When’s the last time you heard a great love song? I don’t mean some pop anthem dedicated to an ephemeral romance but a song about genuine, vulnerable love. Angela James’ new album Way Down Deep is full of songs to conjure up sentiments both forgotten and buried under years of growing up.
Since college, James has been hoarding emotions and life lessons until she felt mature enough to write them from a place of wisdom. After spending some years in Brazil with her husband Jordan, she’s returned sharper and more beautiful than ever at 34. As a photographer friend pointed out, she’s got “the look”. She also has the sound; the sound of a woman who’s suffered a lifetime of heartbreak. The result is a poetic song collection layered in more straight shooting honesty than a country western album.
In conjunction with her album release party being held tonight at Constellation in Roscoe Village, I met James at Reno in Logan Square to discuss our driving motivation to create, what it’s like to be truly in love, and the beauty in sadness.
ANGELA JAMES: A recent revelation to myself, I’ve been happily married for 8 years. I’ve been with Jordan for 10 and they’ve all been very happy, and we were friends before we started dating.
KARI HERRERA: Where does the pain in your songs come from?
JAMES: I did have a painful relationship in college. I’ve been writing for about three years, and I think some of my early songs definitely –
HERRERA: You didn’t write in college?
JAMES: I sang but I didn’t write. I mysteriously was able to write like three years ago.
HERRERA: Well then you must have had some poetry book you kept under your pillow, full of emo thoughts?
JAMES: [laughs] Totally. It’s very embarrassing. But I think some of those early songs were inspired from that personal experience in college. In general, I’m just a melancholy person. Even though I have a great life, I’m happily married, I teach yoga for a living, but I’ve just always been a little sad. And for a long time I thought it was weird that I liked sad songs and wrote sad music. Now I realize, no, it’s not weird at all. That’s just a part of who I am. It doesn’t matter what my circumstances are. The things I’m drawn to are dark and with my voice I sing sad songs best.
HERRERA: Do you think, though, that you’re able to sing sad songs so beautifully because you’re happy in your life and in love? I always think that when you’re where you want to be in life, when you’re happy, it’s easier to get wrapped up in sad songs. Everyone relates to sadness but it’s easier to feel a particular sorrow when you don’t have to live it.
JAMES: Yea, of course! I have the good fortune of being able to step back and reflect on things from the past. My main yoga mentor says you can’t create if you don’t have the ability to clothe and feed yourself. You’re struggling too much to create. That may be why for several years I didn’t write. I was struggling to make ends meet, we were struggling in Brazil, definitely. So three years ago things came more into focus.
HERRERA: I was listening to your album Way Down Deep today and was thinking how when you’re going through a breakup, these songs are hard to listen to because every song you hear, you’ll apply to your situation. But when you’re in love, you can really enjoy a good sad love song. I thought, Angela’s probably completely in love writing beautifully sad songs.
JAMES: [laughs] Yea, I am. Totally.
HERRERA: One of my favorite lyrics is from “I Should’ve Known”:
“I watched you fly in the night
But I know one day you’ll return
When my heart no longer burns
And you’ll want more than I can give in this world.”
You didn’t write that from personal experience?
JAMES: I did, actually. That’s the first song I ever wrote.
HERRERA: Really? I can see that. The lyrics are typical of a young relationship where people don’t really know who they are and they’re in and out of each other’s life, and they’re maybe a little selfish –
JAMES: Yea. That’s definitely about my relationship in college. It was super painful and confusing. When you’re in your early 20s things are just really confusing. You don’t know why you’re unhappy.
HERRERA: Or even why you’re happy. Like, why do I even want to be with this person?
JAMES: Exactly. You’re just kind of doing stuff and feeling it out. That song is from that perspective. It’s not from a wise perspective.
HERRERA: but it’s honest. What’s the story you’re telling with this album?
JAMES: My EP Down and Out was done very quickly. I had just started writing songs, playing with other musicians. We went into the studio for a weekend, recorded something, and it was done in a couple months. This album is different.
HERRERA: What made you start recording?
JAMES: I needed a record. I had never really done anything musically in Chicago and I needed a professional recording. So it all happened really quickly. It was definitely thought out, but I knew it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the sound in my head. It was the first time I had played with anyone else. It was all very new. The story I wanted to tell with this record? I wanted it to be an experience of working with a ton of different musicians in a ton of different places. I needed to hash out the songs in my head. When you have a creative vision it takes time to flush it out.
HERRERA: You know it’s right when you hear it.
JAMES: Right. And that process takes time. In this case, there were a lot of different people I wanted to work with and we started recording without a lot of expectations. Which was nice. I also received a grant from Chicago which helped take the anxiety out of the process, I could take my time.
HERRERA: How did you find the musicians you worked with?
JAMES: My husband, Jordan, runs Comfort Station, a multi-disciplinary art space. He books shows there, amongst a lot of other things.
HERRERA: Expound on that. What exactly is Comfort Station?
JAMES: It’s a cute little building where they host free events. There’s a music series Thursday, a film series on Wednesdays, monthly art events. I actually recorded part of my record there because the acoustics are so amazing. And he also used to book the jazz series at The Whistler. So he was part of the music in Chicago scene. He had all the connections.
HERRERA: Nice that you had someone on the inside.
JAMES: Yea, and he’s more extroverted than I am so he felt comfortable reaching out to these amazing musicians. [Jordan also plays electric bass in Angela’s band]. Then it was just a matter of working, years of working on this album. It did not come easy.
HERRERA: How did you choose where a song would be recorded?
JAMES: I was drawn to the people associated with those places, and it was important for me to record in venues that had history in Chicago. Using the word “record”, I wanted Way Down Deep to be a literal record of time and the experiences I had growing and changing as a musician. The title also factors into that. I was musically frustrated for so long. This is the first time I’ve gone all in. It’s been really tough emotionally. Whenever you take a risk like this, you share parts of yourself you didn’t even know were there. You’re completely vulnerable.
