Free Bird 

Susan James plays (and sings and records and mixes and releases) it her way

Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
Sitting around House of Pies talking the big issues with Susan James, scorching guitarist, transcendent vocal stylist and ace musical thinker. Loaded with talent, she is, and a hard-charger, too: This week she’s releasing a new CD, Fantastic Voyage, on her own Red Letter label, and it’s a double album (one disc with lyrics, one all-instrumental). Since she’s about to break through, the time seems right for just such brass.

Last year the charismatic James released her debut, Shocking Pink Banana Seat, a boffo set of pop tunes graced with pungent words, imposing chops, and some of the most head-curving arrangements ever heard from a "singer-songwriter." We use the term advisedly with James, who’s got a righteous zeal to smash the wall between songwriters and "serious" musicians.

"I never thought of myself as a ‘singer- songwriter’ till I started playing in L.A. and people would try to categorize me," she says. "A lot of that stuff is so bland, and the words are stupid. You know, that kind of really bad strumming and Hallmark-greeting-card type of lyrics. It’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ — sorry, Bob."

Growing up (in S.F. and L.A.), James found her thrill in anything from John Cage to Led Zep, and "Joni Mitchell was the most ‘singer-songwriter’ I got. She experimented with jazz, and she was an interesting guitar player, she used alternate tunings." Joni’s an obvious initial reference on the vocal half of Fantastic Voyage; the opener, "Manna," introduces James’ yodel-like acrobatic skills. On "The Blood of Experience," she coos like a new Chrissie Hynde.

Armed with a UCLA degree in ethnomusicology and a beef with the status quo, James hits fresh and hard with a skewed pop ideal. She needed like-minded people to bring her musical dreams to life, and for her new album gathered a seemingly disparate crew including ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, drummers Rusty Squeezebox of Baby Lemonade, Amy Wood of the Grownups and Mike Tempo of Double Naught Spy Car, and Joseph Hammer, the tape-loop top dog of Solid Eye.

For the instrumental disc, the studio itself became part of the ensemble. "Some of the guitar pieces I’d already written," James says, "but the pieces with Hammer and Tempo we improvised for 20 minutes at a time, and Joseph would be doing live loops, I’d be playing guitar, and Tempo would have piles of percussion, like a toy shop. We’d just start playing and whatever happened, happened.

"Where the writing came into play, like in ‘Magic Hour’ and ‘Stranger Bedfellows,’ was in the mixing. Some of it was an absolute mess — you’d have tons of loops, guitars and basses going at the same time. I had to orchestrate, bring this in here, pull this out, etc., and carve out a piece that still sounded somewhat random but had an arc to it."

Almost despite its novel sculpting, Fantastic Voyage is a vividly melodic trip loaded with aural marvels. "Dark Mississippi" has a John Fahey–like country-blues peculiarity, distant tape effects seeping in over cricket-ish rhythms; the sepulchral voices of "Drone" superimpose like a Tibetan/Gregorian cabal. "Falling Waltz" is straight-up lonesome-country garnished with a luxurious lap steel courtesy of co-producer John Wood, a weeping six-string by James, and a chorus of dissonant vocal clusters that floats into the clouds.

Susan James is strong and stubborn, and self-managed — she has a partner who helps run her record company — and she’s not desperate for major-label attention.

"I want to have my own label and build it to where I could develop and sign other musicians," she says. "But as far as signing as an artist, I’m doing more than a lot of major labels have done for their new acts, so I don’t really see how they could help me right now."

A big label almost certainly wouldn’t have allowed her to do a double album. "If I didn’t have a hit single right off the bat, they would have thrown me aside. But I’m writing music."

Susan James is free, and she’s her own damn A&R director.

"I can drop me from my label if I have to. I can delay the release of my album." She laughs. "But I happen to really like me as an artist, so I don’t think I have to do that."

Susan James appears at Moguls on Friday, July 17.

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Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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