Boston, Massachusetts to Los Angeles folk rock singer-songwriter James Houlahan meets with us at Bru Coffeebar in Los Feliz to discuss his latest release The Wheel Still In Spin, his thoughts on full-length versus singles-based releases, and discovering the differences between national and international performances.
So, you recently released your album The Wheel Still In Spin. Wanted to say congratulations!
James Houlahan: Thank you.
And for those who have yet to discover its awesomeness, would you care to share a little bit about the kinds of stories and experiences that you included in the album?
James: Sure! Well, if you look at the title, it’s kind of reflecting this theme of staying in motion regardless of what’s happening. I feel like these are really crazy times especially in this country, and for me, that just makes me go look inward and try to assess what’s important to me and this and that. But there’s also a double reading to the title where if you’ve ever seen wheels spin, sometimes they look like the spokes aren’t moving at a certain speed, almost as if they were going backwards. But then sometimes they kind of look like they’re not moving, so there’s this idea that even in the midst of crazy motion, you can kind of be still and be in the present regardless of what’s going on around you. It’s a tricky double meaning there.
Those are always the best, the ones that make you think, which is sometimes what we really need in our lives.
James: Yeah, exactly. So that’s the general overall vibe of the album. A lot of the songs are about traveling and some of my experiences being on the road playing music, as would make sense.
And which song would you say was your favorite to write and record? These can be separate songs too since they’re different processes and all.
James: Hmm. Favorite? I guess I actually have one that fits both categories. “Spirit/Music,” the second song on the record, is an ambient piece of music, and it actually started where I took a poem by the American poet Gregory Corso and I put it to music. It’s always been one of my favorite poems, but it’s really short so I wrote a second verse in the style of his form. I was really excited about this because this was a way to incorporate a piece of literature that I really like.
It’s like when people say that music is like poetry with sound.
James: Yeah, there’s an overlap there. I don’t think they’re always the same thing, but there can be an overlap and I always find it interesting where that gray area is. And then in addition to that being the writing process, when I was recording it I had Linda Perhacs come in to add to the mix. She’s an indie folk singer that released her first album in 1970 and thought it wasn’t going to go anywhere, but forty years later it had acquired this great cult following and there’s all these tributes and stuff. She eventually made a follow-up record forty years later, which is just awesome. She’s kind of a legendary psych-folk singer. My producer Fernando Perdomo works with her, and he was partially responsible for helping her come back and make new music. Anyway, she’s a very special and visionary talent, and we got her to sing and write some lyrics for that song too. So now I have these three figures, this dead poet, Linda Perhacs, and me, all involved in this one track. The writing and recording process for that song was definitely a special experience.
And it’s definitely a great story to hear about the different components on how the song came to be. And even subconsciously when we read poems, sometimes we think that it could make for a good song.
James: Yeah. And I don’t really collaborate as much as I should in songwriting, so that was kind of cool.
I mean, you got someone awesome to work with you!
James: Yeah! I was very honored to have her help with the songwriting and to have her on the on the album.
And how was the songwriting and recording process for this album was similar or different than that of your past work?
James: I don’t think too much was changed for this album. Songwriting is always changing for me because I’m always exploring new things. The recording process was much different because it was the first time I’d ever worked without a time limit. With previous records, I would hire a studio and I’d have like a day or a set amount of hours to do something, and I think that really puts pressure on what you’re doing, what you think you can do, and on your expectations, so you feel like you have to have everything lined up. You can’t be like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we change the key and added strings and brought in this person?’ You can’t, because you’re always kind of watching the clock. So this time working with Fernando Perdomo, we just took time to do each song and give it as much time as we wanted. I mean, we still ended up working very fast anyway, but there was no pressure to do it in that particular way and it gave us a chance to explore different instruments as well. I had a lot less planned out and I was more open to taking risks in the studio.
Yeah. And I’m sure a lot of what ended up being on the record came more naturally than with having a constrained time frame.
James: Right. Yeah, there was no need to compromise with anything or cut any corners. Not that I cut corners normally, *laughs* but it was kind of like this psychic load off where you feel like you can really spend some quality time with the music.