HERRERA: That’s what makes your songs relatable. The comparison has been made of you to Cat Power. Who would you say is your inspiration musically?
JAMES: I’m really inspired by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and singers like Neko Case, I get compared to her a lot. There’re classic artists like Neil Young, Rosanne Cash. There’re local people who inspire me. I love Cat Power.
HERRERA: Whenever you have a dark, sort of dreamy sound you’re bound to draw that last comparison, I think.
JAMES: Yea, and she’s southern as well so I understand the comparison.
HERRERA: You seem much more put together than Power, though.
JAMES: I hope so! [laughs] She’s been doing it for a long time, since she was very young. I’m 34. Who’s put together at 20? Few people.
HERRERA: Yea. No one.
JAMES: Right. And you change on stage, who you are changes. Part of me regrets not starting younger but now I can make music from a place that’s more stable.
HERRERA: Your music is probably better for it.
JAMES: I think so.
HERRERA: What’s your favorite song and why?
JAMES: Well…um… my playlist changes all the time.
HERRERA: Come on! You don’t have a favorite song?
JAMES: There’s this one song by –
JAMES: [laughs] No. I mean, I love her but it’s not Beyoncé. There’s a great record by Songs: Ohia; there’s this great songwriter named Jason Molina. He’s someone who had connections in Chicago. I think the record came out in 2007, called “Just Be Simple”. It’s a really great song for a lot of reasons. The lyrics are just kind of perfect. There’s a line that goes, “Why put a new address on the same loneliness.”
HERRERA: He’s saying don’t take your baggage with you?
JAMES: It’s about being sad and confronting your own darkness. Have a confrontation with yourself. I think in my own writing I’m often confronting myself. The song usually comes from an emotional trigger.
HERRERA: By putting your pain into song, can you let it go more easily?
JAMES: Um… no. It feels good to write the song and hash it out but I’m perfectly fine with my sad parts. I’m not a party. I never have been, never will be.
HERRERA: And you don’t want to be.
JAMES: Right. I like having an outlet for this aspect of myself that’s pretty integral to who I am. I tend to like songs that aren’t even about relationships with other people but relationships with yourself.
HERRERA: I like that. Songs that are about relationships with yourself.
JAMES: Obviously, I also love poetic, simple, honest lyrics.
HERRERA: Hey! Speaking of lyrics, explain that lyric: “I once died and came back to life as a knife.” (from Halo, Way Down Deep)
JAMES: Oh! That’s just … like, that just came to me. I don’t know if there’s much to explain. Some songs definitely came quickly. I wrote them in a matter of a minutes and I didn’t edit them.
HERRERA: This is how you felt in the moment.
JAMES: Exactly. There are songs I edited more, fine-tuned more. Like “Drink and try not to Cry” I edited those lyrics a lot. I wanted that song to be direct. “Halo”? Half of those lyrics are poetic nonsense. That lyric you read, I think it’s definitely evocative.
HERRERA: Right. You can’t hear it and not feel anything.
JAMES: Yea. I didn’t think about it and I don’t know where it came from.
HERRERA: Okay, I’ve got another.
JAMES: What’s that?
HERRERA: This is from Dirty Moon. “You never once thought that I’d come so soon, But that was before I saw the dirty moon.” What is that about and why is the moon dirty?
JAMES: So, the first night I hooked up with my now husband, back in 2003, we were really good friends in college. I sang backup in a band he played guitar for and we were playing a benefit concert for a land trust where we went to school. A tiny liberal arts school in Tennessee. That night, there was this crazy full moon that was this sort of dirty color. Our friend Frank, who’s from the Mississippi Delta and has this amazing accent, was like, “The moon. The moon’s dirty. It’s a dirty moon.” [She does the accent. It’s hilarious.] That moment just totally stuck with me for years.
HERRERA: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
JAMES: We have a friend in Brazil. He actually made my first video for Lost and Found. The video’s amazing. His name is Joaozito and he kind of does everything. He started as a painter but now he’s into video and does set design and art direction. He’s got two amazing kids. He and his wife work together in this great studio. He’s also a very insightful thinker. He’s sort of a provocateur, a little confrontational but still the nicest, most generous person. Super successful as both an artist and as a business man. I think people like that are pretty rare. He’s got it all. He may be the most interesting person I’ve ever met.
HERRERA: This a great time for a Chi-Town Shakedown. Remember, whatever pops into your head, spit it out. Don’t think about it.
The ChiTown Shakedown
HERRERA: Favorite Chicago pizza?
HERRERA: Favorite local band?
JAMES: Quarter Mile Thunder
HERRERA: Favorite place to shop?
HERRERA: I love Penelope. Cubs or Sox?
JAMES: I don’t care.
HERRERA: Favorite restaurant?
JAMES: Fat Rice
HERRERA: Favorite cocktail?
HERRERA: You ever play at The Whistler?
JAMES: Yea. I’ve played there a bunch.
HERRERA: ‘cause I would really love to see your show there.
JAMES: Lately, I’ve been playing with sprawling ensembles so The Whistler is a bit too small but it’s so great. Whistler Records is actually putting out a 7” with “Drink and try not to Cry” on it. The B side is going to feature a version we recorded in Comfort Station. It’ll be a lathe cut record, lo-fi, clear, really sexy looking record. I’ll have a record release party there November 19th and will be DJing some Brazilian music.
For tickets to Angela James’ album release party tonight, November 1st at Constellation, click here. Tickets are only $10.
For more info on Angela James, visit her website.
To listen to the songs embedded here, read this article directly on Chicagoings.com.