Currently signed to Parts + Labor Records, Shawn James is a force of nature. His voice is a combination of the Gospel choirs he sang with as a youngster and his training in Classical music and Opera.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, James’ timeless sound is steeped in Blues legends like Robert Johnson and Son House, forever at the crossroads of damnation and redemption, the two inextricably woven into the fabric of his songs. After James’ father died, his Greek stepfather introduced him to the Pentecostal church, where his vocal talent was recognized immediately and put to use in the choir. A child prodigy with a multi-octave range, he didn’t start playing acoustic guitar until high school and didn’t start writing songs seriously until he was in his mid-twenties.
Studying Classical music helped him hone his vocal technique, but he learned to let loose emotionally in church. “I had the mix of both worlds,” he says. Pointing to “authentic” performers like Tom Waits, Soul singers like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Bill Withers, and the old Blues icons who inspired him, James explains, “They weren’t precious about what they did; they didn’t put themselves on a pedestal. I want my music to be respected, but I’ll still sit down at the bar to have a beer with you. My goal is to make music that stands the test of time.”
In December 2016, James had his breakthrough when his song “Through the Valley” was covered by the character Ellie in the trailer for the video game: The Last of Us Part II. The song garnered over 60 million streams across Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. His music has been featured on Yukon Men, Reckless, and Shameless. 2022 brings the release of another new record from Shawn James, A Place in The Unknown. Recorded and produced by Jimmy Messer, singles from the record include: “Not Alone,” “The Devil’s Daughters,” and “War.” Album cover artwork by: Eleonora Pulcini.
Brant Buckley for American Blues Scene:
Can you talk about your new record, A Place in The Unknown?
I had a big year of touring planned for 2020 which was cut off, obviously, as it was for everyone. I was in the U.K. in March and we were sent home which was a pretty big bummer. I was thinking it was only going to last a few months and then I’d be back on the road. It has been almost two years. During that time, I was trying to find stuff to fill my time. I started reading more. I was reading a lot of music biographies and I started getting into drumming as I needed something to focus on. I knew that this record was going to primarily be a rock record and be influenced by a few different genres.
My approach to writing before typically started with a guitar, piano, or my voice. I would write based off of a lyrical idea I had, concept, or a character. This time, because I was going for more of a rock record and something more upbeat, I wanted to be more groove based. I wanted the lyrics and some of the melodies on the guitar be inspired by groove rather than just poetry or chords. At the start of this record before I did anything, I chose the BPM (Beats Per Minute) and the type of groove before I would craft the song. This has been very different from anything I have done before. I feel like you can feel the pacing of the music on the record in comparison to other ones.
Where did you record it and what was the process like?
I recorded with Parts + Labor Records in Los Angeles. They are an independent label I am working with at the moment. It was recorded at Jimmy Messer’s studio and he is the producer of the album and he recently bought a tape machine. I approached the studio with the bones of the songs. We brought in a drummer and Jimmy played bass on most of the tracks. We would take the song and perform it live in the studio. We were all using headphones and played together live to see how it felt. A lot of times when you write something and then translate it to the band, things can feel different. We performed all of the songs this way and adjusted some things. We recorded the drums and bass live to tape to really get that sound.
The most beneficial thing you can do with tape tends to be on the drums and the bass because of the parameters of the sound. It gives you the quality of the tape sound. It has a livelier warm presence. It turned out amazing. Instead of doing everything individually from the get go, I think doing the record while playing guitar and singing with the bass and drums being cut together at the same time gives everything a fluidity, smoothness, and natural quality to everything rather than being stuck on the tempo map. It was a great experience and I think we recorded it in about a month and a half from start to finish.
I also recorded “War” by Edwin Starr/The Temptations. That was a blast! I didn’t think I could do it, but I have always really admired the song. We had room for one more song and I really wanted to attempt it. I remember going into the shower and bringing in the boom box and practicing all these weird noises. It was fine and perfect. I was shocked actually. That was one of the most fun songs that we recorded.
How did you approach lyric writing for this record?
I wouldn’t say that the lyrics changed, but more of the delivery changed. When you are writing or singing to a guitar that doesn’t have drums yet, you are basing it more on the picking pattern and rhythm that you are strumming the guitar to. With doing the drums first, I think it changed the delivery to enunciating differently or hitting a syllable in conjunction with the downbeat. Overall, it is not vastly different lyrically, but I would say that the delivery is a bit more focused on the groove rather than some of the older stuff.