It’s the quality over the quantity aspect. In this case, it’s with time. Something that we don’t have nearly enough *laughs*
James: Right. *laughs*
So if you had an unlimited budget, which song from the album would you choose to do a music video for right now at this very moment in time? While we’re sitting here drinking our lovely sparklers. *laughs*
James: Wow, unlimited budget. Well, there’s a track on the record called “Faded,” which is basically just about air travel and dealing with airports and such. I find air travel to be kind of a weird situation where you’re in the sky for a while, almost like your’re leaving the planet for a little bit, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a weird opportunity for reflection even though airports, and airplanes, are a little crazy and discombobulating and disorienting. I would love to shoot a video using some crazy airports and have a big camera crew, maybe get some airlines involved, get some cool shots in the air and stuff. But yeah, that’s way beyond our resources right now. *laughs*
You’ve got to get started on those letters to the airlines!
James: Absolutely! *laughs*
So whether we like it or not, social media seems to have taken over as the main form of marketing. Would you say that it helps artists to break out or do you think it adds on an extra pressure with having to be on all of these platforms and sharing all this stuff about yourself?
James: I think it’s pretty cool from an initial standpoint where anybody can make music, get it out there on platforms, and then try to engage with other people about it. That’s a great thing, because we don’t really need record labels anymore to be able to do things on that level. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to separate yourself from the crowd because everybody’s doing it. So it’s kind of like, everybody can do it, but now you have a million people all wanting to tell you about their newest album and it ends up being hard to wade through that. Anyways, your friends and your word of mouth and those kind of things still have a lot of value versus like, ‘Oh, I saw a Facebook sponsored post or something.’ It’s a nice option. But on the other hand, I’ve grown really skeptical about algorithms and I feel that especially on Facebook, it just seems to be not as cool as it used to be in the sense that, I don’t know, like, I’ll give you an example. So I have like 1100 friends on Facebook, but only a handful of people interact with my posts. It’s weird, and I think it’s the visibility in the news feed where there’s a tendency to reward certain things, but I’m not really interested in a lot of those things, you know? It’s kind of like, you can have a presence on social media, but I’m not sure if that means you have good music . I think there’s still two very different things going on, so I’m skeptical of having these algorithms just sort of pummel me into obscurity.
Facebook can get a little bit wonky sometimes. I always feel like I’m seeing stuff from the same five people everyday.
James: Yeah. It’s very much trying to anticipate all this stuff. Sometimes I just want to see the latest post or see somebody that I haven’t spoken to in a while. Like, ‘Oh wow! Imagine that! Using social media to stay in touch!’ *both laugh* I don’t know, it’s just starting to seem like a squandered opportunity a lot of times.
Do you feel like that social media combined with music streaming puts a pressure on artists to constantly have something out or have something going on?
James: Yeah, I think that pressure is pretty real. I don’t like to compare myself to other people, but when you’re on social media and you see other people doing an excellent job at it, you can’t help but be like ‘Wow. Maybe I should take a video at my next rehearsal.’ It does feel like there is a kind of pressure to stay present in people’s news feeds or whatever, but I generally try not to cave under that pressure and I feel like I only want to contribute something when I know it’s worthwhile.
As you should.
James: Right. But I’m kind of losing on that level because I’m not the guy where every day I’m like, ‘Hey! Check this out!’ It’s more of like, I would rather just wait to have something and I think that is important.
Totally. And kind of going along with of music streaming and how there’s a trend where singles-based released are more of the norm as opposed to full length albums. Do you feel that music listeners now have different priorities in terms of what they’re looking for in a release?
James: I’m not really sure I know much about this because I’ve always kind of been an album person ever since I was a little kid. I do know that the music industry has always favored singles because there’s automatically more product there, and in turn, you can have a lot more artists at any given amount of time doing ten singles versus one album for each. If you go back to like the 50s or whatever, it was all singles. I think albums kind of came and went in terms of commercial prominence, so I think we’re back to the singles based format. I think that generally, if you’re trying to reach the largest audience possible, that’s just the way they’re going to want to hear music instead of a whole album. I mean, let’s face it, not every artist wants to make albums. Honestly, some of them work better in the singles format or an EP format. An album is kind of an abstract thing, but it’s had its day and I think we’re just kind of back to where we were before.
