by Dan Brisebois
He’s proven himself to be one of Canada’s most prolific artists, and arguably the toughest to corner into any particular genre. With roots that include almost every great blues, jazz, and pop performers, Colin James has run the gamut of the spectrum over his career, dabbling in just about every genre there is to master, and even has a Christmas album project in the works.
DB: Little Big Band 3
tease me a little
what can we expect?
CJ: “I’m really, really happy. Again, I got to pick from the same well of players. It’s actually in a lot of ways a lot like the first one I did in ’93. Basically, people from all over, Las Vegas, Vancouver, just all over North America. We converged in Nashville a few months ago, and we came out with 32 songs, if you can imagine.
DB: How do you go about cutting it down from that many, to 10, 12 …?
CJ: I think I probably ended up doing two records. We’ll let the first one out, then see whether the second one is good enough to warrant being released or not later on. Plus we also just did a Christmas record. But we’re holding that out until next year. But I’m really, really happy with LBB III. Colin Linden, the same guy that produced this is the guy who I did my last record with. We just had a great time, he’s got great ears, just a killer engineer. It’s a little less ‘swingy’ than my last LBB record, a little more rockabilly, a little raunchier.
DB: You’ve covered just about every genre in your records possible. Anything really abstract you’ve been afraid to try?
CJ: Not really. I’ve been really lucky, in that most of the places I’ve wanted to go, I’ve managed to go. When I did FUSE a few years later, when I started writing a lot of my own material, it was more of a modern record. I put it on the other day, just because I hadn’t heard it in a long time, and it’s still pretty bluesy at its roots. No matter what I do, that’s the root of what I do. Soul and blues music is kind of at the root of everything I do. Sometimes it comes out more modern rock, sometimes it comes out as more of a blues record, or a Little Big Band record, or maybe it has kind of an acoustic thing going.
DB: How do you go about deciding what sort of record you’re doing next, or do you decide? Or does it just sort of come out that way, part of the process itself?
CJ: The Little Big Band, what it is for me is a way for me to put out lots of music, without necessarily having to sit and slave over the writing for two years. I pick a Jackie Wilson or a Ray Charles, I pick the best music I can find. I wrote two for this one, usually I write 2 or 3 just to feel like I have some part of my own personality showing. But really, it’s just an excuse to get together with some of the best possible musicians i can find in the business. And it’s such a joy for me. Just hire the best of the best, just make music. Don’t worry about whether I wrote it, or didn’t write it. Just sing as hard as you can, and as good as you can. I’m writing my own stuff, but it usually takes a couple of years to get it all together. And as much as I enjoy that, it’s work. It’s so great, the Little Big Band just allows me to have fun, play music and to put out music. It’s kind of a nice feeling, when you know you’ve got a record in the can. I’ve got two or three records in the can right now. So now I can just leisurely start going back and write my own music again, and in 3 years or so, out comes another record. This way people can’t say I’ve been gone.
DB: How do you go about putting your own stamp on a cover?
CJ: I guess, not trying to be too slaveish about copying the original, taking the best parts of the original if you can, and just sort of make it your own. Don’t over listen to the original. My criteria is if we go into the studio and we feel like there’s magic in the room when we cut it, and it translates, great, put it on a record. If it just ends up sounding like a copy of the original, why bother? What’s the point?
DB: Tell me the story of how you wound up opening for Stevie Ray Vaughn when you were barely old enough to drink.
CJ: I was living in Vancouver, and got really broke at one point. I went home to Saskatchewan really broke, and ended up going home to bum some money off my Mom. I got a call, and had to hire a bunch of people I didn’t even know. We all met up in Saskatoon about an hour before the show, and jumped on stage and played a 45-minute set, in which time I broke almost every string I had on my guitar. Stevie came around, and took pity on me because I was hiding behind the amps stack … He threw me his guitar, then he got me up on stage for his encore, then did the same thing the next night in Regina.
DB: At what point did you realize you’d ‘made it’? A certain concert, an album, what?
CJ: I think it was when I first got signed to an American label. Finally the woman who wanted to sign me with A&M jumped ship and opened up the brand new Virgin Records America out of Los Angeles. She came right to my gig as soon as she was free, and signed me to a multi-record major deal. So I guess that’s when I realized they’re going to give me money to make records, and figured I’d have a crack at it.
DB: How’d the appearance on Corner Gas come about?
CJ: I have some friends on the show, Janet Wright, the woman that plays the mother directed me in some plays back in Saskatchewan, and I’d acted a bit when I was young. Really, it was just a bunch of friends, and I’m a Saskatchewan guy, so I think people from there know that, that probably had something to do with it.
DB: You a ‘Rider’s fan?
CJ: O ya! I’ve been in BC for about 20 years now, forever, but I just can’t buy into the BC Lions. But ya, I’m a big CFL fan. I don’t watch the NFL at all.
DB: What do you say to the critics or fans that try to ‘label’ or brand you into a particular genre?
CJ: That’s fine, it happens. I just keep playing, I just don’t think much about that stuff anymore. I think you should worry about whether your body of work speaks for itself. It may not happen in some of the ways you like to see. But I think eventually it makes sense.
DB: What would you say is your personal legacy to the history of Canadian music?
CJ: I’m proud to play the kind of music, maybe not the most popular, and it’s also kind of a dieing art, blues guitar playing and singing. A lot of my heroes that were doing it when I grew up listening to it are almost dead. Pretty much to a letter the second generation blues guys are all pretty much gone now. I’m proud to keep this thing going. It never fades away completely, but a lot of the people who did it originally will be gone eventually. Another 10 or 15 years, there’s not going to be anybody. I’m happy to try to keep that torch going.
There’s no substitute for work ethic, and getting out and playing, and putting in the time. A lot of these contests now where you can become a rock star in 5 minutes, I know it’s entertaining, and it’s reality TV, and everyone eats it up, but there’s no substitute for putting in the time. Everyone’s getting on that whole reality TV bandwagon now, and it’s just getting ridiculous.
DB: Reality TV gives TV a bad name.
CJ: I have no argument there.
DB: So what are you listening to these days?
CJ: I’m listening to a lot of Van Morrisson these days. I’m kind of a creature of habit. And I like Pink, I like the way she handles herself, and she’s a real singer too. There’s no BS going on around her. She just kind of lays it down, I like it.
DB: How would you categorize Canadian radio’s support for homegrown artists, or lack thereof?
CJ: I don’t know, they’ve been pretty good to me. So I’d be amiss to complain a whole bunch about it. I don’t like it the way things have become divided though. There was a time when good music was good music, and it didn’t matter if it was a little older or current, or whatever. Now they’ve really divided and set up the boundaries, where if you’re 18 to 24 you’ve got to hear Nickelback over and over, or if you’re older you have to hear Pink Floyd The Wall for the 18th million time. That drives me crazy, because I don’t want to hear Voodoo Thing all the time. It frustrates me that I put out a new record and they’ll play it, but two months later, boom … Voodoo Thing is back on again. But hey, I’m lucky to have a couple of songs to have found their way onto that playlist. It’s a hard place to get to, where it actually gets played for years. So, I’m grateful.