Joshua James playing live at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, Washington.
“The hard and wiry line…” is what the nineteenth-century English mystic poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827) said represented honesty in art. Blake had no patience for any trick or technique that obscured the truth, or struggle, of a work of art. Simplicity was essential—spiritual, cleansing, and ultimately honest. It’s appropriate to mention Blake in the context of Indie music because one couldn’t get more Indie than Blake in his day, or more mystical, a man who for the most part went unrecognized and unappreciated in his lifetime. His writing about his art, seen today as visionary text, went unnoticed by most critics, who decided what was important and what was not. And yet, truth is truth, whether or not it’s accepted in its time.
Which brings me to this time and to Joshua James. James writes his folk-inspired spiritual songs with his own hard and wiry line. His songs are almost an invitation into what feels like a personal search for a spiritual resolution, as he’s searched his long road from Nebraska to his current home in Utah. His latest full-length record, “From the Top of Willamette Mountain” (Intelligent Noise, 2012), has the vibe of a seeker. But he’s not a solitary seeker, offering an invitation to others to ask similar questions about their own lives.
Reading the lyrics for the eleven songs on “Willamette Mountain” reminded me of reading some of the journal entries of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968). It’s a quirky thing about artists who seek an introspective yet very public self-examination of their lives. They choose lives that separate themselves from the main channels around them, but then they create public work that invites others to join them, symbolically, even when the journey they’re sharing is filled with confusion, loneliness, and suffering. “Willamette Mountain” opens with a song called “Mystic,” which lays the foundation for this entire record’s message. It’s a song that questions belief itself, and asks: “And if I don’t believe/What does that mean?”
I’ve already written about my own journey with James’ music, coming to his songs with my own prejudices and concerns, and how the music itself led me to a new understanding of his art. By joining in the journey, I’ve found new meaning in his music. His songs are built to challenge. James examines his own beliefs very publicly, and he frequently finds them wanting. There’s a lot of pain in his songs. For example, “Surrender,” reveals a younger version of his artistic self who didn’t believe in much of anything. Or “Feel the Same,” where he exposes the alienation one can feel everywhere, not particularly admiring the impulse toward acceptance, but wanting it all the same.
Ultimately, mystics want to belong, which can create more confusion because of the lives they lead and the art they make. The pursuit of the hard and wiry line cuts both ways, into the artist and into those who listen to the songs. The song “Sister” quietly explores inheritance: of loss, of anger, of darkness. Like so many songs on this record, James is questioning, not preaching. It’s comforting, the notion that all the pain we might be given in our lives, which feels like a punishment, is a kind of invitation for self-reflection more than for regret. James invites us in but doesn’t offer answers.
“From the Top of Willamette Mountain” gives a lingering feeling of separation—of our lives from the lives of seekers, the mystics and the saints—we admire in the mountains. There are no tricks here, just the raw, hard experience of being human. This isn’t a peaceful listening experience; it’s an honest quest made by a man who wants answers as an artist. Still, we want a piece of his experience, even if we’re not prepared for all the honesty it will require. That’s the mystical invitation, though, age after age in art, regardless of the messenger.
How could they know just what this message means
The end of my hopes, the end of all my dreams
How could they know a palace there had been
Behind the door where my love reigned as queen
No milk today, my love has gone away
The bottle stands forlorn, a symbol of the dawn…
Let’s talk beliefs. I’ll start. First, a confession: I love the songwriting of Joshua James. I love it. There, I said it in print. I went to see him and his band at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle when he was first on the road supporting his record “From the Top of Willamette Mountain” (Intelligent Noise, 2012). I’ve been a fan from his first LP, “Build Me This” (Northplatte/Intelligent Noise, 2009), which I got for free on NoiseTrade and subsequently found on vinyl. I so wanted to write about him and started doing some research and discovered… he’s a Mormon. Maybe it was all the hideous media noise about Mitt Romney and his conservative and intolerant vision of America running up to the 2012 presidential election. Maybe there’s no maybe about it: The whole Mormon vibe and national agenda creeped me out. I pulled back. I kept listening to James’s songs, thinking my affection for his skills as a lyricist and songwriter would fade. When they didn’t, I felt stuck. How could I love and promote and write about an artist with a background that troubled me, a background that implied Joshua James would hate me if he ever met me. Let’s just say I’m not what Mormons would consider a catch.
