Early James doesn't like it when his lyrics sound too straightforward. The Alabama singer-songwriter tends to approach things obliquely, adding an air of mystery and haziness that doesn't just spell it all out. Sometimes he even does it to his detriment.
"I like to confuse myself by what I even mean," James says. "It's like, what do you mean by that? I'm like, 'That's a fun turn of phrase. Does it make sense? No, not yet.' And then you just make it make sense."
James had to do some sense-making labor for "Real Low Down Lonesome," a duet with roots star Sierra Ferrell that appears on his upcoming album Strange Time to Be Alive (Aug. 19). Over a dramatic, flamenco-influenced set of chords, Ferrell coos about "an awfully strange gallows trick" and James murmurs about "striking matches just for fun," vividly illustrating the potently seductive and dangerous attraction between two people. James had written it with Ferrell and Strange Time to Be Alive 's producer Dan Auerbach , but he wasn't quite satisfied with the result.
"I went home and tried to season up the lyrics a bit," he says. "I thought it read plainly at first. I just want things to be more poetic. I really want to think about a line. I don't want it to read like a love song from the Fifties where it was like, you can just write down how you feel and make it rhyme and that was poetry."
Strange Time to Be Alive , which teems with those unusual lyrical flourishes, reunites James with Auerbach, who produced the 2020 debut Singing for My Supper . Working with his bandmate Adrian Marmolejo and Auerbach's cast of ace studio players, James accented his outré, Tom Waits-ian compositions and signature gruff croon with knotty bursts of electric guitar and surprising melodic changes to complement his lyrics. He also touches on more worldly topics, from online discourse to religious violence, then shakes his head at the misfortune of being present for the chaos in the title track.
James will be on tour all this fall, including dates supporting the Black Keys and headlining club shows, as well as an appearance at AmericanaFest 2022. That is if his van can get him there.
"It's always a concern when you're driving a 1999 GMC," he says. "It's a church van, so the Lord's on our side. Jesus is going to take the wheel."
Singing for my Supper came out on March 13, 2020, pretty much the day the whole world shut down. How did you handle that, and what impact did it have on your operation?
I hear a lot of heavy guitar work, more aggressive sounds on Strange Time to Be Alive . Was that a goal for you this time around?
In "Straightjacket for Two," there's some post-rock angularity in the way you riff. It's not straight out of blues-rock. How did you come up with that? Mule Variations or something. That's what I thought of. It's almost like hearing it wrong, because the song's supposed to be a love song, but the lyrics are insane. It's like someone who's crazy who's idealizing a relationship that's maybe not good for them.
The album opener "Racing to a Red Light" reminds me of a sparse, funky Wu-Tang track. Laughs ] It's like a trap beat on it.
Yeah, and the spooky way the guitars ping off one another is cool. You also mention Joe Rogan and Elon Musk in that song, and the way they have managed to suck up a lot of oxygen. Were you exasperated by their actions, or the discourse around them?
"Dance in the Fire" is the lone truly acoustic song, but it's almost more intense than some of the electric ones. How did that come together?
Did you grow up in a religious environment?
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