Joshua James: Well, Then, I’ll Go to Hell

Joshua James

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.

Joy Like a Fountain

Matthew E. White returned to the Showbox Market to open for Okkervil River. Last time he and his band came through town he opened for The Mountain Goats. His brand new EP, “Outer Face,” is with Domino Records.

Bill Fay: Life Is People

Bill Fay: Life Is people

Bill Fay, for some, is an enigma. In our overheated, market-driven time, it’s hard to understand him (or Jandek or Sixto Rodriguez), because it’s assumed that being a recording artist and creating records is about creating audience with the goal of selling records. If you casually cast your eye over the press around “Life Is People” (Dead Oceans, 2012), Fay’s story about being dropped from a major label decades ago is portrayed as a commercial blunder, preventing Fay from selling records and having the life he could have had. And as a result he was denied a following, a “career” in music, instead having to work a variety of jobs to pay the bills.

But this misses the real story about Fay and his years in the wilderness, a story that I think directly connects Fay to Jandek and Rodriguez, equally engaged artists in their own way. For more than 30 years, Fay has been making music, creating “imaginary” records, working alone in his home studio, rising to standards he defined for himself, in a way every bit as real as making so-called real records, touring, and building a following on Facebook.

It’s important to find the artist where he lives, to find what he thinks is real. Without marketing hype to tell us what to think, we’re alone with our thoughts and feelings about what he’s created, about his own artistic satisfaction working as he does, about how he uses his environment to make his art; and we can find whatever meaning we can on our own. “Life Is People” is a brilliant record that waits for us without “buzz” or marketing. The real story about this record is the artist’s relationship with his work, and how that’s been enough to sustain him―for decades. “Music for its own sake,” Fay writes in the liner notes of “Life Is People.” He makes the wilderness sound comforting.

The genesis of “Life Is People” is connected to the early recording relationship Fay had with Decca Records, and to something personal about how the artifact, the vinyl record, can bring people together across continents and decades. Joshua Henry, the producer for “Life Is People,” first heard Fay’s songs on those almost forgotten first releases from decades ago on Deram Records (a subsidiary of Decca): “Bill Fay” (1970) and “Time of the Last Persecution” (1971). Henry’s father had the records in his home collection. From father to son, these two ancient recordings led to something new, changing both artist and producer and bringing Fay to a new level of global attention. Fay thanks Joshua Henry’s father, James Henry, in the same liner note.

Just imagine the scenario as a producer for this artist. You find two cool records from the 1970s in your dad’s vinyl. You want more, but discover in your research that there aren’t any more. A major-label beginning, and then nothing. Maybe you wonder if the man is gone. So you decide to track down the artist, and you meet a man like Bill Fay, someone who has quietly and privately continued to develop his aesthetic, writing dozens of songs, only to put them away when they’re finished, captured and just waiting to be expanded in the studio with new arrangements. And the songs work so well because of Fay’s mystical and authentic lyrics, universally honest and personal and vulnerable, filled with yearning and expression. He’s a confessional nature poet who can play the piano and sing.

I discovered “Life Is People” by seeing it in a record shop. I’d never encountered Fay’s work before, but the sepia-toned photograph of him at his piano spoke to me about this artist. His is not a young face. His hands are lined. He’s leaning into the piano and microphone. I sense a personal, private sensibility in this picture between this artist and his piano. I imagine this is how most people have come to Fay’s work, now and back in the day. We just find him by browsing, like his records have been waiting for us without fanfare.

From the opening track, “There Is a Valley,” this is a record of songs rich in metaphor and meaning. “The Healing Day” is a cyclical meditation on hope. And Fay’s cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” is perhaps more meaningful than Wilco’s own version, simply by its simplicity as Fay allows the lyrics and his solo piano to unfold without distraction. There’s a well-documented connection (and mutual admiration) between Nonesuch Records recording artist Jeff Tweedy and Bill Fay, and even that connection reinforces my theory that we just find Bill Fay’s work when we need it. If you listen to the songs and performance assembled for Tweedy’s 2006 film “Sunken Treasure: Jeff Tweedy Live in the Pacific Northwest” (available on DVD), and the soundtrack on Wilco’s band website, it’s easy to connect Fay and Tweedy in their honest, confessional lyric style. Tweedy has played Fay’s songs live on tour.

