Born in Manchester in 1954 and schooled in a Quaker Boarding school in Yorkshire, James moved to London in 1974. In 1977, at the beginning of the punk explosion, James became the last guitarist for the Nipple Erectors, the London-based punk band fronted by Shane MacGowan. In August 1982, knowing he could play the piano, Shane invited Fearnley to be the accordion-player for his latest project: a group to play Irish traditional songs fuelled by the punk ethos, called Pogue Mahone. In their tumultuous, twelve-year career, the Pogues released six studio albums and gained international renown. James left the band in 1993 and moved to Los Angeles. There he formed the group The Low and Sweet Orchestra, which released a well-received album on Interscope Records in 1995. In 1996, he composed the soundtrack for the Sundance Festival entrant, ‘God’s Lonely Man’. In 2001, the Pogues reunified. They continue to perform throughout the world.
James has been a writer for almost as long as he has been a musician. On the break-up of the Nipple Erectors, he commenced writing a novel and attended writers’ programs at the City Literary Institute and the Arvon Foundation. Throughout his musical career he kept copious diaries and continues to do so. Upon his departure from the Pogues in 1993 he re-committed himself to writing, becoming a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Hambidge Artists’ Residency Program. In addition, for the last twelve years James has studied/mentored with Leonard Cohen collaborator and writing teacher, Nancy Bacal.