Today’s Feature May 23-24: Michael James

May 24, 2008 at 7:44 pm (Today's Feature)

You may remember Michael James from our PensEyeView feature with his band, Fiance`, a band with immense talent and a cast of gifted songwriters and musicians. And even though the Denver-based foursome is in constant demand, James makes time to attend to his own creative devices in his solo act – partly because he is constantly writing music and in part to make sure his mind is never working in just one direction, “I like that I can switch back and forth between the two. It helps to keep me on my game and sharp.”

James is one of those guys whose mind is in constant creative mode. Even at the age of 10, he knew he had to pursue music. Suddenly freezing up while watching the videos that MTV once played, he thought “I have to do that. What am I going to do if I don’t do that?”

Since then, he’s been impressing more and more audiences with his “unique imagery and universal narratives,” honored as a showcasing artist at D-fest, The Hyperactive Music Festival, The Millennium Music Conference and NXNE in Toronto. Now he’s taken some time off to create his latest 5-song EP, “To Raise an Army for Love.” To start, the collection has some all-star backing including Grammy winning producer John Seymour (U2, Dave Mathews Band) and audio master Dom Maita (Plain White T’s, Fall Out Boy). The record carries the kind of material that grabs your full attention, using “hook-driven melodies, a slice-of-life story telling, and atmospheric guitars.”

A Michael James performance is generally “comprised of versions of his songs suited for a single guitar.” It’s not like going to a show just to hear exactly what you were listening to in your car on the way there. It’s personal, a different take on the same song every night. While you catch some shows from James in support of the new EP, you better hurry. He’s a self-titled serial record maker, so you know he’ll be back in the studio before you know it. Get into the XXQ’s to learn more.

XXQs: Michael James

PensEyeView.com (PEV): Looking back do you remember when you made the conscious decision to become a musician and singer?

Michael James (MJ): I don’t know if it is normal for most musicians and singers, but I remember the exact day I decided music was going to be my life. It was before I owned my first electric guitar and before I had even written my first song. As I recall, I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I had just spent several hours watching videos on MTV (yes, back when they still played videos) and I distinctly remember turning off the television and having this incredible wave of emotion come over my body. It was like I was all of a sudden missing something. It literally almost brought me to my knees. I remember as I stood in the silence of this room, I was talking to myself saying, “I have to do that. What am I going to do if I don’t do that?” The ‘that’ I was referring to was being one of the people I had just spent the last several hours watching on MTV. Being someone who wrote and performed music for a living. The feeling I had was clear as day. There was no question in my mind what it meant and what I was supposed to do with my life. I guess you can say since then my life has been devoted to fulfilling the void that was created that day.

PEV: What were your first years in the music business like? When you were first starting out?

MJ: Truthfully, it’s hard to even say what my first years were…since I’ve been doing it in some fashion for so long now. My career, even in the beginning, has always gone if phases. In other words, when I first started playing shows and working toward a career in music, life was exciting. Sure there were shitty shows in shittier clubs and bars. But, I thought I couldn’t be stopped and success was right around the corner. Then as time went on, I was forced to really develop my work ethic and lean on my passion for music to get me through hard times. I had to go through the growing pains of finding out what kind of artist I was going to be and refine myself as an artist. The reality (at least for me) was that success did not come fast or easy. It took an amazing amount of work…and I am still working to get where I want to be. The difficulty of breaking into the music industry really hardened me, not to mention discouraged me from even trying at times. However, through those tough times, I inevitably built up a really thick skin and learned to take everything (both good and bad) in stride to some degree. I’m to the point now where when I look back at that foolish teenager, I just have to smile. I wouldn’t be here without him, but damn I’m glad I don’t have to go through that again.

PEV: Hailing from Denver, what kind of music were you listening to? Do you remember the first concert you ever attended?

MJ: To some degree, I am a product of the 80’s and 90’s. The first band I was ever really into was the Beach Boys. I used to mow the lawn and sing ‘Barbara Ann’ at the top of my lungs. But I also listened to everything from Tears for Fears to The Police to Metallica. I had a phase when I was really into hair metal…when that stuff was huge in the late 80’s. Actually, my first concert was the 80’s hair metal bands Poison and Warrant. I was blown away by the spectacle of the whole thing…I remember I could barely walk while I tried to find my seat. It was sensory overload. Granted, I was in 8th grade, but still.

In high school I moved on to bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains. The ‘Seattle’ era of music defined my high school years. Since then, my tastes have only broadened. You might find me listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ one day and Arcade Fire’s ‘Neon Bible’ the next.

PEV: Tell us about your first time ever on stage.

