It took just 18 months for the singer James Arthur to lose his record deal after winning The X Factor (U.K. version). Late in 2013, he referred to a rapper as “fucking queer” on a diss track, earning sharp rebukes for his homophobic language; soon after, he compared himself to an exploited Orca whale from SeaWorld on Twitter and appeared to publicly criticize his own PR team. “Somebody should have told him to shut up and just put the records out,” singing show impresario/Syco label boss Simon Cowell told the press in March of 2014, shortly before he dropped Arthur from Syco.
But a hit has the power to erase the past, and Arthur returned to the summit of the U.K. pop charts in September behind “Say You Won’t Let Go,” a saccharine acoustic ballad. For the first time, he crossed the Atlantic as well: the single climbed to No. 68 on the latest Hot 100.
“I wasn’t really mentally in a good place before I did The X Factor,” Arthur told Billboard during a phone conversation last month. “The pressure got to me — I was having these bad anxiety attacks all the time. The way that I would deal with that was by self-medicating; it spiraled out of control. I hit the self-destruct button.”
The circumstances surrounding Arthur’s 2014 career implosion obscured a wildly improbable rise: he claimed the top spot on The X Factor — the show that also launched the careers of pop stars like Leona Lewis and One Direction — in 2012 with a story straight out of Hollywood writing room. After a decade of trying to make a living as a musician by gigging around northeast England, Arthur was penniless and living “in a rough part of town.” “I had no money and the electricity went out in my flat,” he remembers. “I was calling around my friends and family saying, ‘please, can I borrow some money so I can get some lights on?’ They were all like, ‘no, you’ll just buy weed.'”
“Eventually I got through to my mom,” he continues. “My mom was like, ‘The X Factor is taking this mobile van around the country, and they’re in town right now. If you go and sing them a song, I promise I’ll give you some money, and you can get your lights back on.'”
Arthur had tried out for The Voice UK the year before without making the cut; this time, he made it onto a show. He battled his way through The X Factor‘s many rounds, reportedly suffering an anxiety attack at one point after singing Mary J. Blige‘s “No More Drama,” almost getting knocked out — a public vote came to his rescue when the judges were split on whether or not to keep him — and finally winning with a rendition of Shontelle‘s “Impossible.” That version subsequently hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts. The follow-up single reached No. 2, but his third release, which came after his homophobic rap, only climbed to No. 19, and the next single barely dented the U.K.’s Hot 100. Within months, Syco dumped Arthur.
When asked about the lines he rapped in 2013, the singer offers remorse — “I’m very embarrassed, and I regret that misuse of language, because that can be very dangerous” — but he maintains that the incident “was taken out of context.” “It was a rap battle,” he says. “The way that I grew up with things, it’s no holds barred: You say, ‘fuck you,’ or, ‘I’ll kill your mom,’ or anything. You’re just playing a part.”
“I was off my head intoxicated,” he adds. “I did that at the spur of the moment and it’s my biggest regret. I think anybody can see I was suffering from some mental health issues and kind of self destructing at the time.”
After losing his record deal in the U.K., Arthur attempted to address some of the problems at the root of his behavior. “I felt like I was a joke in this country, and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore,” he recalls. “I quickly realized that smoking the amount of weed I was smoking and taking the pills I was taking was not helping. I decided to help myself, reconnect with friends and family who I’d previously stopped talking to to try to cope with it all by myself.”
He managed to obtain a deal with Sony Columbia in Germany and started writing songs that would appear on a sophomore album full of arena-ready confessionals. He did not dodge his past — the record was pointedly titled Back From The Edge. “I got to speak about my issues with mental health, how it felt to have it all and then self destruct, and put a bit of my humor in there,” Arthur says.
He’s not above taking a few shots at his detractors (“They don’t like my lines, they don’t like my songs/ Except in karaoke when they’re singing along,” he sings on the title track), even as he admits his failings (“With a smile on my face, I dug my grave in the ground”) and asks everyone to have a little more empathy: “We all make mistakes, we’re so quick to judge/ It’s hard to forgive when we hold onto a grudge.” “Prisoner” tackles substance addiction, while “Skeletons” asks for a clean slate: “You could tell me everything,” Arthur sings, “And then we could forget it.”
“Say You Won’t Let Go,” unsurprisingly, is an outlier — a simple love-you-to-the-end-of-time tune on an album of tormented reckoning. Arthur wrote the track in an afternoon after his A&R called him up and told him she thought the album was lacking a romantic number. Arthur thought he had penned something “relatable,” but he did not expect “Say You Won’t Let Go” to become such a success. “Everyone wrote me off,” he says, “including me.”
The problem with having another hit is that Arthur is back in the very same spotlight that caused him to crumble the first time. “I’m more equipped to deal with it,” he affirms. “There’s a lot of nonsense of course, and it can make you anxious because you never know what to expect. Before I would just smoke a lot of weed and take some prescription pills. Now I’m trying to take each day at a time without looking too far ahead, which I think is a much better approach.”
It seems to be working: In addition to three weeks at No.1 in the U.K. for “Say You Won’t Let Go,” Back From The Edge topped the albums chart, a feat that Arthur’s debut failed to achieve. Just as it did on The X Factor in 2012, the popular vote appears to back Arthur. And once again, the judges have taken note: In September, Cowell re-signed the singer to Syco.