"Life happens when you're busy making plans". This saying could just as easily have sprung from Mellisa James’ mind, because for years she went about with plans to record a cd and every time something or somebody came between. But thank God, eventually the cd is here and what a cd it is! It’s a sublime and clever mix of soul, jazz, blues and folk, but most of all it’s Melissa James’ fabulous voice that makes ‘Day Dawns’ one of the best debut albums this year brought us. Two months in a row the record glittered at number 10 of the EuroAmericanaChart and that’s quite an achievement for a record of this kind that arose from British soil. Absolutely rightly so, nevertheless, because if I was allowed to stake money at a singer who would make her way in the music world, I would put my bets on her without any hesitation. But, as the title of the album indicates, it’s only dawn and Melissa James is at the start of her journey. A journey she approaches with lots of confidence and a bagpack crammed with talent. We walk along with her for eleven questions. Indeed, at day dawn the early bird catches the worm…
Melissa, could you please tell us something about your musical backgrounds?
"Sure. Well, I’ve always loved music. My introduction to music mostly came from my father who was very musical. He sang very well – never professionally, only around the house and in Church – but he had a very strong voice. He was also a tremendous whistler and to this day I still try to replicate the sound he made through his pursed lips but to no success. His lips would barely open and would hardly move yet through them he’d produce a really strong clear very musical sound. He was also a self-taught harmonica player and I used to love hearing him play a tune on that. Other than that he’d play a lot of records. He wasn’t incredibly diverse in his musical taste but he had an extensive collection of reggae, calypso and soca records plus, being a religious man, he listened to anything that celebrated God so he had a lot of gospel tunes and Church hymns on tape. He did love a bit of country music though and Jim Reeves was a popular choice so now when I hear Jim Reeves’ records I’m immediately transported back to my childhood days and I too have a fond love of Jim Reeves myself.
My sisters introduced me to soul music a little more. I loved Anita Baker and would listen to and sing a lot of her songs to myself. In my solitary moments, I’d watch a lot of musical films and I absolutely loved joining in with the singing and dancing in my own front room. Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz and Annie were my films of choice and I loved anything with Gene Kelly in it. I imagined I was in a musical film myself when I was dancing in front of my bedroom mirror singing into my hairbrush!"
The liner notes that go with ‘Day Dawns’ tell us that Tony Kofi, who plays baritone and soprano sax on the album by the way, incited you seven years ago to record a cd. That’s quite some time ago. Why did it took such a long time and is the title of the cd a reference to this?
"It’s true it did take me a while I think to build up the courage really to begin thinking more seriously about recording. I also wanted to be sure about the type of record I was going to make. When I met Tony I had in mind a vague idea that I might want to record but I had no idea what and how. Tony instilled in me the notion that actually I could really work more professionally as a singer as, at that time, I was doing the occasional gig but nothing very serious. I was still scared to call myself “a singer” and I wasn’t writing much then at all. I think I’d written maybe two or 3 songs over many years at that time. But you know, there's a great saying: "Life is what happens when you're busy making plans" - which rings true for me because there would always be something that would get in the way of me doing the thing that I wanted to do. And I think part of the reason for that was that I wasn’t ready. During each of those years that I felt really frustrated with myself for not having made an album, well, I wasn’t writing so what would I have recorded? I might have recorded some nice songs and it would’ve sounded good I guess but I don’t think it really would have had the heart and soul in it that my record now has. Plus I’ve grown a lot and when I began songwriting I realized that what I was doing was processing a lot of feelings that I hadn’t considered for a long time but which still moved me emotionally. In some ways, writing my thoughts down in a song was a way of closing the chapter on whatever it was I was writing about. So really, I do feel that in the end, I made the record that I was supposed to make at a time that was right for me.
‘Day Dawns’ is very diverse qua musical styles and in my opinion one of the strongest points of the cd is that, given this diversity, it is very coherent. That’s not always self-evident. In how far were you aware of this during the recording and compiling of the cd?
"I wasn’t aware of it at the time of writing the songs but I did think about it as I recorded them all and got a little concerned that the varied styles on the record might confuse some people who want to be able to pinpoint exactly who I am. I agree it does sound like one album though and I think the reason for that is because they’re all stories that were carefully written and/or selected plus they all mean something to me."
Do you look at yourself as a jazz singer with a broad view of the musical landscape or do you prefer not to get labeled that way, as an artist?
"I don’t see myself as a jazz singer at all, or a blues singer for that matter or a country singer or a folk or soul singer. I think it would be wrong to give myself any of these labels but there are certainly very strong elements of each of these genres within me and my music and I absolutely love all these styles. It’s funny though, depending on the genre preference of the person who’s listening to the record, they decide that I am a certain type of singer because they like the song that is of that persuasion. So those who have a particular preference for jazz might tell me they love “Have a Good Day” and they call me a jazz singer. Others have drawn comparisons to Anita Baker and Roberta Flack. One of the first comments I received from a radio presenter who’d heard “I Need You Here” was that he thought I was a great “soul singer”. I was really surprised because I’ve never considered myself a soul singer at all but certainly there are a lot of soulful elements to my music and to my singing maybe. But then others who love the songs that have more of a folk slant about them tell me I remind them of artists like Joan Armatrading or Tracy Chapman which I really don’t mind at all but it’s just interesting to know the vision that listeners form in their minds of who I am based on the songs that strike them most."
You wrote nearly every song on ‘Day Dawns’ together with pianist Ross Lorraine. Can you tell us how writing songs in practice is brought about?
