Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Blind Lemon Pledge Interview

Evangeline is your latest album. What does it contribute to Blind Lemon Pledge’s story?

“Evangeline” is the fourth album I have recorded under the Blind Lemon Pledge name. And in this album I come full circle back to the style of my first album – creating, recording, producing, and editing all the tracks and instrumentation myself.


In 2008, I was able to devote myself “full-time” to my music. As part of that development, I set up a home recording studio situation that allowed me to record and edit on my PC.

In 2009, I released an album called “Livin’ My Life With the Blues”, using my new stage name, Blind Lemon Pledge. I had taken the name from an old Martin Mull comedy routine. I liked its combination of humor and tribute to the old blues men who have always been such a big influence on me. For this first album I created a fictitious backstory which reads like the liner notes to an old blues album. Readers can check out this story at: blindlemonpledge.james-creative.com.

This album is a combination of classic blues songs and my originals and was recorded and mixed entirely in my home studio. The music was done in a style reminiscent of the old time blues string bands and jug bands. I researched places on the internet that might be amenable to this kind of music and began sending out disks. With very little PR, I got a wonderful response and the album was played worldwide on radio and internet stations. It was named one of the top blues albums of 2009 by KPIG radio.

In 2010, I recorded another album, this time with my self-named band, Blind Lemon Pledge (guitars, harmonica, bass, keyboard). The album, “I Would Rather Go Blind” was recorded in a studio using ProTools. It was the first time I had ever recorded in a professional studio doing each track separately. On past band projects, I had always recorded essentially “live”, that is recording the band as a whole and then overdubbing vocals, lead guitar, and a few other tracks. However on “I Would Rather Go Blind”, I recorded each track on its own. This gave me tremendous control and flexibility in honing the sound and the performance.

This album did even better, got international airplay and was named one of the best of 2010 by KPIG as well as in the top 100 singer/songwriter albums by iTunes Ireland and iTunes Austria. This album is still being played, downloaded and sold to this day. The sound is unique – a combination of acoustic feel and electric sensibilities. Very different.

I followed this in 2012 with studio recorded 6 song EP called “Against the Grain”. Although I was happy with the results, I felt the project did not merit a big distribution effort, so I did not go for the kind of airplay I had gotten in the past. Again it was recorded with the Blind Lemon Pledge band, although, by this time, the personnel had changed. In retrospect I think this EP was kind of a “practice run” for my next project.

And this brings us to my new album “Evangeline”. This time around, I decided to do all the instrumentation myself. The past projects had taught me so much about the possibilities of the studio and my own capabilities. I knew that to get the varied sound I wanted and to take full advantage of my studio time, I would have the most creative control by recording and editing everything myself. And it truly paid off. Each song on the album is a little journey into a totally different style of music from chain gang chants, to New Orleans honky tonk, to folky ballads, to Jump Jive, Salsa, Deep Delta Blues, jazz, etc. All of this using everything from guitars to keyboard to marimbas to complex polyrhythms, etc.

I feel the Blind Lemon Pledge story has turned an important new page in my musical development.

Which tracks off of Evangeline are your favorites, and what about the efforts make them?

Of course, for a songwriter, naming one’s favorite tracks is a bit like asking a parent to name his favorite child. But…sometimes there is indeed a favorite or two. I think my favorites are:

- “Buley’s Farm” the opening track. I have long been a fan of the prison work gang songs that were recorded by John and Alan Lomax in the early part of the last century. And I had always wanted to record something with that feel. I toyed with covering some of the old songs, but finally got the inspiration to write my own chain gang song. I found a sound effect of a real chain gang which I used for rhythm, carefully spacing the “whomps” to sync with the tempo. Then I multi-tracked my voice to create the sound of a singing group of working men and women, deliberately recording some of the tracks off-key so that it would not sound too “pure”, like a barber shop quartet. And as a final touch, I added a harmonica and cigar box guitar instrumental part (although this was not authentic to the sound). I had just built a CBG and very much wanted to record it. This was the perfect opportunity. And I am delighted with the result. This track has been getting a lot of airplay. There is nothing out there that sounds like it.

- “Midnight Assignation” the fourth track. I love this song and it is always a favorite in live performance. When I wrote it, I had the idea of creating a compelling repeat guitar riff like so many of the great blues songs. Against that riff, I wrote a song about the classic blues theme: selling your soul at the crossroads – the most resonant of blues metaphors. At first I recorded the song acoustically, which is the way I do it live. But when I began to listen back to the first sessions, I realized it needed to get much more depth to make the song work the way it was demanding. So I double tracked the guitar riff on both acoustic and bottleneck steelbody guitar. I then ran the slide guitar through a processor which added some gritty distortion and suddenly jumped the song into a blues rock vein. I am very happy with the slide work on this song. I think Duane Allman might even be smiling in guitar heaven.

- “Go Jump the Willie” track 5. I love Louis Jordan’s rhythmical and humorous music. I wrote this song as an homage to his wonderful Jump Jive which was the bridging music between Swing Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll. The bopping rhythm, the jivey 3-part harmonies and the swingin’ keyboard solo all make this track one of my favorites. I also think this track, when contrasted to the two previously named songs, helps define the breadth of my songwriting range.

- “Evangeline” the last song and the title track of the album. This song is directly influenced by Son House, Muddy Waters, and Skip James who have been huge influences in my musical life. I began listening to Son House when I was 14 and, although I have heard all of his songs many, many times, I never grow tired of what he brings to music.

