Singer-songwriter and pianist Brendan James has had the sweet experience of recording “Let the River Run”, the Oscar-winning song with Carly Simon herself for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. His first CD, 2008’s The Day Is Brave, is a stripped-down collection of songs showcasing his voice and piano-playing. After a cross-country tour consisting of 40 states, 330 restaurants, 210 hotels, and one boat (John Mayer’s Mayercraft Cruise), James returns with his self-titled second album, which stays true to his artistic sensibilities while upping the ante with new musical textures, including synths, strings, and even a few drum loops. Just before touring for his latest CD, Brendan James, he settled down for a moment with PopMatters 20 Questions.
If only we had a video of his Chewbacca imitation…
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
On a whim the other day I rented Tyson, a film about Mike Tyson’s rise and fall. I had been told it was better than might be expected, and I have to say it was pretty moving. He tells his entire life story—how he grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, fell in and out of jail and had no real role models to speak of. Then he discusses how he met his mentor and coach, and how deeply it changed him from the inside out. He kept crying as he spoke. It was hard to watch.
There was something so captivating about him muscling through tears. I was really drawn in, shedding a few tears of my own. I’m not sure if it was because, in a weird way, it was reminding me of some of the things I’ve been through in my own life (on a different scale), or if it was simply that his pain was so evident in every word, and you could tell how much he was hurting. Such a beautiful yet painful story though, of a kid with unparalleled raw talent, emotionally handicapped by his upbringing. I’d really recommend this one.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Well, ever since I was little I’ve loved climbing on things—trees, rocks, sides of buildings, anything I could find, really—then jumping off of them and flying through the air. It must have driven my mom crazy. I broke my leg, my arm, then a wrist, an ankle, and four fingers… not to mention stitches in my head on three occasions. So I’d have to say Spider Man. The problem, of course, being that he actually has super powers.
3. The greatest album, ever?
This is always a funny question. I mean who really knows, right? It’s so subjective. I can tell you that I think Paul Simon’s Graceland is truly a masterpiece though, and rarely do I hear otherwise. You have one of the best songwriters of the last 60 years, leaving his comfort zone behind, traveling halfway around the world into a country stricken with poverty and despair, collaborating, in the greatest sense of the word, with some of the kindest and most talented musicians of any genre, and leaving a few months later with an awesome collection of songs that his disbelieving record label would then sell almost 20 million copies of.
This album makes me happy, it makes me think, and most importantly it brings the sounds of the world to my ears, reminding me how beautiful and hopeful people can be.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Definitely Star Wars. I had a much easier time getting lost in those movies then I ever did in Star Trek. Something about the Star Wars movies always seemed more important and thought out than the episodes of the Star Trek saga.
Plus, Chewbacca is one of the coolest and most loveable fictional characters ever invented. I used to imitate him pretty well. I can’t anymore.
5. Your ideal brain food?
My ideal brain food these days is one of two things: The news or a good movie. To a fault, I love the serious. Something about the way it occupies and stimulates my brain, I guess. I’ve been told that I think too much, plan too much, look at things too seriously, so maybe dense material distracts that tendency in me, who knows. I pretty much need to be bribed to watch a romantic comedy or any comedy, really. I’ll lighten up one of these days.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proud of the friends I’ve made and kept. It was easy in high school and college because you were always around each other, but as the years go by, one thing I’ve learned is that relationships can be very challenging to uphold. Inevitably you and some your closest friends are going to grow, change and move in different directions, no matter how hard you try.
However, as I look around at the friends in my life, so many of whom I’ve known for over a decade now, I feel a sense of accomplishment. They are my memories embodied. I know its taken work on both ends to stay as close as we have. At my funeral, I don’t need much. No choirs singing requiems, no motorcades of black limousines, maybe just a few people to tell some funny stories that only close friends would remember.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
For a body of work that made people feel, made them ask questions and made them smile when they didn’t think they could.
For several albums worth of good songs, exploratory production.
For performances that moved audiences big or small, and for consistency and persistence, and honesty.
