Far too often Joshua James’s music has been characterized as “dark.” It’s in this album My Spirit Sister that I realized that James is not dark; he’s honest. He is one of the most honest songwriters making music today, wrestling with raw emotions that are sometimes scary, sometimes unsettling. But make no mistake this new album is a celebration. It is a celebration of surviving hard times in marriage, as a father, and existing as a human being. Not only will it make my list for album of the year, I hope that someone with a vote for the Americana Grammy gives it an honest listen. This is a timeless, stunning album.
James has been garnering critical attention from folks at Rollingstone and Noisey of late, but his career is not just emerging. With his characteristic whispy and raspy voice, he’s well on his way as an accomplished singer songwriter and producer. I asked him about his background and his answer gave me a glimpse into the remarkable personality behind his brilliant songs. He grew up in Nebraska and spent two years serving as a missionary in Venezuela. When he returned home he went to school studying nursing more for career than calling, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t his passion. Somewhere around that time he met his wife, who is the person of inspiration for several of the songs on the new album.
In a wonderfully inspiring story, James began recording some of his songs and putting them on MySpace. He was “discovered” there and recorded his first record in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter he found himself on tour, making $25 per show, pounding the pavement to give the music thing a go. Thankfully his career coalesced at a time that digital sales began to take off, allowing him to eke out a living by self releasing albums. Due to a lucrative partnership with the hit show Sons of Anarchy, Joshua James slowly became a household name for fans of his particular brand of rock-infused Americana. He later added production to his skill set and has over twenty production credits, including Grayson Schick and Armon Jay.
But what I learned about Joshua James from talking to him is that he is a human being first and an artist or musician or husband or father or whatever else you call him after. In other words, his concerns are deeply personal and moving. As I moved into questions about his creative process, he emphasized the need to be alone. Sometimes, he said, he can’t even have anyone in the house let alone in the room with him. It’s that sense of quietness, with his guitar and thoughts, that produces the stellar Americana tunes that characterize his career.
I wanted to know about his track “Mille,” my favorite on the album by far. He explained that it was a song about the feelings he had when he was waiting for the birth of his daughter. It’s full of complicated emotions, confusion, joy, and fear all in one. James is the kind of person who says what others are thinking and often afraid to share. It’s a remarkable transparency that makes the songs explode.
The story of My Spirit Sister is very song oriented, he explained, as it was not a concept album. These were songs that represent a snapshot of a time in his personal life. Writing the songs, he said, helped him deal with it all. It is “what I do for money, but also what I do to cope with reality – my humanity.” The writing isn’t a reflection of the process; writing IS the process.
Joshua and I had a fascinating discussion about inspiration and influence. I often ask artists about their influences, but I could tell right from the outset that James wouldn’t be interested in that. Instead, we talked about how songs are very much present, encapsulated in a moment and expressing the emotions and spirit of the time. These melodies all come from somewhere. The lyrics are merely collections of the substance of a songwriter’s life. To that end, James applauds a few folks early in his career who let him really be himself. It has allowed him to develop a style that permits him to contemplate human emotion and experience openly and sincerely.
One of my favorite lyrics in Millie is “see me as the boy I am,” an expressive confession of the unfitness many fathers feel right before the birth of the child. James discussed with me how his desire is for people to connect with those types of ideas, to engage and consider their own similarities with the thoughts and emotions he shares. So he doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like politics and religion. Instead, “don’t shy away – engage it” he said, which he models with songs on the new album. That influence on others, helping them think about their own lives and struggles, “that’s true heaven.” What a beautiful concept.
The themes of the album are about love, parenting, and relationships with a focus on the relationships within his own family. The album includes a printout of the lyrics, which I highly recommend that fans read closely while listening to the album. You’ll get a real sense of James’s heart, which he bares for us to hear. Maybe unsurprisingly, James shares some of his personal thoughts about life at an ironically named site iamnotreal.com. If you’re interested in learning more about the thoughtful existentialism of Joshua James, read more about him there.