Where Bill Fay departs from Jeff Tweedy and Wilco is in his expressed spiritual― Christian―themes in some of his songs. Again, the press has dealt with this aspect of Fay’s work in depth, so no need for me to cover that ground here. I mention it because it’s there, on Fay’s record, but not as a limiting aspect of his songwriting. In fact, I perceive it as an old-school Christian sensibility written in broad strokes, non-preaching and inclusive, just the exploration of a universal human yearning to find bigger meanings in our lives. The past few decades have made it extremely hard to even mention Christianity in the context of modern alternative music, unless one is writing about Christian music, which I don’t do. All too frequently, Christianity has become the province of those who wish to narrow and polarize debate, even in popular music. But not here. Bill Fay’s songs weave together his faith and his version of a kind of nature worship, especially in the song “There Is a Valley.” Fay allows for multiple layers of interpretation and appreciation. That’s how it used to be. Faith could be expressed in art without it necessarily being a coded message, or part of “faith-based marketing.” “There Is a Valley,” the bold opening track on “Life Is People,” is the perfect track to open this LP; it highlights the two big themes in all of Fay’s work: his almost mystical connection to his Christian faith and reading, along the lines of St. Francis, and his equally mystical descriptions of how nature interacts and enfolds all things. Instead of being limiting, mysticism is an open channel in human experience, one that never shuts down through the ages.

Bill Fay’s output is now flowing into real records we can buy. His eponymous “Bill Fay” was released in 2012 on the 4 Men With Beards label, as was “Time of the Last Persecution” (2013). “Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” with The Bill Fay Group, was released by Drag City in 2006 (it’s officially out of print, but copies are still circulating). There’s a live performance on YouTube of Fay playing “The Never Ending Happening” on “Later… with Jules Holland” on BBC Two. He’s been found by the world’s marketing machine.

“Life Is People” quietly crashed into my world. I found Fay the way many of his fans found him―quietly, wandering through a record shop looking for inspiration. Who knows, maybe my finding this record when I did has a spiritual direction for me associated with it. Naturally, I want Bill Fay to make more music and reach more people. Still, I hope he makes more imaginary records. There’s more to music than sales figures. Thing is, Fay knows why he makes his music. He’s immersed in the total experience of his art and his faith. He’s always had a huge fan base, just not the kind that’s easily quantifiable. In our overheated, “messaging” world, with social media that eliminates anything resembling real society, I’m not sure we possess the imagination to understand what Bill Fay has never lived without: a one-on-one, private, spiritual, and artistic connection with what he calls the “never-ending happening.” I wish I could sit with Bill in his back garden. We’d sit, and we’d not need to say a word.

Black Sheep Boys and One Girl

Okkervil River played a roaring show at the Showbox Market in Seattle last week. It was a tough show to photograph. The floor flexed under the weight of the audience moving.

Dude Wearing My Hat

My evening with Okkervil River was intense. My location just off center stage, right at the stage front, put me in the exact position where members of the audience decided to get physical and thrash about, body surf, etc. Not at all what I expected from my listening to OR records. This was my first time seeing the band live. Early in the show my hat was slapped off my head by someone standing behind me, the first time that ever happened (I wear Stetson felt hats) and it slid across the stage to the drum kit. Will Sheff, the lead singer, picked it up and put it on the bass player, who wore it thru the length of the song they were playing. He then very kindly walked it back to me and put it on my head. Still, cool as it might be to have my hat passed around by the band, it took me out of the moment for a while.

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Little Big Sur

Big Sur, a Seattle-based band, opened for Sera Cahoone at the Shakedown Tavern earlier this month. Another band without a web profile or much detail about who they are and where they’re going. I gather there are more band members than the two shown in my photos. And I gather there are two or more bands called Big Sur. So for now, this band remains shrouded in mystery. Maybe that makes them cooler.

Tonight I’ll be in Seattle covering the Okkervil River show at the Showbox Market!