Have you ever walked into a venue expecting to hear music, but instead you are enveloped in bliss and catapulted to another universe? You are caught up in that feeling in that moment, when you know you are hearing something that will not stay in one place and you know the music is going everywhere, to all niches of the world. Walk into the Continental Club Gallery on a Thursday evening between 8:30 and 10:00 and that’s what will happen to you because it happened to me a couple of years ago. I walked into The Gallery (as it is most commonly known) on a Monday night and, walking up the stairs heard and felt Kalu James’ melodic voice with the band accompaniment flowing down and wrapping itself around me. Oh my goodness. My first response with one of my favorite door guys in Austin, Texas was, “Why haven’t I heard him before!?!” He concurred and indicated that this was one of his favorite bands to hear in the Gallery. Granted, he doesn’t work there every night, but of the nights he does work this Monday slot was preferred. Kalu James’ band has now been slotted into a new residency at The Gallery on Thursday’s from 8:30 – 10:00 p.m. and I am ready to watch him outgrow it. The good thing for you, the reader, is that he still maintains his Thursday residency, so you have the great fortune to catch him each week (if he doesn’t have an out-of-town gig) right here in Austin. It won’t last long though, mark my words, touring and festivals are in his near future.
Before interviewing James for this article I wanted to find out what others had to say about him in order to get a stronger sense of who he is, as a musician and a human being. I posed the question, “What would you say about Kalu James?” to various folks around town that had heard his music and/or had some personal interaction with him. The first response was immediate, as in zero hesitation. According to Stephanie Marlar, “He’s incredibly dynamic, pure and honest, and beautiful.” and according to Tim Harris, “Spiritual. That’s really what I think of him. Warm, embracing, and just f#@!ing talented. And tribal, ancestral tribal.” Thanks Stephanie and Tim, I believe I do agree with you both. “I wish I could hit high notes like he does,” said Sebastian Marrs. These were not the only kind words spoken of James, as you’ll read throughout this article. He has a physical presence that is unmistakably warm, inviting, and embracing much like his music. As another patron in the Gallery one night said, “He has a big heart and a big voice.” Yes, indeed he does. What is it about James that evokes these warm comments from fans? I wanted to explore this more because, in a world of such advanced technology, it’s no secret that people appear to be disjointed, disconnecting from one another. Gone are the days when we pick up the phone to call someone to say hi because nowadays it’s almost an intrusion to call, rather we send a text or other message losing that human connection. James has found a way to bring that connection back through his lyrics, his music, his presentation, and his display of warmth and welcoming anytime you are in his presence. It’s almost as if he doesn’t have a bad day as long as he is delivering his message and fulfilling a purpose. Now, we know we all have bad days, but with him you just can’t tell because, I believe, the love and the desire to connect with others is so strong that it supersedes anything else he’s experiencing on any given day, and that is pure dedication.
I sat out on the porch with Kalu James for the following interview on a hot, yet breezy July afternoon in central Austin and I invite you to settle in with a cup of tea and join us as we explore Kalu James.
~~~ Ready to Sing; The Human Connection~~~
SPM: Of the people who know your music, what percentage do you think know that you are from Nigeria?
KJ: Maybe 1% (laughing), but, James adds, “you can always tell the music has a rhythm that you are familiar with, but maybe you have not heard it and interpreted it like that before.”
So, while you may not know of James’ roots, the listener definitely feels a rhythm that is all encompassing in a way that music from limited experiences and lack of cultural diversity just can’t quite reach.
SPM: So, you were born and raised in Nigeria, you lived there for 18 years, and then you graduated from high school and decided to go to Rochester, New York in 2001? Is that correct?
KJ: Yeah, that’s right, you’ve done your homework. You’ve got it all down to the correct number of years. I get those mixed up sometimes. (more laughing) In 3 years, I will have lived in the U.S. as long as I’ve lived in Nigeria. So…
SPM: What does that feel like? Living in 2 different countries for half of your life…birth to 18 in Nigeria and then 18 to now in America.
