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Behind The Curtain: Colin James

By Erin McCallum.

For those who are regular readers of “Behind The Curtain”, the process of this column has remained the same since the inaugural edition. For the newly initiated, it is important to know - every publication follows the same method: investigating within the biography of the featured member of the Canadian Blues Collective to learn something exclusive. These instalments reach beyond the press release and the regular biography, so, the content of this article always comes with a recommendation for readers to investigate further, to learn more about the artist of mention in each edition. Most “Behind The Curtain” readers arrive at this column knowing enough about the artist of mention to want to know something more - about process, inspiration, history, or methods - in a more in-depth way than can be found elsewhere, and that lends purpose to this article. Achieving the objective of discovering something exclusive about featured artists can be challenging when an artist’s contributions are well documented, and their career has been longevous, acclaimed, and is ongoing. It requires approaching the investigation with an in-depth knowledge of the artist’s biography prior to going straight to the source to turn the curiosities into information, and being able to objectively obtain the facts for interested readers. This month’s issue features one of the most recognizable artists in the Canadian Blues Collective: Colin James.

Colin James, although likely best known for his contributions as a guitarist, is a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and producer who has been a recognizable artist on the commercial and live Canadian music scene for decades. He boasts many awards, has achieved commercial success through record sales, and has achieved a name recognition that crosses genres in the music ‘biz’. By my own account, Colin James has been signed with every major record label with the exception of Sony, and that is likely solid proof that his music has made a commercial impact. To include his achievements and biography in this column is, simply, not possible. After decades of studying James’ career, the questions that remained were ones that could only be answered by having a direct conversation. In this feature, portions of that direct conversation are put on the record, providing readers with that peek ‘behind the curtain’…

In many cases, listeners aren’t afforded the chance to know what was happening behind the scenes while an album was being made, or what the true climate of an artist’s career was like at certain milestones. Often, careers are marked by the era of an album, a formation of a band (in Colin James’ case, the Little Big Band can be referenced here), a decade, or even a different stylistic approach. For this investigation, the objective was to learn from James himself what was happening behind the scenes during a very specific portion of his career; a portion that is best identified by recalling two of his full-length recordings: “Bad Habits” (1995) and “National Steel” (1997). The two albums are unique in contrast to James’ previous recordings (“Colin James and the Little Big Band”, 1993, and National Steel was released as a follow up to “Bad Habits”), and both are unique in comparison to each other. Something to consider when examining this portion of James’ career is that both albums are bracketed by Colin James and the Little Big Band offerings (“Colin James and the Little Big Band II” was released in 1998). It makes sense to look within these biographical milestones to get a first-hand glimpse of what was happening behind the scenes in that era, hoping to learn something that the discography, liner notes and official biography doesn’t offer. In a one-on-one conversation, Colin James spoke candidly, offering insight to interested parties. The discussion started with James offering readers his perspective on how “Bad Habits” took shape:

“I felt like my first record was not a strong record, and I didn’t really think it was a very good album. My second album was a way to try and put my money where my mouth is, so to speak (Of note – James’ 2nd album was “Sudden Stop, released in 1990). Then, there was the Little Big Band in ’93. When it came time for “Bad Habits”, the producer had come over intending to do a quick Little Big Band album. There was no real plan to make “Bad Habits” a certain way, but it was really a chance to capture me, with where I was at musically, maturity wise. It’s not an album that people warmed up to right away – it took months of some kinda poor reviews before people warmed up to it, but I think it was a real chance to record where I was at musically at the time.”

For context, it is worth noting that by 1996, James was awarded a Juno Award for “Male Vocalist of the Year”, and by my own account, “Bad Habits” had sold upwards of 70,000 albums by 1999. When asked to speak about his work as a vocalist, James offered:

“I’m in a world of Blues Rock, and it’s a world where people put a lot of store in eight minute solos, but that’s just not my thing. I like to put equal store in my singing and playing – I like to get in, and get out.”

In learning something more about the process of “Bad Habits” and some of the unseen, perhaps undocumented, observations from James himself, the natural course of the conversation led to the follow-up album, “National Steel”. For those who are unfamiliar with “National Steel”, it would be fair to make the assertion that this recording is quite different in content and approach than any of Colin James’ previous releases. It features predominantly acoustic tracks, and covers from some notable Blues and Roots artists (Otis Redding, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters songs are all included on the album, and the liner notes of the physical copy feature a brief commentary on many of the tracks). It is also worth mentioning that “National Steel” was co-produced, by Colin James and Colin Linden (who is a featured artist in “Behind The Curtain”, for those who would like to learn something more about Linden). When asked about “National Steel”, James offers insight in his answer:

“With respect to “National Steel” – of all the albums, this is the one that nobody wanted. It didn’t even count toward (sic, as) one of my contractual albums with the record company. I funded the album myself. I made it in my basement, and I had no help with it, so there really were no rules.”

It is worth noting that “National Steel” earned James a Juno Award for “Best Blues Album” in 1998. James’ account of the circumstances in which the album was recorded perhaps provides insight into his process as an artist. One might reasonably conclude that his artistry, and determination to share his music in an uncompromising way, is a reason why “National Steel” serves as a notable ‘point of difference’ in James’ discography.

Following up on James’ answers, there’s merit in asking what his biggest challenges have been over the course of his career. In lockstep with the candid nature of the conversation, Colin James offered:

“As far as challenges go, I’ve never gotten into this business for the business. I am not a businessman. I am a musician. Managing business, keeping track of your contracts, and making sure that numbers add up is always a challenge. My main focus is always on music and being a musician.”

As the conversation came to its close, James was asked what advice he would give to an aspiring musician who is looking to follow the path of being a full-time professional musician. He offered this:

“Don’t do it because you want to do it – do it because you have to do it. Do it because it is in you, and it leaves a whole lot less space for failure.”

It’s safe to say that Colin James has lived that advice. As is the case with all instalments of this column, there is much more to know about Colin James and his career that cannot be covered within the confines of this particular forum. The objective in this feature has been to investigate and discover something about James that offers readers insight into the nucleus of his process and musical journey beyond the press release and bio. As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Randall Cook.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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