I also want to be remembered as a good person, a good husband and a good father, when the time comes.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
The first names that pop into my mind: Bach, Jack Kerouack, Leonardo Da Vinci, Leo Tolstoy, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Khalil Gibran, Daniel Quinn, Martin Luther King, Joni Mitchell, Eva Cassidy, and my mother. These people have lived in my brain and helped me to be a better person.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
I think it would be Peter Gabriel’s song, “Don’t Give Up”. There are so many songs that attempt to uplift, which can be a slippery slope for a writer. But from its time signature, to its bass line, to its haunting lyrics, this song really heals. Sometimes I think I want to write a song that achieves the same goal, but then I think, why? Someone already did it perfectly.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I guess I’m big on games of coordination like pool, ping pong and foosball. I love sports of all kinds, really. I played soccer and basketball in high school, and always went skiing with my Dad. I’m also pretty good at frying an egg, and sleeping through the night.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Never was a piece of advice more pivotal to me then when a friend and local music teacher in New Hampshire suggested that I try to write a song. It’s hard to describe really, but he knew something I didn’t. He’s the type that looks far behind your eyes. I was young, and I think he knew I had it in me.
That advice defined my entire path in life. Someone knew I was a songwriter before I did. From that moment on I played and played, wrote and wrote, until my songs eventually stopped sucking. :-)
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
When I got my first record deal I went right to a piano store with my friend. It was a big moment for me. I asked the sales man to show me his favorite ones on the sales floor. He brought me over to a Yamaha U1. Up to that point I always had to play somebody else’s piano. It was a good feeling to no longer have to do that.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Definitely Levis. I’m almost always wearing Levis. They make me feel tougher, somehow. Did I just write that?
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I’d definitely put Barack Obama on this list, to figure him out for myself, and see if I really want to keep pushing for him. I’d also want Johnny Depp there to tell some interesting stories, Natalie Portman because I know she’s been there and back, Justin Timberlake to joke around with, Rick Bayless to tell us why the food is good or bad, Willie Nelson to learn about life and music, Jane Goodall and Greg Mortenson to make us all better people, and Bill Gates to maybe do the same and also to pick up the bill. Probably John Stewart and Conan O’Brien too, just to help keep it all interesting and hilarious.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
This is an awesome question. I’m torn between seeing what it was really like in the past or what it’s going to be like in the future. I’m going to have to say the past though, because if I went to the future I’d see what we’d become, what the earth looks like, how many billions of us there are going to be, and upon returning home to 2010 I’d be so frustrated that I couldn’t stop it from happening, that I’d go a little crazy.
So I’d go back to the beginning of the Renaissance, live as a courier in Paris or something, drink a lot of wine, hang out by the river and try to create something new.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Watching movies always works for me. Relaxing at home, drinking a little, or hanging out down in my studio, or if I really can’t shake the stress, I zone out to a healing meditation album by Choying Drolma. That’s kind of my secret weapon. Sometimes is pretty impossible to beat the stress and pressure though, and during those times I usually just grin and bear it and wait for it all to level back out. It always does.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
I gotta say Coca-Cola. Yeah I know it’s full of chemicals and sugar and there’s a good chance it’ll give me cancer by the age 40, but damn does it taste good. As the whole world goes green and organic, and white bread and fast food become the clear enemies, just please let me keep my Coca-Cola.
Coca cola, cheeseburgers, and Levis jeans—all American staples that I’ll always love.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
This career has given me the chance and the guts to move to the big cities, and I wouldn’t trade my time in New York or LA for anything. Those cities have taught me more than I ever learned in school. But I know that deep down, I’m a country boy. There’s still no better feeling for me than getting lost in woods, far away from honking horns and busy people.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
First I would tell him to hire some new financial advisors. I think some risky moves were made with this country’s money that may not be panning out perfectly. Then I would tell him to stay cool, and that we’ve got his back. I can’t imagine how demanding that job is. All in all, I think he’s handling the position better than many before him. I guess I’m one of the 47 percent who still feel lucky to have an intelligent, motivated and open-minded president.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Right now I’m really busy with the release of my new album. I worked hard to get it finished, and now I’m doing the footwork to get it in as many hands as possible. Times are crazy, but fun. I love touring and I’m about to leave for a few months.
I’m also busy writing new songs for another album that I hope to release in the Spring. Life is good though. I’m eager to see what’s around the corner.
// Notes from the Road
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