Behind James Vickery’s left ear is a tiny tattoo, barely noticeable until he turns to point it out.
The inking is of a mute icon, a small speaker with a cross next to it, as you would see on a computer or a phone when switching the volume off; a simple image that neatly symbolises the 27-year-old’s story.
In and out of hospital with ear infections as a child, he was eventually, at the age of eight, diagnosed with a growth of abnormal skin cells called a cholesteatoma. While the tumour wasn’t cancerous his case was severe, doctors said, and it was growing towards his brain; his parents were told that without treatment to remove his eardrum he might only have two months to live.
Surgery went well, but inevitably left Vickery completely deaf in that ear. Unable to distinguish the volume and pitch of his voice, he struggled with his speech and a vocal coach was brought in to help. It was through these sessions he found his voice; not just in conversation, but the distinctive, soulful singing voice that has now seen him hailed as a new face of UK R’n’B.
“[My parents] took me to a vocal coach and they wanted me to learn how to basically speak again,” he tells Sky News. “A good way is actually by singing because it engages your diaphragm. So we did that and my singing teacher was like, ‘you can sing, you can actually sing well’. I’d always loved singing but because of the trauma of the operation I could never do it.
“I spoke so softly. I’m still quite softly spoken…” He pauses and grins. “Actually, no, I’m a bit gobby now, but I was quite softly spoken when I was a child. I was really unconfident because no one could ever hear me speak and so credit to my vocal coach, she really taught me how to not only speak louder, but become a bigger person, you know, really fill the room with your voice. That’s something I try and have now in my songs. All the singers I looked up to as a kid had big voices because I always wished I had one.”
Vickery’s coach was a trained opera singer so, perhaps unusually, that’s where he started. “As, like, an 11-year-old boy living in south London, that kind of wasn’t for me,” he laughs. He met brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence, better known as electronic duo Disclosure, while he was in college and began writing songs with them, before moving into R’n’B, which felt like the right fit.
Upbeat and constantly smiling, there’s a sense of positivity and happiness that exudes from Vickery that even the often soulless Zoom can’t dampen. It’s hard not to smile back in his company. Going through such a traumatic experience at an early age has “100%, for sure” made him the person and the artist he is now, he says.
“I would have died,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It’s lucky they found it [when they did].” He goes on to explain the surgery. “I haven’t even got an ear drum in this ear, like, it’s just a black crater inside the left-hand side,” he says, swirling his hand around the area. “But that’s why I’ve got the tattoo, because I was like, not ashamed of it, but I don’t like people treating me different, I don’t like it to become this sob story. But at the end of the day, the older I get the more I think, you would not be the man you are today and it’s shaped me so much as a singer and a writer as well.”
The fact Vickery is “able to be a singer with one less ear than everyone else”, as he puts it, “is quite a mad thing”. And so the symbol has become a staple of all the artwork for his music. “I really try and own it, you know.”
Influenced by everyone from his mum’s favourites of soul, Motown, disco and R’n’B – artists such as Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men and Babyface – to his dad’s preferred rock and blues – Eric Clapton, The Doors, The Who, Jimi Hendrix – and his own love of attempting the Mariah Carey high notes, Vickery found his sound.
In 2018, he performed his song Until Morning for the COLORS music platform, which has now amassed more than 25 million views. In 2018 he signed a record deals with TH3RD BRAIN, followed by a publishing deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in 2019.
His debut album, Songs That Made Me Feel, aims to do just that. “The way that people consume music is so passive now,” he says. “It’s so easily accessible but I think not enough people just sit down and let the music take over. That’s really what I tried to do… I just want to make a body of work that’s going to outlive me. I think I’ve done that.”
The record is “the journey of the last two years, for me”, he says. “I wanted to call it Songs That Made Me Feel is because I feel like, as a man growing up, men are taught not to show emotion, I think. You’re taught ‘man up’.” Men don’t talk about their feelings enough, he says. “I managed to be able to do that through song, luckily.”
Save You, the closing track on the album, might sound like a love song but is actually about a friend who died. “I left it quite open because I want people to interpret it in the way that they feel, I love doing that with songs. But the song is about a friend who died when I was younger and it was the first time I had someone that wasn’t like a family member die, who was close to me.”
Vickery has also written about struggling during the pandemic. Somewhere Out There was created during the first lockdown, when he was “living alone and really lonely… I was single and hoping that someone out there was feeling the same”. You Comfort Me was born from the “dark time” of the winter lockdown, when “I was just craving something to make me happy”.
Of all the industries that have been hit by the pandemic, he believes the live entertainment business is among the worst affected. Vickery is not “completely fresh” to making music but is in that “awkward” spot where he’s “by no means up there”, he says, gesturing above his head. He moves his hand down. “I’m hovering here somewhere.”
Which means it’s not been easy. “The way that the music industry runs now is that [live shows] are kind of the main source of income, no one makes that much money from streaming songs; unless you’re streaming hundreds of millions, then you’re going to make good money, but other than that, no. Thank God I signed a record deal the year before because otherwise I would have been really struggling.”
Fortunately, the deal was in place and the album is out now. Vickery says he hopes he adds another voice to highlight the UK’s new resurging R’n’B scene, which he feels is overlooked.
“The thing is the UK RnB scene is so, so good,” he says. “But God forbid you can ever turn on a radio and find an R’n’B song on in the daytime, you know. I feel like that’s going to change, though. There’s plenty of people like Jorja Smith and Mahalia who are really, really flying the flag for UK R’n’B, and I think that’s going to change hopefully in the future.”
With Vickery too, that change is surely closer. That tattoo behind his ear is just a small reminder of how much he can achieve.