2013 is already shaping up to be a big year for José James.
The distinctive, silky-voiced singer has just released his Blue Note debut, No Beginning No End, to glowing reviews, with Ben Ratliff of The New York Times noting that the record “sounds like the result of the black-pop continuum, jazz and soul and hip-hop and R&B, slow-cooked for more than 50 years.” And he just wrapped up a successful U.S. tour, which included performances on the set of both Conan O’Brien and David Letterman’s late-night shows, and is now overseas performing for fans in Japan.
But for James, all this recent success has been a long time coming. His music career actually started back in his hometown of Minneapolis in the late-’90s, when he was just a teenager. It’s here in the Twin Cities where he met his first musical mentors and played his first gigs, and it gave him the creative push he needed to migrate east and carve out a niche for himself in the much more competitive city of New York.
I had a chance to speak to José about his origins when he was back home last month to play a fiery, improv-heavy show at the Cedar Cultural Center. While he was in town, he was also kind enough to perform a couple of songs with his keyboard player Kris Bowers here at the Current.
Local Current: Let’s start at the beginning. I know you grew up in Minneapolis, what can you tell me about that?
José James: I grew up in three cities: Minneapolis, Duluth, and Seattle. I grew up with my mom, and most of my family is still here in Minneapolis—my mom, my dad, all of her family, and yeah. It’s the place where I sort of came into my own as a singer. I went to De La Salle and South High School, and was a part of the music program there, at both high schools.
What are some of your earliest musical memories?
I think the earliest musical memory is Billie Holiday. I’m sure my mom played a lot of music growing up, but I remember hearing her, and I remember it having some impact, and her sort of grabbing me in a way. She was just so different from everything else that I heard. I didn’t understand it—I was like three or four, so I didn’t understand what she was saying—but something about her vibe spoke to me.
Did that make you want to start singing?
I did a lot of stuff as a kid. I think most kids do. I remember I had a little tape recorder, and I would do little skits, songs. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan, like everybody. A big Prince fan too. But you know I did all the normal stuff, sports, and whatever too. Music wasn’t really a priority until I guess 17, that’s when I sort of said ‘let me try to seriously do music, really try to get gigs, start to have a band.’ You know, try to become a professional and try to make money.
Were you in bands in Minneapolis?
I was. My first gig, my first real, paid gig was at the Walker for the free first Saturday series, which was awesome. I was still in high school, I was like 16. And then I started getting some summer festivals, like local Powderhorn Park things, things like that. And I used to work at the Mayday Cafe on 34th and Cedar, so I did a series there where I would perform and I curated a night, had people come in. Just always trying to do something cool, trying to make a scene. It was good. It’s a nice place to grow up.
What year did you move to New York?
Had you been there before?
Yeah, I went there when I was 17, and I met Blue Note Records actually, I met Bruce Lundvall, who was the president then, and it was great. I got to meet some of Wynton Marsalis’s musicians, I saw Roy Hargrove, it was a huge week for me, and I was just 17.
How did you connect with Blue Note?
A friend of the family, his brother-in-law at the time was vice president of marketing for Blue Note, so I sort of auditioned for him, and he said, yeah, you’ve got a lot of talent, when you come to New York come see me, I’ll introduce you. His name is Tom Everett, and he’s a super cool guy. So I went out there and he introduced me to Blue Note, and Benny Carter got my demo tape and he took me around to the clubs. It was a pretty heady experience.
Let’s talk about the new record. Since you’re releasing it on Blue Note, do you feel like you need to play up the jazz aspect of your sound?
I don’t actually think of Blue Note as a jazz record anymore. I think Norah Jones changed that, with all her success. I think it’s just a good music label with a great jazz catalog, and jazz leanings. But if you look at all the new signings that Don Was brought in: it’s Van Morrison, myself, Derrick Hodge, Aaron Neville, and Wayne Shorter. So only really one of those is a true-blue jazz person. The founding statement was “Music that reflects the time,” and that’s what Don is going off of. So for me it just feels like a good place for music, and I think there wasn’t any other label that would have understood the depth of the album, because it’s not pure R&B or pure pop or singer-songwriter, there’s a lot of elements to it. So I couldn’t really think of another label it would have fit on so well.
I love how many different influences are present on your new record, and how undefinable it is. As you get more and more attention, do you feel any pressure to define your sound in one way or another?
Not at all, really. People seem like they get it. I was lucky Ben Ratliff wrote something really beautiful in the New York Times that really just sort of said, yeah, he’s connecting all these things on this album, that’s why it’s important, judge for yourself. And that’s all I want. I want people to listen to the album. You know, I grew up in the ‘90s so it was really about, man, have you heard 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged? You had to go buy it, there was no internet. It was really about shared listening. I am nostalgic for that, just because it’s so nice to listen with friends to music. We did it with the vinyl, which is four sides, it’s a double LP—so you have to turn it over, talk about it. It’s definitely meant to be enjoyed as an album.
I love the story you told All Things Considered about you writing “Trouble” on the subway; that’s such a quintessential New York story. Do you feel like the city has influenced your sound?
Absolutely. I mean, every aspect of my life. I’ve been there 10 years now, and yeah, it changes you, for better or for worse. It gets inside you, mostly just because nobody cares about your talent or who you are or anything. Everybody’s talented, everybody’s hustling. So it really makes you think about who you are in a deeper way. For me, it made me think about what I have to say that’s meaningful, because there’s a lot of talented people, a lot of people who are way more talented than I am in New York, you know. And a lot of them, I recruited for this album.
What is the music scene like in New York, compared to Minneapolis?
It’s a ton of cliques, a ton of subcultures. It’s all connections. 99.99% connections, all the way up through the industry. You see the most harmless looking gig that pays you $30 or whatever—somebody worked really hard to get that. It’s pretty crazy how difficult it is to play music and make a living right now. Especially because there’s so many students that kind of undercut themselves, and working musicians, professionals—there’s a lot of different layers. Most of the musicians I know, including myself, don’t really work in New York at all. We just live there, we rehearse there, we hang out, but we’re on the road all the time, and we maybe play twice a year. I had a residency for a year in New York at New Blue from 2007 into 2008, and it was really good, but it was really hard to sustain, because I think the days are gone where people want to see something unfold—like a band unfold five nights in a row, or a month in a row. Now it’s sort of like big build up, sell a lot of tickets, boom that was awesome, it’s all over Twitter, and then come back three or six months later.
What was it like to play Letterman?
It was cool. It was really different from Conan O’Brien because that’s on a soundstage. Letterman is in a theater, actually, so his band is right there, the Paul Schaeffer Orchestra is right next to you, and it’s New York, so you feel more pressure. In a way it doesn’t feel like TV, it feels like a show, if that makes any sense. It’s artificial, but it feels less artificial than L.A. It’s also freezing, Letterman loves it super cold. Everybody’s wearing really thick high school letter jackets. I don’t know why, it’s just the way he likes it, it’s really cold. And the musicians are really checking you out. Those guys have done it forever, they’ve seen everybody come through, so you’re soundchecking and it’s pretty intense—the whole band is listening to you, right there. Like, right there, watching you. And all the sound people, and producers. I could see how you could get really nervous, as a new artist, but for me it was just like, ok, I’m in NY, I live here, I’m ready to do this, and I was just excited. It was awesome.