Agreed. But I also feel like an album is more of a story of that artist going through all the stuff they’re writing about at that specific time in their life.
James: Almost like a snapshot.
Yeah! A musical snapshot! But then you have these singles, and its almost like we have this mentality of, ‘Ok, now I’m going to listen to this song today.’
James: Yeah. I think a cool way to do it, that I’ve seen some people do, is release a few singles and sort of build an album from there so it satisfies both types of listeners. I mean, I released a few my songs from this record as singles first just to see people’s reactions.
I always thought that was the most natural way to do it.
James: Yeah, especially when a lot of my music is very different from song to song. Sometimes I get people who will buy my album and be like, ‘There’s so many different things happening here. I thought they were all going to be like this one song.’ Well, no. *laughs* So maybe for that person the singles format is better for digesting my music.
It happens. *laughs* So you’re originally from Boston. I’m sure there’s some feelings about the World Series.
James: *laughs* Well honestly, I’m not that big a sports fan. I know Boston is like sports central where it’s like ‘The City of Champions.’ I used to watch Red Sox games with my grandfather when we were we were like the ‘lovable losers’ before like 2004 when their World Series dry spell ended.
And then the movie Fever Pitch came out. *laughs*
James: That’s right! It did! It just ended up became this huge thing after all that so I can’t say I’m a big sports fan now.
Understandable. *laughs* But going along with your music and being from Boston and coming to Los Angeles, which I’m sure was a crazy experience at the beginning.
James: Oh yes. *laughs*
What would you say some major differences are in terms of music supporters who come to shows between the East Coast and Los Angeles?
James: It’s kind of apples and oranges, but I’ve gotta say, I’ve been in L.A. almost seven years now, so my familiarity with the Boston music scene is kind of becoming a distant memory for me. *laughs* I don’t want to say like it’s like ‘this’ or it’s like ‘that’ because it’s kind of been a while, but generally in Boston the scene itself is a lot smaller. There’s still a great diversity of artists, and there’s lots of times where you will hear about some band playing the club next door for like a year, and then all of a sudden you’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to check that place out. There’s a lot of potential and it feels a lot bigger than it is in a way. There’s just a lot of great talent, and a lot of artists in Boston have residencies or have reputations where they kind of hold court in their particular club or bar or whatever, and they stay that way for years. In L.A., there’s a lot more variety and a lot more happening where the scenes are kind of all over the place. I mean, you can talk about being in Culver City versus Echo Park and you might as well be on different planets. *laughs* There’s so much more music here, but it seems like things just come and go so fast where it’s really hard to settle down into a scene. I’ve been a part of kind of these little communities of singer-songwriters that blow apart really quickly, and then there are open mic nights that come and go. So it’s just a lot more chaotic here, but that can be a wonderful thing because there’s more opportunity for the unexpected to happen. Like, you could end up seeing your favorite guitar player jamming with your favorite singer in some random club at like 2:00 am. *laughs* That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in Boston. But I love being in L.A. and I appreciate the opportunities and the talent level that it brings out of you. People come here that have dreams about music, so if you’re going to make that trip that automatically means you’re different from the person who’s like, ‘I don’t want to leave my hometown.’ I really respect that. But for me, I needed to go on this adventure because if I didn’t I would have regreted it. So I think having all these people who are coming here looking for adventure and looking to fulfill their dreams really takes it up a level.
Do you almost feel like there’s some sort of competition between all the different music scenes?
