José James isn’t an artist that you can fit nicely into a category. While his critically acclaimed Blue Note debut, “No Beginning No End” might be a modern-day classic, his upcoming LP, “While You Were Sleeping”, serves as his most complete and most contemporary musical statement to date. Although the album has traces of James’ signature hip-hop/r&b meets jazz sound, the singer also explores folk, rock, and London’s electronic music scene. “It’s also a love letter to many late nights spent in East London clubs like Plastic People and Cargo,” reveals James. “Watching new movements unfold in electronic music. I want people to feel the joy of discovery that I experience night after night onstage, reaching for something new.”
Joining James in “While You Were Sleeping” are familiar faces like Takuya Kuroda (trumpet), Kris Bowers (keys), Solomon Dorsey (bass), and Richard Spaven (drums). Guitarist Brad Allen Williams serves as a new addition to James’ tight-knit crew as he helps augment the upcoming album’s rock-driven tunes. “While You Were Sleeping” also contains a guest spot by singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, whose song “Dragon” is also featured.
Revive: You’ve had a pretty hectic tour schedule lately.
José James: We had a starting run just to get the band in shape and that was really good. That was like the first time that people have heard the new stuff. It’s been great and I feel really excited about the release. It’s coming up really soon and I can’t believe it.
R: When and where will be your release party?
JJ: The album comes out on June 10th and the release show is on June 12th at Highline Ballroom.
R: What’s been the response to your single, “EveryLittleThing”, when you perform it live?
JJ: People love it. It’s a new direction with Brad Allen Williams on guitar as a new member of the band. I think my old fans expect a change and we still kind keep some staple songs like “Come To My Door” and “Trouble” so it feels really balanced.
R: I noticed that all the members on the album have co-producing roles. Could you talk a little about how that came about?
JJ: I just thought it was important to give them more power in creating the sounds. I’m not a pianist and Kris Bowers is. So if he’s coming up with parts and sounds, then that’s producing. I think it was empowering to give everybody actual titles, credit, and freedom. It’s really a band album even if it’s a José James album and I’m the executive producer. It’s really coming from this one ensemble of musicians as opposed to 20 musicians on the last album.
R: You lived in London for a bit. Could you talk about what your time in London was like?
JJ: I spent a lot of time in London. The first time was in 2006 for a vocal jazz competition, which I didn’t win. London is a lot more receptive to new music; they’re not so receptive to success. There’s a pipeline straight to radio, BBC, grants, and funding that we don’t have here. There’s also a better connection to the club scene. There isn’t such a big barrier between the live scene that we think of and the EDM club scene. It’s all just music. In general, I find Europe to be a lot [friendlier] when you’re trying different things and to find those things to be accepted.
I’ve said it many times, but [an] EP that I made in New York couldn’t get me one gig anywhere. I went to every single café, bar, and club in New York and no one was interested. Then when I went to London, I got a record deal from the same EP. “The Dreamer” came out of that.
It’s an interesting connection and I try to keep it close. I try to keep connected to the music scene and the producers as much as I can. Of course, my drummer is from London, so that helps a lot. I will say that you should get in where you fit in. The rules have changed so you might find success anywhere; you just never know. So the Internet helps get your music everywhere.
R: You mentioned that this album is your, “love letter to many late nights spent in East London clubs.” Could you talk about clubs like Plastic People and Cargo and your affinity for electronic music?
JJ: That’s how I met Flying Lotus and that whole scene of producers like Lefto, Benga, and Ben Westbeech. I met them all in London through Gilles Peterson and just hanging out and seeing music. I would go to Plastic People and hang out in Shoreditch, where I used to live. It’s amazing. You can see the most amazing DJs and producers. They bring in guest vocalists and they sit in and you pay £5, which is like $8 for the whole night. It’s great because it’s really about music. People come early, get there by 7, and the night ends at 11 p.m. because people wanna catch the train. If you show up at 9 or 10 – like a typical New York vibe – you don’t get in. Only real music people get to go. I really respect that. A lot of things will be premiered at a party or a club because they want to keep everything fresh.
I really love that kind of energy; it’s not even so much about the sounds. Hearing dubstep in 2010 at Plastic People felt like a revelation to me, like really hearing it in a kind of club that can really produce the correct sound. Seeing the culture and the way people dance and respond to the music– something really clicked for me. The only thing I can sort of relate it to would be like seeing Miles or Coltrane in New York in the ’50s or the ’60s. It really felt like seeing something fresh unfolding in front of your eyes.
