Interview with Songwriter Drew James

albumart_drewjames5_200x200I am always on the lookout for musicians I meet in person. I like to support them by buying a CD, I like to have new music to listen to and I need musicians willing to let me use their work on my book trailers and videos. I have met many wonderful people this way.

A few weeks ago, at the Farmer’s Market in Moraga I met Drew James. As I listened to his songs I realized he is truly a story teller and I decided an interview on my blog was in the cards.

Award winning songwriter Drew James performs his solo act all over the west coast, primarily in the bay area. Drew’s songs receive airplay in the U.S. and Europe.

Drew’s studio releases “Love Through a Prism” (2015), “Screaming at the Sky” (2012) and “Mystic Rhythm Fingers” (2010) include his most requested songs. His 2007 acoustic release “Way Beyond the Maze” includes the Great American Song Contest award winner “You Can Cry to Me” and the Billboard World Song Contest award winner “Thicker than Blood.” His 2006 release “The Last Second Chance,” produced by Bruce Kaphan, was submitted for Grammy consideration. It includes the Billboard Song Contest award winner “That Old Friday Night Feeling.” The CD was also featured at the Toofy Film Festival in Boulder, Colorado. He appeared on Shuteye Records’ “United State of Americana” compilation CD that made it to #53 on the Americana Music Association charts in 2005.

I used to interview Authors and Writers, exclusively. But I have lately been listening to the stories told by other artists. Your songs are stories! Tell us how you come up with your ideas for your songs.

My song ideas come from many different sources and always unexpectedly. They come from books, pictures, films, conversation snippets I hear on the street, dreams, friends, songs, life experiences – so just about anywhere you can imagine. I keep a notebook with pages and pages of ideas. I’d say less than 5% of those ideas eventually appear in a song at some point. An idea usually catch my attention by having an attractive lyrical quality, a strange language twist or an interesting internal rhyme. Those are the ones that have the potential to become a hook. A great idea will have one or more of these qualities and will trigger either a thought stream that leads to a story line or a full musical chorus idea. A good idea may eventually end up in a verse or a bridge.

What influences the way you tell a story? 

I have always loved stories and storytellers. When I was little, either my mother would read to me and my younger brother from bedtime storybooks or my dad would make up his stories for us as he went along. I remember my father’s stories were usually about a little boy named Timmy and always had a bear in it somewhere. Although I never asked, I always figured that Timmy was a pseudonym for Jimmy – my dad’s name was James James. As I got a bit older I would make up my own bedtime stories and tell them to my brother. As a teenager growing up in the 60’s I had a tape recorder that I would use to record my guitar playing. My friends and I also used it to ad lib little audio plays. We would scan classical radio stations until one of us heard something that evoked an accent, character or story line. Then he would blurt out a beginning line and then others would join in. I still have some of these tapes. When my kids were younger I would write them poems on their birthdays or on holidays. That’s how I began to learn how to use rhyme schemes in a story. I think all of these early experiences (plus having a very vivid imagination) helped me to develop my ability to write and tell stories in my songs.Drew James

How do you approach the art of song writing? Scheduled? Daily? In bursts? Favorite place to write? Any tips for other song writers?

I don’t have a strict schedule but I do work on my music every day. If I am not working on a brand new idea, I will revisit songs that I have previously written, though not yet recorded, to see if maybe I can find some way to make them better. I will sometimes try different melodies or phrasing, or maybe modifying the lyrics. I have songs that I have rewritten several times. As an example, a couple of weeks ago I was watching a great documentary about Seymour Bernstein, the master classical pianist and composer, when I heard him play an enchanting musical phrase that instantly morphed into a slightly different melody and harmony in my head. I hit the pause button and ran to my guitar to record my idea. The next morning I played it over and over until it developed into a full musical chorus idea. Then I tried my best to answer the question “how does this music make me feel?” Once I convinced myself of the musical mood it created, I revisited my list of song lyrics that I had written in the past, but had never ended up as “keepers” for one reason or another. I was able to find one that matched the mood closely and roughly fit the melody. I rewrote the chorus lyrics to better fit the musical phrasing. Then I played it over and over and over, adjusting the melody, lyrics, chord forms until it felt and sounded the way I wanted. Then I needed to come up with music for the verse that fit the ones I had written for that old song and my new chorus. I must have tried a dozen ideas until I found the one that worked for me. Then I played it for days and days, making adjustments until it gave me the same emotional feeling I had when I first heard the Seymour Bernstein classical piece. Now I will play that song at gigs to see how it is received – then maybe make more adjustments. Sometimes I will play a song out for a year or more before I feel it is ready to record. That is the concept behind “Road Tested Tunes” – the name of my recording and publishing company. My favorite place to write lyrics is on walks, usually over Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. The spirits of the Beats are all still over that place.

