"We Were Already Alone Together": Brendan James On Songwriting, World Travel & A 'Leap Taken'

Brendan James had created five albums, had an established reputation and a good touring circuit. But for a period of several years, the big experiences of welcoming his two children into the world and learning how to be a dad seemed to interrupt his songwriting process. Then, another major life event, taking a trip around the world with his family and living in other countries for six months, coincided with a discovery of his new muse, his family itself.

While traveling, Brendan James created the groundwork for most of the songs on his recently released album, Leap Taken, and the way that the songs focus on relationships and connection make them all the more relevant during these days of isolation and uncertainty.

Brendan James spoke with Tower's PULSE! about his musical inclinations right now, how his world trip came about, how his new music played into that trip, and what he's taken away from those eye-opening experiences as a person and as a musician.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What kind of musical traditions are attracting you right now? I know that your music doesn’t really fit easily into one particular genre, nor really should it.

Brendan James: I’ll be honest, right now, in this last six week period, my creation seems like it’s shifting. I bet a lot of artists are experiencing that this year. I have felt more freedom and abandon because the whole world is upside down right now. It’s given me permission to let loose a little and explore more things. I’m currently putting autotune on my voice. I feel like I’m in some Hip-Hop song. It’s so crazy but we’re creating this whole new sound. It’s so fun.

HMS: It’s wonderful to hear about such a positive development. It’s true that when everything is thrown upside down, the old assumptions, that might have been limiting you, are also removed. It sounds terrifying but full of possibility.

BJ: Totally. Something that’s always held me back is the knowledge that I have to pull it off perfectly live. I’m such a live performer. It’s the lifeblood of my career and I do 90 shows a year. I’m always thinking, when I’m writing or Producing it, that I have to pull this off as good, if not better, live. That can limit an artist in the studio creatively. Now that I’m not performing live much, and I’m just creating, it’s like, “Screw it! What do I want to create?” It’s like an empty canvas. I’ll figure out the live thing later.

HMS: This is going to be the moment for your Pink Floyd album. [Laughs] I have heard a couple of people say that, that without the pressure to have to pull things off life, they find they are suddenly composers in a way that they have never realized before.

BJ: Really! Exactly. Most of us who perform live are at one instrument or two instruments, at best. But the full album that I just released is definitely in my alley and it’s a little more beat-driven and tight-Pop than anything I’ve ever done. It has a clean sound, which is what I wanted.

HMS: Before Leap Taken, what was your normal writing and recording process like?

BJ: That’s a really huge question. When I think back to my previous five albums, I always tried to be writing music. In my daily life, when I’m off tour, I love sitting with my headphones on and some Logic program open, trying to lay down ideas. I do usually have to wait for a window of time to begin, that I have no control over, when songs start flowing and they start completing themselves.

I remember so specifically for my album Simplify, I did go to a cabin in the woods to start the process, but then over the next two months, I was in an apartment in Oakland, California, and it just flowed. I’d finish one song, the next day I’d start a new one, three days later it was done. The songs were just coming out of me. That has happened to me.

But I definitely lost the muse and lost the flow before my world trip. There was a period of time where I didn’t release anything except one single for three or four years. I was not feeling it. I couldn’t get inspired. I attribute that to my kids being really young, and my daughter had just been born. I just had to spend time being a dad.

HMS: It’s such a huge psychological impact, as well as physical and emotional, to have kids arrive, especially if you haven’t had any before. Did it change your sense of identity?

BJ: It was a slow process. When I look back, I remember being frustrated with myself that I had a one year old, then she was two, and was wondering, “Where’s this beautiful, prolific stuff that a dad writes about his child?” I thought it would be coming. Then my son was born, and he turned one, then two. I wondered, “Where is it?” For me, the process really had to be organic. I had to be a father for a few years before I could write about it and about them. My standard for writing is pretty high so I also needed time to dig deep.

Then the world trip happened, and it really took my out of my grind, out of my touring life, and helped my relationship with my wife. Then I started writing some of the better songs of my career about my family. That was my new muse, my family. Finally, it just clicked.

HMS: That’s an amazing story even without the full scope of the world tour. This is an extreme example, but everyone has been thinking about John Lennon because of the anniversary of his birthday and his death that passed recently and the documentaries that aired. But a lot of that footage in New York, when he took time off making music and spent time as a dad, feels similar to similar to what you’re saying. People were on him about it and pushing him to write music. There was a big silence for him and people were pretty snide to him about it.

BJ: People can be absolutely ruthless. I’ve seen the documentary and I can picture the footage of him around New York, and honestly, he looks happier than ever. It just makes me want to restate to myself and others that being an entertainer and putting yourself in the limelight takes way more than people realize.

People think it’s cool and it’s an easy gig, and it’s just not. You have to balance your own life and your own identity around this full-time pursuit of being in the limelight. It is tricky. I have been where he was, for sure, minus the whole Beatles stardom thing. [Laughs]

HMS: There are so many stories of musicians, male and female, who ended up being periphery to their children’s early years because they were so pulled between these different poles. For you to have managed not to miss that is really wonderful.

When I look at the information about your world trip, my first thoughts as someone who has personally traveled a lot, is “This must have been so logistically difficult.” I think a travel agent would have quit if they were trying to book this for you. How did you do it?

