Natasha James: “I Talk Through My Music”

Written by on February 23, 2012 in February 23, 2012, Interviews - Comments Off on Natasha James: “I Talk Through My Music”

Natasha JamesAward-winning Roots/Americana artist Natasha James has just released her latest single “Room 203” to radio. The song – which will appear on James’ soon-to-be-released new album, “My Country Has The Blues” – is described by Natasha as a “straight-up country tune with a Jimmy Buffet feel, catchy chorus and Tex-Mex guitar licks” and is the follow-up to “My Country Has The Blues,” a stirring ballad that went all the way to #1 on the New Music Weekly/STS Country Main Chart. “Room 203” has quickly gathered worldwide radio interest, spinning in Sweden, U.K., Australia, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, France, Japan, and many more.  Watch video footage of James recording her new record here:

All Access Magazine (AAM) interviewed the always-busy Natasha James (NJ) about her new album and a wide range of topics.

AAM: Just who is Natasha James?

NJ: I talk through my music. Everything anybody wants to know about me is there in my songs. We are all such a composite of so many types of people, and in my life, I have lived many different ways, living out my ideas to experience them viscerally. Landscapes convey emotions, ways of interpreting the world and my place in it, ways of articulating how we express our existence on the planet. Change and growth are constant, if you are not internalizing what you have lived, then you are no longer growing. I hope in ten years I will have a lot more textures to add to the tapestry that makes up my life.

What makes people tick – what makes them motivated to feel and care and be their best selves has always been a deep concern of mine. Different cultures and countries have always held a deep fascination for me. I would never choose a life lived in one country, in one language, or in one manner; that to me, would be as good as being buried alive. It was not even a conscious choice, looking back: it simply was not going to happen. I prefer stimulation over safety and knowledge over security.

Music, and short stories, are both my way of connecting with people and of working through thoughts, feelings and ideas that churn around in my heart and mind. Writing is a catharsis and a rebirth. Music is an emotional charge and release.

AAM: How would you best describe the music you create?

NJ: I would describe it as feel good, thinking music…music has got to move you…your heart, your mind AND your feet. It’s gotta hit you on all levels and be undeniable. Really getting inside of people through my music is one of the highest honors, and I am glad that the success at radio also bears this out; certainly it gets heard more.

I have been described as country, rock, blues, jazz-tinged country, Tex-Mex, swamp, and it is all that. A lot of people have described my music for me, and it is probably more important how other people experience it. Once I have written the song, the song takes on its own journey as then it meanders down several paths depending on how I decide the instrumentation should be, and that also changes depending on who is in the band or what we are doing with it. There are so many ways to arrange a song: a good song has solid legs and you can pretty much take it anywhere you want to go. I tend to be guitar driven, but not in terms of instrumental breaks or textures. I like to play with the “expected” and check out other ideas…the song tells you mostly. Fiddle/violin is one of my favourite instruments, and lately, on this next record, I have some really ballsy flute lines in harmonic leads with semi hollow body guitar. It’s a gospel swing tune called, “LIGHTEN UP YOUR LOAD,” and we do have the “bring me to church” organ solo as well. A natural would have been a fiddle in there, but we have flute tracks and a happy accident with the guitar lead which struck us all as so cool, so that stuck. Someone in the control room – Stephen Hart or Ronnie Rivera – said, “oh, that reminds me of Canned Heat.”  Well, I have ALWAYS been a fan of Canned Heat, such a seminal sound, and by happy accident, LIGHTEN UP YOUR LOAD, with that flute and guitar solo, has that vibe.  You will have to hear for yourself when the CD, My Country Has The Blues, comes out. It is scheduled for release (not in stone now!) around April. We have already released the title track single,(available on CD Baby), which went quickly to #1  (NMW/STS Country Main Chart)and was up for consideration of nomination for a Grammy. Now ROOM 203, the follow up single, is currently at radio and charting, so we had better get the CD finished and available for sale. I have a few more songs I would like to put on it; it is such a hard thing, to weed out the songs that will have to wait until the next recording.

AAM: One of your new songs, “My Country Has The Blues,” has significant social meaning. Talk about this.

