Joshua James

Jessica Willi and Lauren McMicken

It was ten o’clock on August 19th, and we were standing on East Carson Street looking at a tiny Corolla with a small trailer hitched to the back. Inside the car was a cooler that had to have been taking up at least half of the backseat. Somehow, we had to cram five people—two of your trusty writer/board members for The Cut; upcoming folk musician Joshua James; the tour manager, Kyle; and their friend Court— into approximately three and a half seats. Some shuffling went on, and eventually the two of us found ourselves sitting together in the front passenger seat, being driven to Carnegie Mellon by James. After grabbing a parking place, the five of us climbed Flagstaff Hill and took a walk around campus.

But let’s back up for a second. Joshua James—who is he, exactly? Way back in March, we were browsing through iTunes taking advantage of the free downloads, which are usually decent at best. This specific week, “FM Radio” by Joshua James was available, and it was, surprisingly, actually enjoyable. It was repeated many, many times that week, and the following week… and the week after that. Going to his website ( and finding out he wasn’t a one-hit wonder was the final piece of the puzzle: Joshua James had entered our music collections, and his songs would be in our heads and on our “Top 25 Most Played” lists for the next six months.

So we walked around campus with James and his friends while the former filled us in on stories of his life and the tour up until then—stories about running from police at a swimming pool at one in the morning, spending a night in Wal-Mart, and trying to find hobbies while growing up as a middle child of six siblings in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After touring campus and visiting the OCs who were painting the fence, we sat on the sidewalk outside Donner and learned a little bit more about Joshua James and his music. “I draw on a lot on personal experience,” he explained, “things I see everyday, things I see in the country and… all the negative things, I feel. Unfortunately that’s just what I write about. Also, a lot of things from my past and my brothers’ past, like suicide, drug addiction… [my music] has come to be more of an emotional release than anything.”

While it’s true that many of his songs deal with serious, heavy topics, he manages to bring them across in a way that doesn’t feel overbearing. What’s more, the folk music he writes has a sincerity and exigency that isn’t found in the works of many other artists. Much of his music plays with extremes—good versus evil, light versus dark—in stark, unpretentious melodies. Because of this, James’s lyrics tend to be the focal point of his songs, while the guitar and back-up vocals complement the meanings of the lyrics well. There are lyrical gems scattered generously throughout The Sun is Always Brighter, his first LP. Highlights include “The Lord, the Devil, and Him,” (which deals with his brother’s cocaine addiction) when he sings, “It is now and we are cold/To see you sick with half a soul/Words are cheap and love it speaks/The volumes that we need to make our hearts grow weak,” and the lines “It’s been four long years since I’ve seen your face/Your voice will still resonate inside my bones/When the breeze runs by and whispers that old song” in “Abbie Martin,” named after a childhood friend. Our personal favorites include the tracks “Lovers Without Love Like Me,” which can be found on his set of b-sides, It’s Dark Outside, and “The New Love Song”; iTunes records “Today” as his most popular download.

One of James’s defining qualities, which immediately catches one’s attention, is his unique voice and delivery. His captivating tone helps to shape the feelings he conveys—the emotional ties he has to his music he writes is clear when one watches him perform live, even more so than a recording could convey. During his sets, he plays with concentrated intensity that communicates beyond a doubt the sincerity of his compositions. It is his total investment in the messages and music he shares that sets him apart from the typical singer/songwriter.

What makes Joshua James an even more exceptional artist is that his career is just getting started. As he explained, “I didn’t play music until I was 21. I played a tiny bit of guitar… I didn’t know anything, people just taught me songs. I didn’t know what chords were.” Today, he is 24. The amount he has accomplished in such a short time span is mind-boggling, and largely thanks to the internet ands iTunes. In March, for example, “FM Radio,” the Discovery Download on iTunes, reached over one hundred thousand people. He has also earned a spot in the iTunes Essentials Contemporary Singer/Songwriter collection. James’s career is just beginning, and a lot more should be expected from him in the upcoming months and years.

The performances James started in the beginning of August and is continuing through the end of this month comprise his first real tour. Nevertheless, he has already had the chance to play with a number of well-known musicians. He gave us a basic outline of his tour—and keep in mind that he (or, rather, Kyle) drives almost everywhere he plays: “We recently played with John Mayer in Florida— Ben Folds and James Morrison also played that show. Then, when I was in South by Southwest [a music festival in Austin, Texas], I played with a lot of really cool people: Aqualung, Tom Morello [the lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine], Badly Drawn Boy… along with a lot of others.” James started his tour in Atlanta, Georgia on August first. Since then, he’s been traveling almost non-stop. He spent the first month traveling North along the East coast, stopping in cities like Charlottesville, Philadelphia, and New York. In the beginning of September, he jumped on the tour with Brett Dennen for about two weeks, and then traveled around the Southwest, to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Through October, he will be opening for Erin McKeown. So far, everyone seems to be pleased with the results. “[The tour] has been good,” he decided, “really good. Better than expected, actually… We weren’t expecting to be playing to so many people so consistently.”

The real question, though, is what the next step is for this talented, rising star. In the future, James hopes to keep performing and keep touring. In addition, he’s planning to release a second album in 2008—he recently finished recording eight new tracks in Los Angeles. He half-jokes that if he were able to live solely on the money he makes from his music, he’ll be as happy as he could ever be. For the time being, though, he is content to mooch off of us poor college students and our organic macaroni and cheese. We spent the rest of the late night and early morning hours pondering lecithin, sharing our biggest fears, and spending long periods of time at the swivel chairs in front of CFA. It goes without saying that the night of August 19th is one that will be hard to forget.

For more information:

Tour blog