What do you listen to for pleasure? Growth? Latest recommend? Favorite musician?

I listen to all kinds of music. I have a special attachment to New Orleans music because it is so eclectic. My wife and I go to the French Quarter Festival every year to hear the local musicians. I also love Americana music. Every week I study the Americana charts to check out the most recent chart additions. I will create a playlist of these chart-climbing artists and study what is trending in that genre. Recent favorites are Dylan LeBlanc, Lucero, The Black Lillies, Josh Ritter, Shawn Mullins, Leon Bridge, Gary Clark Jr. and The Lone Bellow. My favorite Jazz singer is Melody Gardot. She can bring me to tears. My all time favorite is Tom Waits. Besides the few formal songwriting lessons and how-to books, I learned how to write songs by playing dozens of Tom Waits songs. There is a lot of great music out there, but you have to find it.

Your songs have a bit of a melancholy air. My two favorites, “Catcher in the Rye” and “I’ll Be On My Way”, capture your amazing guitar talent. In “Catcher in the Rye” it is the beat, along with the lyrics that capture my fancy. In “Be on My Way” I like the beat, but the lyrics are very engaging. You also have songs about traveling and leaving. How has your life played a role in what you write?

Besides being a Tom Waits fan, the master of “grand weepers and grim reapers”, there were two life events that turned my songwriting toward the melancholy. The first was my father abandoning our family when I was 12 years old. He was an alcoholic that, I believe, resulted from the time he spent as a gunner on a battleship during World War II. I think he secretly suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome that eventually ruined his life. That’s the basis of the story behind “The Catcher in the Rye.” The second event was my younger brother dying of cancer back in 1997 when he was 44. I sat by his bed and held his hand during his last few days. I started playing guitar when I was 13, but had never written a song with lyrics until going through that experience. My brother was an English major and an avid reader. I believe to this day that my ability to write came as a last gift from him before he left this earth. The songs on my first CD, As Far As I Know, are greatly influenced by my brothers spirit. The song “Thank You Brother” on my Last Second Chance CD came to me in a dream while in New Orleans. I was staying in a guest house next to the one he and his wife spent their honeymoon in.

Any upcoming events? Final words of wisdom? 

My upcoming gigs are posted on my website calendar. I limit my appearances primarily to farmers markets. I discovered many years ago that farmers market patrons are my prime audience. I particularly enjoy watching the kids as they enjoy the music. They are totally uninhibited and many have never heard live music before. They become transfixed by the rhythms and often will start tapping their feet or dancing. I am entertained by them as much as they are entertained by me. I have watched many a parent literally drag their kids away after several songs so they can get their shopping done. That leads to my final words of wisdom. I have always been a very introverted person of very few words. Music allowed me to connect with people in a way I never could through purely verbal means. Before I ever performed live I would always imagine myself playing to a small audience so I could see their reactions to my music. I never imagined myself playing to a huge faceless audience. That never appealed to me and still doesn’t. The enjoyment I get from my music is from the connection I get with my audience. It gives me ultimate freedom to be me. I would never sign a recording or performance contract and give up that freedom.

Drew, Thank you for the fantastic interview! I think your personal story will be very helpful to my readers—be they authors or book lovers. In the meantime, I’m going to go order some more of your music!

Visit Drew’s website at drewjames.net. It includes song clips and lyrics for all his songs. There are also a few videos and a complete radio interview for KGZM-FM radio. His focus right now is on making music live and in person. However, he plans to begin new recording sessions in the spring.

 

Comments

  1. Thanks for the introduction to a fine artist. I like the approach that a songwriter is a story teller and I enjoyed the interview. That’s cool that you added a performance so the introduction is complete with proof of his talent!

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