Sing if You Must: Folk Singer Joshua James On Music, Writing, and His Forever Home

Joshua James

Joshua James

By Daniel Ford

It was 2007.

I sat down at a desktop computer past its prime to write what would eventually become my first novel. I couldn't do much else. I was an in-over-his-head grad student in New York City, financially and emotionally incapable of funding a relationship, and being fed on a daily basis by the generosity of my best friend (who I was sharing a room with in a small apartment at the time).

In short, it was the perfect time to be a brooding writer in New York City.

I need music to write. Without it, I produce content that contains the emotional resonance of a dish towel. That year, I remember searching for music on iTunes with money I didn't have. I sampled a few songs by a singer-songwriter named Joshua James and clicked "buy" without thinking about how I'd purchase my next meal.

"The New Love Song," "FM Radio," and "Dangerous" became permanent songs on the playlist I put together while giving life to my main character Sid Sanford. I followed James' career from that point forward and couldn't have been more excited when one of his songs ended up on a popular television show (see below for more details).

James is about to go on tour in Australia, but he graciously took some time to answer my questions (causing my 2007 self's head to explode).

Daniel Ford: When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer/songwriter?

Joshua James: I still don't think that that moment has arrived. Singing grew from a necessity to some sort of expression. As a youngin' I always needed some sort of semi-destructive outlet. As a 13-year-old, it was skateboarding and small acts of vandalism. As a 21-year-old, it was reading and expanding. Years later, it was singing and self-expression; a form of connecting to life and death.

DF: How did growing up in Nebraska influence your music?

JJ: Anything in one's vicinity becomes an influence. Parents, siblings, nature, surrounding, home front, etc. Nebraska and her vast openness has had a stronghold on my heart since I can remember. She is my forever home, full of nostalgia and memories never to be repeated.

DF: Who are some of the artists that influenced you early on?

JJ: My mother, The Doors, God (and his many faces).

DF: I discovered your first album, “The Sun is Always Brighter,” on iTunes during a really rough time in my life and it really helped get me through it. What are some of things you went through and thought about while writing and producing that album?

JJ: That record was the first official release of songs that I did. As I think we can all do, I attempted to use a big of shock and awe with its content. The themes stretch anywhere from suicide to drug abuse and even extends into the political. It was, as are all of them, a record of personal experiences.

DF: The song “Coal War” was used in the opening sequence of the fourth season of “Sons of Anarchy.” I fist pumped in the air and shouted out loud in an empty apartment in New York City after hearing the first couple of notes. How did that make you feel as an artist hearing your music on such a mainstream show?

JJ: First off, I love that you fist pumped. Everything else will appear pale in its comparison, but I will attempt to answer with fervor. When I saw the usage of "Coal War" in “Sons of Anarchy,” I was ecstatic. I, throughout my career as a singer, have tried to sing with an honest voice, with as much truth to what I am feeling at the moment as I possibly can, and so when one of the songs that I wrote was chosen for such an epic moment in such an epic television program I was elated and full of pride (be it good or bad).

DF: What are the best and worst parts about touring?

JJ: The best: Everything and her mighty wind. The worst: The longing for my lover, for my home, and my baby boy.

DF: Was your writing or producing processes any different for your newest album, “From the Top of Willamette Mountain?”

JJ: The making of “From the Top of Willamette Mountain” was extremely different than any other record that I had made previously. In life, I find that I get comfortable, we all do, it's part of the process of living. It's part of the process of dying. We settle and decide that what we are doing is (and has been) correct. I was extremely guilty of this. I was comfortable and confident. Richard Swift changed that. His approach to music and her making was something I had never witnessed and it changed me, for the better (or at least I would like to think so). It was the feeling and not the mathematical. If the take felt good, it was good. And that was it. It had a minimal approach to it, at least in comparison to what I had done up until then. I loved making that record. I did. Boy, did I?

DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would you choose and why?

JJ: “Mytic.” It is a brief history of me. It describes how I have felt since before I can remember.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers and singer/songwriters?

JJ: Stop if you can. Sing if you must.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

JJ: I eat kale for breakfast after feeding my five lovely goats and 12 chickens.

Stop what you’re doing and go check out Joshua James’ music on his official website, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @buffalojames.

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