Hometown hero and New Hampshire native Brendan James is just off the release of his latest album, Hope in Transition. After leaving behind the small town for bigger and more bustling cities -New York City and Los Angeles, for example-it’s clear that years later, his career has done more than just take off, and James is ready for a move back east. I spoke with Brendan, moving truck and all as he drove cross country, about the success of the album, his upcoming tour plans, and his career over the past fifteen or so years.
Cara: How would you describe your own sound to someone who’s never heard any of your music before?
“I tell people that it’s somewhere between pop and soul music. I try and make music that’s extensible for the average listener, and that has some lyrical depth to it. I’ve been inspired by some of the great folk writers, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or James Taylor, so I try and keep that as part of it no matter how poppy I decide to get on a song.”
At one point did you know that you wanted to be a musician?
“I always loved singing. I always knew that I wanted to sing for people, but it wasn’t until I was around 18 or 19 that I started thinking I’d learn an instrument and become a songwriter, as well.”
So you weren’t playing piano or any instruments up until that point?
“No, I wasn’t playing piano until I was 19 year old. I couldn’t really play and instruments, and I sort of gravitated towards piano because I started having a real curiosity about songwriting. I basically met with a guy from my hometown in New Hampshire, he was a music teacher and a musician himself, when I was 18, and he suggested really strongly that I use my voice, and that I try to learn an instrument to become a songwriter, and that made a really big impression on me at a young age.”
Well, oddly enough, I know we both grew up around the same area.
“I was actually going to ask you, did you call me from a New Hampshire number?”
Yeah, I did! That’s hilarious. I’m about a half hour from Derry, so I know that there’s really not much there, especially if you’re trying to break into the industry like you were.
“No, there’s not. I knew pretty early on that if I wanted to pursue anything with music, I would have to leave New Hampshire. I kind of planned on that when I knew that this was seriously something that I wanted. I mean, I’m sure you know, there’s not much to do up there.”
Exactly. So I can imagine that getting out of there and finally moving to Los Angeles was kind of a big deal. Was it an odd transition for you to go from this little town in New Hampshire to such big cities like you’ve been living in?
“Yeah, it totally is. I had an interesting last 15 years because I left and moved away from New Hampshire and then after that it’s really just been city living. I moved to New York and also out to Los Angeles. It’s exciting when you’re chasing your dreams, and you’re chasing a certain goal, especially something with entertainment and with music and to be around everyone else. I loved it for a really long time, and I think now I’m ready to make the transition back to a small town. There’s something nice about living in that kind of environment.”
Switching gears a little bit, what’s your process when you sit down to write a song? Do you try and envelope everything around the piano, or do you work with the lyrics first, or what’s your mentality when it comes to songwriting?
“The majority of my songs, I sit down at the piano and I started using these weird syllables that aren’t really words. I start with melodies, and the songs and the chords, they tell me the melodies and it hatches what the song’s going to be, actually. But lately I’ve been trying it the other way around, which is just writing the lyrics out first, and that’s actually super fun. A majority of my work isn’t done that way, but I’ve definitely been trying to do that.”
Do you have any favorite acts that you’ve either worked with in the past?
“I collaborated early on with Carly Simon, but I haven’t done many collaborations since then. I certainly respect all of the people I’ve worked and toured with, though.”
Have you thought about anyone you’d really like to work or tour with in the future?
“I’d really like to tour with Angus Lee; I like him music a lot. I like Brett Dennen’s music a lot. I’d really love to be on the same stage with those guys at some point.”
Your album, Hope in Transition, was just released. How’s all of the reaction been to it so far for you?
“I’ve been very pleased with the reaction so far. It debuted at number 2 on iTunes, and that felt really good. After not releasing an album for over a year, you always wonder, ‘okay, is it going to climb the charts again?’ so that felt really good. I guess I was also on Billboard’s Heat Seeker’s, and that was really cool to be a part of that list. Sounds like, from what all my fans are saying, that they just love it, and I’m really happy to hear that.”
I liked it a lot. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard anything from you before this, but it was definitely a great surprise. I went back and listened to some of your older stuff, as well, and I think [Hope in Transition] has, by far, the most diverse-sound. People seem to really love it.
“Thank you so much. Yeah, I think it’s one of the more recently acceptable sounding albums. I tried to just make it really upbeat and positive and really work on the melodies to make them catchy but also hopefully everlasting.”
Did you approach this album looking for that particular sound, or at least differently than you have with your previous albums in the past?
“As I’ve matured, I’ve tried to add just a little fun to the songs and not be so uptight about the production being so perfect. This time around I knew I’d written some fun songs, so I just went in to the studio wanting to work on making those as enjoyable as I could for the fans, and also for myself, because I had just as good a time writing and working on them and getting everything to that point.”
Well you’re headed out on tour to promote it soon, right?
“In a few weeks, yeah. We’re on a bit of a time crunch. We’ll get to South Carolina, and then I leave for tour all around the same time that we get everything over there, so it’ll be a little busy.”
What can your fans expect this time around if this is their first time seeing you live?
“Hopefully just a good time and an all-around great performance. I always say that when I play a show, I set out to out-do the recording. I want my live show to be a real showcase of the music and to give fans kind of just an idea of what I’m all about. I’m excited because now I have three albums worth of material to pick and choose from. I want to mix it up and play a lot of the new songs that everyone’s really been listening to, but also throw in some older stuff that people haven’t heard in awhile, or maybe at all. I think it’ll be good, it’ll be a good time for everyone, I think.”
Are you hitting any dates at home on this tour?
“New Hampshire’s going to have to wait on this upcoming one. I hit Boston, which, you know, is pretty close, but I really love the hometown shows. I think we’re going to hit that one when we come back around, because I love coming back home and seeing my friends and family and everyone. It feels like each time I go back, the following there just keeps growing and getting stronger and stronger, which is really awesome.”
Well thank you so much, Brendan. It was great talking to you, and good luck on tour!
“Thank you, it was nice meeting you, too. And say hi to New Hampshire for me.”
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