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July 24, 2012
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Shawn James on his new album ‘Shadows’

By Kody Ford
Idle Class Editor 

Shawn James, the wandering, soulful folkster, just finished his debut album “Shadows,” a collection of powerful ballads and mid-tempo tunes with minimalist instrumentation and emphasis on his powerful vocals. His voice drives the album, often shifting effortlessly between a roar and a whisper, depending upon the emotions of the song.  The Idle Class recently caught up with James for an interview. Here’s some of what he had to say:

His Musical Style:

It’s hard for me to describe my music because I feel like my song library is very eclectic. With that being said, I tend to lean towards playing a mix of haunting, soulful folk with orchestrated layers, foot stompin’, loud, raw, rootsy blues, and feel-good soul music with good groove. Whatever style I choose to do, I always pour all of my heart, passion and soul into it. I don’t stick to one genre on ‘Shadows’ because I feel that it makes for a more interesting record that displays my range of styles.

The Story of Shadows:

Shadows is my first album. This album is the culmination of the last few years of hard-work, writing, and life experience. After moving to Nashville, I decided that I needed to be more independent as a musician. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy playing with others; I just wanted to focus on developing the skills needed to stand on my own. I spent the next few years doing just that in Nashville and Chicago. I’ve wanted to release an album for a while now, but the pieces didn’t fall into place and I felt that I wasn’t ready yet. After moving to Fayetteville, I felt inspired to finally put together an album that I was proud of.

The Artistic Vision of the Album:

I wrote these songs without a specific direction in mind. After recording the album, I began to think of a concept that would tie everything together. The name “Shadows” is inspired by one of the songs on the album called “The Shadow.” I had a monstrous shadow looming over me for a long time that wasn’t mine. It wasn’t ‘til I was older that I was able to get out from under it. Everyone has a shadow. Some have more than one. Sometimes, your shadow manifests itself in different shapes and forms reflecting part of us that we try to hide. Other times you may have a shadow following you that’s not your own. It can be interpreted in many different ways. I’d like for everyone to get their own meaning from “Shadows.” After all, everyone has their own lens of perception that is unique to them.

To me, the album as a whole needed to be a complete piece of art. To accomplish this the music needed to reflect itself in the artwork. I knew that one of my friends Stephanie Petet created beautiful, unique oil paintings. I explained to Stephanie how I envisioned the album art & let her interpret my vision through her painting.

The Ingredients of a Good Song:

Life experience first and foremost. After that I’d say having a unique perspective, passion, strong melodies and a subject people can relate to.

For me, songwriting is all about getting myself into the right state of mind for the particular song/mood I’m wanting to write/create. If I can achieve that, then the song tends to flow out easily.

The Stories Behind the Songs:

Midnight Dove” – My wife Michelle and I were living in Nashville a few years back. I was working at a recording studio and Michelle was working at a great salon. I got a call one Friday from my mom telling me that my little 11-year-old sister had cancer. We quit our jobs, packed up our stuff and 2 days later we were headed home to Chicago to support and help her get through everything. The next few months were pretty tough. I can’t explain how emotionally draining it was at times just to see my sister at such a young age have to go through that. She eventually beat it and is doing great now. I wrote Midnight Dove while all that was going on. It soothed me to be able to dump all the emotion I was feeling at the time into a song.

“If That’s Love” – I have a very “old world” view when it comes to love and relationships. I have no respect for one-night-stands, having sex just to conquer some new territory or anything along those lines. I feel that a lot of people are jaded and already too far gone to want to change. I believe that most modern love has been transformed into something that’s quick, easy and sleazy. I’ve been with my wife ever since I was 16 and we’ve been solid ever since. I look around at relationships most times and feel genuine sadness that people don’t treat each other right and that they don’t have something solid to depend on. Truth is, they don’t really know what love is.

“Eating Like Kings” – My good friend Mark McKinney wrote Eating Like Kings while in Afghanistan waiting to go back to the States. He was in the army, stationed there for a little over a year. He told me that him and the other guys were talking about the kinds of food they’d be able to enjoy once they got back to the US and it inspired him to write “Eating Like Kings.” Because of the deep emotions in his lyrics, melody, and songwriting, the song quickly became one of my favorites to play.

His Musical Journey:

I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents were cooks at the restaurant they owned in a pretty bad neighborhood. As I got older, the area got worse and we ended up moving further south to find a more suitable place for the family. I can’t remember not being in church growing up and I believe that had a huge impact on my music. My parents are Pentecostal but I also went to school at a very strict, challenging Baptist Academy.

I feel like the Pentecostal side enabled me to see a more raw aspect of how music affected people’s emotions and how deeply someone could be moved by the passion and heart of a performer and the song. Under the other school, I learned a more classical approach to music. I played trumpet in the school orchestra, was apart of a big choir and trained intensely in solo vocal performance from middle school through high school. I eventually tired of having to follow a ‘map’ to play music and left that part of the classical world behind.

His influences:

Choosing just a few is tough for me because I have a very eclectic musical influence list but here goes.

Son House – This man’s voice gives me goose bumps. You can hear all sorts of raw emotion in his voice and you can feel that he’s lived through a lot of hardships to get it. His power, vibrato control and ability to jump from low to high notes (and vice versa) quickly are impressive.

Tom Waits – There’s something about his big rough voice, unique clever character and smooth bluesy style that I just can’t get enough of. Tom Waits is the man.

MeWithoutYou – When their A>B Life album came out, I devoured it. I’d never heard such a beautifully poetic yet haunted, troubled voice expressed in such a way. The music is so emotionally powerful and sets the perfect mood for Aaron Weiss to lose control and let it all out.

J. Tillman – I believe this man to be one of the greatest singer-songwriters to have ever graced the face of this earth. His emotionally charged, poetic lyrics coupled with his sincere, vulnerable voice and simple guitar style inspires me. Check out the songs “Diamondback” & “A Golden String For Your Nest”.

Bill Withers – He’s an incredibly genuine performer and has a one-of-a-kind smooth & simple, groovy soul/R&B style that I love. There’s also an air of sadness about Bill Withers and his music that I find comforting.

Otis Redding – Otis is one of those powerhouse singers that have an incredibly expressive voice. His vocal melodies are still some of the strongest and catchiest around in my opinion. There’s not much better than Otis Redding for some soothing feel-good soul music.

Clint Mansell – The Fountain Soundtrack is one of my favorite instrumental records of all time. His ability to transport you to a vivid world that he created musically is nothing short of incredible. He is a modern composing genius. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis is another duo along the same lines as Clint Mansell that I also admire.

On the Life of a Musician:

For the first time in my life, I’ve been able to support myself off of my music. It feels incredible and I know how extremely fortunate I am to have the opportunities I do. It can be very difficult to focus on music and get into the right state of mind when you’ve got a list of other responsibilities and obligations to juggle. Being able to solely focus on music has given me a range of comfort, ease, and freedom with the creative process that I’ve never had before and that in my opinion is the biggest reward.

His Greatest Challenge:

I’d say the biggest challenge for me was transitioning from writing, playing, performing and splitting responsibilities with a band, to doing it all on my own. Now that I know I can stand on my own two feet musically, it’ll make everything flow much smoother once I do decide to start projects with other musicians again.

The Future:

I’m going into the studio again in September to record a 5 song concept EP that tells the story of a man who was raised by wolves. An extremely generous anonymous donor paid for all the costs for me to record at East Hall Recording in Fayetteville. I’m looking to get on the road touring all over ASAP. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have all these opportunities and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Check out out the video for “Midnight Dove” here.