I wanted to write and record a dark, acoustic-oriented song, what they call “deep blues”. I got the idea of the title character from the actress Evangeline Lilly who was one of the stars of the old “Lost” tv series. Definitely had a secret crush on her. Then I changed the pronunciation to echo the “alien” qualities of the old blues guys I emulate.

The recording couldn’t be simpler: bottleneck guitar, second acoustic guitar, muted and sparse bass and drum, beating to a somber cadence. I did all the guitar work in single takes, then chose the take I liked best. No editing or cut and paste. I am very happy with this song and I think its soulfulness defines everything I have tried to do as Blind Lemon Pledge. In post, Arno Hachaduryan, my engineer and friend, mixed in some sparse ghostly sound effects on the fade out, which I think definitely add to the haunted feel I wanted.

The other day, a radio programmer compared my slide work on this song to Ry Cooder’s. Although, I would most humbly disagree, I sure am glad to take the compliment!

What artists possess the greatest influences on your music?

My music has been described as a cross between “Muddy Waters, Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Dylan, and Randy Newman” and I think, in some ways that is an accurate depiction. I have extremely eclectic tastes and influences. Everything from blues to folk to rock to Rap to R&B to jazz to American Songbook, as well as a variety of  world music, especially Chinese and other Asian classical. I also love Latin and African music. It’s almost easier to say which kinds of music I don’t listen to.

I don’t think I have been influenced by any individual artist as much as I have been influenced by all the different streams of music that flow through my life. Obviously there is a blues tinge to almost everything I do, but the blues is such a varied and hugely influential type of music, that I can’t really say “Oh, yes, this one artist was a big influence.” I am drawn to almost any music that speaks to the heart and gut.

How has your style evolved and changed over the time since your first album?

I think I have gotten much freer in terms of following my ideas and letting them go where they will. My first album was consciously trying to emulate a certain sound: old blues string bands. My new album has ten songs and ten distinctive styles.

Can you describe your creative process and your recording set up for us?

I think I have gone into the creative process pretty thoroughly in the preceding questions, so I will just elaborate a bit.

When I am writing a song, I just grab the ideas that float into my life. Sometimes it’s the name of a movie. Sometimes it’s a phrase. Sometimes just an idea. I tend to tell stories with my songs and I like that style of songwriting. I am not a great one for the usual “confessional” singer/songwriter angst screeds. Often I decide to write a song in a specific style and I let the style define the theme and the lyrics. I keep a notebook and jot down ideas as I go. And then I latch onto the ones that really talk to me and take those songs to the finish line. I am not a tremendously prolific writer, but the songs I do complete tend to be “keepers”. Contrary to most songwriter “advice”, I do not write every day or even every week.

When I am picking cover songs to perform or record I tend to lean towards songs that have interesting, non-cliched structures and that maybe haven’t been covered so much (although I certainly do my share of the old warhorses). I will often re-arrange them in a brand new way in order to make them my own. I never do a song “just the way such-and-such” did it. Not interested…never have been. One time, my radical re-arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” (an old warhorse if there ever was one) was so different, my keyboard player quit because of it!

I have three basic recording set ups. In my home studio, I use Sony Acid on a PC with a PreSonus Firestudio interface. Although ProTools is certainly the industry standard, I really like Acid. It is much more intuitive for the non-gearhead like myself. And a heck of a lot cheaper! For mobile recording, I use my iPad and StudioMini XL. Finally, I use high end studios with a good room, good mic and ProTools for whatever recording sessions I can’t get done at home.

How can interested readers listen to your music?

The best source of my music is my personal website at: james-creative.com. There readers will find samples of most of my music. They can also visit my three band sites: dustups.james-creative.com and blues.james-creative.com for blues; and jazz.james-creative.com for my American Songbook/jazz work. My CDs are available through CD Baby and through the usual channels like Amazon, iTunes, etc. And also available to stream on Spotify, etc. And of course I am all over YouTube. Just search for “Blind Lemon Pledge”.

Do you have any live dates or performances that you are promoting?

I try to keep my websites up to date with live date listings. (Although I must admit I sometimes let this go…I just forget!)01_01 My band, The DustUps is currently my main source of gigs and we perform between 5 and 7 times a month. We have regular and special gigs around the San Francisco Bay Area, including a fun gig at Caffe D’Melanio in San Francisco on every third Friday from 7-8:30. This is a great place to catch me and my band. Readers can write to me at dustups@sbcglobal.net to be put on the mailing list. I perform with my four/five piece group, as a duet, and as a solo depending on the show and the venue.

What has been your most memorable live experience?

Hard to say. Certainly, the first time I nervously went out on stage to sing and play guitar way back in Junior High is still in my memory. But I would say the first time somebody came back to one of my shows and requested one of my original songs. I knew then that, as a songwriter, I was actually making a connection. The most important thing you can do as an artist.

What goals do you still have left to accomplish in your career?

That’s easy. I would love to have a well-known artist, in any style or genre, cover one of my original songs. And, although I have had some placement in smaller film/tv productions, I would love to get one of my songs in a big budget/widely seen production.

Thank you for your time. Do you have anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

“Evangeline” is my best and most accessible album yet and I truly hope readers will open their ears to it and let it into their lives. I have been getting great response and very positive reviews so far. And I hope that people will enjoy the album as much as I enjoyed making it. And thank you, James, for the opportunity to share it with your readers.