James Reid on writing songs, painting stories, and producing his own music

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James Reid kickstarts his singing-songwriting career as he becomes a new endorser for a brand. His love for R&B and ability to express himself through lyrics motivate him to make his singing dreams come true. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — James Reid’s face is barely visible as he walks behind the glare of the spotlight. As he approaches the stage arranged at the end of the second floor of the Brewery at the Palace in Taguig, five or six cameras point to him, and at least one smartphone is live-streaming his presence via Facebook. He smiles, he approaches the host, he says thank you for the slightly lukewarm applause. He tells us why we were here.

That night, Reid was welcomed as the new brand ambassador for Manulife’s “Start Your Story” campaign, joining the likes of actor and entrepreneur Richard Yap and singer Sarah Geronimo in encouraging Filipinos to stop holding themselves back and start doing something they’re afraid of — making their dreams come true. The introduction comes at the peak of Reid’s popularity as a television star and bankable endorser, and provides him with an opportunity to make himself known again: not as James Reid the actor, or James Reid of JaDine fame, not even as James Reid the matinee idol.

He tells us he will be singing three original compositions that night, which is how we know. He will reassert himself several times: he is James Reid, the singer-songwriter. As part of the “Start Your Story” campaign, he will be asked various permutations of what he is afraid of doing, which dream had taken a backseat to his acting. His answer is consistent: pursuing his dream to sing terrifies him. But he adds: “If I didn’t go for my dream, I would hate myself.”

So Reid sings three songs he wrote, all of which are surprisingly reminiscent of the soothing R&B music you listen to while driving along a smooth highway at night. In one song he sustains a note and almost sounds like Michael Jackson. The crowd was tough, but Reid was not deterred. “In acting, I follow someone else’s script,” he said earlier. “In singing, I follow my own script.”

The people watching him would smile, and gently nod in agreement. Later, someone beside me would say, “I like his third song.”

The crowd swarmed around Reid when the event wrapped up. As Reid had been talking (and singing) all night, he was already flexing his tired jaw muscles when the time came for CNN Philippines Life to ask him a few questions. In five minutes, he briefly tells us how he paints stories through songs, how he produces his music, and how he would never get tired of the sounds he loves.

The endorsement became an opportunity to make himself known again: not as James Reid the actor, or James Reid of JaDine fame, not even as James Reid the matinee idol — he is James Reid, the singer-songwriter. Photo by JL JAVIER

It’s an age of constantly evolving musical tastes in the Philippines. How do you set yourself apart as a singer?

[Pause] Well, when it comes to OPM, I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to go in this direction I’m going now. It’s hip-hop R&B direction, with elements of EDM. I feel like it it has a very international sound, it’s very new, it’s very up to date. More importantly, it’s the sound that I feel like describes me the most. It’s the sound that I love. To me, I could listen to these songs over and over again. Even though they’re just demos, I could listen to them a hundred times.

It’s also a time when music streaming applications may be considered a primary source of music. How then do you make people listen to your sound live instead of constantly streaming your music? Young people are fond of that.

Well even I am very fond of that, and I really don’t mind. I’m certain that — I haven’t released my album yet — I’m certain that if I hold a show my fans will come, because it’s really a different experience hearing it live.

What do you think about the local music scene?

It has a lot to improve. I’ve had a lot of influence by my idols, Thyro Alfaro, Yumi Lacsamana — they wrote songs like “Triangulo,” a lot of hits — for me they are the king and queen of Filipino, of OPM music. They inspire me a lot. So I feel like there’s room for my music, space for my music.

Who are your other musical inspirations?

Let’s start locally. Sam Concepcion. And people always ask me why. Watched him live, he blows my mind away. I’m so jealous. Not even sure if I idolize him, I’m just jealous. So Sam Concepcion and Gary V. Internationally, there’s just three — MJ [Michael Jackson], Chris Brown, and Justin Timberlake.

Reid says that pursuing his dream to sing terrifies him. But he adds, “If I didn’t go for my dream, I would hate myself.” Photo by JL JAVIER

What are your favorite songs of them?

I can’t pick one, I’m sorry, there’s too many!

What are the stories you love telling most through your music?

I like painting pictures. I like describing a place, describing a moment, something that takes you away. That’s what I like to do, that’s what I like to sing about, that’s what my lyrics are about.

How hard is it to write your songs?

Surprisingly it’s not that hard. I guess for some people it flows, but not all the time. Sometimes I feel nothing and I can’t write anything. And then one day, I’m just on the set, and I’ll be writing a song. I’ll be on the set then I’ll be like wait, wait, wait, I need to finish writing, otherwise the moment will go away.

“In acting, I follow someone else’s script,” says Reid. “In singing, I follow my own script.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Do you write them by hand?

I type it straight to my notes, on my phone.

How does the raw material you write differ from the finished product?

Not so different, because when I write it down, I already have an idea of the song I want it to be. It depends. Sometimes, my producer, he knows that I don’t know what I want. I’ll say I want this, but then when I hear it, I don’t like it. And then he’ll give me something I didn’t realize I wanted. It’s a really weird process of him surprising me and telling me what I want.

Aside from hiphop and R&B, what other kinds of music do you listen to?

Well sometimes when I’m at a photoshoot, I won’t listen to R&B because it’s too emotional. I’ll play indie rock. A lot of Australian bands, the Last Dinosaurs, my favorite band St. Lucia. So sometimes I listen to pop and R&B, sometimes it’s EDM, sometimes it’s futurestep, future bass, different genres.