Singer-songwriter José James has always been on the quest for new musical horizons; constantly evolving and blurring the lines between genres in the process. Now on the heels of his critically acclaimed Blue Note Records debut No Beginning No End, José returns with his dynamic and daring fifth album While You Were Sleeping. While keeping his trademark soulful baritone at the forefront, José adeptly weaves elements of indie rock, folk, funk, blues, hip hop and R&B into an experience journeying from desire to introspection and spiritual epiphany. “As an artist, I’m going to keep evolving,” he says resolutely. “I think my fans have now come to expect this from me. They want to know what I’m going to do next.”
“I really wanted to make a wide open album that people could come into from a lot of different perspectives,” he continues. “This album is a synthesis of everything I love about music, from contemporary artists like Frank Ocean, James Blake, and Junip to groundbreaking artists I grew up with like Nirvana, Radiohead, and Madlib. It's also a love letter to many late nights spent in East London clubs like Plastic People and Cargo, watching new movements unfold in electronic music. I want people to feel the joy of discovery that I experience night after night onstage, reaching for something new."
Along with producer Brian Bender and his tight-knit band – Kris Bowers (keys), Solomon Dorsey (bass), and Richard Spaven (drums) – José set out to create an album that captured the spirit of his newfound creative space. In the studio the band members recalibrated their roles, serving as co-producers for his latest forays in sound. “They really went in on the creative ideas, taking it to a new place. I definitely had the artistic vision. It’s still a José James album. But for the first time, I let the band have more of a voice.” José’s decision to have all hands on deck resulted in a more cohesive band unit. “It got me a lot closer to them as well. It’s really about us sharing our musical worlds. The band is super tight now. I think it’s one of the most special bands that I’ve ever had.”
José composed the majority of the album while on the road in support of No Beginning No End. During his tour he decided to shift his method of composition to acoustic guitar. “I really loved the way it meshed with my voice,” he says. “It made me realize that I hadn't been tapping into other influences that I had within me.”
José also recruited a new band member in Memphis guitarist Brad Allen Williams to shore up the ideas he’d been mulling for the new album. Williams brought a rock feel while maintaining his home city’s signature soul and blues. “He’s amazing. He’s a perfect fit for this new direction. There’s definitely a lot more rock elements on this record because of Brad, but the soul connection is also important to me. I never want to go too far away from soul.”
The resulting album beautifully showcases James’ knack for weaving strands of various genres into a singular musical experience. “Angel,” the album’s opening track, opens with a wailing guitar riff reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix before launching into a funky ode to the tug of war between carnal desire and the quest for love. “I think it’s fascinating to have that kind of spiritual/sexual tension. I think we need both. You just have to find the balance between the two.”
José offers up the converse in “Bodhisattva.” “It’s a Buddhist term that means enlightened being,” he explains. Written during a stop in Jakarta while on tour, the song was James’ first song written outside of No Beginning No End. “I was staying in a hotel modeled after the famous Borobudur Temple where I started to feel a beautiful spiritual presence. One day I was walking through the gardens surrounded by statues of Bodhisattvas and heard a Muslim call to prayer. I got inspired to write a song about unity and compassion that would be as deeply spiritual as my time in Jakarta.”
The lead single “EveryLittleThing” flaunts a rock vibe spiked with an electronica edge. “This was the only one that came together so quickly,” beams José. “We finished it in half an hour. The lyrics come from somewhere deep and personal. It’s just about coming from a rough beginning, which I definitely have come from. Finding strength through adversity. Being a self-made man.”
The album’s title track “While You Were Sleeping”ebbs and flows beautifully, ruminating on the end of a love affair. The song culminates in crashing waves of self-reflection and affirmation. “I feel like that’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s the most mature song I’ve ever written. That’s a song – in both writing and production – that I’ll stand by as my best to date. It’s about break ups and that feeling of being on the edge, when you realize that your life is about to change completely. It’s about letting go and finding inner strength as well.”
“Anywhere U Go” revs up the rock engine once again while “Dragon” finds José melding his distinctive sound with singer-songwriter Becca Stevens. A former New School classmate, Stevens wrote the song as the sessions for While You Were Sleeping were coming to a close. “She wrote it and we were all blown away,” says José. “The demo that she sent was her playing on a Wurlitzer. We liked it so much we decided to use it on the album version.”
Reflecting his desire not to stray too far from his soul influences, the album closes with a slow-burning cover of the 1972 Al Green classic “Simply Beautiful.” Featuring a smoldering trumpet solo by Blue Note label mate Takuya Kuroda, José was initially wary of including the cover. “I’m not normally a fan of covering great soul legends,” he says. “But I felt like we were doing something musically valid with it, so we decided to record it. That was the only one we did together in one take. And you can feel it.”
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Since the beginning, the Minneapolis native has always drawn from disparate musical influences. “Growing up, it seemed like there was a new groundbreaking album coming out every month. It was such an exciting time to be a fan of music. I can remember waiting for 10,000 Maniacs or Ice Cube to come out with a new album. That really stoked my creativity.”
José set his sights on New York City – the ultimate metropolitan utopia where iron sharpens iron in various disciplines – and entered the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. Conspiring with classmates and flourishing under the tutelage of jazz luminaries, he found himself in a rich fabric of diverse musical contemporaries. He remembers, “I just started putting all this stuff together. For me, it was never about whether it was jazz or hip-hop. It was all about creative people who just had different sounds.”
An EP of José’s first recordings ended up in the hands of influential BBC Radio disc jockey Gilles Peterson. Thoroughly impressed, Peterson enlisted José to join the roster of his label Brownswood Recordings and released his 2008 debut The Dreamer – a captivating mixture of jazz tradition and modern flair – and 2010’s forward-thinking opus Blackmagic – a bold foray beyond tradition, synthesizing his jazz sensibilities with an ardent hip-hop moxie at the hands of beatsmiths like the esteemed Flying Lotus. Blackmagic successfully broadened his reach beyond jazz, garnering high praise from respected media outlets traditionally reserved for hip-hop and soul such as Okayplayer and Wax Poetics.
After extensive touring and experimentation with new ideas, James joined the Blue Note roster in 2013 when he released his breakout album No Beginning No End to wide acclaim. With its irrepressible lead single “Trouble,” the album release found José making national TV appearances on Conan, Late Show With David Letterman, and Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
The New York Times praised his “cool and confident” album, adding that it “sounds like the result of the black-pop continuum, jazz and soul and hip-hop and R&B, slow-cooked for more than 50 years.” NPR Music raved that “James makes utterly contemporary music,” noting that he “skirts categories with ease, fitting in with current R&B innovators like Frank Ocean or Miguel, yet maintaining a strong awareness of a lineage that stretches from Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye to Lou Rawls to Maxwell.”
In their album review Pitchfork noted that “While he’s always been one to try stuff out, on No Beginning No End he finds a way to make an eclectic approach feel unified and whole. With previous releases, he's earned his heroic acclaim in the tough, tried-and-trusted lanes of contemporary jazz. With No Beginning No End, he's built his own road out.”
If anything can be said about José James, aside from marveling at his impressive talent and incomparable voice, it’s that he is indeed a fearless artist. While You Were Sleeping is another momentous milestone along his creative path. “I think it’s very rewarding to take chances. It’s really important to take the journey.”
(Photo by Janette Beckman)