Saturday, August 6 • 3:00pm • The Bowl
“There is a mystic in the mountains high above the Great Salt Lake/ He’s dancin’ in the heaven far below his golden gates/ He’s lookin’ at our cars below/ And laughin’ at our rock & roll,” sings Joshua James on the first lines of “Mystic.” On 2012’s release, From the Top of Willamette Mountain, James deals in the currency of mysticism, trading thoughts of life’s repressiveness and his misgivings about organized religion for a search for the holy, a personal quest for transcendence.
Raised in hard-bitten Nebraska, James’ work reflects a distinctly American ache yearning for an open road. Beckoned westward out of his heartland by the voices of Jim Morrison and Isaac Brock who inspired him to release an album of Modest Mouse covers coined “Well Then, I’ll Go To Hell”, he made it as far as the mountains of Utah, where, he was stopped in his tracks by the arresting beauty. Here, where the mountains pierce the heavens, some believe a conduit is open between man and the divine.
Strangely familiar, yet refreshingly innovative, James’ songs are devastating in their honesty, working with themes that are intermittently elating, melancholic, and transcendent. He doesn’t so much perform these songs, as he does let them possess him, allowing his voice to be throttled from a husky whisper to a full-bodied roar.
His first two albums, 2007’s The Sun Is Always Brighter and 2009’s Build Me This, topped the year end ‘Best of iTunes’ lists, while earning ecstatic praise from press. “Build Me This is convincing from its opening line…through its solemn last words” exclaims Paste Magazine. “Every line rings with desperation and a desire for salvation” writes Esquire.
In early 2011, he headed back to Utah, for an extended stay at home. James took to gardening, raising goats and chickens, and developed a heightened connection to the living things around him. Ultimately, his home/farm were deemed ‘Willamette Mountain,’ a namesake that came to James in a dream. “We’ve got a few acres, goats and honeybees…it’s a place for reconnecting with nature, and for letting go of everything else.”
When the new record, James felt he needed to veer outside his comfort zone artistically. His search, along with longtime friend and bandmate Evan Coulombe, coincidentally led him to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, home base of producer Richard Swift (Damien Jurado, Gardens and Villa, The Mynabrids). Holed up in Swift’s creative alcove National Freedom, the three of them took James’s voice and songs in unexpected directions, interested much more in honesty than sheer flawlessness. Swift captured the immediacy of James’ live performances by recording one or two live takes. Then James stepped back to make way for Swift’s own artistic vision.
As a result, James found his own voice while escaping the traditional confines of the folk genre. “Wolves” begin sparse and pretty before suddenly moving into the epically symphonic. “Ghost In The Town” is a poignant goodbye to youth in the form of a guitar strum noir. The album’s lead-off single, “Queen of the City”, came out of a late night, whisky-induced haze, depicting the internal paradox of good and evil, the id and the ego, faith and doubt.
“The writing and recording of this record has been a time of transition and realization for me,” says James, “and that set me free to explore other sounds and forms of expression. It’s been about finding a center and realizing that not everyone needs to see the world like you do. I love the fact that we are not all the same, nor should we be.” Whatever he found up there at the top of his imaginary mountain, James now seems to be directing his questioning inward, rather than towards a hole in the sky, and the conversation is getting much more interesting.