Sometimes you have to look back if you want to move forward. It's been four years since James Chapman - otherwise known as Maps last released an album, and he hasn't just been sitting around twiddling his thumbs since then. The follow-up to 2009's Turning the Mind finally saw the light of day this week, and the process behind its creation formed the guts of the conversation we had with him last month.

It's quite clear he's eager to talk about Vicissitude, but to get to where he is today, we had to start with where he found himself after the promotional cycle for his second album wound down. Why exactly did it take so long to make? "That's a good question!" he exclaims, and it turns out that there was a lot more behind it than just the usual reasons for the delay.

He doesn't perform live too often, so there was no tour that he had to wait to come off; it was all on him, and, being honest, Chapman just felt like he needed a break. "I took myself out of everything for a little while. Without getting too specific, I was in quite a dark sort of space. I kind of had to reassess what I was doing. An important aspect of the new record's lyrical themes is the idea of change, and that was exactly what he felt like he had to do.

I had been working all that time, but a lot of it was just me trying to take stock of what I wanted to do." It raised some fairly fundamental questions, as well: "I was asking myself, 'What is Maps, and what do I want it to be going forward?'" This was a far cry from the confidence that was audible throughout the whole of his Mercury Music Prize-nominated debut, We Can Create. Things had certainly changed in the few years since then, but thankfully, his label were fine with Chapman taking his time to figure out where he wanted to go next.

"They were great. They said, 'Go away and make the album you want to make. That gave me time to experiment a bit more." If it was time he needed, he certainly made the most of it. "It's quite a long gap, but it wasn't originally going to be this long, and it [the album] has been ready to go for a little while. The next one won't take as long, I can assure you of that - it won't take 10 years or anything like that!"

He needed the space to try something different, and Vicissitudes was an entirely home-recorded affair. "I guess that was a big part of it. I just... retreated. Like, 90% of it was done in isolation - aside from the mixing, obviously. That was done by Ken and Jolyon Thomas. Until then, though, it was like a journey. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went back to my roots, really. I thought about what had gotten me excited in the first place, when I first started out. It was songwriting, really - just stripping everything down and writing songs. A lot of Maps is about the sounds I use, and this time around I just wanted to write a batch of strong songs, rather than worrying about which hi-hat or cowbell I was going to use. I worried about that later, but my main aim was to focus on the songwriting." He pauses, and for a moment there's a trace of the vulnerability which inspired the album itself. "Whether it worked or not, I don't know."

Chapman rarely comes across as a self-deprecating interviewee, though - he's well aware of the changes he's had to make to arrive at where he is now, and seems to delight in discussing them. Those experiences make up a large part of the lyrical content of the new album, by his own admission, and we get a strong affirmative when we ask about whether he took those episodes from his own life and mined them to create Vicissitudes: "I definitely did. I think that - well, I didn't want to get too specific about what I've been through, but I didn't want to deliberately write something loose and enigmatic either. I just think that more people can relate to it; I think a lot of the things on there are quite universal: dealing with a struggle, the process of change and stuff like that. A lot of people go through those kinds of things; the lyrics are personal, but I didn't want to make it all about one specific story."

Altogether, when compared to Turning the Mind from four years ago - which was definitely a darker album - one would be tempted to class the two albums as night and day, but Chapman says it's not as easy as that. We mention the reflective tone running through Vicissitude, and he perks up.

"I'm pleased you said that, actually. I wasn't aiming to write a sort of hands-in-the-air, fist-pumping, 'isn't life great?' album" - we're unable to resist a, 'well, that's not really what you do' at this point - "but it was more about the process, really. I was writing this album as things were changing for me, and it felt like I was... properly learning to do a lot of things again. It felt like I was doing it for the first time, sometimes. It was a real journey, and I think that's reflected in the album. It's about the process, rather than the result at the end, if that makes sense. There is optimism in there, but there's also some looking back. Some songs are talking about a specific time... it focuses on... retrospect? Is that the right word? I wanted it to be hopeful, but it's also quite melancholy."

'Retrospect' is right, and Chapman's become quite attached to the 10 songs that make up his latest album. When we ask about which of the tracks on the new record is his favourite, it turns out to be quite a tough question.

"I don't know! It does change, but I'm pleased with 'You Will Find A Way', because with that, I wanted to write a classic song. Again, I don't know if it worked, but I wanted to concentrate on structure - verse, chorus, bridge, all that stuff - and make it as... hooky as possible. I had to concentrate on getting the right sound as well, because a lot of it - a lot of what I do is about trying to find the sounds that will get the message across. I do spend a lot of time fiddling around with sounds, trying to find the ones that will make me feel something, and eventually other people might feel the same. That's my aim, really: to get me to feel something first, and then, later on, it might connect with someone else." A lot of intimacy has gone into the creation of the album, as well as a lot of personal reflection, and it can sometimes be a challenge to make that work in a live setting, but as it turns out, Chapman doesn't really have plans to tour Vicissitudes too heavily.