NJ: The Title tells you right away what the story’s about. This country is in turmoil right now, but we are as a nation, in the history of the world, a unique social experiment. Now that we have critical mass, it remains to be seen whether our Democracy can and will survive, which is pretty much the theme of My Country Has The Blues.

Surrounded as we are by joblessness, no growth, unprecedented home foreclosures, the widest spread between CEO’s and the average worker’s pay we have ever had in the course of this country’s history, the outsourcing of manual labour and information servicing, we are entering a period of restructuring, the decisions of which will be long-term, permanently altering our socio-economic landscape. The way in which we bring ourselves out of this morass will speak to what kind of country we truly are, and to how viable our Democracy truly is.

I didn’t write the song to pontificate, educate, lecture or make conclusions. The song  came out because that is what I was seeing all around me. A fan of mine made a wonderful video of the tune with pictures and quotes from the beginning of our history as a country, bookended by the album cover. I was really flattered and blown away that someone would do this. In a happy coincidence, this video was submitted to Microsoft by a radio guy who really likes my music, whose station,, was recently picked up as a featured station by Microsoft, and as of the writing of this interview, it may well be that the video will be up on Microsoft’s site soon, but I don’t know yet .I was searching for the link to this video to include it here, and I found it — in THE NETHERLANDS!      (My bass player, Marius Pelsma, is from the Netherlands, so he’ll get a kick out of this!) Check it out, hope you like it.

AAM: Who are some of the more notable musicians you have worked with over time in the business?

NJ: Famous? Or fantastic? Or both? Since I first returned to music with a record deal and free recording back at The Plant in Sausalito (closed down years ago now, such a shame. It was a great place with historic import and a cool vibe. KFOG – wonderful SF rock station – used to have private performances in Studio B. Eddie Kramer did a lot of work in that place, among others ), I have been blessed with a bunch of wonderful musicians to work with, a fantastic engineer in Ronnie Rivera, and wonderful mastering guys: John Cuniberti, Gavin Lurssen, David Reitzas. My dear friend, Martin Fierro, sax, (now gone) was one of the truest musicians I have ever had the pleasure of working and playing with. Martin cut his teeth with Thelonius Monk at 16 before leaving to play with Jerry Garcia (and many others). His was a spirit I would hope to live up to, and anyone who knew him knows what I am saying. Richie Hayward (Little Feat- his seminal and fantastic band and countless incredible musicians over his illustrious career – also now gone) laid down drum tracks on some early versions of “Fillin’ Station” (latest version is on Tequila Time), and “People Like You,” (recorded in a funky little studio in Santa Monica YEARS AGO, early 80’s) a blues tune, ¾, Em, I keep meaning to record again: NEXT album, which WILL be called, Blues With A Twang. I keep talking about that, so I better get around to it! Richie was one of those people in my life that when he said something to me, even though other people might have said it a thousand times before, when HE told me, somehow it sunk in. Not really sure why that is, but he was that kind of friend for me. Austin De Lone, keys/Wurli/accordion/B3 –(Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe). Auddie did the first record with me which has The Restless Kind on it, now on Highway One Records, BAD JUDGEMENTS; many funny stories in the making of that record!- Bobby Black,world class master pedal steel player (Asleep At The Wheel, Commander Cody etc) extraordinaire, whose credits look like my wish list: Bobby is playing throughout the cd, TEQUILA TIME. We recorded Bobby here at the house, where we do the overdubs. His energy, and he is now in his 70’s, would break a young man unused to studio hours! Bobby’s licks are so tasty. He wrote the book.

I like to lay down the bones of the record live. I lay down my vocals and guitar in an iso booth at the same time, and hope for no or little bleed. (Best to do it RIGHT the first time!). We track everything live, ISO or gobos for the B3. It’s great if the studio has a good line of site from the ISO booth. For me, it is the only way to capture the energy. Music is so alive, and to record any other way, you lose too much. You lose the FIRE. On Tequila Time and My Country Has The Blues, Ronnie (Rivera) is playing drums and engineering – luckily, for My Country Has The Blues, we had Stephen Hart at the board while Ronnie was drumming! Not many people are proficient at both ends of the glass (as Stephen said) but Ronnie is( He’s always got great suggestions for the tunes, whether it’s regarding tempo or a vocal delivery, particularly a vocal delivery. Anyway, at the end of the night, or the session, I like to come away with great roughs. And we do . On the new Cd, My Country Has The Blues, all the vocals are the scratch tracks.That’s the way I like to roll.Here’s a little clip of us up at The Site making the record: .