MJ: The very first time I ever performed a concert was with the school band. I played the saxophone and I was probably in 3rd grade. I was an absolute wreck right before we started playing…nervous, sick to my stomach, hands shaking, cold sweats, the whole deal. I remember our conductor stepping up to the front of the band and counting us off. For literally the first minute of the song, I couldn’t play a single note. As I recall I was just laughing-you know that really nervous, petrified kind of laugh. I completely lost it. Good thing I was not first-chair, because I would have been promptly demoted. The good news is, I have never been that nervous on stage since then.

PEV: What is a live Michael James performance like?

MJ: Rarely is one of my performances the same from one time to the next. Call me a perfectionist or just easily bored, but I tend to change things up from one show to another (quite drastically sometimes)…even to a fault at times. Thus far in my career, I have yet to play a show (with my solo material) with a full backing band. I have had other musicians sit in with me…but never a full band. So, my shows tend to be comprised of versions of my songs suited for a single guitar. Sometimes, I will mellow them out and do an acoustic version. Other times I will pick up an electric guitar and do a very atmospheric version. However, I don’t usually do the same version that is on the albums. I’ve always thought that the albums are kind of their own thing…and rather than trying to sound like the album version-with only one guitar mind you-I am more inclined to break out from that mold and try something off the wall a bit.

PEV: Having a huge fan base in the college circuit and getting air play on many indie rock stations early on, is there one college that sticks out as the best for you to play?

MJ: I played a school in Delaware, Ohio called Ohio Wesleyan University. It was one of the coolest shows I’ve done in terms of the audience. Colleges, just like clubs, can be hit or miss. You can’t avoid playing to empty rooms on occasion or running into audiences who will talk through your shows. It’s part of the job sometimes. But once in a while, you get an audience who completely surprises you by their attentiveness and how engaged they are. When I played at OWU, you could have heard a pin drop in that room (which can be rare…especially for a solo singer/songwriter’s show). The kids were right there with me the whole 75 minutes I played…hanging on every word. It was an amazing feeling to play for an audience that gave me so much respect. After the show, there was nothing but kind words and admiration. It’s one of those experiences as a performer that you don’t soon forget.

PEV: With that, what can fans expect from your new EP, “To Raise an Army for Love”?

MJ: I think the new EP has a lot of depth packed into a short five songs. While I really focused on making sure the songs felt like they were part of a single collection (and not just thrown together), I feel like each one has a different story to tell, both lyrically and musically. I think it verging on bizarre that a song like “So Long” could be on the same disc as “Stethoscope.” But I think it works. Like I said, I think there is a lot of depth in these songs…and I think it could take listeners several times through it to really wrap their heads around the material. Nevertheless, I feel like the songs make sense together and tell one story together…and that’s what I was aiming for from the start.

PEV: How is “To Raise an Army for Love” different than others out today? As well as different from your previous album, “Everything We Used to Be”?

MJ: I really tried to find a deeper emotional core on this album than with the last one. With ‘Everything We Used to Be,’ I had an overall theme and story in mind, but to some degree, since it was released relatively early on in my solo career, it was more of a collection of songs that were made to fit into a story. With ‘To Raise an Army for Love,’ I think not only is the songwriting stronger, but also the stories are stronger. In my mind, the stronger the story, the more it can connect with an emotional foundation in the listener. In addition, I think these songs mean more to me…they are more personal, and I hope that translates to the listener.

I also had the good fortune of working with producer John Seymour on this EP. John has worked with huge international artists like U2 and Dave Matthews Band, so I felt like he had a broad range of musical experience to share with me during the process. Again, this EP is different from the last albums because John was around. It gave me the chance to bounce ideas off of him-whereas, with the previous CDs, I was my own producer. Being your own producer has its advantages, but I’ve always subscribed to the “two heads are better than one” theory. John and I really worked well together and I think he pushed me in some ways that I may not have gone alone…and I love that fact. At the end of the day, I think the new EP by far outshines my older work.

PEV: Having done a solo career as well as group dynamic (with Fiance`), do you find one more challenging than the other?

MJ: They are both challenging in their own right. Being in a band, you are forced to deal with (in the case of Fiance`) four different opinions. Everyone has the best interest of the songs or the band in mind, but you have to work together and compromise to find common ground so everyone is happy. Even still, sometimes everyone can’t be happy. I think therein lies both the good and bad of being in a band. What make a good band is their ability to seemingly take 4 or 5 different opinions, combine them to find common ground, and in turn come up with something that is greater than anything any of them could have done alone. Sometimes that process just works, other times it doesn’t-which is why we have amazing bands and shitty ones.

I find the challenge exactly the same, yet completely opposite with my solo project. Yeah it is great to always get my way…and to be able to do whatever I want musically. However, sometimes you need the ideas of other people to keep from getting sterile or falling into old habits of repeating yourself. The good thing about a band is you have 3 or 4 other guys to challenge you to be better. With my solo project, I have to challenge myself to be better. Sometimes that can work, but sometimes it doesn’t. In other words, you can be great at a particular sport…but if you have a coach or teammates helping you to get better, you tend to do so quicker than if left to your own devices.