I’ve kept in touch with people through re-mixes. There are artists like Taylor McFerrin who are also very closely connected to Benji B and other BBC DJ’s. That’s really the connection with the west coast. I mentioned Flying Lotus, and all the Brainfeeder kids are definitely influenced by the London scene as well. It’s a really important connection for any contemporary musician to know about, be aware of, and investigate.
R: Let’s talk about your jazz roots. You were very close to Chico Hamilton, who passed away this last winter. Do you have any words to say about Chico as a musician and a mentor?
JJ: I have nothing but respect and complete admiration for Chico. He was not only one of the most important percussionists in the history of jazz, but he really gave back, and The New School is a testament to that. I think that people of my generation don’t even understand that kind of passion towards music and community that he had. He had a very successful career and he was working with students who had no idea who he was, even though he founded the school.
He always treated me and my fellow classmates with the utmost respect and as equals to the point where he invited me to do a record with him. He really believed in that nurturing “each one teach one” philosophy that the jazz community once had. So many superstars have come through his band. He had amazing and innovative bands like the piano-less quartet. It’s funny that you mention him, because he was the one that told me that I should stop using keys and I should have guitar in my band. I finally took his advice even though I still have keys in my band.
He was always thinking about textures and fascinated with music and composition. He never let anything slide as an educator. He never let us get a free pass on anything, even on the most basic and fundamental things. He made sure we had a full understanding of those things because that’s the whole foundation of not even music, but also personality and character. So he’s a real legend and it was an honor for me to meet and work with him.
R: Let’s talk about the record. You mentioned that “Bodhisattva” was written when you were walking through garden of Bodhisattva statues in Indonesia while the Islamic call to prayer was on. Could you talk about that special moment?
JJ: I think that whenever you’re in a new part of the world, country, or city, you’re more open to adventure because things aren’t familiar and everything is different. The blending of these cultures just really struck me at that moment, especially in the way that it doesn’t happen here. Buddhism is sort of a very fashionable religion in the Western eye and Islam is a difficult topic. So to be in a space that had a balance– it just felt completely spiritual and beautiful. It just had a feeling that there was something special happening in the air and that song came to me.
I wasn’t thinking that it was going to be a new direction or a new album. All these songs just started coming to me and just opened me up to thinking about a new way of thinking about my music and myself. I feel like this is the most personal album that I’ve ever made. I don’t like to talk about lyrics and specific things and what they mean because I’d rather let people have their own meaning and their own journey in the songs, but there’s definitely a lot of spirituality and growth in these songs.
R: You mentioned that the title track, “While You Were Sleeping”, was the most mature song you’ve ever written. Is there a specific reason why you feel this way?
JJ: I think it’s the most complete musical statement I’ve ever made in a song. I think the way that it progresses and that it unfolds as a story in the writing and production is really cool. I’m just really proud of it. I think it’s my strongest composition to date. It takes me through a journey and I feel like I’m changed every time I listen to it. It was very difficult to do. It took us… I think the one on the record was the fourth version we recorded as a band. We just kept coming back to it over and over again to get that really slow build of intensity. It took a long time, but it was the most satisfying for all of us to accomplish that. I think it’s also some of my strongest lyrical writing.
R: It must have been nice to have gone in and track “Simply Beautiful” after struggling so much with “While You Were Sleeping.”
JJ: We had played “Simply Beautiful” for a year and a half with Taku and it was one of the songs that we could do in our sleep. It was the only song that I did in one take, vocally.
R: Talia Bilig is listed as a songwriter for two songs– “Without U” and “U r the 1”. Can you talk about Talia as a songwriter?
JJ: She just blew me away. We had not worked together before. I knew some of her work and she came to the studio and I was having a lot of difficulty with “Without U”. I just couldn’t quite get the verses to become right and I had never collaborated with a lyricist before. I had a feeling that she was the right person so I said, “Hey, would you mind taking a look at this song? I just have the feeling that you could totally kill it.” And she – within about 20 minutes – completely mastered my style of lyrical writing and got inside it and banged it out. I was just totally blown away about how smart she was and also how fast she worked. It was amazing.
Just to give you one example, there was one line that we weren’t sure of and she would give me 10 options in about five minutes. I would just be able to say, “That’s the one,” sing it in the studio, then listen back and say, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” It was so fast and so great with “Without U” that I said, “Hey! I’ve got another song that I need help with,” and that was “U r the 1”.
She was able to completely switch styles musically but stay within my word world and write it. She’s one of the most talented songwriters that I’ve ever met or known about. We’re definitely collaborating on a lot of stuff. We actually just finished a song that we wrote for this big pop star in Japan named Ringo Sheena.
