Chandler Center for the Arts staff sent a Q & A to the jazz singer for the hip-hop generation, José James. We wanted to know who he is inspired by, how he got started in music, and what his personal favorites are.
In his current tour, James is singing the music of Erykah Badu. On & On: José James Sings Badu, produced by James with contributions from like-minded musicians Big Yuki (A Tribe Called Quest), Ben Williams (Kamasi Washington) and Jharis Yokley (My Brightest Diamond), investigates the breadth of Badu’s iconic catalog, from her groundbreaking debut album Baduizm to her contemporary masterpieces New Amerykah Pt. 1 and 2.
The performance will take place on the Hal Bogle Theatre at Chandler Center for the Arts on November 18th, 2023 at 7:30 PM. Get your tickets today at chandlercenter.org or by calling our box office at 480-782-2680.
CCA Staff: How would you describe your music?
José James: It's funny, I don't think that anyone has ever asked me that before. It's a mixture of jazz, R&B, soul, singer-songwriter and hip-hop. I love artists such as Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. Some people consider me eclectic but I tend to think of it as a musical evolution, as jazz freedom.
Can you tell us about how you started out in music?
Honestly, I got into music to meet girls. The choir at my school was 98% women and they desperately needed some basses to sing Vivaldi chorale. My voice had just changed so I thought "what the hell?" Once I started singing I had a lot of fun and realized that I could actually make people happy with my voice. That's a pretty powerful realization and one that I honor to this day.
How has your sound evolved over the years?
I hope that I've gotten stronger as a vocalist and a songwriter. I've experimented with quite a few different styles - from indie rock to trap R&B - but I always come back to some form of jazz and R&B. I think more than anything I trust myself and my audience which allows me to go deeper as a performer, songwriter and album producer. I'm pretty lucky.
Who inspires you?
Well all the greats: Nat "King" Cole, Charlie Parker, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane. There are also so many wonderful artists in the new generation like Cecile McLorin Salvant and Chief Xian (Christian Scott) who are continually pushing boundaries and redefining what jazz is. I absolutely love that. My wife Talia Billig (artist name Taali) is a huge inspiration to me as an artist, songwriter, producer, string arranger and Rainbow Blonde Records label president. She's amazing.
What can you tell us about On & On?
This is my answer to the question "what is the role of a jazz singer in 2023?" I personally think that it's time to embrace a new generation of songwriting and to find ways to interpret that along with the plethora of traditional jazz standards. Performing Erykah Badu's songbook has been an absolutely wonderful experience because she's the Joni Mitchell of my generation. We grew up on her music and she writes from such a unique and distinct perspective. We take her music in a spiritual jazz direction but keep true to the crate digging/hip-hop roots as well. It's super fun to explore live.
What is or has been your favorite part about being a performing artist?
I absolutely love the stage. They're all different and all the same. I've now performed in over 40 countries worldwide and the thrill hasn't diminished at all. When those lights go down and the crowd applauds it's a very special feeling. It's freedom.
Do you have a favorite album, song, or creative work that you have done? If so, why?
Well my personal favorite song that I've written and produced is "While You Were Sleeping" It was tremendously hard to maintain that feeling and to build it across 6 minutes and 17 seconds. By the end of the song I think there are about 60 or so individual parts happening at the same time which was the most ambitious production I've done to date. Lyrically it's some of the most honest that I've ever been in a song as well, I think it's pretty powerful.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Well, I've lived in quite a few dream places: New York, London and Amsterdam. Right now I live in LA and I really love it. I think there's different city for each decade of existence. I'd love to live in Japan for a while but New York will always have my heart.
If you were not a musician, what other profession would you want to have?
Thankfully I already do those as well! Record label A&R, music producer and songwriter. I'm also currently writing a book about jazz singing. Literature was my first passion.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our patrons?
Thanks very much for reading and please come say hello after the show!