But to continue: Rafael Padilla, percussion (Chris Isaak, Shakira) is great to work with, a great spirit, a great player; Ed Roth, keys/accordion (Ronnie Montrose/Coolio) is so right on, right there. Does exactly what is being called for in the song; Terry Domingue, drums (Merle Haggard), it’s thanks to Terry that Hey! Ho! is second line and Signpost is a bolero. Great suggestions, on the fly, and we laid em down just like that…question of reassessing the bpms to see at what tempo the song lived with that backbeat; Steve Evans, bass (Elvin Bishop, Roy Rogers-Ray Manzarek), Steve is a fast study, a good hang and a great bass player – and a CRAZY friend. He is the original energizer bunny! The guy NEVER stops! I wonder if he is cracking jokes at the speed of light in his sleep: Mr ADD/PHD – as he says… I could go on and on… but there will always be a few people I have not mentioned. Don’t get me in trouble here!

There’s a tune on My Country Has The Blues, that I co-wrote, called, NASCAR TIME, which is a real hard driving southern rock tune. On it I do a duet with Tommy Thompson, Gregg Allman’s B3 player and backup singer for 17 years. Tommy  and I had met up some years back at a benefit and birthday party for an SF impresario, Boots Hughston,(he puts on the Summer of Love concerts in Golden Gate Park among other things) – there were a bunch of artists playing that day: David and Linda LaFlamme (It’s A Beautiful Day), me, Maria Muldaur, The Alameda All-Stars (Tommy’s band), Lester Chambers, Dickie Peterson (Blue Cheer).Tommy’s band, The Alameda All Stars, were the backup band for most of the acts there. My material does not allow for that, it is pretty specific, but anyway, a musical camaraderie was born – via discussing Tequila (of course!). Anyway, I had wanted a ballsy, gritty, swampy male vocal to duet with me on NASCAR TIME, so I called up Tommy. It was a good call; his vocals were a great fit with mine for the song. My keyboard player, Herman Eberitzsch, a wonderful songwriter in his own right, added some Lynyrd Skynyrd style relentless keys to it, the guitar player George Harris, a blues hall of famer out of Florida, has a screamin raunchy off the charts solo..what can I say? The song kicks ASS!

I’m really loving this new record. Everytime I hear the mix of the tunes, I get excited all over again. It’s hard, because we have had to wait so long to finish it. I got really sick, so the project got delayed and now we have released 2 singles, a video, and the record is still in the making! (Well, we didn’t expect My Country Has The Blues to hit #1 so quickly, and Room 203 to chart so quickly.)

It is interesting that both the other releases, BAD JUDGEMENTS and TEQUILA TIME, are still on the Roots Music Report Charts, Roots Country, Roots Country Internet, and State Chart California for 3 and 4 years now..those records have some serious legs! I am glad people like them that much, that they are hitting home.

AAM: Insofar as musical influences go, be they alive or deceased, who do you count as those who have helped shape your music the most?

NJ: My musical influences, those that resonated with me most, when I was first grabbed by music…well, let’s go back to when I was 5. I had a long ride to school, 45 minutes, and the first 5 minutes was spent in debate about radio rights. I had my heart set on KRLA, LA’s AM rock station. Sometimes I prevailed. Even at that age, I would stay up in the middle of the night in my bedroom with my transistor radio, because I liked the music they played in the wee hours the most.