Then, Modest Mouse rescued me. Or rather, Joshua James’s love of Modest Mouse became visible to the world, and that rescued me. In November, James is releasing an EP of Modest Mouse covers called “Well, Then, I’ll Go to Hell” (Northplatte Records). I got an advance download copy because I ordered the deluxe package of CD and poster (still available) from his website.
This is complicated. This is difficult, but I’ll be brave and press on. I know, art should be able to stand alone and be taken as something standing alone. But I’m old school when it comes to ideas, and where ideas come from. I read. I think. I evaluate. I weigh my options. I make connections and search for sources. When I listen to music by artists who inspire me, I look into where their records have come from. I did a lot of traveling in America in 2011 and 2012, and even though that’s ancient history now, I remember feeling disgusted about the obvious messaging that the Mormon Church was doing to convince people to vote for Romney. He’s just like me, they seemed to be messaging. Huge billboards showing happy people, people of color even, presumably Mormons. The fact that they were buying billboards with these pictures all over the country seemed suspicious to me, like seeing happy people on billboards would make their ideas more… palatable, more American? But I knew all about the intolerance of the organization. With his membership in the church, I had a hard time connecting James’s art to my world.
Still, I wanted it to be about the music. Joshua James’s art, especially his lyrics, are so heartfelt, so honest and powerful. “Coal War” on “Build Me This,” “Mystic” on “From the Top of Willamette Mountain,” “The New Love Song” on “The Sun Is Always Brighter” (Northplatte/Intelligent Noise, 2008). All of his records are well crafted and produced. But I just couldn’t do it. Then, I heard about “Well, Then, I’ll Go to Hell,” and I thought, maybe he is one of us after all.
It turned out that the 16-year-old James was smitten by Modest Mouse. He was in Nebraska back then. He read Mark Twain. And he said this on his website about the new nine-song EP: “‘Well, Then, I’ll Go To Hell’ comes from an indirect quote from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. People, at different times throughout history, have a notion of what we SHOULD BE, what society SHOULD ACT LIKE, how we should WALK/TALK/EAT/ACT (SING). But, it’s all hogwash. We got 20/50/80 years to live. Just sing something. Write a book. Build a chair. Do what you feel you need to. Because by GOD! Singin’ these songs sure beats the darkness.”
Game on! James has stepped out into the light. He uses words like “hogwash.” And he knows there is a darkness out there in America. He put the words down.
Isaac Brock, the lead singer and songwriter for Modest Mouse is on record as calling Christianity a gigantic “crock of shit.” But he still writes around the edges of some kind of personal beliefs, some that might be described as close to Christian. Like me, Isaac Brock would not be the Mormon’s idea of anything useful in their world. Lately, I’ve been eagerly collecting all the Modest Mouse records being rereleased on vinyl. Like most Modest Mouse fans, I watch the horizon for signs that a new record from this utterly original band is sailing toward my troubled shores. Now, with Joshua James sharing how much his Midwestern childhood was influenced by Modest Mouse songs, by Mark Twain, shows me that James harbors depths of character I previously thought impossible. Musical influences that, at the very least would be thought incompatible with being a Mormon, but most likely would need to be renounced.
The covers on “Well, Then, I’ll Go to Hell” are faithful, but James stays James and brings in his softer style and deeply evocative singing style. “Dramamine” sounds lonely, something played at the back of a bar on a tired piano with a tired band at closing time. “Gravity Rides Everything,” with all the hand clapping, feels like old-school tent-show music. “Custom Concern,” with its sad refrain added by James, “Building myself a desert,” is a weary song about being worn down by monuments and steeples set against finding and keeping dead-end jobs. And my favorite, “Sleepwalking,” feels like a lullaby―soft, dream-like, a personal memory from years ago when we all stole booze from our friend’s parents’ liquor stash, then walked out into the fall night smoking cigarettes and talking about drummers and singers and the bands we liked. The way James renders these Modest Mouse covers, you feel like he’s lived them all.
So, I was wrong. Joshua James has depths of character that my aversion to Mormonism ruled out of bounds. He’s also brave. We all come from places and have to live in places, not just in songs. We want to be accepted by the people we live with, and those we love. We all want to be loved and accepted for who we are. Then, as we find our way through the darkness, we want to be true to ourselves. That’s how it should be. I regret that America puts so much focus on religion. It’s exhausting. It’s too big. It gets in the way.
So, I can say I love the songwriting of Joshua James. It feels good to be honest and just say it out loud. Times change. Maybe someday we’ll get past religion in America. We’ll write our books. Build our chairs. We’ll do what we feel and let everyone else do the same.
“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then?”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge [from the unpublished notebooks]