BJ: Let me start by saying that my wife and I were made for this, and I don’t think everyone is made to take a one year old and a four year old around the world. My wife, especially, is pretty laid back, and I try to be. We’re not type A, and sometimes I wish we were more, so sometimes there were some sketchy moments where we thought, “Maybe we should have planned that flight a little better.”

But for the most part, from day one, we said, “We will just figure this out. The rest of the world is like next door, and you’re the same person when you get to that town.” If I just went to Raleigh, North Carolina, with my wife and two kids, I’d say, “Okay, we need a place to stay and we need a car. Those are things I can do.” So you put yourself outside of Paris, and there’s a language barrier, but there’s the same internet and the same capitalist infrastructure that wants to help you find a rental car and a hotel. You’re the same capable people. I appreciate that my wife is so laid back and capable.

The idea came about because when we met, the first week that we spent getting to know each other, we were talking about traveling all the time. She would say, and I would say, “I definitely want to have kids, but I definitely want to see the world.” That was in 2005. Then, years went by without talking about that. Then we did get married, and we did have kids, but this epiphany struck us both in 2018 and it was just destined. We just took a big, deep breath and said, “Let’s do it now.”

HMS: I have been in a lot of conversations with friends where they seem to think having children means that they can’t travel. I love that this didn’t feel like a barrier to you. I feel like other cultures are more open about traveling with children. America seems more limited in that way.

BR: I totally saw that. We kept reminding each other that it’s freaking hard to have kids no matter where you are. It’s never going to be easy. It’s just takes a decision.

HMS: Where did the music come into this process? Did you think that music would be part of the trip, or did it creep up on you?

BR: I only hoped. I told myself before I left that it wasn’t necessary. At the time, I had four or five albums, and a good touring circuit, so I told myself that I didn’t need to put something out. I brought my small MacBook Pro laptop and no instruments. I thought I’d record vocal ideas. As it turned out, I had way more time than I thought I was going to, and I got way more inspired.

I’m most inspired when my shit it handled and I’m happy. When I feel okay, then my brain can open up and I can create. There I was, on a trip with my family, feeling proud of myself and seeing beautiful things. I became almost more inspired than I’ve ever been.

HMS: That is really interesting because I can see how taking on something that seems very difficult and handling it can change how you feel about yourself.

BR: You’re so right.

HMS: You did the hardest thing and then the easier thing came along.

BR: You’re exactly right. And without planning it. The morning after we made the decision, we started feeling proud of ourselves. I started feeling great.

HMS: That’s such a cool story. I hope hearing this will inspire people to take a look at the things in their life that seem impossible and choose one of those things to tackle. It could make a huge difference for them.

BR: Totally.

HMS: I wanted to ask you about your song, “Day by Day”, which is very piano-driven and has a lot of positivity to it. Not to mention relevance!

BR: The piano chords and melody are something that I came up with on the trip. I had the groove, but it wasn’t until quarantine that things came together. I then understood that the chorus really needed to ring out and it needed to be a repetitive, almost mantra-like song that could help people feel like they can do this. The only way to do this is one tiny step at a time.

HMS: That song fits together so well. That’s exactly what people need to hear right now!

BR: Thank you. That first line is so me, “In the back of my mind, I see it/The easiest path to take. Whether I can believe it, I’ll take it.” I feel like I always know where I should go, but it’s always a matter of motivation and clarity to achieve daily goals.

HMS: The song “Alone Together” is a little bit more about relationships but also totally relevant. What’s the timeline on that one?

BR: That one was started even before the world trip and finished half-way on the world trip. I already had the hook. It wasn’t until I traveled and saw new people, and met new people, that I realized how valuable socialization is. I realized that I’ve thrived on those situations my whole life. When I came home and quarantine started, and I thought, “I have got to finish that song.”

It was my kind of sad way of saying, “I do not want to experience life alone. That is not my bag.” The best experiences of my life have been laughing, partying, hanging out late, being with family. It’s about people.

HMS: It’s almost like the speaker in the song scares themselves with the worst case scenario, and the becomes aware of their priorities based on that.

BR: Exactly. You nailed it. I love it when someone can describe my song to me. I should mention that the problems in the song started before this pandemic. It’s the problem of so many people and so little community. This might even be one of the things that leads to human society crumbling.

There are more ways to be online and on screens, and all of the sudden you’re just in your house. You think you’re being social, but you’re not having your human, psychological and social needs met. We were already alone together, and I think this pandemic has just showed us how bad that can be. I’m still worried about the future even after we beat this pandemic.

HMS: What were some big takeaways about human beings and how we live based on spending time in so many cultures during this trip?

BJ: I could say different things about different countries. We came back feeling like New Zealand was pretty magical, almost a perfect place to live. And Australia falls into that too. There’s a joy to life and they are accepting of different peoples’ lives. Nature is also a big element of happiness there. If there was a Utopia where we could return to in order to live, it would probably be New Zealand.

But I took away from Rwanda the love in the hearts of the people. I love telling people that it was my daughter’s favorite place to be. It’s ironic because we didn’t have money there for fancy excursions, but the people who ran our hotel, and the security guards ended up befriending my kids. My kids just wanted to hang out in the parking lot and kick a soccer ball  with the security guards.

It’s about people and not over-complicating your society. When we came back to America, it just felt so big. Things fall through the cracks with so many people and so much land, and community is one of those things that falls through the cracks.

HMS: It sounds like connection was a big thing that you were experiencing, and a kind of ease of connection that we don’t often experience here.

BJ: Yes, that’s it.

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