Shawn James: A Product of Fayetteville Folk
While music is a hobby for most musicians, it is a lifestyle for Shawn James. Hailing from Chicago, James may not seem like a native of Fayetteville, Ark. He originally moved down here after he joined a few friends who had a band here in Arkansas for their show at the Midwestern music festival RiverStomp. Fayetteville became a second home for James. In fact, his album cover is done by local UA artist Stephanie Petet, his video is filmed by a local filmmaker and his new album has various musical appearances from locals accompanying James during his most soulful ballads like “Eating Like Kings.”
There is a particular Fayetteville charm to the music of James. His voice is similar to John Paul White of the Civil Wars, and his musicianship is similar to bands like Murder By Death. Some of his major influences include Son House, Otis Redding and Nick Cave. The end result is a musical mix of haunting and ghostly folk with the lyrical soul of a broken blues player. There’s a distant, yet familiar, quality to James’ songs.
James grew up in school and church choir as well as in the orchestra playing trumpet. He explains that singing is what he identifies with most.
“Music was always an outlet, or therapy, for me,” James said. “I was always around music; there was no escaping it. It was always going to be a part of my life.” To James, music is the purest and most natural form of art and expression.
Aside from singing and playing trumpet, James also plays guitar and piano. He plays both of these on his new album as well as during his live show, but he has many guest appearances from local friends on his first full-length, “Shadows.” However, singing is still his favorite way to express himself.
“Singing is the most natural instrument,” James said. “It’s a lot more personal — it’s me.”
James’ favorite song on the album as well as his favorite song to play live was not even written by him. “Eating Like Kings” was written about Afghanistan by one of his closest friends and is about serving in the army amid the chaos of war. James asked if he could cover it on the new album, and his friend basically “gave” him the song.
“I play it a lot slower than he does,” James said. “He told me I gave it a completely different spin.”
In reference to his album artwork, James said, “I gave her (Stephanie Petet) the name of the album, ‘Shadows,’ and she just went with it. I love what she did. It conveys exactly what I wanted the name of the album to say.”
“Shadows” recently came out on Aug. 19 and is available at many music stores in Fayetteville as well as on iTunes and Spotify.
Recently, James and a few of his friends, including Anna Hutchison, a friend and local filmmaker, created a video for his title track, “The Shadow.” James explains the song as a somber blues ballad inspired by the people who used to be in his life.
“It’s about people you want to wash clean of from your life,” he said. “It’s more or less about moving on.”
They decided to film the music video by an old factory in south Fayetteville where there is an old, abandoned white house next to a slaughterhouse.
“Everything there is overgrown and barred up,” James said. “It had an incredible atmosphere.”
They used a generator to light the area and cast their shadows upon the scene.
“The video gives the song an even deeper meaning than the song originally did,” James said. “I love that blend between film and music; there are so many possibilities open to explore.” James said that he plans to film another video for another song off of “Shadows” in the next couple of weeks.
The most interesting aspect of James’ music is that his work is essentially a fabrication of Fayetteville. The artists, painters and filmmakers are from Arkansas; the musicians are Fayetteville musicians; his favorite song was written by a close friend. If there is any artist the Fayetteville folk scene would want to represent itself, it would be Shawn James.
With eyes opened and ears peeled, be sure to check out Shawn James. To find out more about more about Shawn James, check out his Facebook page for information on shows, videos and new songs.