KJ: Well, I’m doing it, whatever “it” is. I was going to make the U.S. my home and do what I told myself I would be doing when I was 18 years old back in Nigeria. My parents sent me here [to America] for school and that’s what I did, but I was coming here to sing. Singing has always been the one thing that made sense. I’m good at a lot of different things because my parents raised me that way, to be resourceful. Music is where it connects for me, so I told myself at 18 that while in the U.S. I will write songs. I mean, I was ready to sing. Cutting through the B.S., I was ready to sing and coming here I could create an identity for myself that was removed from who my father is, was. And I took every opportunity to do that.
SPM: What do you mean, ‘ready to sing?’
KJ: I was ready to connect with people, ready to tell these stories that I see, that I know other people would be interested in listening to, so we just have to talk about it.
Connecting with people is definitely a talent that lies deep within James. That Monday night when I first heard his music in The Gallery I knew this was someone I wanted to know, someone I wanted to be around, someone I wanted to have conversations with because he just emanates a knowingness about life and humanity that draws you in. When Kalu speaks with you, he speaks with purpose. It’s the same way with his music, his music is created with purpose. Take, for instance, his song from The Offering Flesh:
“The World Needs You”
I like to still think that I can find compassion, in this ticking-time bomb,
Please tell me that its true
I like to still think that you can look at me as a man & not a color,
I like to still think that, what I say, what I do, can coexist
Or is it just one big lie
Tell me, Can we, tell me, can we, tell me, can weeeeeee
The world need you, just like it needs me
My hand feeds you just like you feed me
The world needs you, just like it needs me
My hand feeds you, just like you feed me
I like to still think that its OK to bring offspring into this world, are you thinking of them
I like to still think I can be all I’m meant to be, even with this loss of jobs, don’t cut me down
I like to still think that the woman in Nigeria can be divorced with kids and still found attractive,
Tell me, can we, tell me, can we, tell me, can weeeeeeeeee
The connection with humanity, between humans, is clearly stated in here, “My hand feeds you, just like you feed me, the world needs me, just like it needs you.” The mesage here is that we all play a key role in each other’s lives whether we acknowledge it or not. We’re all in this together, intertwined. James clearly expresses a maturity and understanding of humans and graciously brings that to others through his heartfelt words.
~~~ Loss and the Shift; Know Me For Me; Assimilation; Morphing ~~~
Life always brings challenges, some more deep and affecting than others and this was true in James’ case at the end of last year, December 2014.
SPM: Back in December (2014) you returned to Nigeria to take care of some things. I noticed a difference in your music when you returned. How do you think the trip “home” affected your music?
KJ: There was a shift. Going home probably had a lot to do with the shift [in the music]. Also, losing your father has a lot to do with certain shifts, and coming back here. There were still things to be taken care of back home, so when I made that choice, and my choice was coming back here and continue doing this [music], things change. So, maybe that’s the shift. Good or bad it’s a shift.
SPM: So, what change are you willingly embracing in this shift?
KJ: Um, the let go. I’m embracing the let go. Throughout everything I’ve done with singing and pursuing music, I always knew, and looking back at it right now I’m laughing at myself for thinking I knew, I always knew that my father was going to be alive to see me materialize to what I have in my head. I guess that’s part of thinking that you have control or that the Universe is going to work in your favor. I have to let that go now and believe in myself more than I ever did if I didn’t already. You have to be full of intent.
SPM: So, where do you want to take your music? Where do you envision yourself as if your father is watching you still?
KJ: Well, I don’t know if it’s about him anymore. I think it’s with what I hear, see, decipher. I want to write interesting, truthful stories that break our barriers. People don’t know me as being Nigerian because they don’t have to know me as being Nigerian. I am just a human. I want to meet people as human beings and I write my songs as those characters, as human beings. I hope that when you get to meet that person you like that person because it’s something you already know, it’s something you already feel. It’s a certain feeling, a certain action. So, those songs I will keep writing. Those songs I will keep singing because you can’t deny when it’s the truth, when it’s feelings that I have felt that I know other people have felt and you can’t deny it. At the end of the day that’s what we’re all here for, I believe at 100% of my core, is that we are here to connect, we are here to meet people. [Nigeria does not define the music, but it guides it.] I am Nigerian, but I am human first. You’re a human from America, from Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, you know. There are stories. [We define ourselves by our ancestral history.] I am Nigerian, but I am human first. That’s the whole thing, I believe in morphing and all of that is part of it. It would be so boring to me if I just knew someone as the crazy crackhead on the street, you know. After six years of knowing the crazy crack head on the street, after six years of doing that, you have to know something more than, ‘oh, that’s a crazy crackhead on the street.’ The human in you should feel closer to find out what’s this story of the human crack head on the street. So, morphing, I’m going wherever it leads.
