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Memphis Music Spotlight { James Robinson }

Today, I’d like to welcome singer/songwriter James Robinson to the Memphis Music Spotlight interview series. Well, technically James is based out of Austin, Texas, but he was raised in Memphis, Tennessee so we’re always gonna claim him. He has only recently moved to Austin to expose them to the soulful music of Memphis. Before I knew him, I saw him perform a couple of times and was blown away by his voice. Now that he’s back in Memphis for a bit working on his latest album, I got a chance to visit with him and interview him to hear his other voice, his thoughts on music.

Don’t miss his next show this Sunday / May 23 / 6pm / New Daisy Theatre, Memphis / $25
He’ll open up for Eric Roberson and Tim Terry.


Musical Background
James as a kid was too shy to realize his potential for entertaining people with his voice so first sought an instrument to accompany his music making. He became interested in the drums and keyboard early on but through music programs such as the honored Stax Music Academy, at the age of 17, transitioned to singing. He furthered his study in music through a music scholarship at the University of Memphis, learning under noted musicians such as guitarist/keyboardist Gerard Harris.

After performing at local venues and getting some street credit, he worked with Freesol singing on their first album 11:11. He soon released his own solo album on Cotton Row Recordings. Now, he is working with hip-hop artist Hezekiah and producer Steve McKie, known for producing big talents such as Jill Scott, John Legend, Common, and Musiq Soulchild. His music is usually described as soul with R&B but his album, expected to release September of this year, mixes in a unique flavor that he will take to Europe first with a tour creating momentum before touring the States.

Below is my summary of our phone q&a. He is not quoted word for word but I did my best.

How does one gain connections in music? Was the Memphis Music Foundation an important connection for you?
For me, it was performing shows, playing with other bands, seeing shows and connecting with other musicians. I was in a music program so I was always hanging out with fellow musicians. The Memphis Music Foundation is helping me out now but early on I didn’t know about them. It was also just being at the right place at the right time.

What are your tips to other artists trying to make it in the music industry particularly in Memphis?
The infrastructure isn’t in place to catapult an artist’s career {in Memphis.} There are no major labels. They shouldn’t focus on what Memphis doesn’t have but what it does have. It does have the Music Resource Center {run by the Memphis Music Foundation} and Cameron Mann {director of MMF}.

What are some good Memphis music venues to perform in or see performances, referring mainly to ones that have a good music audience?
Meaning an audience where people are just open to your music. Some places I’ve performed: Café Soul, Smoking Caterpillar, Young Avenue Deli, Club Zodiac. And yeah, the Buccaneer and Ernestines & Hazel’s.

Is anyone else in your family in the music business?
My sister Valencia Robinson. She's a singer. I've collaborated with her before when I made my first solo album. She sang back-up vocals.

I’m always looking to discover new music or artists. What are you listening to?
Blues, jazz like Leon Ware, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Buddy Miles, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal. And Thom Yorke. I’ve been listening to his album Eraser. Yeah. But my biggest influences would be African music and blues.

As you’re a songwriter too, what are the ingredients in making a great song?
Melody and substance. By substance, I mean the spiritual x-factor.

What are some examples of that which are also your favorite songs?
“Very Special” by Deborah and Ronnie Laws. Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”

Who would you want to collaborate with musically if you could pick from anyone?

Oh, I love her. How about another creative collaboration not musically?
Umm. Hmmm. {Laughs.} Make it Tia. Tia Morris. {A beautiful Memphian he met and I have contact with.}

I’ll see what I can do to make that happen. What are some other creative outlets?
Photography. Reading. Can I say reading? I write a journal. I collect visual arts and research artists.

I’m always interested in what people who aren’t in the architecture field would answer this question. What is your favorite building in Memphis as far as good design goes?
St. Jude hospital because I heard it was designed by a black architect. {Paul R. Williams}

It always seems glamorous but I would think for a working {independent} musician this is a misconception but is the music business really glamorous?
No. It’s superficial. It’s a day to day grind. It’s hard work.

OK last thing. Are you ready for a songwriter’s challenge?* I’m going to give you 3 words you have to use to write a short song. 2 verses and the hook I guess. Let’s see I’ll give you 5 minutes. The words are firetruck {which is from my husband}, Memphis {because this is a Memphis blog}, and fearless {to throw in an adjective.} *The idea came from a father we read about who used this technique to cultivate creativity in his kids. We do this with Atticus when we all participate in making up stories on the spot.

Now I present you the lyrics to the short song James sang over the phone to me. {I’ll work on getting a video of it. }

To put these flames out between you and I,
You’ll need a firetruck transporting Memphis’ best.
I’m out here struggling, gasping for dear life.
Burning with desire for dear life.

Some call it dumb.
Some call it sprung.

I call it fearless.
You should call it fearless.
I call it fearless.
You should call it fearless.

/Ladies and gentlemen, James Robinson. So impressive. Thanks so much James for sharing your time. I made the photo banner more graphic for you to give you a peek into our future graphic collaboration.

James Robinson MySpace / Web

Song and photos courtesy of James Robinson. Graphic layout by Sophorn.

/Song Sample Below ~If I wrote the code right. Or listen to the Ear treasures playlist.

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