Early country blues artists like Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry had a huge impact on me. Vocalists Joan Baez, Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt influenced how I would deliver the notes and syllables. Country rock and blues were always what I listened to in the 70’s. 60’s saw me with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin…who pretty much shaped my whole generation, the backdrop being the Stones and Beatles. I was always a Stones gal. Of course, they were really country rock and blues…no surprise. Allman Bros, Lynnyrd Skynnyrd, ZZ Top, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Tim Buckley, Donovan Leitch, Taj Mahal,  Jimmy Forrest (sax player, best version of Rocks in My Bed ever done), Illinois Jacket  – this is hard because there are SO MANY influences for me: I got into a period of deep soul, R&B and funk: Al Green, Grover Washington Jr, Bill Withers, Booker T (did a great album called, Evergreen, after leaving the MG’s). For bluegrass: Tim and Mollie O’Brien ( now there’s one of the best voices on the planet!), Hot Rize, Seldom Scene, Norman Blake…for rock, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, CC&R. All of these artists have gotten under my skin, and whatever gets under your skin, gets inside your soul and gets churned around inside and comes back out in a piece of your own work. There are so many amazing artists who have fed my musical soul.

AAM: In the ever-changing current music and entertainment landscape, where do you see the most opportunity for your music to be seen and heard going forward?

NJ: For an independent, and Roots/Americana artist at that, I feel very fortunate. We get heard all over the world on radio, both terrestrial, satellite and internet. Just finding that video on a page in The Netherlands was something. I get mail from fans in Australia, Germany, New Zealand, NL, Belgium, UK, etc who have heard my music through these newer streams.

I would like to have my music more and more paired up with visuals and stories that are in concert with it. Film, TV, video, cable shows…it is great to hear your song playing, intertwined with another story. That is fun. I would love to see more of that.

Touring and playing out is always the most immediately rewarding, but touring can be financially and physically draining if not really properly planned, so right now I am looking very carefully at the offers to make sure that they will pencil at the end of the day. But there really is nothing more gratifying than to be able to play live for your fans. I love a good festival. Unlike most musicians I know (except my keyboard player who is also a morning person) I am a REALLY EARLY morning person. Radio DJ’s and I have similar hours. I often wake up in the middle of the night and start working: I think better in those hours, better electrical energy, whatever. So for me, daytime festival gigs are my favourite. We played one that was in the early fall on the coast in Mexico. The hotel they put us up at had a hot tub overlooking the ocean, so we hot-tubbed before the show. Now that is great. I could do those kind of gigs all year long! Since I love to ski, I like festivals that allow me to do that, too. Let’s face it: music might be A LOT of work and A LOT of discipline, but it’s really fun too and we are lucky to be in a position that what we do spreads joy to so many and makes us so exhilarated too. I am not overlooking the gigs from hell, but I tend to forget negative things, unless they are funny.

AAM: Let’s talk about your new album coming out this Spring. Any surprises on it you might care to divulge?

NJ: I am really proud of this record! When you have to follow up an album like TEQUILA TIME, that stays as an album on the charts at #1 for SIX months, whose singles chart in the Top 5 in every format, that continues to chart in its’ fourth year at radio, and that has won several awards, it is a little daunting. This album has been percolating around me longer than my other albums before its’ release, so I have had a longer time to assimilate it as a composite of my songs. These songs are really close to the bone. the production is the most stripped down yet; the songs are the most earthy. The title track, MY COUNTRY HAS THE BLUES, is probably the most lush mainstream rock production on the record. Several of these tunes were written, rehearsed, and recorded so fast for this record; I had not lived with them. But I felt them so deeply, and that comes across. RAGTIME BREAKDOWN on the other hand, a ragtime blues pickin’ song, I had written the music when I was 18 living in Tuscany one summer, and had tentatively put words to it during my years in NYC, but never really settled on anything. Before we went in to lay down this record, all the pieces just fell into place and I felt about this song the way I did about IF YOU THINK THIS IS LOVE on Tequila Time. I just HAD to do it. It’s a perky, simple but ballsy little ditty, with me on resonator, Dave Aguilar on acoustic guitar, Steve Evans on bass, and Ronnie on drums. I would like to do an instrumental version as well. We’ll see. It too, has a current social statement to make, which was most unintentional. This album melds a strong spiritual sense through songs like ANGELS WITH BROKEN WINGS and LIGHTEN UP YOUR LOAD, with socio-political messages from the title track and RAGTIME BREAKDOWN. ANGELS has an American Indian tom-tom percolating through it. It was an immediate favourite of my band when I brought it in to rehearsal. The guitar break is Tex-Mex on top of that, so it has a sweet melancholic temperament with an emphatic pulse. It’s actually been spinning on KZUM in Lincoln, Nebraska as part of the blues portion of the hour on The Wimmin’s Show, which is one of my favourite radio shows. Deb Andersen hosts and there is a phenomenal selection of tunes by women. That show has turned me onto some of my favourite music I have ever heard, so I was delighted to be included. They did a special one week with a spotlight on me, Shemekia Copeland and Janiva Magness. I was glad to be walking in my blues shoes with those two ladies.

ENDLESS FRONTIER continues with a percolating high lonesome feeling, true grit Americana, and we introduce the flute as a low pass long lingering notes ¾ of the way through the song, and the flute takes it out. I said to Mindy (Canter, flute player and musical sister) give me a Chris Wood vibe (flute player for another of my favourite seminal groups, TRAFFIC) and she did. It’s funny how she ended up on the record. I have another fantastic flute player friend, Matt Eakle (check out his music!)- he played with Linda Ronstadt for some time –but Mindy had asked if she could come up to the studio – we were recording My Country Has The Blues up at The Site, which was a fantastic studio in Marin, not too far from Skywalker. George Massenburg had his Neve 8078 there, and a huge room, wood and glass. Great board, great room, great lay out, great vibe. (The board has since been sold, so this place too is history as it was.)So I said sure. She came on the wrong day, but I guess it was the right day!

The songs on this record, from earthy ragtime blues, to Americana, to calypso beat country with bari guitar – Bakersfield meets the Caribbean – on ROOM 203, the current single released to radio 7 weeks ago and charting, to gospel swing, to swampy southern rock, all hang together so nicely. This record has a very positive uplifting undercurrent, and that is needed in these times. I can spin it over and over and not get sick of it. That’s always a good sign.

Yeah, we want you to BUY it! No seriously, music sales are in the toilet right now, people stream stuff off youtube or worse, download illegally, or your income gets lost in a slush fund of metadata confusion…but making records, making songs, so that there is an mp3 file, is money, time and lots of hard work, sweat and tears and at the end of the day, to keep on doing it, to keep on creating the music that you hear, and want to listen to over and over again, can only be possible if we can make enough money from it to live on and have a bit left over to pour right back in to create more art. So there has got to be an awareness that if the people who listen to music want the artists they like to be able to create more music, they have got to buy their records, not just go to their concerts.

AAM: Best gig you’ve ever played? Worst?

NJ: I already mentioned one of my favourites: The Ensenada Jazz Festival. The Tequila Festival was another fun one, both of these in Mexico. The Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa was well organized and great sound as well. The lighting was a bit off, but a nice perk was getting great massages backstage before our show.

The worst gig of all: oh, there’s been a lot of those: probably the Hempfest in Oregon. The promoter promised us rooms and money. There were no rooms and no money. The stage was disorganized. The backline was rudimentary, the sound was equally ill done. We were tired, hungry, oh yeah – did I mention there was NO FOOD! – but we gave a great show and had some laughs with each other on the way back to California. My band travels really well together; they are all a great bunch of guys, and gal, and shows like that, you really see how you make muster. They were all stars.

AAM: If you could set and control your own course in the music business, where would you like to be five years from now?

NJ: Most importantly: alive and healthy, writing and playing music. I would hope to always remain full of ideas and enthusiasm, and never get weary, always keeping inspired and trying new things.I would like to have the freedom to write and sell songs, write for others, write for film, get my short stories published, collaborate with authors and songwriters and screenwriters and always have an avenue to develop a creative idea and put it into production, release and distribution. I would also hope it pays!

AAM: Any parting thoughts?

NJ: Thank you for being interested enough in what I do to take the time to interview me. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with your readers. I hope you enjoy my new record, My Country Has The Blues.