SPM: So, the past is past and it’s what we build on. Where do you feel like your musical influences come from? Artists, genres, what are your greatest musical influences?
KJ: I’ve always been attracted to music that moves you to do something or be something. So the Bob Marley’s, Fela Kuti’s, the Tracy Chapman’s, the Jeff Buckley’s, the Otis Redding’s, Sam Cook’s, they are telling different stories, different emotions. At the end of the day they cut through and it pushes you to be something, to feel something, you know, and to do something. It has always been that for me. I grew up in the church and growing up in the church there’s a sense of connecting to something that is the under lining, that there is that faith, the belief in something so much that it’s blind. So, me sitting here and talking about the songs that I write is believing as blindly as religion is.
SPM: How old were you when you wrote your first song that you felt pulled into this understanding of music and this concept. How old do you remember being when you wrote that song that said this is what I write and what I want to be about?
KJ: So, the crazy thing is I didn’t start writing songs until I moved to the U.S. I was in the choir, I sang other people’s songs and I was perfectly ok with doing that, singing, singing, singing, it’s always been that for me because I grew up in the choir. I started writing songs when I came to the U.S. ’cause I was seeing so much and a lot of people who have moved here understand exactly what I mean. I moved here from somewhere else, you’re thrust into a totally different environment, and you’re registering things. Some people have to write those out, some people are holding onto what they’ve always seen themselves as in the old world they were in, so my dealing with that was to flush it out to where I didn’t become a Nigerian or a Norwegian. [Assimilation] I absolutely wrote what I saw, what I was feeling to be human, to be able to connect. My music is always moving and it will continue to move because that’s the only voice, I have only one voice, you have only one voice. It’s from what you’re writing, it’s from teaching, people that are emulating you that’s one voice, that’s all. I hope that voice continues to change, you know, and as long as I’m living the songs will always be moving to something, discovery I guess.
James has enjoyed songwriting since his arrival in the U.S. at the tender age of 18 and, as you listen to his music over time, you can hear a gradual development of depth and breadth in his lyrics. Some songs are tolerant, some pushy, some are intensely observant, but always they evoke emotion.
SPM: Do you write your lyrics first or do you write your music first? Describe your process for writing a song.
KJ: Oh, it comes all different ways. This sounds almost maddening, I’m sure interviewers don’t want to hear this, but I’m going to say it. Like, when it comes it comes and a lot of times it takes two or three months to come and while that’s happening I’m recording and jotting down what I see. Ideas will always be there, but to fully complete a song to where I feel comfortable, I mean I have so many ideas, but to completely finish a song to where I feel comfortable to sing out. I could play a song all these years just by myself, but for a song to be ready to be performed it’s beyond me. Will it into existence.
SPM: What is your vision? Where do you want to take your music?
KJ: I want people to feel something at the end of the f#@!ing day. Repulsed, attracted, happy, sad, crying, rolling around on roller skates. We live in a society where we feel nothing, absolutely nothing, and as long as you’re holding onto your truth, which is you having the time of your life, our job is done. Absolutely our job is done because we made you feel something, so… we play for you, we play for those that want to come feel something. It’s a testament that whatever we are writing is reaching people.
I definitely feel something when I attend a Kalu James show and I’m in great company. The comments from others regarding his music range, but only in intensity and not in the message, which is always positive. “I just think he’s warm and talented. I get a really great vibe from him.” Thanks, Hilary York and know that the great vibe is precisely what James is there to give you. Another fan commented, “They have great energy!” and that they do, the whole band, not just Kalu James. James’ sister, Mercy James, eloquently described her brother’s music and style as she hears and feels it, “Kalu might be an adult, but he has the pure heart and innocence of a child. Just like children, regardless of what he might go through or has been through, he still sees the best in people and in the world. He sees with a clear heart.” Mercy, sister, you should be writing this article! Well put and kudos to Mercy for seeing that in her brother, for seeing the innocence and the pure heart and for stating it so succinctly because that is what and who Kalu James is, a pure heart. Throughout my conversation with James it is clear that, while he wants to affect change and create positive action using his music as a conduit, he still sees the world as a beautiful place with beautiful people, he just strives to create even more beauty. None of us could possibly argue this as a reason for writing, for creating music. Sometimes the music pulls you to a very different place, a connection of sorts, to movies possibly.
