Wednesday, October 22, 2014

With new album in tow, Chicago musician Angela James bringing original sound to Constellation in Chicago


On her new album, "Way Down Deep," Chicago musician Angela James channels classic country music artists like Patsy Cline and Rosanne Cash while creating a sound all her own.

James will celebrate the release of the new album by performing Nov. 1 at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., Chicago. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and tickets are $10, available at

I had the chance to talk to James about the new album.

Q - Great talking to you. In sitting down to make "Way Down Deep," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? Is there a meaning behind the album's name?

When I first set out to make the record, we wanted to begin with some live recording in one of my favorite places to play and hear music in Chicago - Comfort Station. My husband, Jordan Martins, is the co-director of that space and it has incredible acoustics and energy.

It was also winter time and I was interested in recording and playing in a cold environment. At that point, Comfort Station wasn't very well-insulated.

For some reason I wanted to see if I could hear/feel the cold in the recording, but I didn't want it to be too uncomfortable. I brought space heaters and plenty of bourbon to the two sessions we did there so people could keep warm.

We taught the musicians the song when they got there and Nick Broste recorded a few takes of each song. Jordan wanted to capture the energy of people just learning a song so it's still fresh and tenuous and we also wanted to record with people that I wasn't playing with already.

It was a great excuse to get some improvising musicians I admired involved in the project. So that was first. Then I worked on getting some foundation tracks at Minbal with Benjamin Balcom (who recorded and mixed my EP) and I continued work on those with my friend Robbie Hamilton at Pieholden Suite Sound. 

I then went back to work on the final songs for the record with Nick Broste at Shape Shop. I think my goal was to make a record in many different places with a lot of different people to reflect the music communities I'm fortunate to be a part of. I literally wanted it to be a record of my experience being a musician in Chicago thus far.

As far as the title goes, I wrote the song "Way Down Deep" in the style of a murder ballad to reflect my Eastern Tennessee roots, and it also tells the story of how I came to meditation and yoga. I think the line, "I found my closest kin way down deep within" is very significant.

Q - I understand that the album is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency and is partially supported by an Individual Artist Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, as well as a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. That seems like a unique way to make an album. Did it validate your efforts knowing you had other people supporting you?

Absolutely; it was great to be validated and supported in my first full length album. And I wouldn't have been able to finance making a record without those grants (Individual Artist Grant from DCASE and an Individual Artist Support Grant from the Illinois Arts Council). 

Most emerging artists I know are financing records through Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites as having record label support is pretty rare unless you're a more established musician. I feel incredibly fortunate to have received two grants and feel like I can at least "break even" on making a record.

Q - I am sure you've heard your music described in different ways. How would you describe your music?

I always say: Like Patsy Cline on Quaaludes. It's kind of a joke, but also accurate.

Q - How did you go about picking the musicians that are featured on the album and what do you think they brought to the project?

Some of them - Anthony Burton, Justin Brown, Dan Mohr, and Bill MacKay have been playing with me from the beginning, or I've been involved in projects with them for a few years. Jordan is involved in the jazz improvising community, primarily through booking shows at Comfort Station and formerly the Relax Attack Jazz Series at the Whistler. 

He got to know a lot of the musicians that are featured on the album as a fan of their music and as someone who booked their groups at other venues. When the time came for us to put folks together for the recording he suggested some players, as well as my drummer Charles Rumback. 

I have grown and improved so much through playing with so many musicians from different communities/backgrounds. It's been incredibly inspiring to be around musicians who are so dedicated to their instruments/craft and play every day and gig several nights a week. 

That kind of passion and dedication pulled me through the more confusing moments of making this record.

Q - How do you think growing up in Eastern Tennessee has affected your music? It seems like alternative country artists are the ones going backing to the roots of country music rather than mainstream country acts. What do you think of the country music scene these days?

I wrote a Master's thesis centered around country music, nostalgia and the music you hear in your youth, but I'll keep this brief - you can't escape what sounds are around you growing up before you've formed your own "taste." It's going to come back somehow. 

I didn't set out to write songs that were inspired by classic country. It wasn't like I made an artistic decision, it's just what came out of me.

I had never written songs before either. Sad songs come naturally to me, I'm from Eastern Tennessee, I like bending my voice, and I have a bit of a southern accent, so I guess it was bound to happen. 

I'm not trying to make much of a statement and "Way Down Deep" is much more subtle in the country references, I think. My EP "Down and Out" was me confronting that influence more directly and now maybe I'm not as focused on it, or I'm just playing music with more people and that's changing my sound.

It's really hard for me understand what genre I fit into. As far as the country music scene now, I really don't know anything about it because I don't intentionally listen to it. 

I kinda listen to everything but contemporary country, actually.

Q - Your husband is part of your band. Are there more pros than cons in having your spouse in your band?

Many more pros. It's the best. He's the first person that hears me develop a song, he helps me write songs, and he's great with arrangement advice.

He's basically my co-producer. It wasn't an easy thing to do at first; we had to figure out a system and get better at it.

There were some definite awkward moments and arguments, but now I think we're pretty great at working together. I can't really think of a con, actually.

He would probably say that he doesn't get paid very fairly, which is true. Hopefully I'll get to a point where I can pay him what he's worth!

Q - Along with being a musician, you are also a yoga instructor. How did you get involved in yoga? How do you think yoga has helped you with your music?

I got involved in yoga right after finishing college while living outside of Asheville, N.C. I was fortunate to encounter a great teacher right off the bat, Fred Brown, who opened my eyes to the amazing world of yoga and committing to a practice of self-realization.

I was hooked and it has completely changed the course of my life. When I moved to Chicago, I almost immediately began studying with Gabriel Halpern and started apprenticing with him shortly after attending classes at his studio, the Yoga Circle. 

He has been immensely supportive of me pursuing music and following a creative path. When I first met him I wasn't playing music at all, I didn't even call myself a musician. 

Through his support as a mentor, I found the courage to take a risk and "go all in" with music. My yoga practice mostly helps me with keeping perspective on life and music. 

I think that all creative people have serious self-doubt and loathing. In fact, I think all human beings do, but when you're creating something so personal to potentially share with others there are definitely some dark moments. 

I also think it helps me embrace failure in a healthy way. I've failed a lot in the past three years, and sometimes on stage, which is not fun but really not a big deal at the end of the day.

Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and where do you think you fit into it?

I love making music in Chicago. It's a incredibly generous place to play music and a lot of the scenes cross-pollinate in interesting ways.

I love that I've only been making music here for three years and I feel so comfortable and confident in playing with new people and pursuing new projects. Generosity is really the best word to describe it.

There's also such a great history of improvisation in this town that I find inspiring. I'm not an improviser, but I draw a lot on the spirit and energy of it in performance. 

As far as where I fit into it - I really have no idea. I mean, there are singer-songwriters I feel an affinity with, but my music doesn't really sound like theirs.

I collaborate with people in many different genres and feel pretty awkward when I try and figure out where I fit in. I don't want to evade the question entirely, but maybe somebody else can answer that question better than me!