James: I just think things change over so fast, you know? There’s a lot more of a state of impermanence here where the venues change or booking people change or a club’s business model changes. It’s almost really hard to keep one thing going. Of course there’s a lot of competition, but honestly I think it’s better when people are working together because I honestly don’t really know what we’re competing for. *laughs* Like, when I meet people and they’re like, ‘I came to L.A. to be famous,’, I’m not sure we’re going to have much to do together because I want to make good music. I don’t know what it really means to be ‘famous’ in music anymore. All my favorite bands I talk to people about, they’re always like, ‘Who’s that?’ *laughs* They’ll say, ‘Oh who’s your favorite rock band?’ and I’ll say, ‘My Morning Jacket’ and they’ll be like, ‘I don’t know who that is,’ or ‘Never heard of them.’ I just think we’re in that state now where everybody’s taste is more fragmented and it’s like, ‘What are we were competing about? What are we competing for?’ *laughs*
Well I’ve heard of My Morning Jacket. *both laugh* But I totally feel the same way. Like, I’ll talk to my friends who are the same age as me, and you would think that we would all know the same bands, but then they’d be like, ‘Yeah. I heard one of their songs back in high school’ and I’ll be like, ‘How do you only know one song??’ *both laugh* And then I’ll go to something like Emo Nite and I’m surrounded by people who know all the same bands and are belting out all the songs with me. *laughs*
James: But it’s kind of cool though, because on the other hand you’re in that community where everybody has that in common. It’s like ‘us versus them’ where we all know this is cool and are like, ‘They don’t know what they’re missing.’ *both laugh*
And then you’re like, ‘Your music taste sucks!’ ‘No! Your music taste sucks!’
James: ‘How could you have never heard of this band before!?’ *both laugh*
It’s like the never-ending argument of who’s ‘right’ and who’s ‘wrong.’
So you recently did another tour through Germany.
James: Yeah. My second time over there.
What would you say the differences are between touring internationally and touring in the United States?
James: Well I can only speak about my own experience, but for me, a specific thing is that there’s a booking agency Germany that works with me. So that’s a big difference because I don’t have an agency in the U.S. I do all my own booking and promoting and everything here, so it’s really great when somebody is willing to work with you and shoulder some of that burden. The other big difference is, at least in Germany and from other friends who tour in Europe generally, is that audiences are more likely to be paying attention. There is sort of an unwritten value on music performance and general art and culture where it’s like, ‘Oh, the performer is doing something. Let’s pay attention.’ You don’t have a lot of TVs on, sometimes people are talking, but they’re kind of shunned by the rest of the room. *laughs* But even in Germany, like, despite the language barrier, people pay very intense attention to my lyrics and my songs considering I’m kind of a nobody to them. I mean, a lot of these people have never heard me before. So yeah, the level of attention and the value that seems to be put on performance, over there there’s just a higher degree of respect. It’s just wonderful! I wish it’ll rub off more in this country! *laughs*
Yes! There’s been many a time where I would go to a show and this group of people just won’t shut up.
James: Yeah. Have you ever seen that Jeff Tweedy YouTube video where he’s ranting against people talking during a show? He makes a great point about people being together, and as a performer, I’ve noticed that if people are paying attention you can do stuff with a show that you can’t do with people who are talking the whole. Like, if you’re all together, you can have moments during that show that are going to be really amazing because you’re all in that moment together, you know? I really value those experiences.
Yeah. It just seems like now we have such a low attention span that it’s affecting our ability to properly watch live shows.
James: Yeah, definitely.
How do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
James: Very carefully. *laughs*
You’re like, ‘What is balance?’ *laughs*
James: Exactly. *laughs* I mean, when you work for yourself and you are your own boss, it’s really hard to know when to make time for other things, or even just to say, ‘I’m not going to do this tonight because I promised I would do something unrelated to music.’ It’s like, when you have other obligations, it’s kind of hard to find the line between personal and professional just because they’re so inter-blended. For me, when I write songs on the personal side, the professional side kind of naturally comes together. But when I’m thinking about the business side of music, yeah, it’s really hard to take a break or do something that’s good for you.
Everything is just a little gray.
James: Yeah exactly. It’s really hard to know when you’ve worked enough. Like, I end up asking myself, ‘Well, I just sent 100 e-mails for this tour. Should I send another fifty tonight?’ It’s like, where do I draw the line?
