Wichita is the latest stop on a tour in support of Shawn James' latest album, The Dark & The Light. Influenced by soul, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and more, James provides a seamless blend of all those styles through the music on the deeply personal album.
Writing about the death of his father, personal struggles during his youth in Chicago and, in the album's final moments, meditating on what his own passing may be like, James delivers an unflinching portrait of an artist coming into their own.
James recently spoke with KMUW about The Dark & The Light and the inspiration for the material on it.
A lot of the material on this record is of a personal nature, right?
All of my songs are personal, but this album has a couple of songs that are very deeply embedded in my past and dealing some trauma from the past. So, yes, it is. [Laughs.]
There are some who find it therapeutic, cathartic, to write about their traumas. Others say, "You know, I'm going to leave that alone."
The deepest songs on this album are "Love Will Find A Way I and II" in terms of dealing with old stuff. That song took me 10 years to write. For the longest time, I thought, "I need to leave it alone." I would work on it and then draw a blank. I knew the story but I didn't know the purpose for why I was telling it. I hadn't found that yet. For years and years, I thought, "Leave it alone."
At the end of 2017, I finished it and it was extremely therapeutic. The weight was lifted off. I'm of both minds about that. I think those deeply personal songs can be therapeutic, but when you find what you're looking for.
I think sometimes art has to find the right moment to reveal itself.
Absolutely, man. You can't force it. Sometimes you want to and you end up spending way too much time on a song and not being happy with it.
You also wrote a song about your hometown, Chicago. I think very often we have a complex relationship with where we're from. "This is home, it's the greatest place on earth," or, "I can't wait to get away from this town, these people."
You hit it on the head. It's been a love-hate relationship for me. There's more love now but in the past, it was about trying to get out. But that's because that's where a lot of those negative experiences and heavier things from youth happened, so I had negative feelings about home. Once I got away and came back, I was able to say, "Oh, man. I missed this!" I can enjoy the city for what it is and not have to bring up old [wounds].
Let's talk about a song on the album that I'm really taken with, "Orpheus." I'm taken with it for a couple of reasons. One, I think your vocal performance is great on there, and I want to talk about it in a second. But, also, I'm curious how much you were inspired by the myth of Orpheus.
Very much so. It's always been one of my favorite mythological tales. I've been obsessed with mythology since I was young. After my father died, my mother married a Greek immigrant. He taught me a lot of those stories and got me kind of obsessed with tall tales and legends. That one was always one of my favorites because I've always used music as a release, an escape therapy. He had that power as well.
I always wanted to do a song on "Orpheus" and, similar to with "Love Will Find A Way," it just never felt like I was in the place to do it. I would try, and I really wasn't happy with it. "Orpheus" wasn't as emotionally jarring as "Love Will Find A Way," but I just didn't have the ideas. Then I got the idea to put myself in the shoes of Orpheus and maybe his mentality going into saving [Eurydice]. Where his head was and how devoted he was and how he was going to do it all in spite of the odds.
It works so well as a contemporary love song.
It does. And it's funny because people have come up to me and said it works in situations where you're trying to help someone with an addiction or trying to help a family member who's going through something difficult and you're not going to let them go. I love that it applies to so many different topics.
Tell me about the vocal performance on that. That sounds like a performance that would take a lot out of a singer to commit to that emotional intensity.
I feel like I don't have to think too much about that intensity. It's become second nature to me. I've been singing since before I can remember. I came into consciousness with it is kind of how I say it. Because it's always been a release and an escape, I kind of easily dive into that heavy intensity of emotions, and I don't necessarily have to be drained from it anymore. That might sound weird, but I feel like that's something that's just come with time.
I wanted to show the heartbreak that Orpheus is feeling. The intensity, vocally. I really didn't think too much about it. I was in the moment and did it.
When you're making a record there's a time when you, the band, the producer and maybe some loved ones, are the only ones who have heard it. Then it goes out in the world. Are you ever nervous about that? How do you find out how people are receiving it?
I have been nervous in the past, and I still am every now and then. In the past, it was always a very DIY approach to making records. Even in the sound quality it was more stripped down and raw and not very produced. I'd also say, "This is my blues album, this is my folk album, this is my singer-songwriter album. This one's a heavy rock ‘n' roll album."
With this new one, I really wanted to show the best of all the worlds. Trim the fat and show the whole skew of everything I can do in one package. This is the biggest sounding record that we've done in the way that we used an amazing studio. Great producer. Big elements. There are horns on it. I'd never done that before.
A lot of people who knew you when you first got started, when you're a DIY artist recording records in your bedroom, there are some people who fall in love with that very raw, non-produced, very it-still-shines-through-even-though-it's-not-the-best-recording-quality [thing]. They hold you to that, and they only want to hear it that way because they've been used to for so long.
So, with this new record, and it being a step up in terms of quality and production, I was very, very nervous about fans feeling that maybe I had — I hate the term and I got over it — sold out based on recording quality. What got me over that was: Is the message the same? Is the songwriting similar? Are you still feeling it? Is it still emotional? Is it still honest and genuine?
Yes, it is, in spite of the production quality.
Now that it's been released the response has been tremendous. The beautiful thing that I've come to realize is that with a record like this [is that] there still are those people who do want the raw elements of what my old stuff was. We've come to the conclusion that we can do both. And now, for those fans, we're gonna release a different side of the record. All the songs played with just an acoustic guitar and my voice.
When will that be out?
We're releasing them one-by-one over the next few months. We're doing a live takeaway video. I find that my best performances happen in a certain moment. We've done one for "Burn The Witch." We're releasing the audio for that, for the acoustic version, on July 26. There will be more in the coming months.
Shawn James performs at Barleycorn's on Tuesday, July 23.