REVIVE: José James Talks 'While You Were Sleeping' & More
Blue Note vocalist José James discusses the forthcoming While You Were Sleeping LP and the sonic evolution that lead to the creation of his latest project – an experimental foray that finds him deviating from the established paradigm in order to set an entirely new standard – in a recent sit-down with REVIVE. The album – due out June 10th – is an homage to East London and the swelling movements in electronic music that played a major role in shaping his experiences while across the pond. James discusses the genesis of the project and the capable crew of musicians dedicated to helping him convey his vision; the album features the talents of Kris Bowers, Richard Spaven, Takuya Kuroda, Brad Allen Williams and Solomon Dorsey. Stepping directly onto a limb and to the left of the sound that launched his career, José James assumes the mantle of experimentation at the root of the jazz tradition and challenges the allegiance of anyone in his fanbase with a taste for the same old thing. While You Were Sleeping marks a new revolution in the narrative of José James. REVIVE’s DanMichael Reyes uncovers exactly what he’s been up to while the world was at rest:
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 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 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 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: 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: 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.
Pre-order the While You Were Sleeping LP via iTunes. Purchase tickets to José James’ June 12th album release party at NYC’s Highline Ballroom via highlineballroom.com. Read the full text of the interview with José James via REVIVE. Stay tuned for more.