For readers who are being introduced to you for the first time, what should we tell them about Derek James?
Well lets see, you can tell that that I play pop-rock-folk rag time music, and I’m touring around the east coast right now. You can hear my music on my website or on my MySpace page. I just got off tour with Matt White whom you guys are featuring right now.
“Move over Mraz” and “Take a seat, Mr. Mayer” a few quotes from a review on CD Baby, regarding your disc “Stray”. You got some great compliments there. How does that make you feel?
Great! It makes me feel great! Any positive reviews, any reviews that are enthusiastic make me feel good, from somebody that enjoys the music. That is one of the great feelings about making music, when people enjoy it. So it makes me feel really good.
…and being compared to Jason Mraz and John Mayer? That’s unbelievable!
Being compared to those guys is flattering! I very much respect bother of those musicians. I think my music falls into that same genre.
Take me through a few of your favorite tracks.
I think two track that almost didn’t make it “Smoky Light” and “What’s That Sound”, those are two of my personal favorite. They almost didn’t make it, cause when I was making the CD I was working with a team of producers. These two guys had very different visions and tastes and sort of pulling me in opposite directions. One of them loved “Smoky Light” and “What’s That Sound” and the other wasn’t a fan of that kind of style. Those songs are probably two of the purest most natural songs that I wrote on the CD. Those are two of the songs that I enjoyed most writing and playing. I wrote both of those songs in the basement of this families home that I was a nanny for at the time. At the time I was kind of cut off from most of the world. I was living in New Rochelle in the suburbs with this really nice family. Both parents worked real long hours and they had a son in high school who they just wanted to make sure could get driven around to his sport games and such, and not get into too much trouble. SO I was basically living there as a “manny”, but more like a big brother. I didn’t know many people in the area and I spend most of my time hanging out with the family dog, playing my music in the basement as not to wake any body up. “Smoky Light” and “What’s That Sound” were sort of outlets for my pent up energy.
Stay – Derek James
So was it you? Did you push for those songs to make it onto the CD?
I was paying these producers. No one was in charge of it ultimately but me. Before we started the CD I had played them like 30 songs and together we whittled down the strongest ones. Which ones we thought would be best for the record. I think I was a little unsure that they would fit because they are a little different than some of my other stuff. One of the producers supported them and gave me the confidence to keep them on there. I’m grateful I did.
How did you get started in music? What made you pick up that guitar and start playing?
I was kind of force fed piano lessons when I was about ten and I took lessons for a few year. I like it, but not enough. I think probably because it was something that I was made to do it turned me off. I gave it up when I was about 12. When I was 13, I always thought the guitar was really cool, and my mother played the piano, but knew nothing about guitar. I figured this was something that I could learn independently since she didn’t really know anything about it. She wouldn’t be able to push me too hard with it. And I just thought it looked cool, and sounded cool. I loved how guitar in sounded music, I loved finger picking guitar. As a child if I saw a children’s singer in the park with a guitar I was always attracted to it. So I picked it up!
“There Is the Sun” has a line in French, and you lived south of France for eight months, for those of us who can’t interpret the line, will you do it for us?
The line is “Ca donnez moi l’espoir” which means “that gives me hope”. The song was inspired when I was living in France. I love France, especially the south of France. In 2003, at the time was the big debate whether to go to war with Iraq. There were anti-war protests all over America and all over Europe. Heck all over the world. I remember some ant-war protest going on where I was. There was a huge anti-American sentiment in the air and I remember walking down the street one day and there were these evangelists, these Norwegian evangelists, preaching in both French and English about Christianity. There was this French guy who heard them speaking English and assumed they were American. He yelled out to them in French. “Why don’t you go back to America, why don’t you go bomb the Iraqis. He was very angry and stormed off. It just left an impression on me of how many foreigners take on the view that all Americans share the view of what the government is trying to do. So that song is about that. It’s about not judging someone to adhere to all the views of the group they may be a part of.
Now when you were in France you got a bit of experience there. You put together a band of other fellas and secured some gigs. Tell me how your times there went.