So each is challenging, and I like that I can switch back and forth between the two. It helps to keep me on my game and sharp.

PEV: Is there a certain environment you surround yourself in when you sit down to write music?

MJ: In general, I like to write in the morning or late at night. If I sit down to write a song at 3:00pm, I find my head is usually not in the right place…not always, but sometimes. I have never needed to ‘set the mood’ with candles and sexy lighting like I was trying to get laid. I just need a guitar and a spark of inspiration or a story to tell. I do find though, that the more I write, the more comes out. I kind of have to get the ball rolling again after time away from songwriting, but once I do, they come naturally.

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

MJ: They are all very proud of me. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of people be extremely supportive of my career and my goals. Sure, I’ve had the doubters in my life. I don’t think any kid who says to his or her friends and family, “I’m going to be a rock star” gets an overwhelmingly supportive reaction from the start. But, I can safely say that at the very least, they cannot question my drive or my passion at this point.

PEV: Having traveled everywhere, what city do you think offers the best appreciation for music? Why?

MJ: It is hard to say that anyone city has the best appreciation for music. In my opinion, it depends more on the people at any given show. I’ve done shows in the middle of nowhere at a small college where there is no local music scene to be found anywhere…yet the people at the shows are among the most respectful and best audiences I’ve performed for. On the same dime, people in NYC love music. They go out to certain clubs knowing nothing of who is playing that night, just because they love music and being inspired by new artists. My point is, you can’t necessarily say one city is better than another…really there are music fans everywhere. I just hope I am lucky enough to play for them and have them be my fans as well.

PEV: What is life on the road like for you? Best and worst parts?

MJ: I love to travel. I love seeing new placing and meeting new people and learning about life outside of where I grew up and my little comfort zone. I guess my love for travel makes life on the road that much more enjoyable. Being able to play music every night, and see the country is really a dream job for me. One of the craziest parts of the road is that you tend to just lose track of time. The days begin to just all seem the like the same day over and over again. You drive a bit, you load unload gear, you soundcheck, you perform, you meet fans, and you load up and start all over again. The only change is where you sleep…and even that seems to all be the same after a while. I like to call it ‘getting into the zone.’ That is really what it feels like, even after only a couple days.

Obviously, the worst parts are that after a while you miss your family, you miss the creature comforts of home: your own bed, your own shower, a whole drawer or closet full of clothes as opposed to 3 t-shirts stuffed into a suitcase that are supposed to last for 3 weeks. But, in the end I wouldn’t trade it for a desk job and my own bed every night in a million years.

PEV: In one word, describe Michael James.

MJ: Tall-as-hell. (It’s one word if I use hyphens, right?)

PEV: Is there an “up and coming” artist or band right now that you think we should all be listening to?

MJ: There is a band out of Seattle that has been in heavy rotation on my ipod as of late. They are called Barcelona. They have some really powerful songwriting and arrangements in that band. You should definitely check them out.

PEV: With a long list of names you’ve worked with, is there someone you have not had the chance to work with or collaborate with, that you would like to?

One day I would love to work with Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois. They are two of the most talented producers in the world in my eyes and they have worked on some of the most timeless albums of all time. To have the chance to sit down with one of those two guys, and dissect one of my songs only to rebuild it again into something completely different…that would be indescribable.

PEV: When the band is not traveling or performing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

MJ: I am a big eater…I love a good meal. Any chance I get to hang out with friends over a good meal, I will take it. That is one part of daily life that suffers on the road…food choice. So when I am home, I try to eat like a king! I also enjoy staying active. Being a singer, my body is my instrument…so I have to keep the thing in shape! I love a good round of golf…though I have less talent for golf in my entire 6’6″ frame than Tiger has in his ring finger. I also am a big movie buff. I am always waiting to be inspired by a great movie.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about you?

MJ: In another life, I went to college for mechanical engineering. I was horrible at math in high school…kind of scrapped by on C’s. When it came time to choose a major in college, I chose engineering…the most mathematically oriented major there is (aside from a mathematics major itself).

PEV: If we were to walk into your practice studio what would we find?

MJ: You would find a bunch of guitars sitting around collecting dust. I love guitars…all kinds of guitars. But I tend to be monogamous when it comes to actually playing them. I will find one that suits my fancy and play it exclusively for months. I think I might have a problem…or maybe I just need more variety.

PEV: So, what is next for Michael James?

MJ: I am constantly trying to one up myself. I am always trying to write songs that make my older stuff look like rubbish. I like that perspective, but it is never-Hoending. So, in the midst of releasing this new EP and playing shows to support it, I am already thinking ahead. I can’t wait to do the next one…I am a serial record maker.

For more information on Michael James, check out www.MichaelJamesMusic.com

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