Emily James – Interview

The twenty-one year old New York born, Los Angeles based singer songwriter Emily James has been hard at work during the past year writing, producing and recording new songs for a forthcoming February 2021 EP called “Wanted You to Know” Part I. She’s earned over millions of streams for her past releases, which include two EPs (in 2016, 2019) and an LP (in 2017). Her songs have a Jack Johnson meets Carly Rae Jepson kind of vibe that immediately puts you in a relaxing mood after a stressful day. After speaking to James, she has a strong sense of who she is and where she wants her music to go.

I look forward to her new release and hope you do too.

By Carly Kutsup. Photos courtesy of Emily James.

Carly Kutsup: I read that some of your influences include Adele, Ed Sheeran, Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac. Are there any others and, if so, what do you pull from each of them?

Emily James: I draw influence from a whole range of artists. I love to listen to old music and also very current music. A lot of what I listen to on a day-to-day basis is just through playlists on Spotify or my Discover Weekly. I just love discovering other artists who are doing something that’s different because a lot of where I draw my inspiration is from trying to do something different and go outside the box and bring a new perspective. For instance, right now I’ve been listening to a lot of James Blake because his production is amazing and just takes you into another world.

CK: Is there any specific artist that has had the biggest influence on your music?

EJ: It’s hard to say to pinpoint just one single artist just because even when I was growing up there was always music playing. Being the youngest of five kids and my parents having different music tastes there was just always a cacophony of artists and albums playing. So, I think that is part of why I’ve always loved to just listen to a variety of sounds and then take pieces from each thing and then you’re not just trying to be an imitation of somebody else but you’re just drawing the elements that you love from each thing.

CK: With being the youngest of five kids are any of your siblings also musical or are you the only one?

EJ: My whole family is filled with music lovers. We’ve kind of had this tradition during the holidays where after dinner we all kind of get together and have a jam session singing old songs or “Brown Eyed Girl” or things like that; so I definitely come from a family of music lovers. I never thought about those jam sessions until recently realizing how we’ve all been playing music together my whole life.

CK: At what age did you really know that you wanted to pursue music as a career and what was the defining moment that made you realize that?

EJ: I can definitely pinpoint a defining moment. I started writing songs when I was about 10 years old. A little bit after that I remember the first time I heard Adele’s 21 album. I was just so struck by it. I think I was 11 at the time and immediately hearing “Someone Like You”, I was like ‘I need to learn how to play this song.’ It just struck something inside of me and I don’t know how because I’d never experienced her level of heartbreak or loss. It just showed me the power of music to be more than just an element of entertainment, but a force that can really move people. After that I just was obsessive about it and was just writing all the time. That’s when I kind of knew this is definitely what I want to do.

CK: Have there been any other songs like “Someone Like You” that have had that very strong impact on either you personally or professionally?

EJ: I would say the song that made me really fall in love with Bob Dylan’s writing was “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. That was another one where the first time I heard it I just was in tears. It’s such a simple song and it’s the same with “Someone Like You”. “Someone Like You” is just piano and vocal and “Don’t Think Twice” is just guitar, vocal and harmonica. It’s really amazing when you see that. I mean I love exploring with production but there is something to be said about, I think, being drawn to those kinds of songs. It showed me how it all comes down to the core of the song. You know you can dress a song up however you want, but if it doesn’t move you when it’s stripped down, or it doesn’t make you feel a type of way when it’s just on a guitar or on a piano then you need to work on the song more. When I was younger and just getting started with figuring out how to use Garage Band and then later Logic I would post these covers on YouTube that I recorded and a lot of them were taking these more produced out songs and stripping them down. It’s cool how you can take a really upbeat song and then when you put it to piano you’re like wow these lyrics are really sad. I think the mark of a really great song is if you have a song that you can listen to it on the surface level and it makes you feel maybe happy and you can just play it in the car with your friends. Then you can also listen to it on your own and kind of dive deeper into it… so those kinds of songs where you can listen to it on the surface and feel one way and then dive deeper into it and it has a whole other meaning I think that’s really amazing.

CK: What is the songwriting process for you and how has it changed specifically within this past year?

