From the Archives: An interview with Denise James

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As part of NewBeats.com’s 10th anniversary, here is an old interview with singer/songwriter Denise James.

Denise James
By David Chiu

Denise James’s sound is a throwback to the music of the ’60swell at least on record anyway. This Detroit native’s recent album It’s Not Enough to Love channels the spirit of Haigh Astbury, the Byrds, Patsy Cline, and English and French folk rock music in one hypnotic package. The jangle pop guitars, the use of reverberation echo, and James’ sense of melody and trippy lyrics makes the music sound like 1969 than 2004 (i.e. the title track, “Come Home to Me,” “Absolutely Sad,” “Your Every Word”). Retro-sounding notwithstanding, the music sounds contemporary enough to strike an emotional, pensive chord with today’s listener thanks to James’s cool chanteuse voice and melancholic lyrcs.

James have been a regular in Detroit’s music scene (that city’s history of music acts past and present needs no reiteration). She had played with other acts that included the Dirteaters and the Jills, and have guested on tracks by Teach Me Tiger and the Volebeats. Striking out on her own, she recorded her debut self-titled album in 2001 on Alan McGee’s Poptones label to acclaimed reviews. When the label folded, James jumped ship to Rainbow Quartz, an indie label known for its melodic rock and pop acts.

In addition to playing in Detroit, the singer/songwriter has also performed in Canada and the music showcase CMJ. James spoke via telephone about her music and how she got to where she is now.

How would you describe your sound?

That’s something I always have trouble with. And I hand them the record and say you gotta listen to it. It’s hard because they’re influences of different things. There is obviously pop in there, some country. It’s just a mixture of a lot of different music. So it’s kind of hard to describe.’

How does this new album compare to your first one?

It was very sparse. This time around we had different material to work with. It just kind of fell into that production style. I think that’s what worked best with those songs. Especially having a more melodic pop sound.

How you do think people interpret your songs?

I’ve been told probably in the last decade with a lot of stuff I’ve written that people feel a sense of melancholy. It seems to be more profound in some of the music. It wasn’t anything deliberate-it could have been something that bothered me [for] years that came out in a song last year. It just kind of happened.

What is your favorite track on the record?

I’m more inclined to the slower sadder songs. I would say “Absolutely Sad” is my favorite song off the record. It’s still resonate with me a lot.

Was there anybody that influenced you growing up?

Now at this time in my life I see those influences come back. So they never really leave you.

The Beatles were still on the radio. I was hearing songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” and it did make me sad. Things like that stuck with me. Detroit had a really big AM radio thing going on in the early ’70s. There was a lot of that pop music going on. Later on as I got into my mid to late teens, when I started taking music more seriously, I really started to listen to a lot of classical music. And then being kind of isolated for a while I started writing my own music. I don’t really think anyone in particular influenced me per se. That’s what it really seems like to me.

Detroit’s got a great music scene with some acts vaulted onto the mainstream. Do you keep track of them?

I pretty much always did my own thing. I do get out and see bands. Regardless of what the current thing is, I still write the music that I write. It’s just what I do. It’s good to see people from Detroit get some success. It gives everybody a little hope that it can happen.

When did you know you wanted to become a musician?

I always knew music was going to be a part of my life. I started playing piano at a very young age. I don’t think it’s anything I would ever give up. It’s something that’s always there.

The songs on the album have such a textured, atmospheric quality in terms of production. Is it difficult to translate that onstage?

It all depends where you are playing. Some places that we’ve played have been a very quiet setting smaller venues where you can do the slower quieter songs, and you can actually hear them. Other places you just have to stick with the uptempo ones.

How has your music been received then?

The feedback that I got was that it sounds better than the album, which is surprising. You can’t always bringing everyone and everything to reproduce that sound but we try and keep it close as we can to the energy and level of what you hear on the record. There are a lot of harmonies. I think it’s a whole different thing live. Sometimes I think the strength of the song can really carry itself. I think so far people seem to enjoy it, so I hope we’re doing something right.

Starting out, you have been involved in other people’s band and you only recently started our own career proper. Has that been difficult?

Daunting, yes. Especially being a woman and playing the guitar, you’re labeled immediately right off the bat as a girl singer songwriter. And I don’t think a lot of times people take you seriously. I don’t mind collaboration at all. When I start writing songs there was only really one way to accomplish the things I wanted to do, and that was to kind of go forward by myself. Where I had control what I was doing and what I was writing. I take it to the band and say This is the song, this is the key, this what I hear for your guitar part. It just works really well. It kind of unfolded that way.

Do you enjoy touring?

It’s just really exciting. It’s a fresh audience for me. The people in Detroit who like me are generally the same crowd. It’s nice to go out there and get a fresh idea and perspective of what people think about it.

Has this always been what you wanted from the start?

This is what I want to be doing. I’m so happy staying buys doing this. It’s really wonderful. It’s nice to know that you’re going to a studio to record an album, and someone is going to put it out. It’s an exciting time for me.

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