Susan James returned in 2011 with high praise for her latest CD “Highways, Ghosts, Hearts and Home”, which reached the top 15 in the JamBand Charts. Her critically acclaimed 2013 release, “Driving Toward The Sun” placed her firmly back in the spotlight.
For “Driving Toward The Sun”, James teamed up with producer Ryan Ulyate, who had worked in the past with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. Ulyate is just one of the many talented people who James attracts to her projects. The recordings include legendary L.A. drummer Don Heffington (Lone Justice) and guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Band, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals) among other talented fellow musicians.
“…a singer/songwriter can make his or her rep on two things: excellent songwriting and an eye for small musical details. Fortunately for Susan James her fourth LP Highways, Ghosts, Hearts & Home has both…Even when James isn’t messing with the formula, she’s still a step above her contemporaries.”–Blurt Online.
While Susan has made a splash performing solo with just her voice and acoustic guitar, she can also be seen with band and all the while expanding her lyrical and musical reach, all through her psychedelic, country-folk lens. Previous recordings have included folks like Tommy Stinson (Replacements) and D.J. Bonebrake (X). And live, Susan still performs with Mr. Bonebrake and other super-talented musicians who have a fondness for her unique style.
It is James, however, who stands as the guiding force behind her music and albums, creating what she calls “California Hybrid” music – melodic psychedelic folk rock, often with a hint of country. The Southern California native was greatly influenced by many of the classic L.A. bands such as the Beach Boys and on through the Byrds. Having family in Central California and the Bay Area she was also exposed to the various regions’ musical heritage as well. She studied and earned a degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA which gave her an impressive breadth of musical knowledge.
Over the years Susan has toured with a variety of musical icons, from Lindsey Buckingham to Bob Weir to Richard Buckner, just to name a few. Her music has been licensed for film and tv, and she has guested on albums of musical legends such as the High Llamas, and the late Mary Hansen (Stereolab). Her touring has taken her numerous times across the U.S., Canada, Europe and the UK.
The idea of becoming a musician dawned on James at the age of eight when two high school students came to her classroom and performed songs like “Love Potion #9” and “They Call The Wind Mariah.” This experience, says James, “was like a veil lifted from my eyes and at that very moment I knew what I wanted to do.” She later majored in Ethnomusicology at UCLA. Her studies helped to expose her to different styles of music, which she has incorporated into her own music from time to time. James, however, feels that it is important to write from her own perspective and the melting pot of cultures that she lives around today in Southern California.
After her school days, and while enjoying some success around California, her big break came in an unusual way. Following one of her regular gigs at a Palo Alto coffeehouse St. Michael’s Alley, James was asked how much money she would need to record an album. She guessed $10,000. “I had no idea at the time because I’d never been in the studio before,” James admits. A week later, a fan shyly handed her a brown paper bag filled with $9,999. The man, who introduced himself as Burrell Smith (the early Apple computer whiz), explained that his accountant said that $10,000 would adversely affect his taxes. She used that money to finance her first album, Life Between Two Worlds.
She has since released three other indie full-length albums- “Shocking Pink Banana Seat”, “Fantastic Voyage” (a double CD set of songs and instrumentals), and 2011’s “Highways, Ghosts, Hearts & Home”.
While always remaining accessible, Susan James’ uniqueness reminds us of a past review of her in the Los Angeles Times, “James’ long blond hair and folk-based songs have caused her to be compared to Joni Mitchell. The inventiveness of her eight-song set, however, showed that James is perhaps most like Mitchell because she is like no one else.”
James now is hard at work on release number five, and she feels extremely excited about the particularly creative time period she is experiencing. “I’m just hungry, happy to be back in it full-on, hungry to prove myself again, hungry to better myself, to make something people will truly enjoy beginning to end.”
Los Angeles Times:
“In her 45-minute opening set, James shows that she is already a master at exploring the emotional and sonic possibilities of the minimalist format of voice and acoustic guitar …James long blond hair and folk-based songs have caused her to be compared to Joni Mitchell. The inventiveness of her eightsong set, however, showed that James is perhaps most like Mitchell because she is like no one else.” – Noel Davis, Los Angeles Times
“She writes like a consummate pro, has an engaging voice and uses it to
virtual perfection. A few of these tracks could be hits and they aren’t even
my favorites. Pick up on this. And if you don’t, remember the name. That’s
Susan James. She’ll be back. Im sure.” – Rock and Reprise, 2011
So how does James sum herself up?
“I’m still someone who loves a well-written song, but also loves experimenting and pushing the boundaries, she says. I’m still searching as an artist and musician and will probably continue to do so until the day I die.”