SPM: When I hear O’Fallon, I feel like I should be watching a Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez movie. I go into my head when I hear this music and that’s a special world because I enjoy their movies so much. So, I’ve married this particular song to these people. Have you ever had anyone tell you that about O’Fallon?
KJ: No, I haven’t had anyone tell me that. There are songs where someone hears it and they say, ‘Yeah, that should be on a soundtrack.’ I hope it gets into a soundtrack. So, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez with a song called O’Fallon, absolutely. If they hear it, I’m game.
SPM: That’s cool that other people are saying your music should be on a soundtrack. Do you ever feel like some songs are movie songs, some are entertainment songs. Do you ever feel that way about your music?
KJ: Well, the songs are always painting a picture for sure. It’s a scene. I try to paint scenes and characters in the scenes and put motions and tag one person against the other or together.
SPM: My mother, who is a fan, wanted me to relay a message to you. She wanted me to tell you that she enjoys your version of “Woman to Woman” 100 times better than Joe Cocker’s version.
KJ: Wow, that’s, wow, thank you. That’s high praise. Of course, the Joe Cocker’s are going to have the songs, I mean he’s such an incredible performer, an emotive performer, that to have someone think that I do that, yeah, thank you.
SPM: That’s your fan base out there, that’s how your fans feel. You have fans that run the gamut…what’s the age of your youngest music fan?
KJ: Oh, 5.
SPM: So, you go from 5 to beyond 75 with your fan base.
KJ: I guess people, kids, are turned on to the rhythm and the fun and hopefully the older folks are turned onto the lyrics. They can share their experiences about the music.
SPM: Sharing your music between the multiple generations, what a lovely thought. So, three years from now, where are you?
KJ: You know, the funny thing is, 3 years from now when I have lived the same amount of time in Nigeria and the U.S., a lot more people know me here in those years than they do back home, so I would say I’m following my path and I am the ever faithful, loyal disciple to whatever that path is. My path is writing songs that move people. Writing songs that move people and getting it to a level where all the people who need to hear the songs, hear the songs and it creates action. What the action is I can’t tell, but it reaches them.
Photo by Raz Gomez
SPM: You are Kalu James and perform under the name Kalu James, but you are not the only person that stands on the stage and delivers. You have a crew. Tell me about the core. How did you guys come together?
KJ: JT Holt is my brother, business partner, bandmate, co-creator. He certainly has been there longer than everyone else and, yeah, he’s my co-creator. He plays lap steel and electric guitar in the band and teaches me a few things on the guitar as well. I write songs and sing and I’m ok, can’t really call myself a guitar player. I’m just a songwriter who plays guitar enough to be able to play it out. And we have Robb Kidd who is the backbeat and the movement of the sound. Robb Kidd plays with Golden Dawn [Arkestra] and Papa Mali. Then we have “Bug”, Lee Brock, on bass and when Alex Marrero is in town and not playing with Brown Sabbath, Mudphonic, or Golden Dawn [Arkestra] as well he sits in with us on percussion and backup vocals. And we have people come through from Nick Jay, Matt Hubbard, Ephraim Owens.
SPM: What a line-up, cream of the crop! Wouldn’t it be amazing to have everyone on the stage at once? Have you ever had that, where all of these musicians are on the stage together?
KJ: We’ve had close to that.
SPM: The addition of Alex Marrero brings a completeness to the music with his percussion and it’s always a pleasure to see him play with the band when he’s in town. Ephraim Owens is another favorite who drops in the house to play on occasion and it’s pure joy when he sits in on O’Fallon.
KJ: Ephraim takes that song to a level where you feel every bump.
SPM: So, how did you guys come together? You moved to Austin from Rochester, NY specifically for the music. Did you already have connections here in Austin?