R: Let’s talk about the addition of Brad Allen Williams. How did you end up meeting him?
JJ: I wrote all the songs on guitar. I was on the road and I had my acoustic with me and it just started like that. I knew that there was going to be a lot of guitar on the album. I knew I wanted some electric guitar on the album. So I talked to the band and asked, “Who do you know? What do you guys think?” Solomon said that he knew a guy named Brad Williams. Actually, he recommended me to get guitar lessons from Brad, but because of timing I never got a chance to meet up with him. But [Solomon] was like, “Yeah, Brad would be great for what you want to do.” He’s really soulful, he can play all sorts of styles, he has a jazz background, he can play acoustic, and he can play electric. He’s just one of those amazing players that can pretty much do anything. He’s also from Memphis, so his sound is really soulful.
I never got a chance to get around and meet him and finally we just started working with him for the album. We just sort of tried it out and it was just great. He really has a unique sound. The first gig he did with us was during SummerStage and it felt really good. It didn’t feel like this crazy overwhelming presence [with] distortion going crazy. It just felt like he was another member of the band.
He’s a really sweet guy and he’s really thoughtful about how he can fit in musically. A lot of the things he plays in the album are really subtle. He played all the guitars in the album and there are so many subtle things. For example on “xx” and “Dragon”, there are things that don’t even sound like guitar but they are guitar. He has [the] experimental mind of a jazz musician but with all the technical expertise of a seasoned session guy. He also keeps it really soulful and that’s the most important thing. I respect him a lot and he’s a great new addition.
R: “Dragon” was written by Becca Stevens. It’s one of the few songs where you’re not listed as a songwriter. Could you talk about Becca’s contribution to the album?
JJ: I met Becca at the New School and she was a standout talent. She was one of the few people I knew who was serious about writing her own stuff. A lot of people didn’t know what they wanted to do or they were just learning standards. She was really into her own thing and I admired that. This is the first time we collaborated.
I was listening to a lot of StereoLab – I’m a huge StereoLab fan. The sort of sound of all the female vocals on StereoLab’s albums just has a very modern vibe. I was talking to Brian Bender right after we just recorded “Bodhisattva” and I was saying, “Man, we really needed that StereoLab vibe.” Then we both just looked at each and said, “Becca” and started to laugh.
Becca just came in and nailed everything that we had and it sounded so great. I was like, “This is so fantastic! We finally have a chance to collaborate.” Then I said, “You know, it would be great if you could write a song if you have some time.” I let her listen to some of the album and asked if she had anything in that direction.
It’s been really important for me to collaborate with a female artist. I started doing it back on “Blackmagic” with Jordana De Lovely on “Love Conversation.” Then I had Hindi Zara and Emily King on “No Beginning, No End”. Now, I have Talia and Becca and Talia’s actually going to be singing with me on the live show.
It just feels kind of cool to step into someone else’s world and head. I’m really trying to make some changes in my music to achieve that balance so it’s not just all guys. It’s really important and I really learned that lesson on the last album. “Come To My Door” is a favorite of all the women in the crowd, but a lot of dudes also like it. It’s a form of expression that I would not have written myself. There’s a lot of vulnerability and strength that’s hard for a lot of men to access on their own. So it’s just something that I’m really trying to include more in my music.
R: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the new album?
JJ: The only thing that I would like to add is that I am an album artist and this is definitely conceived as an album. I know that’s become more and more of a foreign idea to people. I really hope that people listen to it front to back. Blue Note – God bless them – made a strong supportive choice to support this album, including to put it out on double LP 180 gram vinyl.
R: Wow, that’s really awesome.
JJ: Yeah! Four sides. So Blue Note believes in it all the way down to artwork and packaging and it looks fantastic. This is really for music fans. So I thank everyone for their support and I hope to see them at a show.
Listen to José James’ latest single, “U r the 1” exclusively on Revive and Okayplayer. Although “EveryLittleThing” – James’ previous single – might have signaled a creative shift for some his fans, “U r the 1” serves as a testament to James’ commitment in giving his fans that laid-back, Dillaesque, Soulquarian, gimme’ that snare slightly behind the click vibe. Talia Bilig – who co-wrote “U r the 1” with James – had this to say about the single and the album:
“I was really honored when José asked me to write on this album. I’ve been a fan of his work for years. He’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. He writes from his soul. Writing with him was fluid and organic and exciting. And I think we’re all really proud of how this track turned out.”
Catch José James at Highline Ballroom for his album release party. Buy your tickets here. In the meantime, scroll down to listen to “U r the 1.”