The songwriter and fingerstylist crafts his haunting, psychedelic debut album with wildly varied influences and a stellar lineup of legendary Nashville session players led by Dan Auerbach.
Like many productions to come out of Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio, Singing for My Supper by Early James sounds out of its time. That’s not to say that James’ music is wrapped in nostalgia for a bygone era or that it would easily fit into another period. Rather, the 26-year-old draws on characteristics of older styles—from spy-guitar riffage on “It Doesn’t Matter Now” to Grateful Dead–inspired psychedelia on the opener “Blue Pill Blues,” and even an occasional rumba vibe—and uses his raspy voice to his advantage as he reimagines an alternate history of 20th century music. As Auerbach told Premier Guitar: “James has that quirky, hard-to-pinpoint thing, but he’s so much his own character.”
While it’s probably that hard-to-pinpoint sound that drew Auerbach to the young guitarist, fate seems to have been involved in their meeting. In a convoluted turn of events that involves old roommates moving from James’ home of Birmingham, Alabama, to Nashville and passing along word of his music, a YouTube video made its way to Auerbach. The Black Keys’ frontman explains: “I just instantly knew. It wasn’t any one thing in particular. It was the whole thing: the fingerpicking, the tone of his voice, the way he was singing, the words he was singing … everything. I instantly reached out.”
It’s no surprise that James’ high and often-haunted-sounding voice would catch Auerbach’s ear. His personal style is reminiscent of the way iconoclastic artists such as Tom Waits and Bob Dylan have created their own unique voices, and it’s just as easy to imagine James’ voice on an early blues 78 as it is to hear him fronting a rock band.
James had done some touring as a duo with bassist Adrian Marmolejo and released his Early James and the Latest EP, but it was still a surprise to hear from Clay Bradley, his friend Katie Pruitt’s manager, who called him out of the blue. “I didn’t even know Clay,” says James. “I thought he was full of shit when he called me and said, ‘Hey man, can you come to Nashville and meet Dan Auerbach?’ I was like, ‘I think they’re trying to harvest my organs or something.’ But sure enough, I went up there and met the guy and played him a couple of the songs I’d written and he gave me a record deal.”
Singing for My Supper is the musical proof that the stars absolutely needed to align and bring the simpatico James and Auerbach into each other’s orbits. As is his usual modus operandi, Auerbach stacked the sessions with a crew of heavy-hitters that bring life to James’ disparate set of tunes inspired by influences far and wide. From the Tex-Mex feel of “Clockwork Town” to the lounge-y soul of “Stockholm Syndrome,” every track grooves thanks to the well-hewn pocket of veteran rhythm players such as drummer Gene Chrisman and bassist Dave Roe. And just because James doesn’t like guitar solos doesn’t mean that Singing for My Supper is not still very much a guitar album. In addition to the songwriter’s own superlative fingerstyle playing, songs overflow with three- or four-part guitar sections—courtesy of James and expert pickers Russ Pahl, Billy Sanford, Paul Franklin on steel, and Auerbach himself—full of licks, tricks, and guitarmonies oozing with warm, vintage tones.
We caught up with James as he was finishing a tour, and chatted a bit with Auerbach as well, in order to get all the details on how they crafted Singing for My Supper—from the songwriting to picking the right players to taking it on the road.
At 26-years-old, you’ve obviously digested a lot of influences and created your own voice out of them. Can you tell me how you developed your sound?
Early James: For a long time, I hated my singing voice and felt like I could hear my speaking voice in it. I wanted to make up my own voice.
I was really into Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf and blues singers. Captain Beefheart was trying to copy Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits has said that Howlin’ Wolf was his Jimi Hendrix. It took a long time, and I think I settled into this voice when I moved to Birmingham, when I was 21.
How about developing your guitar playing and songwriting?
I definitely hated guitar picks. I was super into Mississippi John Hurt, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Roy Clark, all those Nashville pickers, just playing the whole song all on one guitar—the bass, the rhythm, and the lead. I just tried to figure out how to do that.
I watched a lot of YouTube videos and tried to make the guitar sound like a song instead of just a rhythm instrument. I’d slap the guitar because there was nobody to play with in Troy [Alabama]. There were no gigging musicians, or they were already established and didn’t want to play with a 16-year-old kid. They were playing in jam bands and bars and frat gigs. I just wanted to play and write my own songs, not that I didn’t do the four-hour gigs for awhile.
I had a buddy who was the frontman of Fire Mountain, and he said that if I started writing original songs, I could open for them. They were signed to a label, which was insane. He was like a celebrity.It was a super-small label, but it was still insane to me that I had a friend who was getting write-ups in Paste and places like that. When he said that, I quit doing cover gigs and started writing songs.
When did you stop using a pick?
Well, in Montgomery, Alabama, they had a Guitar Center King of the Blues competition, and I won the local one. I started off playing with a pick and, to try and impress them, I dropped the pick right in the beginning of the song and tried to play it off like it was an accident and finished. I figured I could only do that once, and at that point I stopped using a pick.
Your Early James and the Latest EP from 2017 has such a great sound. It’s really live and sounds like it was recorded in the ’50s.
We were about to go on tour and had nothing to sell. We had nothing online except YouTube videos. We did it last minute and didn’t dress it up at all. Adrian [Marmolejo, bassist] only had an hour to come record. He was on his lunch break. They were also doing construction outside, so me and Adrian recorded in the control room.
TIDBIT: While his full-length debut has 10 songs, James explains that he, Auerbach, and their crack cast of players cut nearly twice as many over two days.
We toured with that unmastered. Before it was put on Spotify, I was just printing discs and putting them in a brown paper bag and they were free or name-your-price for that first tour. Eventually, we got it all mixed and Jeff Powell at Sam Phillips Recording Service mastered it and did all that slapback-delay stuff. All that stuff wasn’t on there originally—the slapback and the reverb. That’s all that shit Johnny Cash was using, like the steel-plate reverb and the echo chamber with no parallel surfaces that looks like a Willy Wonka room.
Once you hooked up with Dan Auerbach, what was the collaboration process like for Singing for My Supper?
I was skeptical at first, because he famously doesn’t let you use your band. He has a style. He uses an all-star band. It’s insane the players he gets. They chart out the songs from demos by ear and within two or three takes, it’s done. We didn’t have to use a metronome or click. I think that makes it very alive and real.
We recorded almost 20 songs in a matter of two days. He’s a good listener. There were only a few times we disagreed and when we disagreed he listened to me. He’s good at wanting to do what the artist wants to do with their song.
He does have a streamlined process for everyone, but he does have wiggle room and wants the artist to be comfortable. It was nerve-wracking to be around all those folks. So many players who had just played with everybody. There was a moment when I froze and was like, “Who the hell am I? Why am I here right now?” But still, somehow, I was comfortable. They’re all just dudes and they don’t have any kind of celebrity. They’re super happy. They have this cool relevance where they’re making hip new records.
Gene [Chrisman, drummer] is in his 80s and he’s still pumping out records. That’s amazing to me. He’s still got it, man. He would come into the sound booth and be like, “Hey man, what’s the feel?” And I’m like, “You know! You’ve been doing this for 65 years.” But he’s so humble. Everybody there was like, “Is this cool if I do this?” And I’m like, “Of course it is! You’re badass. Keep doing what you’re doing.”