That was a BLAST! It was very interesting. I was very nervous and unsure of how the French were going to respond to my music. I found quickly that if you could sing English songs without an accent you were a hot commodity. There are a lot of French bands, and they love American and British Rock and Roll music. A lot of the singers which sing well, its rare to find one that had at least a little French accent lingering. So I was popular with some of the French musicians there as being a singer for their band. I made a lot of friends with the musicians in the community. We started singing in the streets and we toured around the south of France. Playing in the cities, the towns, on the sidewalk and in the village on the grassy knolls in front of the beach, in front of a lake, whatever. We took our instruments and we had a generator for our speakers. Put out a guitar case and people gathered everywhere we went. The largest crowd was about 200 people just surrounding us in a circle. It was amazing; they were so receptive to the music. In general there is a lot of busking that goes on in Europe, especially where I was. The people just really appreciated live music. I grew up in NY so I see street musicians a lot in the subways but people don’t stop and listen like they did in France. It made it so fun to play, cause they were really stop and listen.
Derek Live – Photo by Stacie
You studied abroad his senior year in college in Wollongong, Australia, and your first live performance was there at an open mic night. Tell us about it.
That was my FIRST live performance ever! What I mean by first live performance is on a stage, with a mic, and amplified. I had played in college in front of roommates. This was my first. It happened at an open mic night. There were a lot of musicians living in the dorms I was living in, in Australia. The last month I was there, one of them found out about this open mic night and rented a bus to take us all out there. I was thinking about it and one of the guys was like “you have to do it!” It was something I always wanted to do. So I went along and went on stage and played four songs, and I was petrified! I was having a panic attack, my body was convulsing. I got through the songs and came down from the stage shaking like I had seen a ghost or something. Thinking WOW, I was proud of myself for having done it. But also thinking I didn’t need to be so nervous that I could do it better. SO I had a drink and went back up about an hour later, twice as comfortable. We went back a few more times before I left to play. It got easier and easier to do. It was really fun even though it brought with it a lot of anxiety and nerves, I still really enjoyed it. I got a lot of positive feedback from my friends.
This was as well in 2003?
This was in December of 2002.
WOW, cause I’m thinking your first performance is in 2002. So we’re talking you’ve only been on stage playing like four or five years. Having seen you in NY, you’d never guess, you’d think you’ve been doing this all your life.
What inspires you to write new songs? How does that process work in Derek’s brain?
Anything can trigger it. Mainly it’s a combination of ways. I definitely don’t write songs one way. I could be walking down the street and over hear a conversation and hear a sentence that strikes me. Think that it’s an interesting thought. I will take a topic and an idea and take a phrase or a line that I like and I’ll just start singing it, and I’ll sing it however it comes natural to me to sing it. Sometimes I’ll be like “Oooh that sounds good!” and I’ll work on it from there. Other times I won’t get anything from it. Or sometimes I’ll just be jamming on the guitar and I’ll hear something in my head, and I’ll figure it out and try and just put it down on paper. I won’t really hear so much lyrics but more melodies and chord changes. Ultimately once I have the germ of the song, I need to finish it and solidify what the song is about. Come up with the topic and make the rest of the song and all the parts work with the story I’m trying to tell.
Since those days in France and Australia how do you think you have grown?
I’ve definitely grown into the stage. It feels like home, I get up there and it’s a familiar place. Early on it was very unfamiliar territory. It was nerve-wracking. So many frightening nightmarish thoughts about what could happen up there. Like getting a tomato in the face! People walking out. People talking and ignoring me. Boo’ing me off the stage like at the Apollo. All of those nightmarish situations or fearing myself freezing up on stage. I’ve done it hundreds of times now. I’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot, or enough to have grown the confidence in myself and being able to handle myself no matter what happens. Playing shows where I’ve been totally background music just to get some cash. That trained me not to worry about the audience, and not to get distracted. Just get up there and do my thing. I always try to connect with the audience, I love that connection! Untimately it comes down to this is something that I love to do and some people will like it and some people wont.
Now, every musician has performers/musicians that are their primary influences, tell me who yours are.
