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James Tillman "Love Within" + "And Then" video premiere
James Tillman "Love Within" + "And Then" video premiere

First Look Friday: James Tillman's Got Soul From "Shangri-La" To Brazil [Audio/Video Premiere + Interview]

James Tillman "Love Within" + "And Then" video premiere

When a friend passed us James Tillman's debut EP Shangri-La, we had one of those breeze-of-fresh-air moments that this First Look Fridays column was created for. the first chords inspired an instant lift in mood, combined with the joy of discovery, combined with the simple but profound pay-off of a gift received; kind of like making somebody homemade food and being repaid with an original painting or one-person concert. It was a bit like the first time we heard KING, the first time we heard Moses Sumney...incredible music made even more singular by the human exchange with only the smallest and best kind of mediation by technology.

The friend in question was frequent Okayafrica contributor and homie Chief Boima, who caught James' show at The New School and then ran into him again in Brazil for a Rio recording session. Those first chords were the opening strains of "Love Within" (listen below via OKP world premiere!) which combine quietly intricate, samba-inflected guitar work with James' whispery voice, developing from an intimate folk-pop soliloquy into something deeper, an impromptu symphony fleshed out with soulful string arrangements.

Now that Shangri-La is almost ready to meet the world (the 4-track EP hits iTunes on April 29th. For now fans can get updates via James' facebook page) Okayplayer is extremely proud to premiere both "Love Within" and the inaugural single and video "And Then" in conjunction with this First Look profile. Scroll down to get to know James a little with this introductory conversation and experience the song and video. Meanwhile to get that human connection yourself, catch James on April 30th when he plays an intimate show at Rockwood Stage 3 (60-seat capacity, $8 advance, $10 at the door) to launch the EP release. We recommend you take advantage of the chance while he's still (mostly) unknown!

>>>Get Tickets Here

OKP: How did the Brazil studio sessions come about—do you have roots there or travel there independent of music?

James Tillman: The Brazil studio sessions were the result of befriending Sergio Sayeg here at school. He’s from Brazil and used to play guitar for the group Garotas Suecas. We started collaborating and I gave him some of my old home-recorded demos. A little while after, he informed me that he sent them to his friend Nick Graham-Smith in Brazil, who had produced his first record with Garotas. He said that Nick liked the music, so much so that he offered to help me record a project if I could make it down to Brazil.

I immediately laughed at the whimsical idea, but then all the pieces started to fall into place. I already had a good amount of songs written. The airline my stepmom worked for started a new flight directly to Sao Paulo a month earlier, so I was able to get a cheap plane ticket. Sergio also wanted to make the trip and offered me a spare room at his parent’s place, so I had a place to stay. Nick was able to get Curumin and a group of amazing musicians on board for the sessions, and then my boss graciously gave me time off to make the trip.

OKP: How the environment affected the songwriting or recording, if at all?—there's no one element that’s specifically Brazilian (maybe the guitar work on "Love Within") but the whole project does have a very light samba-ish touch or mood—is it something in the water?

>>>Turn the page to Read More + Watch "And Then" Video Premiere

JT: It’s kind of crazy, but I think the Brazilian feel was always there--even unbeknownst to me initially. I had already written all of the songs beforehand, and had already recorded two of them previously so it definitely wasn’t a conscious effort on my part. When I started collaborating with Sergio, he said that my music had a strong bossa nova vibe. I love bossa nova music. Joao Gilberto and Caetano are two of my favorites, but I really don’t see myself as a bossa nova singer. Because of this, I was nervous about going down there. I thought my songs would be recorded as straight up bossa nova tracks, in English at that. But after getting there and speaking with Nick and the other musicians, I learned that the American soul music I love is closely, if not inherently, linked to Brazil. I didn’t realize that during the late '60s and throughout the '70s, Brazilian musicians did a lot of session work in L.A. for the iconic albums from some of my favorite artists. And to top it all off, Curumin and the other musicians for the session had just finished up a tribute concert performance of Bill Wither’s entire Still Bill album. So it all just clicked. The songs breathed and nothing needed to be forced. I think that because of this connection, it was easier for me to relax vocally and dig into the music. Nick and his wife’s beautiful home and studio definitely affected the vibe of the music as well!

OKP: First listen the EP evokes influences like Marvin, Caetano, instrumentally maybe even Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson? -- on the one hand and some contemporaries like José James, KING, Moses Sumney and Michael Kiwanuka on the other—curious to know who you consider primary influences, both new & old?

JT: My primary vocal influences are Marvin Gaye and Nat King Cole. Definitely Caetano Veloso as well, Totalmente Demais is one of my all time favorite recordings. For me as a young male singer-songwriter, the contemporaries you mentioned are all inspiring. Van Hunt, Emily King, The Soulquarians collective, Corinne Bailey Rae and Lianne La Havas are some of my soul staples, but I get influenced by a lot of other music as well. Stereolab and Toro Y Moi are in heavy rotation all the time.

OKP: Tell us a little bit about where you're coming from and how you got into music?

JT: When I was a kid I used to sing in church and listen to my parents’ music collection. I played the clarinet for about 9 years. These things definitely made music special to me, and something that I appreciate, but other than that and some technical voice lessons along the way there’s no real explanation. I love making music more than anything else.

I think my music is definitely love-based, but not in the overly sentimental or physical way that some people associate with soul and r&b music. I think that that type of view of love too often puts it outside of oneself, so I do my best to derive songs from my own situations. When I write lyrics I like to get straight to the point. Life hasn’t been rosy like the movies and these last few years have been formative in terms of being kind to myself, which is definitely its own type of love and in my opinion key to truly loving others. That’s how the song "Love Within" came to be. I think we all have these types of realizations, which is why hopefully the music resonates with others. I like to reference mythic stories sometimes--hence Shangri-la--because they convey things we all act out and experience, but also because they possess a kind of futurism. They can get us out of our own shells and help us to fathom new possibilities in a given situation.

OKP: What are you studying and how do you find that balances with recording and making music?

JT: I’m in a vocal jazz performance program at The New School and take liberal arts-based music classes as well. Music school is an interesting concept. Egos run rampant, and everybody is chasing the next gig, so it was challenging to find other musicians that had a more band-focused mentality to flush out and record the songs. That’s one of the reasons I decided to pick up guitar and record my own demos.

The institution didn’t give me anything I didn’t already have in terms of ability, but it did provide an environment in which I could be fixated on making something out of my music, which I didn’t have before that. José James, Bilal and Jesse Boykins III were in the same program at one point and seeing that they were able to create their own unique paths made me realize how much I’d have to pull my own weight to make something happen for myself.

OKP: Whats in the near future for James Tillman? (hell, while you're prophesying, what's in the distant future for James Tillman?)

JT: Graduation and then take over the world (laughs). Keep writing songs. Share the music with as many people as I can…After the Brazil situation I’ve learned to plan things but still be open and flexible because you never really know what can happen. I have a few shows lined up and I’ve begun to demo the EP. I'm hoping to tour, as an opening act for someone, and return to Brazil and record some more this summer and fall.