Shawn James issues his latest album, The Dark & The Light on 22 March. The LP finds the South Side of Chicago-born singer-songwriter in fine form, drawing upon strains of blues, soul, gospel, and folk traditions across a series of songs focused on rising above our traumas and heartbreaks to find redemption and peace.
James has always had something to say on the lyrical front and his best vocal performances to date accentuate the emotional content of these songs, including the opening “Orpheus”, one of those rare songs that realigns the listener’s DNA upon first play, the autobiographical “Love Will Find a Way” and “Chicago”. Equally compelling are numbers such as “Burn the Witch” and the closing “When I’m Gone”.
James has recorded strong records in the past, but The Light & The Dark is his most formidable and memorable to date. He recently spoke with PopMatters about the origins of the material heard on this effort as well as what he hopes listeners will take away from it.
Are the songs on this record the result of you sitting down and saying, “OK, it’s time to make an album?” Or are you almost always writing?
It’s a little bit of a mixture. I don’t typically write on the road unless something reaches out to me or something happens and I need to vent. I have little ideas or phrases that I get out there that I’ll jot down. Most of the time it’s after a tour. I lock myself in a room many hours a day and flesh ideas out. I started writing this one at the end of 2017. We came off a European tour, I went back to Chicago and had a lot of down time.
Was there a particular mood or event that sparked the lyrical content?
I think as I’ve gotten older there’s been this recurring theme of balance in my life. I find that I’m happiest when I’m at a balance. That stuck with me. A lot of the lyrics this time were the result of feeling like I was in a place where I could say what I wanted to say. I didn’t have to beat around the bush and I knew how to say what I wanted to say. The lyrics about turning the trauma and the bad things you experience into something that can be spun into the positive. Using the bad to harness good.
Is that reflective of you over the last few years?
I think I’ve dealing with it ever since I started writing. In the beginning it was more of a release. I had to get it out. This is the first time I’ve put this kind of effort into what I wanted to say, instead of what I had to say.
I’m curious about the song “Chicago”. It strikes me that, very often, we leave a place with one set of ideas about it. We come back at various points and our attitudes and feelings about the place evolve.
Chicago is where I grew up. I have this extreme love for it but this other side that brings back memories of tough times I went through. It’s where my father died. I left when I was 19, just wanting to escape. Whenever I came back, there was this extreme nostalgia. I can’t compare it to anywhere else. It’s been a love-hate relationship but as I get older it’s more love because I’m able to appreciate those hard times. I was running away when I left and when I came back it was beautiful. The dark, poetic beauty. I grew up on the South Side where it’s low income. There are gangs, violence, all that. Not that I was ever actively a part of that but it was always an active part of my surroundings.
How much music the ultimate escape for you?
It was the only thing that got me out. I shouldn’t be who I am. No one has ever done anything like this in my family. But music is the way that I dealt with everything. Anger, sadness, joy. Music was an integral part of my growing up. It was how I was able to escape anything. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing. I came into consciousness singing.
I love the vocal performances on this album.
In the past, I would get into a space where I would say, “OK! This is my folk record! This is my blues record! This is my rock ‘n’ roll record!” I would use these different voices that I have specifically for the sound of an album. This is the first time that I’m using all of them and showing the full scope of what I can do vocally. The biggest vocal performance, for me, on this record is “Love Will Find a Way”.
I had been writing that song for 10 years. I had the first half of it and I had the story but there was never a reason, never a sense of why I was telling the story. There was no logical ending to it for so long. I knew it was going to be one of the deepest and strongest songs I was ever going to write. I wasn’t until the end of 2017, when I was writing the rest of the record, that I revisited that song that I finally came together.
I was playing it, couldn’t come up with anything. Then I wrote a separate piano part. Or what I thought was separate. My wife heard it, she loved it. I thought, “I wonder if I could combine these two things.” When I did it, it made perfect sense. I hated it at first. It was so simple. It was a mindfuck to me. I hated it because it was too easy. That was the missing link for 10 years? A little part like that and an encouraging mantra?
That was it. That was exactly what was needed to finish the story.
There are some who will look at those lyrics and say, “I wonder if this is literally about Shawn’s father and his life to this point?”
It’s not the full story but it’s the things that got to me when I was growing up. Him not being there, not having someone to relate to on that level. Not knowing if I was like him, would he have been able to relate to me, little kid stuff that you just don’t know. I’ll never know. I didn’t have it so bad, it was OK, but that was a big hang up for me. Getting it recorded and putting it out was a big weight lifted off.
But it’s not a big deal for selfish reasons. As I’ve been releasing music over the last few years, I’ve been getting messages from fans, saying, “I wouldn’t have done this if it weren’t for you. I would have killed myself if it wasn’t for this.” That shifted my psyche. That’s why I say it’s the most important song I’ve ever written.
The song “When I’m Gone” reminds me of two traditions in poetry. One in which the poet imagines their conception, what life was like before them. The other in which they imagine life for their loved ones after their death. This is in the latter category. Was that a heavy thing to think about?
It was. As I get older, I’m starting to think about these things. It’s kind of depressing when you think about it but it’s also life. The curiosity of, “What is going to happen? How will I be remembered? What is going to be the defining thing? Will I be remembered for my mistakes? The wrongs I’ve done? Or will the good of what I’ve done balance that out?”
My wife hated that song. I sent it to her and she got really emotional. But I think by going through those thoughts it makes me more comfortable and accepting of whatever may happen in the future.
Is there something that you hope listeners take away from this album?
The translation of trauma. That’s what it’s always about for me and why people say that music has helped them and why I have such a big following of military veterans. People need a release. The ones that don’t get that are the ones that end up doing something they typically would not have done. I shouldn’t be where I’m at but because I found my focus and my release through music it has enabled me to live the life I have now. It’s OK to go through hard times and feel pain but it’s really about how we deal with it moving forward.