Your voice goes into some amazingly high intense gears throughout the record. How did you get this vocal sound and did it come naturally?
That is a loaded answer with a few different facets. Growing up, I was into Soul and Gospel. I was in Opera and I learned the correct and technical way to sing. I learned how to break the rules as well through the Soul music. When I was in college, I was really into Metal and I did scream vocals that I had never done before. I found that when I came out through doing all of that and when I got back into singing, I developed an ability to distort my singing voice without the monotone feel of screaming. I feel like the more that I sing, the more control I have.
I am going to say that it is not easy. It takes a lot of effort to put it into that gear. I think it is from years of doing it. When I perform the songs, I give it my all from way down deep. It is not just made in my voice and my throat, I am actually screaming and yelling. I am draining myself of emotion and intensity. It is hard because there are people who ask for advice and tips on how to do it. It is difficult as I think part of it is what I have done through the past with Metal and discovering a new aspect of my voice and distorting it. I think another aspect has to do with the physical characteristics and shape of your vocal cords and your voice box.
I don’t have a straight forward answer for you. Over the years, I have developed to control it more and more, distort it, and it doesn’t hurt me to do so. If you look at people back in the day, Howlin’ Wolf was doing that. It comes from singing it and yelling it as well. You find a blend and meeting in the middle and it is just beautiful. Some people don’t like it. There is something intense about it. I don’t want to overuse it with the cookie monster vocals all the time, but it is something that I am really proud of to showcase on this record because I haven’t been able to capture it as well as I feel like I have on this record.
“Not Alone” and “Attached” are amazing songs. How and why did you write these?
I have a very eclectic taste. Overall, this is a Rock record and the songs do have their base in that. There are many different aspects to Rock and Roll. With “Not Alone,” I consider it more of a Folk song that gets built up by a band but its not Heavy Rock but its Light Rock. The reason I wrote it is because in my past and previous releases, I saw how people would relate to songs that come from an emotional place. I would notice that the heavy songs that deal with not giving up or getting through things really resonated with people. A lot of those songs are some of the most popular ones that I put out.
Back in the day, I used to be kind of ashamed and thought that the songs were kind of cheesy. After having the experience of touring and seeing what those kinds of songs mean to people and the impact they have on people lives, I decided to lean into it a little bit more. That is where “Not Alone” comes from. When I listen to the song it is a comfort song. It is a song that just wants to reach out and give you a warm hug during a time of need. Everybody has been through trauma in their lives in differing and varying levels. I think you can move past stuff, but you never forget. Going through Covid wasn’t easy either after being so busy all of the time. Taking it all away and standing still for such a long amount of time showed me that there were some things personally that I needed to work on and maybe I was distracting myself a lot by constantly being busy. “Not Alone” is about knowing what it is like to be alone and realizing that I never truly was alone and I wanted to write a song that people going through a hard time could get some solace and comfort from.
As far as “Attached,” it was the first song that I wrote for this record. I can feel that when I look at the lyrics. What I am saying is: “Take me back, I want to go to a place where I am not alone. With the thoughts and memories that cause relapse and make my world collapse.” It is basically saying what I summed up to you: I am here, I am alone, Covid hit, I can’t tour, I can’t do what I love, I had this big year planned and it’s all gone, and I’m reflecting on everything and wish I didn’t have to be here but I am here. I was doing a lot of reflecting on hard times and past times. That song is another one where I am draining a lot of the emotions out and I had to get them out somewhere. Strangely, it is the first song I wrote but the last song on the album. It felt like a good closer.
Can you talk about the music videos for “Not Alone,” “The Devil’s Daughters,” and “War”?
Having good video content to go along with the songs and a visual representation is important. “War” was such a blast to make in the studio. My wife was there and she had a camera and the energy in that video comes off. It is a studio video and the energy is huge and everyone is having such a good time. It is kind of like a studio documentary footage type video.
For “The Devil’s Daughters” a friend of mine named Annie Sperling who is a set and art designer for a lot of big videos done around L.A. directed it. She did the music video back in the day for “Burn the Witch.” I always wanted to work with her again. Annie has a darker mystique about her and enjoys that side of things. It perfectly lined up with her. I gave her the song and she completely came up with all of the artistic direction and everything for it. I flew down to L.A. for two days and we knocked it out pretty quickly. It was a very good time and I feel like her unique approach to the visual abstract in music videos really gives that song a visual flare that I didn’t even think about.
