The day after he found out he'd been shortlisted for the U.K.'s Nationwide Mercury Prize, James Chapman (aka Maps) sounded like a guy who minded his own business –- that is, until he left the houseThe day after he found out he'd been shortlisted for the U.K.'s Nationwide Mercury Prize, James Chapman (aka Maps) sounded like a guy who minded his own business –- that is, until he left the house one day to find critical acclaim raining down on his head.
"I started writing stuff on my own when I was eighteen on a four-track cassette recorder. It just kind of built up from there, really," says the 28-year-old Northampton native, whose "We Can Create" on Mute Records is among the nominees for best British or Irish album of the past year. "I picked up different gadgets and things, and put them to use in my bedroom... I guess I just kind of fiddle until I come up with something I am pleased with."
Maps' "We Can Create" is a work of understated ambition: soaring strings that culminate in low-fi bleeps; modulated vocal chatter over fuzzy background noise; bells and floating hooks sung in a high whisper as a low synthesizer and cello fill the rest of the sonic space.
"I used to be called Short Brake Operator, which is a pretty bad name," Chapman recalls of his original moniker. When he changed it to Maps, "I still was talking about a theme of a journey." Amid stints working at a movie theater and a supermarket, Chapman made CDs for his friends ("I didn't think people really would be interested"). He honed his sound on a 16-track recorder until he felt confident enough to produce 10-inch vinyl recordings on his own imprint.
Mute Records heard his demo and sent him to Iceland to finish the album with live strings and horns, and to co-produce with Valgeir Sigurdsson (Bjork). Mixing and additional production came courtesy of Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros).
The album was released in the U.K. on May 14 and in the United States on June 19. With performances at the Leeds and Reading festivals and an opening slot on the Blonde Redhead tour -- as well as praise from British and American press and support from iTunes -- "We Can Create" entered Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart at No. 46 last week.
Chapman will be performing in the U.S. in September, hitting Seattle, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He'll also play on key tastemaker programs "The Morning Show with John Richards" on Seattle's KEXP and L.A.'s "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW. The Mercury Prize winner (chosen from a list that in addition to Maps, includes Amy Winehouse and the Arctic Monkeys) will be announced at a London ceremony Sept. 4.
What keeps Maps' orchestral/electronic mix grounded are his sparse yet intimate lyrics: "Think I lost my girl/But I'll run it off/Spending most of my time/Forgetting at all cost/Found a midnight sound/Found a love this time/Strange you feel so low/Then you feel so high" (from "So Low, So High").
Chapman is also given to simple repetition; in "Don't Fear," the repeated phrase "don't fear the sun" sounds like a comforting lullaby (or to Chapman's ears, a hymn – coincidentally, Chapman is playing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in his hometown on July 25).
"Sometimes you don't have to say a lot, you can just say a few lines," says Chapman. "And that's all you need. Let the music do the rest of the talking, I suppose."