Though he vaguely remembers taking piano lessons at an early age, it was the drums and Jazz that ignited the artistic fire in McWilliam. With the support of his mother, he acquired his first true instrument and the one which he credits for getting him started on his journey as a musician. McWillaim recalls, “My mother was amazing and would never stop me from trying anything so we quickly found a beaten up old drum kit for £50 from an advertisement in the paper. During the next summer vacation, I stayed with my father in London and he found an excellent drum teacher for me to have a couple of lessons with to see if it was something I wanted to continue with. I loved it and from this point on I never looked back and playing the drums shaped my entire life. It led to me restarting piano lessons and studying music theory and composition privately with a teacher. I played in many bands as a kid growing up and competed in Young Jazz Musician of the Year when I was 16.” His love of Jazz eventually steered towards classical and a greater focus on piano and composition. A distant connection with a Beatle would aid his studies. James states, “I accepted a place at LIPA (The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) set up by Paul McCartney, to study for a degree in music. Whilst studying for my degree at LIPA I gradually moved away from playing the drums entirely. I just knew that deep down sitting at the back of a band wasn’t going to do it for me and during my time at university, composing and arranging had really begun to take over.”
Studies completed, McWilliam discovered very quickly that having the knowledge and talent was only the start of being prepared for a career in music. He soon accepted the position that he (sarcastically) refers to as “the highly esteemed position of ‘Night Receptionist’ at Metropolis Studios.” Metropolis was a famous and respected studio in London but the job he accepted was not the one he had been training and hoping to acquire. His middle class sensibilities and work ethic told James that being in the “stadium” would at least place one near the action of the “game”…if one hoped to step onto the field. He was correct as he retells of the pivotal moment, “A very well-known music producer, Andy Wright, had a studio at Metropolis Studios and he would often chat to me and take an interest in what I was doing. Andy knew that I could score out music for orchestral musicians and at 2am, he call I had been waiting for finally came. Andy came to the reception and said that he had a string section arriving in the morning to record music for a Sheba cat food advert but he didn’t have the string parts written out and would I be able to do it? Of course, I said yes and a few hours later the job was complete and I was paid for my first professional arranging job! Andy asked me to work on dozens of projects for him over the years including albums for Pavarotti, Jeff Beck and Simply Red. We still work together now, 15 years later!” Having breached the wall into the professional music world, many artists and musical professionals became aware of James’ abilities and sought him out. Legendary Scottish musician Peter Vettese is known for his work as a member of Jethro Tull as well as his work with Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees, Cher, Carly Simon, and countless others. Speaking of McWilliam’s talent and abilities, Vettese declares, “For some years now James McWilliam has been my first call orchestrator on albums such as 'American soul' Mick Hucknall, 'Stages' Melanie C and most recently the 2016 number 4 UK album 'Time of my life' Ronan Keating, albums of which I was either producer or arranger. His musical and orchestration skills were crucial to the success of these albums. Coupled to these talents, James' empathetic abilities in relation to the artist and producer are, in my view, without peer. So much so that in the making of 'The Majesty of light' (a forthcoming album of my own compositions), I invited James to collaborate in the string and brass arrangements along with his orchestrations!
James McWilliam's talent cannot be overstated. A master of his trade.”
As a fixture in both the UK and international filmmaking music industry, James works in tandem with the artists who envision these films to create the sonic statement to deliver the proper emotional impact. One of his latest projects is working alongside Director Alex Barrett’s silent film about London. This presentation makes the music even more significant than most films. Of his work with James, Barrett notes, “'London Symphony' is a real labor of love for us both, and it has tested us to our limits. James has worked tirelessly to deliver the 70-minute score, and his music is an integral part of the film. I hope that, between us, we've created something that will be a long-lasting testament to the beauty of present-day London.” Though he is constantly working on a number of productions, often spending a 12-15-hour work day at his studio, James McWilliam has no hesitation when asked which of his works is the greatest. Reflecting on all of his great success, this noted and respected composer/arranger/orchestrator/conductor quickly responds, “Can I be a cliché and say my daughter, Martha? She just turned one and this has definitely been the most challenging year of my life! Professionally, I think my greatest achievement is that I’m still here! By which I mean my work continuous to grow year on year, I work with people I have known for 20 years, as well as with new clients every year.” McWilliam’s only regret is that his parents did not live to experience the height of his success, the struggle he pursued which they always encouraged. In a truly wonderful universe, both granddaughter and career can be viewed from above with joy.