Susan James Creates "Postmodern Folk-Rock" in Her Topanga Canyon Studio
Photo by Ava Dingley
By her own description, the music on Susan James’ new album Sea Glass (SJM) is “postmodern folk-rock,” which is as good a way as any to delineate how the L.A.-based singer-songwriter casts aside the more obviously American roots–tinged colors and melodies of her previous work for an almost (but not quite) baroquely ornate, new-pop tapestry. It marks a new and logical creative course for her — a highly accessible one, too.
“I think it’s a defining album, in a way,” the unassuming James says. “We’ll see what the rest of the world thinks, I guess.” She laughs.
For the last decade or so, the SoCal-born-and-raised James has been releasing solo albums that span folk, country, pop, rock, ethnological and gently experimental realms, an intriguingly mixed bag of music that marked her as a crafter of that near-mythical California Sound. She's a smart, pop-minded visionary unfettered by the rules of pop tradition, offering music and a persona radiating a sun-warmed sense of the unconventional.
Sea Glass was co-arranged by Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas, Stereolab, Super Furry Animals), who connected to James’ Topanga Canyon studio from London via transatlantic Skype sessions. To James' songs he brought a wondrous batch of his trademarked piquant string settings and all manner of unclichéd keyboard and guitar embellishments –– plus a lot of invaluable advice for James on how to freshen up her composing process, such as writing her songs on piano rather than her customary guitar.
O’Hagan sees James as roughly aligned in that American tradition of folk-pop artists of the ‘60s such as Judy Henske and Nancy Priddy, whose tunes had a “future” edge of experimentation but definitely belonged to the American folk tradition.
Strewn stylistically and lyrically all over the creative map, the sublimely melodic songs on Sea Glass include James' plaintive pleas on behalf of the ecosystem (“Poseidon’s Daughter”), a call for resilience in a time of war (“Ay Manzanita”), life-contemplating train rides to work (“Truth or Consequence”) and the sad truths of a past love gone real wrong (“Last Song”). In any of these varying emotional terrains, she deploys a crystalline voice to ring out like a bell her evocatively literary messages.
It’s the purity of James’ singing voice, which she has arranged in thrillingly interwoven choirs of Susan Jameses, that will sell you on her colorful new-folk-pop experiments (a term we use advisedly). This was a good time, she says, to take a different approach to American popular folk and country traditions.
“The last several albums were [much] more traditional-sounding,” she says, “and it was something that I had an itch for and needed to get out of my system. But there’s something about falling into that country pattern that starts to become stifling, because it’s a lot of major chords and standard chords.”
While that’s a very general assessment of her boredom with a lot of the rule-bound American roots music from which she has derived her own songs, it goes to the heart of the matter, as this new information age makes a widened musical palette not just possible but even something like a moral obligation for creative artists. And something as simple as writing songs on an unfamiliar instrument can bring out music the musician didn’t realize she had in her, says James.
“When you have an instrument in hand that you usually write on, you pick it up and your hand may fall into a particular chord-pattern position, and you start with these patterns that you’ve already created. When you switch to a different instrument, that all flies out the window and you have to start from a different mindset. It takes away the comfort zone, and it gets you out of a rut.”
O’Hagan encouraged James, too, to trust her instincts and play things that might’ve seemed clumsy or naïve on their first takes.
“And immediately it got results,” he says. "Your emotional source is your playing, and you shouldn’t be afraid of being unfamiliar with an instrument — because this isn’t about your ax playing. It’s like when you’re growing up, you’re unafraid of revealing yourself. And Susan said, ‘OK, why the hell not?’”
Susan James’ Sea Glass is the real California sound, an all-embracing kind of music that breaks rules, hears new textures, sees new shapes and roams new harmonic and melodic terrains. Dig a bit and you’ll find that it’s not a stretch to say it’s as much a California classic music as the disparate strains of Terry Riley, Harry Partch, The Beach Boys and Captain Beefheart. It’s all about musical freedom –– and doing something genuinely new.
Susan James' Sea Glass is out June 16. More info at susanjamesmusic.com.
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