"Well usually I hear a song in my mind with the melody, some of the harmonies maybe or a bass line and the lyrics and they generally take shape together and then I work on them and get it to a finished point but without the full music backing. I sing as much as I can into a recorder – harmony ideas, obviously the melody, the bass line if I can hear one and I send it across to Ross who then works his ideas around it. We then get together and play with it and this can go on for several weeks or months. The songs get tried and tested at several gigs before they ever get to the stage of being recorded. There were a couple of songs which were initiated by Ross more so. The song, “Day Dawns”, is one that he created harmonies for before sending it to me and I then developed a melody and the lyrics. “Little Caged Bird” began its life as a poem that I’d written many years before, during a period when I lived in Paris. I’d completely forgotten about it but one day when I was having a clear-out I found a crumpled bit of paper next to my bed with the words “Caged Little Bird” - as it was then called - on it. I considered whether it could become a song but because I find it difficult to form a melody separately from the lyrics, I gave the poem to Ross and asked him if he wanted to try to create a song from them. The result was that “Little Caged Bird” was born."
The cd contains a cover that, in my opinion, isn’t very obvious, namely "Don't ever let nobody drag your spirit down" by Eric Bibb. Why did you choose this song?
"I’ve long been a fan of Eric Bibb’s work but this song in particular has become a bit like the soundtrack to my life over the last couple of years. Whenever I’ve had a down moment, I play this song and it quickly re-instills my positivity and faith to keep moving forward. It has a great vibe and message and a lot of people connect with it. I simply felt I had to record it because it made such a big contribution in helping me during those more difficult times when planning, and beginning to make, the record."
In the gorgeous "I Miss you" you write in a very beautiful and recognizable way about the missing of somebody you cared about. You dedicated the cd to your father Hubert A. James and you wrote me that "I miss you" is about him. With this knowledge this song gains extra depth for me."All I’d want is to hold you again / Could you embrace me too? / Make me feel loved and protected / Could you say: I love you? / I miss you..."
Despite the obvious love for your father the lyrics also reveal that your relation hasn’t been easy all the time. Are you willing to tell us something more about this?
"This is a song that is very special to me and it was strange because I felt the song wrote itself. A lot of people have told me this song has been very important to them so I’d hate to spoil their interpretation of the song and what it means to them by saying too much about what it means to me. Suffice to say it is about loss and about how one can realise, after losing someone, just how much it meant to have them in our lives. Of course it’s that familiar thing of not recognising just how important that person was in your life until they’re no longer around. It took many, many years before I could fully appreciate that. And in fact, it was through writing the song that I discovered this was the case. It was a hard song to write because of this but the words were lying dormant, I think, waiting to flow out of me because the day I wrote this song I released a lot of emotion."
About "Day Dawns" my friend Martin Overheul wrote in his review: "sparing instrumentation (pianist Nick Ramm doesn’t play a note too much nor too little) who almost puts himself aside in favor of a singer with a phantastic voice. A singer who doens’t need to sound like somebody else, except like Melissa James..."
Personally I think too many female singers today want to sound like, for example, the new Amy Winehouse. I agree with Martin that you, while you account for many influences on your website, have a very strong sound of your own. Is that something you pursued consciously?
"It’s not something I thought about consciously in the making of this record but it is something I was very aware of in my early years when I began singing. As a child I did try to emulate singers that I loved and was listening to at that time. That desire to try to imitate another voice that I admired left me when I began taking vocal lessons and I learned how to use - and in doing so appreciate - my own voice. Now it’s not something I think about. I have a sound which is mine and I haven’t tried to craft it as such so that it sounds like anything or anyone but of course I’ve worked on improving what I can do with it technically. In learning how to work with the tools that I have, my own sound has developed and continues to do so as I grow."
Like I wrote before, I read on your site that many artists influenced you. Being a fan of deep soul, blues and jazz, I just have to ask you to name five records you would take with you to a desert island, if you had to stay there for a while.
"I’d have Aretha Franklin’s “Jazz to Soul” album. It’s two discs of very soulful and moving renditions of many great songs. “The Orchard” by Lizz Wright would be next on my list, quickly followed by Eric Bibb’s “Good Stuff” and fast behind that would be Amos Lee with any of his albums all of which would suit me but at this moment I’d say it would be “Last Days at the Lodge” and lastly, another album that gets heavily played in my house is Nina Simone’s “Nina Simone and Piano /Silk and Soul” record. I’d love to throw Joni Mitchell’s album, “Blue”, into the mix too but if I had just those five records in my collection, I think I could get through just about anything. There’s something for every mood."
Looking at your photos on the album cover I see a cheerful, vivacious and self-assured woman in front of me. In how far does this image correspond to reality?
"I was very precise about the look I wanted to achieve on the front cover. I had a clear picture in mind and I was lucky to have a designer who really understood what I was after and could create that. The image conveyed of me on the cover is very much who I am and how I’m feeling about this period of my life – content, certainly self-assured though of course I, like anyone, will have wobbly and doubtful moments. The album is called “Day Dawns” which is of course the name of a track taken from the recording but the album title also represents the dawning of a new time for me. I’m starting out on another journey and it feels like a fresh chapter in my life. I feel good about that and I wanted to try to reflect this on the album cover."
Melissa, when can we admire you live in the Netherlands and Belgium?
"I’m hoping very soon. I’m working on a number of dates for a mini tour which I want to do next year. I would love that to include venues in the Netherlands and in Belgium so keep an eye on my website as all updates will be posted there."
Live photo: (with kind permission of) Roy Cano.
All other photography: (with kind permission of) Mark Guthrie