EJ: For me, the songwriting process is always different, but I’d say it’s the most kind of magical thing when it just kind of floods out of you. A lot of times, or pretty much all the time, I feel like I’m not writing the song, but that the song is coming to me. I like letting it tell me where it’s supposed to go so I never like to force anything. I just kind of go run with it. I think that in the past year with writing it’s been a lot of that of trusting and not forcing anything or being like “Oh well, it’s supposed to be about this”, but that it’s going to take on a life of its own and it’s going to be what it is. I try not to go into writing a song with a specific intention of what it’s about, but rather let my subconscious kind of determine that. So, I usually go in knowing like the mood I’m in and whether I want to write something happy or more mellow or introspective. I then kind of let it carry me from there.

CK: Besides the piano are there any other instruments that you play?

EJ: I play guitar as well. I started that later. I started on piano first, but to diversify my songwriting I learned the guitar because it’s hard to write upbeat songs on the piano and when I started playing live it was hard to lug a keyboard around. It was much easier to just grab an acoustic guitar and put it on your back. Piano, I started taking lessons when I was about five and then guitar I took like a year of lessons when I was 13. Then once I had kind of the basics down I just kind of taught myself the rest from there.

CK: I read that you use your own voice a lot as your instrument and that you manipulate and create different parts with it. Was this something that just came naturally to you or was this something you had to work on?

EJ: I think I love harmonies and I love the kind of elements in a song that you really identify. The number one the reason I started doing it is just a lack of resources and not having a ton of instruments at my disposal. I figured well I have this part in my head so I kind of would put it down and then instead of replaying it on something else I would just kind of mess with it and see what would happen. Then it would kind of open up the song to all these other possibilities. I think it’s cool because it still has the human element, but it can be something where you don’t even know what’s going on.

CK: When you were 16 you moved from New York to Nashville and you now live in Los Angeles. What has living in each individual city taught you?

EJ: That’s a good question. Well, New York it’s hard to say what it taught me because that was just my whole adolescence. I still will always think of New York as home no matter where I live. Nashville taught me independence, I would say, and just because moving there for music I did homeschooling for a year so that I could graduate early and just commit fully to music. It was a period of growth, I would say for me and then coming out to L.A., what it’s taught me is how much I value. Just human connection, if that makes sense, just because I’ve made such amazing friends since coming out here. I’ve met so many amazing people. I hadn’t really done any co-writing before being here and now since moving out here I’m doing a lot of collaborating that’s been such a fruitful addition to the creative process. I just love working with people and being with people.

CK: In one of your interviews, you stated that you often delve into a more introspective or even darker side of the writing process. What do you think pulls you in that direction rather than the bubble-gum pop kind of stuff?

EJ: I think writing on my own it’s a lot easier to think about what I’m feeling deep down inside versus when you’re in a writing room with a couple people. With songwriting I’m always just trying to reflect what I’m feeling in the current moment and most of the time when I turn to writing and I’m on my own, it’s because I need to get something off my chest or say something or clear my head. So, most of the time it’s something of that nature versus if I’m excited and bubbly and ready to go, where I want to go do something and hang out with people and share that emotion. So, I think that’s what tends to lead to that.

CK: Your music video “Back in the Summer” was filmed on the beach. Did you come up with that concept beforehand or was it you just decided to go the beach and then let it take a mind of its own?

EJ: I knew I wouldn’t be able to do any kind of big production since it was in the middle of the summer during quarantine, but I still wanted to have some sort of visual element to represent the vibe of the song. My mom and I figured all right let’s go to the beach and just have fun and see what happens. I didn’t know how it would turn out, but I just kind of edited it together and was excited with it.  I felt like it represented the energy of the song.

CK: We know that you were in front of the camera but who was behind the camera?

EJ: My mom.  It was just us two. It’s something that I’m learning and maybe others are learning in quarantine is things don’t have to be some big extensive production; it’s all about the emotion that comes across and whether it represents the story and the sentiment of the song. You can have something simple or an illustrated version of something and it can still bring out that same emotion as a really highly done video.

CK: On your upcoming EP you produced played and recorded much of the music. How did you get into producing and was it something that you learned completely on your own or did you learn from any of the producers that you’ve worked with?

