Today’s Feature – February 27-28: James Peel

February 28, 2008 at 12:26 am (Today's Feature)


You’ve seen James Peel before – he and musical buddy Kevin came together to bless a huge TV-viewing audience with their rendition of “Killing Me Softly” on the highly rated “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” You do remember, don’t you? Think about it for a minute. I’ll give you a hint. The performance didn’t exactly take place on the Tonight Show stage… or in front of a studio audience. Actually, this act played out on the sidewalk… as part of one of Leno’s usual outdoor bits involving a few random fans.

Ok, so maybe Peel isn’t the household name you’d see on national television. Yet. This artist is just starting out and he’s taking a route all of us can respect. It’s no secret that many of today’s young musicians (especially white guys with guitars) look to more established stars for inspiration, often times to the point of imitation. Peel is sure to avoid that trap, “I had my Dave phase, my Mayer phase, my open tuning Dashboard phase, and I thank them for teaching what good songwriting is, but I have tried to steer clear of that since then.”

A collective sampling of such work is on his latest album, “Asphalt,” a record that required Peel to step out of his comfort zone. Typically writing music for solo acoustic performances, he now needed music for an entire band. It seems his effort was more than successful, “Everybody that listens tells me their favorite song, and no one song outranks the rest. That makes me really happy because, if I write an album and only one song is the best, that means the rest are subpar.”

There’s typically always something that stands out at a James Peel performance, “like a kazoo solo, or a xylophone player, or a beat boxer.” You’ll also get to hear James talk about some stuff he really cares about, like The site sells life-saving hand-made Iraqi shoes – with all profit going towards heart surgeries for Iraqi children. So check that out and keep an ear out for an upcoming acoustic EP from Peel, possibly called “Recess.” Dive into the XXQ’s.

XXQs: James Peel

Pen’s Eye View (PEV): How and when did you first get involved with playing music?

James Peel (JP): I started playing guitar the summer before 8th grade. I can’t pin point any reason I started. I wasn’t really good at anything except being pudgy and obnoxious. It just seemed like a good idea. Interestingly, I thought I was tone deaf till I was a junior in high school. I just never sang in front of anybody until then, except in the crowds at church.

PEV: Growing up, what kind of music were you listening to?

JP: I grew up fairly sheltered. Jars of Clay is the first band I listened to as a kid that I still listen to. Then in 8th or 9th grade I heard Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Luther College and was floored by the what the acoustic guitar was capable. That is when I really started playing and practicing a lot.

PEV: Was there a certain point when music went from hobby to knowing you could do it for a living?

JP: I chuckle at this, because it is still not a “living.” At some point during my senior year of high school, I kind of gave up on music dreams in the push to pick a college and career and retirement plan. But soon after during my first semester in college in California, I found myself writing lyrics in class instead of notes. I decided to start really trying to find my own writing style and try to move away from the sound of all the white boys playing acoustic guitar. I had my Dave phase, my Mayer phase, my open tuning Dashboard phase, and I thank them for teaching what good songwriting is, but I have tried to steer clear of that since then. They have their niches so well covered, why would the world need a follow up act in the same vein?

PEV: Tell us about your first live performance. How did it go?

JP: I had played in church a lot in high school, but I consider my first real true performance, where I was playing a set and my name was on the posters was December of 2004 on my college campus. I had a lot of songs. A lot of bad ones. And this show date forced me to really consider what I wanted a large crowd to hear. I really worked on a few songs and honed them into something I could be proud of. I’d say it went pretty well. I had a lot of fun. I have since learned a lot about crowd dynamics and stage presence though.

PEV: From that first time on stage to now, have has your performance style changed, if at all?

I have never been nervous to perform, but when I was first starting, I was pretty quiet between songs and fumbled quite a bit I am sure. Now, I like telling a short story or two for a laugh and tell folks where the songs came from. I make fun of myself quite a bit. I like it. But I also use the platform to briefly tell folks something I care about. Right now and for a long time to come I will be telling folks about Buy Shoes. Save Lives.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live James Peel performance?