It’s the workaholic’s mentality. *laughs*
James: Yeah! It’s hard to know when to quit. *laughs*
And that’s when people say we have a problem. *both laugh* So if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
James: Oh wow! Let’s see. So I would definitely want to be on tour with Willie Nelson. So Willie Nelson is the headliner.
Especially because he’s still alive. *laughs*
James: Yeah. *laughs* Well see, when you ask that question I’m assuming we’re talking about people that are alive.
Oh we can totally bring them back from the dead if you want. *laughs*
James: See that’s the thing. Like, I’d love to go on tour with Leonard Cohen or something, but in terms of like living artists, I think Willie Nelson would be a great headliner. Lucinda Williams is going to play before him. Father John Misty is going to play before Lucinda, and then I’ll open the show. I think Lucinda and Willie are two people that I would have so much to learn from in terms of being a performer or being a songwriter, just having a relationship withsongs. Willie Nelson just blows my mind with his career from the kinds of songs that he writes and the songs that he chooses to sing. Even though he didn’t write the hit “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” he still has a very deep and credible relationship to song. And Lucinda is the same way. Her father was a poet, so she’s very immersed in that gray area that I spoke of between poetry and music. And so from them I think it would just be kind of like the old school singer-songwriter types. And then I’m like, ‘Well, maybe I want to hang out with somebody more my own age,’ so that’s why I think Father John Misty is a good fit. I’m sure we’d have a good time. And I like what he’s doing too where it’s this really interesting presentation of the songs that really make you think, but also make you feel at the same time.
Isn’t that what we all want out of music? Make us feel and think.
James: Right! Because the two shouldn’t be separated and they should work together.
Yeah. And that’s why music can cause certain emotions to be brought up when you’re listening to song.
James: Yeah. It can have that unconscious access to your unconscious where there’s like a picture or a word or a phrase, and you remember something or imagine something, whatever it is, and now you’re experiencing that song in your own way. It’s hard to explain that to somebody else, but it’s a very special and important thing to you. So yeah, it has that thought component, but then also a feeling where you can’t really articulate why this is happening. Why did the color blue make me think of my grandmother? Maybe it doesn’t matter why, maybe I should just enjoy it.
Yeah. I mean, sure it’s nice to be able to have something to listen to wher you don’t need to put much thought into it. But also, I myself like to go a little bit deeper into the lyrics, especially with more upbeat songs. Sometimes you realize, ‘Wow, this song is dark!’
James: Yeah. It seems like some of the happiest sounding songs, if you go a little deeper, there’s a world of darkness there.
Yeah exactly. That’s one of the interesting things about music, like, how the listener wants to portray the song. It’s so easy to go into that dark space when you’re listening to a certain type of song, but then you can also go about it in the complete opposite way. It’s almost like an experiment to see if people are going to look deeper into the lyrics or stay on the surface level with only hearing the happy beats.
James: Or maybe they don’t even know, where it’s like a Trojan horse with all the happiness on the outside but inside is all that dark stuff. You’ll let it in, and then it’s either just sitting there or maybe you relate to it unconsciously and are completely unaware of it.
And then when you realize what it’s all about your mind explodes!
James: Yeah you’re like, ‘Oh my God!’
‘I had no idea! Now it makes so much sense!’
James: ‘Now I know why I liked it so much!’ *both laugh*
This is very clearly a relatable topic for us. *laughs* If you could give your younger self some advice in regards to your music career, what kind of advice would you give him?
James: Don’t expect to make much money. *both laugh* One thing that kind of tripped me up for a while before I got more serious was waiting for other people. With being in a band and waiting for other people to take things as seriously as you, it’s really tough to push through that. I really envy bands that are successful and have made great careers because there’s such a particular chemistry there that has to happen between the band members where they’re on the same page about the creative aspects, but also making the effort to take it seriously. It’s so rare. So like, I spent a lot of time kind of thinking I had to be in a band, until one day I was like, ‘I can’t wait for other people. It’s my life, my songs, my music, and if I can’t find that chemistry I need then I need to just do it myself.’ I was kind of treading the water there for a bit until I really started swimming. So ‘don’t wait for people’ would be my main advice.