"This time around, I'm not putting as much emphasis on the whole touring and playing live aspect of things, but I am planning some special shows later in the year. It's difficult, mainly because I don't have a band; it's always hard to figure out a way to do it that isn't, well, rubbish, so I'll put more thought into how I'm going to do those. I've never been someone who wants to get on stage on my own, you know, with a laptop. Some people can make that work, but there are so many things going on in my songs that I'd need more people around me. At the moment I'm thinking more along the lines of doing collaborative things, and there's something that's hopefully coming up in September. I can't actually say. I wish I could, but it'll hopefully be good. I'll be doing things like radio sessions and stuff like that... on my own."

He's got the right idea - unless you really can make that work, it's much better to focus on doing special shows than going on stage by yourself and using backing tracks, and Chapman is in agreement. "I think that if you do less, you can put more time and effort into making your live appearances really good. That's the general idea, anyway: to spend more time making things special. There will be some stuff, but just not touring in a Transit van. That wouldn't work.

So we know that there will be collaborations later in the year, but that's about it. In Chapman's ideal world, though, who would he most like to work with? "Is this like a wish-list sort of thing? Oh, god, I don't know. I try to keep things more realistic nowadays. There are lots of people who aren't necessarily mega-famous... like Spiritualized, for example. The way Jason Pierce manages to put on great shows - I don't know hoe he does it, but he always manages it with, like, a gospel choir or an orchestra behind him. I think that's quite a noble thing to do, to spend a lot of time making it special. I don't really have a list of people or bands I'd like to work with, though - I'd never really thought about it!"

You'd have to have proper experience of touring or playing live before you could make up your mind about that, and Chapman doesn't really go in for that. He does have some other suggestions, though. "There's this girl called Susanne Sundfør - I've done a few remixes for her, and I just love what she does. The first time I heard her music, I was welling up with tears, and that was a good sign - even if it probably doesn't sound like a good sign! When that happens, I know that there's something special there. She's just done a remix of one of my songs as well ['A.M.A.']. I think she's really got something... you know..." He trails off. "I was going to say the 'X factor' then, but I stopped myself!

"There's lots of people who'd be great to do something with" he continues, "but right now I'm just concentrating on getting this album out and seeing what we can do a little further down the line." There's a definite sense that Chapman wants to do things differently this time around, and the writing process for Vicissitude yielded some unexpected results, too. "Another thing that was a bit different to before was that I had a lot more time to experiment with songs. I used to have this thing in the past where I used to finish everything that I started. Every song that I started, I'd see it through to the end, and I don't know if, this time, I was getting my confidence back, or whatever, but a lot of things didn't make it to the end. I'd start some things, then put them to one side and start something else. It was quite different for me. I guess I was experimenting a bit more. So yeah, there are a few that didn't make the final cut, but I'm pleased with the ones that did, though there are a few bonus tracks on a sort of bundle thing. I'm still writing now, so there's more to come at some point." In keeping with the spirit of trying new things that has come to define the new album, as well as the last few years for Chapman in general, we ask him if he'd ever consider doing acoustic versions of his songs; for instance, ones featuring just him and an acoustic guitar.

"Well, I don't know about just an acoustic guitar" he responds, "as there are so many ways to do different versions. Something that was on my mind when writing this album was, 'would these songs get to be played by other people on something like an acoustic guitar?' If they can, that says a lot. So I think there is scope for that. You can strip things back, or try different versions - I haven't actually tried yet, but I might do that, just see what it sounds like. Hopefully it can be done!"

Amidst all this change, however, some things have definitely stayed the same, and this is Chapman's third album on Mute Records. We're about to finish up, but we ask him to tell us a little about what it's been like with them. "It's been great; I honestly can't think of a better label to have been on. It's kind of like a family - they've let me get on with whatever I needed to do. They've gone through all this with me, and they've stood by me. Some labels don't do that, and I think Mute have a lot of belief in their artists. It's a great label; I could gush about them all day!"

It's nice to see some of the old enthusiasm back, anyway Chapman's personal life has had a profound impact on his musical one, and the new album finds him in fine form - its gestation may have taken longer than he'd originally intended, but it's been well worth the wait. Turmoil like that always ends up changing people, and the changes he's made have definitely been for the better.


Vicissitude is out now on Mute Records