is cool. Just her and a few friends jamming about once a month. It’s not recorded. No phones, no cameras, it’s just one of those things where you got to be there, in the moment.’

Rob Ryan is a journalist and author