Friday, April 18, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews José James

Q&A: José James

Minneapolis born, New York based José James is the son of a Panamanian saxophonist father and an Irish-American mother. A drifter and sonic chameleon, the 36-year-old started out as a Catholic school choir singer, graduated from The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and now merges hip-hop, jazz, R&B and soul music. His fifth studio album, “While You Were Sleeping,” drops in June on Blue Note Records.

Q: What’s most salient about your music is that it doesn’t fit neatly in any one category. Is that a conscious effort on your part or does it happen organically?

A: I don’t set out to not fit in, but the way I listen to music is I jump from a lot of different genres. It’s a natural outgrowth of how I experience music. I’ve never been a pure hip-hop or rock or jazz dude. I think it’s interesting in the time we’re in now where there’s a trend of people bringing in disparate styles—like James Blake bringing in European church or folk music into electronica. I think it’s a natural thing that’s happening in music in general.

Q: How were you exposed to all these different genres?

A: Just being a fan, growing up in the ‘90s. Pre-Internet, I remember being really excited about videos on MTV, being excited when Nirvana or A Tribe Called Quest came out with a new album, or when “Ill Communication” by the Beastie Boys came out. It seems quaint now, but it really stoked my imagination and enthusiasm to be an artist. It was a different time and there was a lot more freedom. People just liked great bands.

Q: How did the Twin Cities specifically influence how your sound developed?

A: When I lived there, there were really only two stars on my radar: Michael Jackson and Prince. “Purple Rain” was my first vinyl LP. I felt really proud of Prince; not just musically, but to have somebody put us on the map in that way, internationally. It was exciting to be part of that scene and watch it unfold as a kid. I was too young to know about the great rock bands, but I remember The Jets and bands like that. It’s always been a great music town, and it had a great connection to Chicago, too, which is how I got into the jazz. A lot of Chicago musicians live in Minneapolis.

Q: Since then, your career has taken you all over the world. What other kinds of music scenes have you experienced?

A: New York is the most internationally sophisticated music city I know, because most of the musicians are from other countries or cities. All of the best players go to New York. I’ve been able to keep my bands fresh; there’s always somebody showing up and playing who’s amazing and has a different take on music. Right now, my bass player is from Kansas City, my drummer is from London, my guitarist is from Memphis, and my keys player is from L.A., but we all met in New York. That gives it an edge. In terms of production, L.A. and London are way ahead of any of the other cities I’ve been in. I lived in London for a year, and new genres and sub-genres were being invented by the week.

Q: The titles of some of your songs, like “Bodhisattva,” “4 Noble Truths,” and “Salaam” suggest you were inspired by spirituality on your new album?

A: I went to Jakarta and played the Java Jazz Festival. I stayed in the hotel that’s modeled after the Borobudur Temple. Something about that mix of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city and being in this hotel garden full of statues of Bodhisattvas and angels. It was a heady experience and I felt something intangible and all these songs started coming to me. I’m not a Buddhist or religious person, but I am definitely very spiritual. I pick up on those kinds of vibrations. I was trying to take that feeling—and the feeling of being so far away from home—and translate it into music, which is why those songs feel different from my normal stuff.

Q: You said the songs just came to you. Do you ever have to work at it?

A: When I try to write something, it’s horrible. When I’m inspired, it’s great. I try to focus on the more boring, fundamental things, like warming up my voice and playing guitar, and when an idea comes, I’m in good shape to do it. I’m not one of those writers who’s like, “I have to write a song today.” I wait until I have a really good idea, then I obsess over it until it’s done. It could be 10 minutes, it could be a year.

Q: How do you balance the commercial side of the music industry with your artistic needs? Are there conflicts?

A: I’m realistic. I don’t say, “This is going straight to radio.” There’s definitely a format, especially in U.S. radio, and it’s a game you have to play. I made a decision a long time ago to be an album artist and to put more of my focus in my live show. The quality grows. My band has gotten better every year since I’ve been out since 2007. My writing and production have also. It’s quality over everything else. I don’t want to chase a hit. If something clicks with people, I know it’s because it means something to them, not because somebody told them to listen to it 20 million times a day.