Every night during his current national tour, Colin James faces a major dilemma. What to include or exclude from that concert’s set list. With a brand new album, `Fifteen’ chock full of hot new tracks plus three stunning covers, James simply doesn’t have time during his 21-song performance to acknowledge his catalogue while accommodating the new material.
Reached during a two-day break before a performance in Peterborough, Ontario, the still youthful 48-year old Regina native noted it was a pleasant but awkward position to be in. ”Normally, with a new album, you’re trying to work two or three new songs into the song list,” noted the affable James. “But with Fifteen, there’s so many different crowd requests for different songs, it means that if we include a number of new tracks, some old crowd favourites like `Why’d Lie’, `Just Came Back’ or `Five Long Years’ don’t get included, which is a nice position to be in. It means we can keep our set fresh and the band is so tight that when someone from the audience shouts out a request, I can turn to the band and go, okay, a one, a two, a three, a four and we can launch right into it.”
[quote]”In the early days, my American record company set me up with all these L.A type songwriters that I had nothing in common with. I loathed those sessions so much I’d get panic attacks on the way to the studio.”[/quote]Fifteen, which is naturally, James’ 15th studio album sees him indulge in co-song writing sessions with Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson, ace singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith and old Hamilton Ontario buddy Tom Wilson along with applying his distinctive touch to three classics; John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, Fleetwood Mac’s `Oh Well’, and Robert Palmer’s `Sneaking Sally Through The Alley’, written by legendary New Orleans writer Allen Toussaint.
“Yes there was talk of doing an `all-covers’ album,” acknowledged James of an obvious option, but I did feel I had enough songs of my own. I like to do an album about every two years (his last studio effort was `Rooftops And Satellites’ released in 2009) and I was really happy with the work I achieved with Gordie (Johnson), Ron (Sexsmith) and Tom (Wilson). But I’m not one of those guys that is obsessive about writing everything. I recorded Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic’ for my `Limelight’ album (2005), I wasn’t particularly happy with the recording but we added it at the last minute and it turned out to be the track which floated the record.”
Of the cover selections, James was attracted to Lennon’s Jealous Guy because of its slow, bluesy feel, yet admits he has never listened to Bryan Ferry’s much vaunted cover. “I have heard Donnie Hathaway’s version but I try to make each cover somewhat distinctive without worrying about how someone else has covered the track” noted James.
James selected `Sneaking Sally Through The Alley’ as a tribute to Robert Palmer’s ability to take blues songs into pop’s mainstream. “I could never sound like Robert Palmer, he had such a unique vocal style, yet he could make the blues sound so commercial. That guy never got the credit he deserved.”
`Oh Well’ seems James tackle a Fleetwood Mac classic and James bubbles with enthusiasm in recounting a recent visit to drummer Mick Fleetwood’s Hawaii abode (he was thinking of forming a new group) where James got to perform with Fleetwood in some local club. “Ironically it was almost all Canadians at the club, and of course a lot of them recognized me, but to play tracks like Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” was indeed magical,” allowed James.
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As for `Oh Well’ as a song choice; “When most people think of Fleetwood Mac, they think of the Buckingham-Nicks “Rumours” era, but they forget that before those records, Fleetwood Mac was a kickass blues band. When I was 10 years old, I grew up listening to guitarist Peter Green. One of the first albums I owned was Fleetwood Mac Live In Chicago. Peter Green was a major influence of mine.”
Song writing has not come naturally to James. “I started out as a performer, I just wanted to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Miller or John Lee Hooker” explained James. “But eventually you realize you have to apply your own signature and write your own material. It’s a process that has not come easily to me. In the early days, my American record company set me up with all these L.A type songwriters that I had nothing in common with. I loathed those sessions so much I’d get panic attacks on the way to the studio.
“But I’ve matured, become more comfortable in the craft and working with Tom (Wilson) has been great, we do have a great chemistry together,” explained James who noted that previous albums have been a little erratic (including his series of Colin James & The Little Big Band swing/jive records).
Stylistically, Fifteen is one of James’ most accessible rock albums with Gordie Johnson’s `Big Sugar’ guitar sound prevalent on tracks like ”Sweets Gone Sour” and “I Need You Bad” while Sexsmith adds a more melodic contribution to the reggae-influenced “Finally Wrote A Song For You” and “Shoulder To Cry On”.
[quote]”They are killing their own. To get airplay, you have to be this month’s flavour which is totally ridiculous.”[/quote]James confirmed he got the inspiration for “Finally Wrote A Song For You” while out on a bike ride. “I sung some ideas into my iPhone and for some reason thought right away about Ron Sexsmith,” related James. “Ron responded by sending back two verses and that was it. We had the song within a couple of hours. I sent him a demo to England, where he was recording, he flew over to my place and we finished off the track and co-wrote another, “ShoulderTo Cry On”.
If tracks like “I’m Diggin”, “Stone Faith” and “Sweets Gone Sour” sound vaguely like Foghat or ZZ Top that’s because veteran producer Joe Hardy co-produced the sessions that were recorded in Bryan Adams’ Vancouver studio and mastered at Hardy’s Houston Casa De Joe studios. “The guy is an eccentric genius,” bubbles James over Hardy. “He’s a computer whiz but he’s also old school with analog. The guy can just get that r&b rock sound and he’s so easy to work with.”
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James may be happy with the end result of Fifteen and his current touring schedule. “I’m getting such finger strength back that I’ve had to increase the gauge on all my strings. That’s what happens when you play six shows in a row. Yet one thing that continues to irk James is the album’s lack of radio airplay.
“I just can’t get any radio airplay on this album,” bemoans James. “None of the classic rock radio stations will play the new tracks. They’ll have me come into the station and perform, but when I leave I know they won’t be playing my new songs. And all the other stations are playing Nickleback or Lady Gaga. It’s very disconcerting.”
“They are killing their own,” protests James. “To get airplay, you have to be this month’s flavour which is totally ridiculous. Fortunately, I have a very strong fan base which has supported me through various stylistic switches and they are the ones who buy the concert tickets. In the end, radio is missing out but it’s just another obstacle I have to face.”
Photography by: Ivan Otis