This is the third and final 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 approach to playing someone else’s music in a new and interesting way, as well as the importance of studying and learning from the greats.
One of the things that sets James apart from a lot of solo and/or acoustic performers is the combination of preparation and natural ease that he brings to his performances. To understand how he crafts a successful show, I probed a bit into his process – much as I did with songwriting and interpreting other artists’ music – as well as to draw out some of the emotional and aesthetic dynamics that arise between the performer and the audience.
I’ve tried to get out of James’ way, and to let him teach us a little something about three elements of musicianship – writing, interpreting, and performing – which all too often get overshadowed by technique. Technical ability is crucially important (it goes without saying), but it is the how, not the what (and certainly not the why), and it can distract from the core objectives of music: emotion, invention, and communication. So without further ado, a man who brings all of these elements to life.
James playing “Going Back to Memphis.” “I want to enrich [the audience] and, if I have any enlightenment to give them, I want to give it to them and I want them to feel good about themselves and good about the world and good about the possibility of a better world,” he says.
The AV: When we spoke before your show, you mentioned that you get to the venue a few hours beforehand and sit and play and focus in.
JLS: Yeah, I like to do that.
The AV: Do you drill?
JLS: No. I sing songs that I’m working on. Like, I haven’t done [Backstage at the Resurrection] yet – so I have been singing those songs because I’m trying to own them for live performances. I mean, I love my record of them but that’s a different palette than on the stage with one guitar. So I play those songs. And then as it closes in on it I pick the song I’m going to open with and sometimes I’ll play it for 20 minutes, just over and over again.
The AV: You talk about owning the song. What does that mean?
JLS: When you own the song you don’t have to think about playing it, you don’t have to think about singing it. All you do is be it. You know, you sing the words in a… they live with you. There’s just no thought. It’s all just pure. Because if you’re thinking, ‘I’ve gotta get this lick that’s really hard,’ you’re not thinking about the lyrics you’re singing, you’re not thinking about the audience you’re playing for, you’re trying to make sure you get that lick right. Once you own the song, you don’t think about that. That’s going to happen on its own down there at the end of your hand.
The AV: So it’s a technical thing, but it’s also an emotional thing?
JLS: Yeah. You want to get past all of the physical work it takes to do that. You want to put all that in such a place that you don’t have to think about it. I like to think about the song, I like to hear what I’m doing, and I like to have an impact on the audience. I like to feel like, when the show’s over, they’ve been somewhere. I want some impact on them. You know, I want to enrich them and, if I have any enlightenment to give them, I want to give it to them and I want them to feel good about themselves and good about the world and good about the possibility of a better world. I like them to leave with that.
The AV: One of the ways it seems you do that is by taking your audience on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. You’ll have them rollicking with laughter one moment and then as soon as you hit that first chord or that first note, people are on the edge of their seats.
JLS: You gotta be here now. When I’m doing comedy, I’m doing comedy. When I’m doing a song, I’m doing a song. But I do like it to be a journey. I try to create an arc in the show where it starts out and keeps gaining momentum, and it has a feeling of an implied destination. This is going somewhere. And then I like them to feel like they got somewhere. And you know, when you make love, you don’t just do one stroke to death until your nose bleeds, you vary the thing up and you make it so that at some point there’s a glorious mutual orgasm. And if you get it right, it’s at the same time. That’s the way I like to do concerts. And that’s why I end with that soft thing – I always end with the song afterwards which is like the cuddling after the sex.
The AV: Great analogy. So you think about a performance in a holistic way, and you have stories and you have songs, and when you’re constructing a setlist, or when you’re planning a performance, everything is carefully placed, everything is in its right place?
JLS: Yeah. When I write a show, I write a show.
The AV: You actually sit down and write a show.
JLS: Yes, although I try to present it as though I’m just making it up off the top of my head.
The AV: It was about halfway through the concert that I thought to myself, “this is a little bit too polished to be totally off the cuff.”
JLS: Yeah, it wasn’t. I mean, it was all written off the cuff – it was written on the stage. I don’t sit down and write it here and then go and do it. I do it on stage and then I start honing it.
So, here’s the whole show. *gestures to setlist* Here’s the Jimmy story, here’s “Let the Tree Fall,” “The City Moment,” there’s “On the Bus.” My wife doesn’t like that song. It’s about a molestation –
The AV: On the Bus.
JLS: it wasn’t a complete molestation.. they stopped. Still I remember her looking around frightened and looking right at me. And when I tell that to the audience, who really likes me, that I looked away, the room always gasps because they just weren’t expecting me to cop to be, you know, a coward. And I know that it takes them someplace else. That’s why at the end of the show, it’s a complete emotional thing. It’s not just me doing a bunch of jokes and singing my songs. She’s always said, ‘you shouldn’t tell that story,’ and I said ‘no, that story is important’ – to the arc of that show, that story is important because it’s not funny. It’s really powerful. If every story is funny then it’s a different show. I give them a window into everything I got.
James playing “On the Bus.” “I give them a window into everything I got,” he says.
The AV: Yeah, there’s no question for me that that story – and that song – added an element to the show which otherwise wouldn’t have been there, and established a proximity between you and your audience.
JLS: I think so. And I think that’s important. And now I’m trying to write a show for Backstage at the Resurrection, which is a really happy record. A very buoyant record. I wrote that music after Obama got elected. I was so floored – I never thought that a black man would get elected President in my lifetime. I and voted for him. And he is the first President that was ever elected that I actually voted for.
The AV: So you’ve been on the wrong side of history. Till now. So is this some kind of omen for what’s to come in the musical life of James Lee Stanley?
JLS: I don’t have a clue. I was thinking that because the whole paradigm has changed so much since I started. When I was first listening to music people would make 45 singles, and whenever they would have a hit single they’d say ‘well I’m hoping to make another single.. if I have enough hit singles, they’ll let me make an album.’ To make an album was a big deal. And since I started, I’ve made like 23, 25 – whatever it is – albums.
The AV: No big deal.
JLS: I once met George Martin – I mean, I stood in line, it wasn’t like we went bowling, I just stood in line so I could shake his hand and kiss the ring, you know what I mean? – and I was standing there, he was saying to somebody that there would have been no Sergeant Pepper without Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys. There was a big competition between the Beach Boys and the Beatles, who were both on Capitol, so they were label-mates. And Pet Sounds scared the crap out of the Beatles, and they responded with Sergeant Pepper. And Sergeant Pepper blew the socks off of Brian Wilson. Now he had heard Rubber Soul by the Beatles and got so floored by them that he decided to make the greatest pop record ever made. And then he went and he did Pet Sounds. And it wasn’t very well received at the time, even though it had three hits on it. As the years went by, everybody’s recognized that as one of the more brilliant music albums of all time.
He said about that album that he wanted to make the greatest record ever made. And when I read that I thought, ‘you know, I’ve made 25 albums and it never occurred to me to do that.’ I never went into the studio with the intention of making the greatest record you ever heard. But I did with this one. After I read that, I thought, ‘I’m gonna make one of those! I’m gonna make one of the greatest albums ever made.’ And it took two years to make that puppy, off and on from the road, and I think it is. I think it really is! I’m enormously proud of it.