I am listening to Val James. The name of the work is Don’t Worry, Baby, a record that dropped last year and was promptly nominated for New Mexico Music Awards in two categories. I decided to listen to this LP in reverse order, a counterintuitive approach that I hope will lead me to a more informed, interesting and involved listening experience.
James’ voice is clear; the musical choices she makes here are deliberate and informed. Everything from the handclaps to the twangy guitar flourishes on closer “Reminds Me” reminds listeners that this musician is keenly aware of the effects that different sounds, timbres, delicate harmonies and instrumental themes have on those who put an ear to such subtle and shifting collections of compositions such as this.
On the penultimate tune, “Goin’ to the Country,” James does a slow burn, aching and arcing like a burning circle around hardheaded country-rock in a manner that shows both passion and restraint.
James brings the blues, plainspoken and plangently profound on semi-confessional, experiential tunes like “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and “Monroe Street Blues,” sounding like she she just rambled out of Tejas on a freight train made from great guitar licks and smoky vocal harmonizing that goes on for miles, crossing every track in its way as a method of knowing what’s real out there in the world.
I’m not even gonna go on and on about the dark, minor key bliss to be found on the opening track, “I Ain’t Sharin’,” you’ll have to listen to that one yourself. The thing is, James’ music is so dang clean and grungy at the same time, so much like dusk but also like dawn with gloriously righteous instrumental choices—and ax licks that would stun an ox—draped lovingly over a thrillingly and penetratingly orotund vocal range, that I immediately thought of Texas.
But James comes straight outta Burque. Or rather the East Mountains bordering our bright little burg. Her sound, deeply influenced by musical parents, the land around her and life itself, exists somewhere in a world birthed by the imagination and borne on bluesy wings.
To find out more about Val James, I invited her over to Weekly Alibi for a chat. Here are the highlights of that awesome interview.
Weekly Alibi: Tell our readers a bit about what you do, please.
Val James: I’m a singer-songwriter. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 11 years old. I started by taking lessons from Ambrose Rivera, up in Cedar Crest. I started writing songs when I was 15. And those songs have an Americana feel, maybe folky when I was younger. But as I got older, I really got into the blues. My family is very musical, so I was able to take what I was listening to at home and have that influence what I was writing. The songs came from a background of personal experience, me telling stories about life.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cedar Crest. I loved growing up there. It was a great experience.
Did those experiences in the country form the basis of what you would write about?
Definitely. A lot of my music is nature inspired. I wrote a song called “Goin’ to the Country,” and it’s about that. We also have a cabin up in Chama, so I love to spend time in the woods. But most of my music is rock with a blues influence and an Americana and folk feel.
What sort of music did you grow up with?
I was classically trained at first, on the guitar.
With nylon strings and finger picking and Spanish composers?
Yeah and reading music and all of that, too. But anyway, my dad really got me into B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers ...
Your father’s a guitarist, too?
Oh yeah, he’s a guitarist and a singer. He loved to emulate B.B. King’s voice; he loves the emotion behind singing the blues.
It’s a very emotional thing.
It is. And you have to connect with your words. And then my mom really loved James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt. I also had the influence of the grunge era in the ’90s.
That’s your generation? Gen X?
Yeah. Exactly. I also got into Nine Inch Nails. But also, the female musicians of that era really influenced me, too. Alanis Morrisette and Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan.
Did you go to Lilith Fair? I remember they held one in Bernalillo back in 1998.
No, I didn’t get to go. I heard about that. I heard I heard it was kinda crazy.
It was an interesting show. I got to meet Sarah McLachlan back stage. I was working as a stage hand back then. I think that period in American music is really important. I feel like the people involved in Lilith Fair were doing something very important; it was honest and had a deeper context.
I agree. It was very big breakout time for female artists in the feminist era of the ’90s. That really encouraged me. It gave me the strength to go out and use my voice.
When did you start gigging?
I started singing background and harmony with my dad when I was 16, until I was 23—at bars around town. I started gigging myself, as a solo artist, when I was about 23. Then I kind of took a break from music for a while, I got my master’s degree in counseling.
So you worked with the community here in Albuquerque?
Yes, I did that for about 5 years. Then I decided to record my album. I really wanted to give music my all and so I quit my job and began to focus on music. The result was Don’t Worry, Baby.
Was that an empowering journey?
It was a very exciting time in my life. I was able to spend a lot of time on craft: writing songs, recording, getting all the musicians together, then getting the record mastered in LA, collaborating on the artwork with a friend. The process was extremely fulfiling. I decided to do it [that way] because I didn’t want to look back at 60 and say “I should have recorded an album when I was young!”
That album garnered a good amount of critical praise, I’m told.
Well, it was nominated for a New Mexico Music Award, best album of the year. Also, song number five on the album, “Pulling Me Down,” was also nominated for best song of the year.
What did those experiences lead you to?
It led to a lot of gigs! I’ve been able to play with a lot of different, gifted musicians in town, so I can do solo gigs, duo and trio shows, or I play with an entire band backing me up.
Where do you feel more at home, on stage or in the studio?
I think they’re both very different. I believe that live creation onstage is so exciting; it’s one of the most beautiful things about being a musician, to play live, to create in the moment. But being in the studio captures a moment in time. That’s very cool. I took about seven months to record the album. I would start from scratch and write some songs and go up there [to the studio] and record the scratch tracks.
So are you a really meticulous composer and musician?
I am, yeah. I’m a perfectionist.
What is your songwriting process like?
My process comes from a place of honesty in life. The songs are about contemporary issues, like online dating.
Stuff that affects you personally?
So I’ll get in my hot tub at night and just be ruminating about what’s going on in my life and I’ll come up with a hook. And it’ll be like, “Don’t worry baby, I don’t care about you anymore” and I’ll be like, “Hey that’s good, how do I make that into a song?” Then I’ll get out of the hot tub and kinda go work on the story that led up to that hook. Then I go to the studio and lay down a scratch track, just guitar and vocals. After I do that, I bring in the drummer and then the bassist. Then I dub the lead vocal and add finishing touches.
Do you do a lot of that work in the studio?
Oh, absolutely. I produce the work. I was the main producer on the album. I engineer a lot of my own work. I worked with David McCrae up at Third Eye Studios. I wanted to record in a place that’s surrounded by nature. We crafted that album!
If someone from the distant future traveled back in time to hear you play, what would you tell them your work is about?
That’s a good question. I would say I’m a being of love expressing gratitude through sound.
That is so cool.
[Laughs] Thank you!