And it’s funny that you bring up the band chemistry aspect because there’s been so many times when band members get replaced because the rest of the band wants to do other stuff with their career.
James: Exactly. And then it’s really hard because I think with a band that’s really really good means every member is important, so it’s really hard to replace members and keep going. I like to think of My Morning Jacket, I think the drummer and the bass player are the only two original band members, but they’ve had other people come in and they sort of grew over time. But talk about a tightrope! I can’t even imagine doing something like that. Like, it worked out great for them, but I can see in most cases that it would be very hard to make it work.
That’s why you see very little bands that have the original lineup throughout their career.
James: You’re right.
I can probably count on one hand how many bands still have the originals in there.
James: Are there any? *laughs*
There’s a few. They’re out there. *laughs* They need like a gold star for putting up with the same people for so long. *laughs*
James: Yeah. I think any band that reaches the fifteen year mark means you’re in, like, a special club or something. *laughs* It’s like, if you could have a band and can be successful for fiftenn years, I feel like that’s the lifespan.
Absolutely! And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
James: I want them to discover something that means something to them, something that’s important to them. I want to make music that’s useful to people where they can have a relationship to a particular piece of music, or lyric, or whatever it is, that they feel is very important to them. Also something that might change over time, maybe it changes into something I don’t even imagine it being. I want to make the best work I can so that I can have that possibility and that potential. For somebody that hears my music, I would like them to have the ability to feel something very significant to them, maybe something that can’t even explain to somebody else.
Until they meet another superfan!
James: Right. *laughs* ‘Oh you heard that too?’
‘Let’s be best friends!’ *laughs* There’s so many stories of people meeting that way though.
James: Oh totally!
That’s why music is the universal connector.
James: Yeah absolutely!
And to end us off, apart from riding the highs of the release of your latest album, what other big, exciting things should we be forward to?
James: Well, I’m planning a big tour for next year. Probably in the United States. Definitely in the United States. *laughs* Like a cross-country thing. On the other hand, since I’ve been touring and working with the album release and everything, I need to get back to some songwriting. I’ve been thinking about interesting ways to take it up a notch and thinking about going out to the desert for like a week or so just by myself and doing some writing. I’ve also got some videos on the horizon. But yeah, lots of touring, lots of songwriting, lots of videos coming your way.
About Bru Coffeebar:
Ah Los Feliz, ever-growing in popularity for longtime Angelinos and newcomers alike. With that ever-growing popularity comes a peaked interest in cafes and coffeeshops, in which Bru Coffeebar flourishes in its prime location on the hustlin’, bustlin’ Franklin Avenue. But don’t let its dainty exterior fool you , because once you step inside you will be amazed with the amount of space that is being housed. A clean, open floorplan gives patrons the opportunity to find their preferred spot for uninterrupted intimate conversations, work sessions, or simply some much needed ‘you’ time with a delicious cup of caffeine and a scrumptious snack. If you’re looking for a little more privacy, head up the stairs to their loft area for more seating and a better way to enjoy the ear pleasing light jazz or soothing indie music playing throughout the shop. Or if you’re looking to people watch with your favorite pooch, claim your spot at one of their few outdoor tables to witness the buzz of the growing Los Feliz pocket in real time.
Bru Coffeebar’s ordering bar matches perfectly with its modern interior with an organized display to help visitors decide on their choice of beverage and pastry combination. Not only do you have your choice of your favorite espresso drinks, but you’ll also be able to pick from a fun mix of specialty and seasonal drinks, which includes a refreshing sparkler made with tea or fresh juice and sparkling water. And if you thought choosing something to drink was hard, wait until you get a look at the delicious (and huge!) baked goods that they have to offer. I myself was intrigued by the sparkler drink so I went with the Jasmine Rose Sparkler to go along with my heavenly guava cream cheese croissant. I was definitely a happy girl, so thank you Bru Coffeebar for the wonderful experience!