EJ: Starting from my first project, my self-titled EP, which I worked with Shakir King and Ian Fitchuk, which I was very fortunate to have that opportunity and I knew where I wanted to go with the songs and same with my album. After that I’ve always had kind of like a vision for the songs and it was just that I needed help in executing that. Of everybody involved and having their openness to my opinions, especially with being such a young person and not really having any experience before that, was really encouraging to me. They would trust me and we would just kind of build off of each other. That gave me the growing confidence to keep speaking up and having more ideas and just trying things out and not worry if it didn’t work out. I feel like most of the time when you’re in that creative process and as soon as somebody says, “All right this might be really weird, but I’m just going to try this”, it usually ends up being something amazing. After that, with my “Dreaming” EP, as I’ve grown with my writing as I write the song I know how things are going to sound in the production and I just figured I’m not going to be afraid to just try this myself. Maybe in a few years I will know way more and think “Oh I would have done that differently”, but it’s all about the learning process and just doing what you can with what you have at the time. Doing that project really gave me the confidence to feel like “Okay, I can call myself a producer now”, which I still have a little bit of like imposter syndrome with that, but I’ve totally learned along the way from all the producers I’ve worked with and even my collaborators. I’m still always asking questions and for recommendations. I just feel very fortunate that everyone’s been so supportive of encouraging that with me.

CK: You mentioned previously that you use Logic. Is that the program that you’re currently using now?

EJ: Yeah, I use Logic mainly just because again I started with Garage Band so it was a simple transition into that. The process of learning on your own is so beautiful because you make mistakes, but you also kind of stumble into areas that you wouldn’t have if you maybe took a formal class on it. Both processes are totally legitimate, and I respect people who learn from classes, but personally with my experience learning on my own has just allowed me to think outside the box a bit more.

CK: I saw that “Wanted You to Know” there is a Part I after it. Will there be a part two?

EJ:  There will be a part two at some point in time.

CK: I read that you like making connections with people and that someone sent you a video of their baby dancing to your music. Has there been anything else, similar to that, that you have received or has inspired you?

EJ: The thing that moves me the most is just people who reach out to say that my music has helped them in some way or even a friend telling me about a conversation that they had with somebody who said that my music got them through a really difficult time. I’ve heard people describe my voice as soothing to them and I that means so much to me because the fact that people would go to my music for comfort means a lot to me. I’m happy that my music can provide that for people. I always feel that in the creative process these songs are my babies but then once I release them they’re not mine anymore. People are going to attach their own emotions and experiences to them and they become their songs and they’re not my songs anymore.

CK: Would you say that’s why a lot of artists don’t like explaining what their songs are about?

EJ: I can’t speak for other artists, but in my experience it’s hard to talk about what a song is about because it could be just too personal. The other reason would be because you don’t want to limit the song to just that one experience. Music is meant to be shared and it’s important that other people don’t feel like their attachments to a song are illegitimate because it wasn’t the original intention of it. I think the original intention of the song serves the writer of it and the creator of it, but then whatever people feel about it after that’s what’s important to them.

CK: With having over 21 million views would you say that having social media platforms makes it a lot easier to get noticed than without it?

EJ: It’s hard to say. I think a lot of my support has come from the DSP’s so I think social media is a very powerful tool. So far with my music I think the audience has come more from playlisting and stuff like that so I’m very grateful to have the support of the DSP’s. Even though places like Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon are places to discover and listen to music, you can’t really have that interaction between the artists and the fans. I do think social media is powerful just because the ability to directly speak to your listeners is amazing especially now when we can’t physically be together. It also allows you to talk to people across the world and it allows you to have that connection.

CK: Since you grew up in a very supportive family who supported your music, what advice do you have for someone who either is at a crossroads as to whether they want to pursue a music career or not or with not having the support that you you’ve received over the years?

EJ: I pursue music because it’s what I love. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I think in any career whatever you find that you just believe “This is it. I can’t see myself doing anything else” is what you need to chase because no matter how many people tell you no or you can’t, you are going to make it happen because you know that it’s what you have to do. I think no matter what obstacles you face, you can find a way to get through it as long as you believe in yourself and that sounds so cliché, but I really think it’s true. If you find the power within yourself that’ll get you really far.

CK: Your song “Back in the Summer” gave me a little bit of that Jack Johnson vibe. Is that what you were going for?

EJ: I respect Jack Johnson and think he’s amazing, but honestly, I haven’t listened to a ton of his music so that wasn’t really on my mind but I’m honored to have the comparisons.

CK: To close it out this interview, what would you want your music legacy to be?

EJ: Oh wow… that’s heavy. All I can ask for is to make some sort of positive impact in this world. So, if my music brings someone comfort or happiness or brings people together, that’s what I look for just because I think if it’s not about human connection why are we here? I think the power of being together and coming together, whether in whatever circumstances, is the reason why I do things. I just always want to connect with people and bring some sort of good energy so I think that’s what I would hope for.