Over the last 37 years, James Lee Stanley (www.jamesleestanley.com) has released a meager 24 albums of original material. As I’ve explored his music, what’s impressed me most is that he’s continued breaking new ground with each project. For example, what you’ll hear on Live at McCabe’s (1986) – see the I Lose You Win video below – has a very different character than the tunes that comprise his most recent album, Backstage at the Resurrection (2010).
So needless to say, the man knows a thing or two about songwriting. He’s also a funny dude, a pleasure to talk to, and generous with his time, wisdom, and vast experience writing, performing, and producing music. In fact, for the past several years he’s been running a website – www.datamusicata.com – which is his platform for sharing ideas and experiences about all elements of his craft. There are some vital insights there for any musician and/or performer.
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time chatting with James. We had met before – at his show a few days earlier – so we weren’t strangers when we sat down to talk. He had played at the Triad Theater, a small, sit-down venue in New York City perfect for a stand-up comedian or singer-songwriter. James is both.
So much of what he had to say is so interesting that I decided to break it up into several pieces so I could share as much of it as possible with you, loyal readers of The Acoustic Version. This is the first installment of three – check back each of the next two Sundays for parts 2 and 3.
A James Lee Stanley show is an emotional roller coaster ride. One moment you’re rollicking with laughter, the next you’re completely transfixed by the music. “I give [my audience] a window into everything I’ve got,” he says.
The AV: Let’s talk about songwriting. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach?
JLS: I like to orchestrate the song, and I do it with one guitar so that no one ever goes “Hey, wait a minute! I paid 20 bucks to get in here. Where’s the band?” No one’s every complained there’s no band when I play.
I also take a long time to write my lyrics, and I take a long time to write my songs, and I don’t want the focus to be on the arrangement any less than I want it to be on what I’m trying to say and how poetically I’m saying it. My goal when I write a song is for the lyrics to be able to sit by themselves and work. And if you just heard the melody all by itself, it would work. And then if you heard the guitar part that went behind the song all by itself, it would work. It would be satisfying all by itself. And then I try to combine them so that every aspect of it, every facet of it, is equally valid.
The AV: Some songwriters write to melody; some write to their instrumentation, and there are some who are primarily poets, and they set their stuff to music. But if you’re not privileging one element over the others…
JLS: By my likes – and this may not relate to anyone else – but by my likes, each part has to be equally wonderful.
The AV: So how do you approach writing a song, then? Do you have a formula, do you have several formulas?
JLS: Yeah, I think that we all have several formulas. There’s the formula where someone says a phrase and you go ‘wow.’ I remember standing in line, and there was a couple of great big street worker guys. They were wearing hard hats, crusty with dirt, and the guy was saying to his pal, “She was lying, man, I know when she’s lying, I know the rhythm of her lies” and I thought, oh my god.. and I wrote down the phrase and I raced home and wrote “The Rhythm of Her Lies.” Sometimes it’s a title like that that just enchants you and sometimes it’s a guitar lick or a progression. I came up with a guitar piece that I’d like to write a song to but the guitar piece is so nice I’m perfectly willing to let it just be a guitar piece. So sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes.. the song about Katrina, I was enraged by the lack of – everything – from the Bush administration. And I wrote out of my rage there, and I wrote the words first that time. I just sat down and did it.
The AV: So, once you have that idea – “the rhythm of her lies” – take that home, what do you do with it? Or does it start to take on a life of its own?
JLS: I gotta tell ya, by the time I got home, for that particular song, for one thing I was looking for a rhyme for ‘lies,’ and by the time I got home I’d written, “Late at night/There’s a song I hear/It plays just behind my eyes/I know all the words and the tune by heart/It’s the rhythm of your lies.” And the song wrote itself after that. And that was in the car on the way home. It just.. came.
Paul Simon said that those songs are out there, and if you’re paying attention you hear them. And if you don’t do it, somebody else will write it. And I believe that. Because you don’t feel like you write songs. I know that if I didn’t have notebooks full of them, I wouldn’t be able to tell you that I actually remember writing the song, although I do remember that thing in the car because it was so funny, I hear the phrase, and I immediately write the song. But most of the time, when a song is all finished, I can’t remember writing it. I’ve got notebooks to prove that I did, but I can’t remember the process of writing it. It’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of craft – I’ll probably write 25 different versions for a song to get it right. So I throw away a lot of stuff.
The AV: So is part of artistry a willingness to experiment, a willingness to, say, put something on paper which may not grab you, or to develop an idea which you’re not sure is there, but to give it a chance?
JLS: You’re talking essentially about the nascency of the thing, like if you’ve ever gotten together with anybody and brainstormed, what you have to do is make sure everybody knows that there are no stupid ideas, there’s nothing you can’t throw out there when you’re brainstorming. But once you get the vision, then you go after it. In the nascency I don’t think there’s anything you can’t put on the paper, but then you have to recognize what’s happening and what you want to happen, where it’s going and where you want it to go.
i love this guy. …joe, i mean. btw, there is one small typo: “late at night there’s a song i hear, it plays just behind my eyes. i know all the words and the tune by heart, it’s the rhythm of your lies.” you had one extra line in there that isn’t in the song.
James! The man himself. My apologies for the typo – I fixed it.
By the way, Backstage gets better and better with every listen. Great stuff.
Carlos Fiorelli on January 18th, 2011 at 6:48 pm #
James is a genius. The way James plays his acoustic guitar is very unique complex, mixing solos and rhythms at the same time. Chords really complex. And the James’ voice is very beautiful and original! He is one of my heroes!
I agree completely. The harmonic and rhythmic ideas James coaxes out of one voice and one guitar are amazing. It’s not easy for a solo guitarist to fill a room with sound – whatever style you play, you can learn something from this guy.
I’ll publish another portion of my conversation with James next Sunday – make sure to check back in!
Carlos Fiorelli on January 18th, 2011 at 9:25 pm #
Exactly, I learned a lot listening the James’ songs. He has many complex songs that are real lessons for those who play acoustic guitar. Just to mention some of the most complex, in my opinion: ‘A Little Applause’, ‘Wishing Well’, ‘Jericho Wind’ (if you listened the version from “Freelance Human Being”, then you know that this version is a real lesson in rhythm and solos simultaneous), ‘Long Way From Home’, ‘Eclipse’, ‘Let The Tree Fall’ (you need much skill to sing and play at the same time that amazing solo that runs the entire song), ‘Some Say’, ‘Do As You’re Told’, ‘What Would You Do’, ‘Let’s Get Out Of Here/Redux’; among others…
Joe, congratulations for the interview, I’m waiting anxiously the part 2. Thank you very much!
Alice – well put. “Shaman of song” has a nice ring to it… seems you’ve got a way with words yourself.
Carlos – I know a bunch of those songs, but not all. (James’ discography is huge!) I’ll be sure to check them out. Thanks for reading, and for sharing some knowledge with us. Your ideas and feedback are always welcome.
[…] installment of a three part conversation with James Lee Stanley. In the first installment (read it here), James talked about the process of songwriting. In the second (read it here), he discussed his […]