Most musicians dream of the day fans know them by name. Beau James is different: he wants to know your name.
Many musicians yearn to perform in huge stadiums packed with adoring fans. But for singer/songwriter Beau James, who will celebrate his debut solo album with a release party on his 28th birthday before Indigo Road drops on 19 May, playing smaller clubs and chatting with fans after shows fits him best.
“When you’re onstage, you look like you’re untouchable. People might love your music, but they don’t know anything about the person that’s making it,” James says. “I really hope to bridge the gap where, if you’re a fan of my music, you’re a friend. I want to get to know people.”
Born Beau James Wigington to music-loving parents in New Mexico, James’ family has been supportive throughout his musical career. His mother even helped pick the songs for Indigo Road. “I sent her 20 songs and was like, ‘Pick your favorites,’” James says. “She wanted me to write a song called ‘Indigo Road’ because she always wanted me to be in a band called Indigo Road, but that never happened. So I wrote a new song, and we really liked it.” The title track, which is meant to represent James’ path to fulfilling music, pairs lyrics of scouting “the great unknown” with a jaunty beat, fitting for a walk down any road. “It just fit into the whole spirit of the album, of exploring and finding myself in music.”
With short brown hair, a dark beard, and tree branches stemming from a tattoo of Robert Johnson’s infamous Crossroads visible at his shirt collar, James looks every inch the folk artist he is. Though he grew up listening to his father’s Eric Clapton records and hearing about the Johnson myth, James didn’t seriously consider pursuing a musical career until college. A natural performer with an easy smile, he took roles in musicals and performed improv comedy routines while studying acting at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. During his junior year at UNC, James formed a folk band with a friend he met through one of the school’s musicals and began devoting more time to songwriting.
After graduating in 2010, James moved to Los Angeles to dive headfirst into the music industry. He formed a blues rock band called the Heavy Heavy Hearts, released a six-track EP with the group, and once again teamed up with his band mate from college, Clark Singleton. After three years in L.A., James and his band relocated to Nashville, hoping for greater visibility in Music City. With the band now indefinitely on hold, James focuses his time, energy, and professional connections on his solo work.
Comprised of songs he never used with the Heavy Heavy Hearts and newer songs written specifically for the album, Indigo Road tells stories of love, loss, and life that are personal to James. “It was a really cathartic album to make,” he says. “These are all the songs I was afraid to play out, because they are so close to home. I love using metaphors to disguise things, but this [album] delved into personal flaws and things that I’ve dealt with for a long time but never really put down on a recording.”
Nick Bullock, a producer who once worked with the Heavy Heavy Hearts and the owner of Awake Studios in Nashville, teamed up with James to record Indigo Road. “My job as a producer is to make artists go somewhere they don’t like to go. It’s super easy to write a song, like, ‘I’m feeling shitty today,’ or, ‘My heart is broken,’ and to dig deep and go there for half an hour. It’s my job to say, ‘You’re not really done going there yet.’ The only thing I can do as a producer is make it safe for artists to be vulnerable,” Bullock explains.
“Nick pushed me hard to connect with the words I was saying and to really believe every word,” James says. “It was the first time I’d really given in to everything, and stayed with the emotion and lived with it in the moment. It really made an impact on me as a songwriter and an artist. I never want to lose that feeling. If I can connect that hard every time I sing, that would be awesome.”
The deep emotional ties James has to his lyrics are obvious to old fans and new. Onstage, his face betrays the truth behind his words; it’s as if he’s living his experiences all over again when he steps up to the microphone with his guitar. Kirstie Lovelady, a Nashville-based singer who invited James to join her band earlier this year for a three-month “On the Rise” tour presented by Pepsi, finds James’ onstage presence captivating. “I remember being so absolutely mesmerized by his talent and in awe of the rawness of his voice and the energy he has onstage,” Lovelady says. “[Beau’s] not afraid to let go onstage where other people might be a little more hesitant. He’s probably one the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. He’s really genuine, really real.”
Lovelady is one of several musicians James called for help with Indigo Road. She sings on “Heart Is What You’ve Found,” a song that James explains is about “that discussion you have with yourself when you’re sitting in a bar and you see somebody, and you want to talk to them, but you don’t have the courage to do it.”
“Beau is the kind of guy you just want on your team,” agrees Singleton, who provided the groove for “Heart Is What You’ve Found.” “Beau struggles with everything, but that’s what makes him who he is and what makes him so amazing. Everything about his music is 100 percent him -- no bullshit.”
Some of James’ songs are about the difficulty of letting relationships go, as explored in “Ten Shots”. Others reveal his struggle with alcohol, a theme that has appeared in his songwriting even before he penned “Bottom of the Bottle” with the Heavy Heavy Hearts. After an attempt at sobriety last year, James wrote one of his newer tracks for Indigo Road. “During the time I quit drinking, I’d never stopped drinking abruptly before, and I got really bad shakes. When I was going through that, I wrote ‘When I Still Had You.’” “Demon On My Mind” is similarly tethered to alcohol, its lyrics warning, “I’ve got a demon on my mind / She calls out to me each night / And even though I turn away / She drives her claws into me.”
Other tracks push the serious tone of his songwriting even further. Last year, James participated in an Out of the Darkness event organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Inspired by the event and his connection to it, having recently lost two friends to suicide, he made arrangements with the foundation to donate all proceeds from his song “Best If You Just Leave” to aid research and raise awareness for suicide prevention.
Songwriting is therapeutic for James, but the lyrics don’t always come easy. James, who loves fishing, compares his writing approach to standing at the edge of a lake with a line, waiting for a nibble. “You don’t get a bite every day,” he warns.
Despite the solemn material explored in his songs, James is not above joking around. Years after experimenting with comedy in college, he joined the Nashville Improv Company. As James continues his songwriting and fishing comparison, his comedian side peeks through: “Sometimes you eat a PB&J afterwards,” he chuckles.
There’s a strong co-writing scene in Nashville, but it’s not a trend James is drawn to. “I have a hard time co-writing,” he says. “It’s probably my biggest flaw. There are craft songwriters and there are inspirational songwriters. I definitely see myself as the inspirational kind -- I really need to be inspired to finish the song.”
When he’s not writing or performing, James works as a music consultant for Prescriptive Music, creating playlists for small companies like hotels and restaurants. He also tends bar at the Basement, where he played his first gig after moving to Nashville. When he’s not on the clock, James enjoys escaping into nature. “That’s my happy place: being all alone by a river or a pond, throwing out a worm and waiting to see if you get any bites.”
Whether he’s connecting with nature or people, James is intent on making sense of his experiences and finding meaning beneath those deeper ties. “I’ve always been a big storyteller, and this is the first time where it’s not just a character I’m putting onstage – it’s me playing me,” he says of Indigo Road. “It was cool to make an album where I felt I was super honest with myself.” James plans to reinforce this honesty by playing at small venues, where he can see faces in the crowds and interact with his audience after shows.
Relating to listeners is what drives James as an artist. A modern troubadour, his dream come true is a life of wandering, of trading notes on life’s struggles and successes through stories that are just as real to him as they are to his audience. “Humans deserve to be in contact with each other,” James says simply. “I make music that I relate to, and hopefully people will relate to it, too.”
Meghan Roos is a freelance music journalist currently based in New York City and pursuing a master's degree in cultural reporting and criticism at New York University. In addition to PopMatters, her reviews and artist interviews have been published by Interview Magazine, Blues Rock Review, High Voltage Magazine, the San Diego Reader, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and 1146 Miles.