KJ: No, not at all. I moved here and I started playing a bunch of open mics at Ruta Maya, which doesn’t exist anymore, Irie Bean, and the open mics had bands, so I had players like a house band and I went there so much and played so much that I began to form friendships with Drew Howard, who played guitar for about 6 or 7 years, Ed Miles, and Michael Rubin on the harmonica, Randall Squires on bass. I met that group of musicians and we went into the studio and recorded based on how many times they had played that song, ended up as a band, and did that for about 4 or 5 years. The connections were made.
SPM: So, there’s your advice to musicians, what I hear is…just get yourself out there.
KJ: Oh yeah, yes. Play, play music, be creative, find the avenues to always play and that’s what I did and what I’m still doing. Of course, every other aspect of the business comes into play at that point in time and you just have to make sure that the business doesn’t ruin your love of playing because it certainly can. You have to remember why you do it. One person or 50,000 people, you have to remember why you do it or else you fall into the pitfalls of this business. It’s out there, it’s not any different, people will continuously fall into that because it’s how we learn, but never forget why you do it.
Ready to Tour
SPM: Are you guys recording right now or writing new material?
KJ: We are writing new material right now and before I left for Nigeria we recorded because we played every Monday for a year and a half at that point in time and we wanted to capture what we were doing because, at the time and with my decision to go home, we wanted to make sure we captured what we were doing. It needed to be captured. So we did that at EAR Studios on the east side and mixed that and we are going to be releasing that song by song. We picked 5 songs out of all the songs we played and we’re going to be releasing that song by song.
SPM: Is that what’s on your CD Baby card?
KJ: No, it’s the Offering Flesh music. While we’re doing the new material there’s the acoustic album we recorded with the Kickstarter support that we’re still yet to bring out, so that album should be coming out soon.
SPM: So, what albums do you have? With or without this band, all of your stuff, what do you have out there?
KJ: There’s The Way I Feel, Dim The Lights, The Live Album, The Offering Flesh, The Offering Bones album that has yet to be released, soon to be released, and the live recording we just did.
SPM: That’s quite a few albums, actually, and considering you just started writing when you got here, to the U.S., and it even took you a while to start writing. That’s pretty accomplished, don’t you think?
KJ: Well, I still keep having things to say… (laughing)…
SPM: Well , I can speak for a whole lot of people and say that we want you to keep speaking, it is very, very important. I know that all of this does not come without its challenges. You’re a musician in Austin, Texas and it may not be possible to go out and make $250/night at a gig, so what are some of your challenges? I pose this question to help other musicians. What’s something you could prevent, say, that you might have known two or three years ago if you had had more information, is there anything you could have prevented?
KJ: Well, nothing, it’s a flow and I ebb and weave with it. As a musician you’re always doing a lot, you have to diversify and so in the process of doing that at the end of the day, as long as you’re still being creative or can afford to be creative, then by all means that should be the goal. To be able to afford to be creative. If that’s going on the road, which I would love to spend my time doing, then that’s what you have to do. Sacrifices come with that, but you already see what other people can’t see yet and you have to believe in that like it’s your faith, your religion.
SPM: What’s the projected timeline for the release of your new recording and what’s next?
KJ: Hopefully we’ll be getting those mixes out, probably before October. Touring is the lifeline and we have to tour, we have to play outside of Austin. We have to play collectively all the time and that’s what we’re going to keep doing. Bigger, better shows and a better team behind you, but at the same time at the end of the day it’s still good…it’s all nothing if the music doesn’t speak to people. So, the time spent on the business aspect is twice the amount time that should be spent in getting your intent right, getting your reasoning clear, and uncontaminated. So, bigger better shows, better songs, getting better as a group, it’s all….what’s next is what’s currently happening, which is the metamorphosis of getting better. Always gotta keep growing, progress. Records, touring.
What joy and peace James radiates from this beautiful soul, this man who strives to be a part of a positive change with humanity, making human connections, and helping our brothers and sisters out. James has fans of all ages, from 5 to over 75 and what a testament to his music, spanning generations.
I am telling you right now, if you have not ever seen a Kalu James show or heard his music, then something in your life needs to change to put you in a position to do both. So, if you want to walk into a venue and feel the music envelop you in bliss and catapult you to another universe, go see Kalu James. You can find out more about Kalu James and his band at: http://www.kalujamesmusic.com