“Not Alone” is a heavy one. With this song I really wanted to not be in the video because I wanted to mix it up a bit and tell a story. I didn’t want to be in it and I gave complete creative control to my friend named Roy Marin. I basically gave him the song and the next day we met at a bar discussed some ideas. Everything that he said was right on the money. I loved his interpretation of how he came up with the idea of a boy running away from home and getting lost and the brother going out of his way to try and save him.
It sums up within the song; telling someone you are not alone and they are there for you and not going to give up on you. I feel like the video really pulled everything off well. Again, I love working with talented artists and I love being able to put my trust in them as much as I trust myself with the music. It adds a whole new dimension when you can find those people that can deliver and execute. Roy Marin was incredible. He hired everybody and put everything together. I thought the video matched the song perfectly.
Can you talk about the tornado inspired album artwork?
That was done by Eleonora Pulcini. I love combining what I do with other artists that I admire who are open to it. With that, I had been following her and I believe she is living in Tasmania. She is Italian. She is an incredible oil painter and is into all different kinds of art forms. I have been following her forever.
The record is heavily impacted by the transition of going into Covid. Lyrically it is about dealing with the unknown and what is coming next and knowing we are going to get through it regardless. I had this idea of this intergalactic storm. I talked to her to see if she would be open to the idea. She wanted to do it and listened to the record and came up with it. I have the painting and I am looking at it right now in my house. It is massive. It is five feet by five feet on my wall. There is something about the movement, the color, and the depth. It is kind of like an intergalactic storm touching down on Earth.
Near the bottom of the painting there is a shadow of me looking onward as this unknown thing is coming. I don’t know what is going to happen in it. It encompasses a lot of the lyrical content, the energy of the record, and the intensity of the record with the drumming and fast paced guitar parts. I feel like everything is matched in the intensity of the painting.
I adore working with artists who can translate what I am working on musically into what they feel from it as well. That is exactly what Eleonora did. I feel very fortunate and very lucky to be able to work with her.
Has living in the Pacific Northwest inspired your sound?
I think it absolutely has. I moved to Seattle at the end of 2019 and I actually just moved to Portland about a month ago. I love the Pacific Northwest. We are loving Portland so far and nothing against Seattle as it is one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever been in with the water, the views, and the mountains. Portland has its own different kind of beauty as well. There is something special to be said about looking outside and seeing an overgrowth of greenery, the mountains, and being so close to epic scenery.
The Northwest gets a bad rap for being depressing because of the dreariness and the rain. To me, I find it beautiful and it’s like a fairy tale. I find that it is inspiring reading a cozy book on a rainy day by the fire. I can’t say exactly how it affects me but it has in the sense of beauty. That is not taking anything away from Chicago, Arkansas, or any of the places that I have lived. It has its own distinct beauty that I wasn’t used to. It shocks and amazes me all the time.
Looks like you have a new tour coming up. Are you looking forward to it? Any thoughts regarding it?
Absolutely. We are coming back from Covid and going to hit it hard. I opened up for a band called Murder by Death in November of last year and that was my first time back in the two years. A piece of my life has been missing without touring because I am a huge creature of performance and experience of a live show. No two shows are the same even if I play the same set list for three nights in a row. They are going to be vastly different based on how I feel and how the performance is.
The band I have put together right now is the best I have ever had. They fluctuate with me and can read the changes. I am excited to get back out there and reconnect with everyone and play some old favorites and do some new stuff. In October we were in the U.K. and that tour was the best ones we had ever done. The energy was huge. I probably say this about every new release. Playing these songs live feels like putting everything into another gear and taking it a step further. I am really excited and the response so far has been incredible.
I am looking forward to tour the U.S. again. We are going to be in Europe and then we come back and will be working on summer dates for the rest of the southern and eastern U.S. We are trying to fill in the gaps and make it up to people after such a big long break.
What’s next for you?
Realistically, the touring is first and foremost on my mind. It is one of the most important aspects for me because I love performing. No matter what I capture on a record, being in person, experiencing it live, and getting to play these new songs to see how the audience responds and the adjustments we will make to develop our sound even further is very exciting.
Getting to explore and continue to make new records for people is exciting. I have a very passionate and loyal fan base and I go all over the map. I play Folk to Blues to Soul to Gospel to almost Metal riff stuff and I feel very fortunate to be able to explore and expand my sound and have people that are here for it.
*Feature image: After Dusk Event Photography