Martin Sexton really inspired me a lot. You’ve got to check him out he’s fantastic. He’s a singer songwriter. I saw him live in NYC when I was in college three nights in a row. I brought my dad one night and two friends the other nights. I’ve never seen someone that many nights in a row. He has this amazing baritone voice and this angelic falsetto. He plays the guitar so beautifully and rhythmically. I love his lyrics and his vibe. He can fill a room himself with just his guitar and his voice and make it sound like a whole band was up there. When I saw him it was him with a drummer backing him. I was blown away. At the end of the first sone he was dripping in sweat. He is definitely a big influence to me.
Seeing you live in NYC, we just loved “Kiss” and “Fly Me to the Moon”; do the songs you cover have certain significance to you? Are they just fun to play?
If I cover a song, unless it’s been for someone’s birthday and they requested it, I’ll really only cover a song if I really love that song myself. Not just because I think a crowd will enjoy it. Like “Kiss” I love Prince and I really respect him as an artist. The same with Frank Sinatra. I don’t do that many covers and when I do it’s an artist that I’m inspired by.
I have to say that I’ve never seen a kazoo on stage before in a live performance. Being a kazoo player myself, I got a big kick out of it. Tell me how the Kazoo came into play.
That’s a funny story. It happened out of a mistake. On “What’s That Sound” when we were recording I had a trumpet player come in to play a solo for the instrumental portion of the song and he played this amazing rag time solo. Muting it sometimes, it was so cool… it was jazzy, it fit the song great! The next day the producer finds out that he deleted it by accident. I had already paid the trumpet guy and he was a distance away. I like quirky instruments and I had the kazoo with me in my little bag of tricks. So I broke it out and said “maybe this could fit, maybe this will work!” I just kind of took a couple solos over it and thought it worked. Then I started using the kazoo live. It’s funny a lot of people haven’t seen a kazoo; you obviously don’t see it very often.
Back in June you played with Alexa Ray Joel, I want to hear all about it!
Yeah, I played one show in NY with her. She is very very sweet. That gig came about because her drummer Mark Slutzky, who is an amazing drummer, has played with a lot of great performers. He’s been touring with her for a while. We played together with another band he plays with called “Kill the Alarm” he became a great friend and has always enjoyed my music. When they were looking to set up a show in ny, he suggested me. He brought her out to one of my show. They all enjoyed the show and we became friendly.
I’ve read that you usually have a back up band. In NY you had Ryan on percussion (who was absolutely fabulous!) Tell me about the band, when are they with you? Does it depend on the venue?
Its interesting cause as a solo artist, a lot of solo artist have a back up band. I love playing with the band; they are a great group of guys. Most of my shows before this Matt White tour were with the full band. I love playing with other people and sharing that energy when you create music together. Because I want to maintain my creative control, I want to play my songs and play them the way I hear them. Because of that, it’s sort of like a dictatorship, which is why I don’t consider myself having a full band, where it would be more like a democracy where everyone has an equal say in how the songs are written etc. So to keep it clean like that and maintain my autonomy. Most singer songwriters hire a band and have them play parts that are pre-writeen. I’ve found band members who enjoy my style and are talented musicians who come up with new parts to play for the songs that haven’t been recorded yet. So for me, I’d pretty much always like to have a band with me. It comes down to being able to afford it.
When I do interviews I like to have fans submit questions and one of the question I got was “Do you have a Street Team?”
Yes, a very small street team.
Where can they be found? Do they have a website?
They don’t it’s very small and run by one of my managers. Tiffany Meehan. If anyone is interested they can email Chris@derekjamesmusic.com . We’d love the support.
When I ask fans to submit questions, I usually get “Ask him if he’s playing Austin soon.” Or “Ask him if he is coming to Kentucky!” So as a general … tell us what’s next for you.
I’m going to be booking tours. I’d like to hit a lot of the same places I saw with Matt White. I’ll be going around the northeast. I have a few college showcases coming up, and hopefully those will lead to more gigs that will take me farther around the country. I want to hit major cities every few months and really try to grow it grass roots.
Send a message to your fans and future fans:
I’m thrilled that you enjoy the music as much as I do. I’ll keep making it and hopefully you’ll keep listening. I hope to see you dancing at one of my shows.
YouTube Vids taken by Stacie: