M&C Interview: Brendan James talks ‘The Day is Brave’

Brendan James, who began his musical career as a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has stepped out of a musical journey that has vaulted the soft-spoken musician into the national spotlight.

Channeling a poetic singing style reminiscent of the great pop artists of the 1970’s and mixing it with a fresh musical sensibility, James has taken the nation by storm. His debut album, entitled ‘The Day Is Brave’ hits brick-and-mortar store along with iTunes on June 3rd.

Dominated by James’s expressive piano playing, the songs on ‘The Day Is Brave’ are mainly autobiographical, like “Green,” about a former girlfriend he met while working at Urban Outfitters, and “Manchester,” about the town in New Hampshire where James spent most of his time after his parents divorced.

James’s youth is also the focus of “The Other Side,” a playful tune James says he wrote about not fitting in as a kid and “that moment when you wake up on the other side of life and are like, ‘Man, I don’t have to deal with that anymore.'”

Other standout tracks include “Early April Morning,” a deeply felt love song, and “Hero’s Song,” a soldier’s-eye view of the Iraq war that is also featured on Eddie Vedder’s Body of War Soundtrack due out in stores March 18th. James’s ballad “The Sun Will Rise” has also already received national attention since the music supervisor of the hit ABC show Private Practice used it in the season’s final episode of 2007.

James will be kicking off a summer tour of the northern U.S. in Annapolis, MD on June 3rd to promote his upcoming release, ‘The Day Is Brave’ which hits store shelves that same day. Check out more about Brendan, including his biography and music from the album, on his official MySpace page at myspace.com/brendanjames.

Brendan took a few minutes away from planning his tour and album release to share some thoughts about his past and future as a singer-songwriter.

M&C:  Being an up-and-coming artist and new to the music industry, has becoming a professional musician something you always thought would happen to you?

James: It’s funny, actually. I didn’t know I wanted to be a musician until I was a freshman in college. I knew I always loved to sing, but it wasn’t until after my freshman year of college that I started playing piano, and singing and playing t the same time. It quickly became my biggest goal in life. To become a professional musician.

M&C:  People have been telling you your whole life that you can sing. What really pushed you into that?

James: There was a pretty influential person in my life at around that time, when I was around 19. A music teacher from New Hampshire who heard me sing and came up to me afterwards and said, “You know, you might have something very special. You should learn an instrument and maybe try to write your own songs.

I think it was pretty much that moment. Nobody had ever really just said it to me. So that was a very pivotal moment in my life because somebody believed in me, in that I could learn to play an instrument and be a songwriter.

M&C: Since you haven’t had years to craft your singing and playing style, is it something you’re always working on?

James: I think I’ll be working on my musicianship and my singing until the day I die. I always want to hone in on it and become a better singer and musician, and I mean it’s getting to the point now as a performer where I don’t have to think about it, it just comes out.

Those are the best performances…when you’re not thinking about your music or your singing. You’re just being yourself on stage. But when it comes to rehearsing and writing, I’m always trying to be better.

M&C: The general inspiration for “Hero’s Song” is obvious. Was there a more specific inspiration for you in writing it?

James: There wasn’t anything really specific, other than just being a person in this country who does watch TV and movies, and reads newspapers and magazine. It’s pretty much all around me, the content and talk of the war. I guess I was just sitting at the piano and it started to come out of me. It’s been in my face for so many years.

One of the things that I kept seeing on CNN and everything was all of the coverage of political battles going on instead of how hard it is to be a soldier. Instead of actually thinking of what the soldiers are going through. I tried to highlight their struggle in the song.

M&C: How long have you been sitting on the songs you used for ‘The Day is Brave’? Are they all brand new?

James: It’s really funny, actually. It’s a pretty broad range. Some of them are only a few months old, and some of them date back four years…two, I think, that are almost four years old. I’ve just been waiting and waiting to put out an album one day. I’d say about half of them are about a year old, and the album has been finished for a year. So I was just waiting. That’s how it goes though.

M&C: You just wait until the opportunity arises.

James: Yeah, you just wait until you have a team behind you and a record label to release. And now it’s finally here.

M&C: You spent some years playing in New York City and sneaking into ballrooms to play pianos. Was this an important growth period for you?

James: That was probably the single most important time in my life, as far as songwriting. I was desperate to sit at a real piano. Not a keyboard. I certainly couldn’t afford a real piano and my New York apartment meant I could barely afford rent. I just really racked my brain as to where I could find a real piano. Hotels were the first kind solution for that.

I went to Juilliard and I feel like that’s really where I became a true songwriter. Those late nights in hotels and in front of piano. I kind of can’t believe I had the guts to do it back then. I don’t know if I would have those guts right now.

M&C: Were you a ladies’ man in college?

James: I don’t know. I mean, I love the ladies, but I don’t sing for that of course. I was in a chorus in college, and we definitely had girls at the shows. I guess it just comes with the whole thing.

M&C: Are you excited about the upcoming tour? How is the planning going?

James: Really excited. We’re trying to be really strategic and not just do a big six month tour and throw me out on the road. We’re trying to pick the right cities and the right crowds, and I’m playing with musicians who I feel will bring similar crowds and who will be interested in the album. It’s not just going to be one big tour…more like several little tours.

M&C: Are you tagging along/bring anybody with you?

James: We’re doing a few weeks here and there with Ari Hest, Landon Pigg and David Ryan Harris. After that, we’re just going to see what comes, you know?

M&C: Playing live, you seem very comfortable on stage in front of people. Has it always been that way?

James: It hasn’t always been that way. I think until the day I die, I’ll have nerves before going on stage. I always think of Sammy Davis Jr.’s quote that if he’s ever not nervous before he performs, someone needs to make him stop performing. When I was younger and starting out, I didn’t want to get up on that stage mainly because I couldn’t play the piano. I was scared of those keys!

M&C: Is that tied in any way to the cover of the album, with you and the piano keys ripped out on the floor?

James: Yes, it absolutely did, and also the name of the album. It’s just been a journey for me since I was 19, and just practicing for hours and hours. And to really decide that I want to do this has taken a lot of work. The title really speaks about the journey, because it wasn’t easy.

M&C: So it was a personal conviction, feeling that you needed to learn how to play the piano.

James: It was a bar that I set for myself. I wanted to be a musician who could play all of his songs without a band if need be. I want to have my best songs come because of my relationship with that instrument.

M&C: Do you feel more comfortable playing with a band or by yourself?

James: To be honest, I think now I have more fun when I play with my band. I certainly enjoy playing solo as well. It’s a very different thing. When I play solo, I can just close my eyes and be in the moment. The band is great though. I can be with them and laugh. Hang out with my friends. I really like both.

M&C: Your sound is very interesting; it’s sound old and new at the same time, if that makes any sense…

James: Thanks. That’s a really great compliment. It’s funny, too, because that’s kind of what I always want. I think some of the best music was in the ‘70s, and I think a lot of people think that.

All of the singer-songwriters, and the way they married their lyrics and their phrasing with their instrumentation. I listen to James Taylor and Bob Dylan…Stevie Wonder. I listen to Ryan Adams, Band of Horses…and then I start to think about my second album!

M&C: What are your plans for the future? You’re touring in the north this time. Any plans for touring in the south?

James: Oh, definitely. I went to school in the south, and I just loved it. We’ll be playing some, probably in the fall. Out west, too. My goal is to really place myself all over the country in the next two or three years.

M&C: Thanks a lot for your time, Brendan.

James: Of course. Thank you!

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