JP: Generally there is some sort of fun instrumentation that is rarely repeated. Like A kazoo solo, or a xylophone player, or a beat boxer. I like to feature friends. Fans can expect to have a good time though. Some fun tunes, some laughs, and hopefully a bit of insight into something they have not thought about before.

PEV: Tell us about your latest album, “Asphalt.”

JP: It came together amazingly smoothly, and I have my best friends to thank for that. They helped musically, financially and artistically. I could not have done it without Jeff, Kevin, zak and Thomas. Best friends ever. I wrote most of the songs on late 2006 and early 2007 with a full band EP in mind. In the past I had only written mostly thinking of solo acoustic songs. My goal for the album was for it to be diverse both sound wise and topic wise.

PEV: What can fans expect from the music on “Asphalt?”

JP: Everybody that listens tells me their favorite song, and no one song outranks the rest. That makes me really happy because, if I write an album and only one song is the best, that means the rest are subpar. But on “Asphalt,” there is something for everyone. Hopefully everybody likes all of it, but I like to think that even if the EP is out of somebody’s genre list, they would still hear a song or two that they like.

PEV: How is “Asphalt” different from other music out today?

JP: Hmmm. Well, honestly I feel like what is popular at the moment is moving away from my style, which is simple, thoughtful, and hopefully good songwriting. What’s popular right now, is often times a little hectic and musically eclectic. I really like some of it. But I do think that the pendulum will always swing back to the singer-songwriter, and more timeless songwriting. Instead of going for something crazy, I went for what I would want to listen both now and 20 years down the road.

PEV: Tell us about life on the road for you. Are you a fan of touring?

JP: I honestly have not toured yet. I love to perform though. I am very very indie, and am new to the business and still trying to sort it out while maintaining a day job and paying college loans.

PEV: What’s one thing that people would be surprised to hear about you?

JP: I sleep with my eyes open. And I sang on Jay Leno (but it was during a side-walking segment. My friend Kevin and I sang “Killing Me Softly”).

PEV: When you sit down to write music what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

JP: I like to be alone in my apartment. I pull out my laptop and record as a write with my Mac’s built in microphone.

PEV: How have all your friends and family members reacted to your career?

JP: They are proud and very supportive. They are eager to tell their friends about my music and what I am doing with it.

PEV: What has been the most memorable part of your career so far?

JP: Working with Thomas, Kevin, Jeff, and Scott in the studio. One of my best memories in life so far for sure. Seeing my dream come true with my best friends.

PEV: When you aren’t touring or performing what can we find you doing in your spare time?

JP: I manage Congress Clothing. It’s a fun retail store in Waco that my brother owns. Fun clothes and fun people make it a fun job.

PEV: If we were to walk into your house right now what would be find?

JP: Guitars, pedals, books, clothes and dirty dishes. And you’d be hit by a strong cigarette smoke smell even though I’ve never smoked a cig in my life. I live in a pretty seedy apartment complex. I try to assume the best in people, but if some of the folks around knew the kind of equipment I had in there, it would probably be gone by morning.

PEV: What artists have you not collaborated with yet that you would like to?

JP: Wow, I honestly have not thought about that one for awhile. I would have loved to tour with The Format, but they broke up recently. Boo. But, not to shoot for the stars or anything, but Paul McCartney is my current songwriting hero. Nigel Godrich produced Paul’s amazing 2005 release “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” and he has produced a great deal of my favorite Radiohead work, so having him as a producer some day would be a dream come true as well.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist right now you think we should all be looking into?

JP: My good friend Jeff Given is a name to remember for the future. Check him out at Also, an older album that went under the radio that is amazing is “Magazine” by Jump Little Children.

PEV: What one word best describes James Peel?

JP: Sincere.

PEV: Where will you and your music be in ten years?

JP: Hopefully, I can leave behind this whole day job thing and just write, record, perform, and tell folks about how they can help those in need, for example checking out to see the awesome things that are being done to help kids with heart problems in Northern Iraq.

PEV: So, what is next for you?

I am working on an acoustic EP to feature some old and some new songs, as well as a cover or two with old and new friends. I think I am going to call it “Recess”

For more information on James Peel, check out and


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