But for injury, busker and multi-instrumentalist Graeme James might still be a classical violinist. Filling the gap he picked up the guitar and now has delivered a smartly entertaining album of Celtic-influenced pop that involves both instruments and his fine voice. Amanda Mills talked with James about the good parts of disappointment and the genesis of ‘News From Nowhere’.
Wellington-based Graeme James’ career as a performer certainly started with a bang, as a contestant in 2012’s New Zealand’s Got Talent. Unfortunately he didn’t make it past the first audition.
“It was simultaneously quite a blast, and an eye-opener of the reality of reality television… of course none of this made it onto the TV! At the time I was gutted, but then I was incredibly stoked – and I still am – that I didn’t make it through!”
James is a talented multi-instrumentalist, coming from a musical family (brother Jonathan is a classical composer), and played classical violin for 10 years before giving it up due to shoulder injuries. He then turned his attention to the guitar, and songwriting. Around 2010 he purchased a loop station (a loop pedal with more than three tracks on it).
“It allows you to bring things in and out again rather than just having a wall of sound all the time,” he briefly explains.
The art of looping is important to James’ sound, as it comes down to arrangement, and putting the sounds in specific places.
His early public performing was busking in Palmerston North and Wellington, and honed his craft by playing covers.
“If you’re busking you have to play music that people want to hear. You’re much more likely to engage with something that you know… covers are a really natural thing from that perspective. So I always try to do them in a different kind of style to keep people guessing.“
Busking took him to Christchurch and Queenstown, where his performing career really took off.
“I used to busk on the waterfront, and on some nights,I would end up with 200-300 people… that ended up kind of really helping me develop my craft as an entertainer, as a way, having that experience.”
James’ debut album ‘News From Nowhere’ has been written over the last four years, a number of the songs written while busking.
“I’d be improvising… I’d record it on my phone as I was playing. One+One was pretty much written entirely while busking at the train station in Wellington.”
The album was recorded onto his laptop at his bedroom desk and also at his parents’ place in Taranaki, though most of the vocals were recorded at Organik Muzik Workz in Newtown. Self-produced, James performs everything on the album, except for guest vocals from his wife Zoe on When You Look At Me, and a friend playing piano on 21 Birds Of Paradise.
“There’s a lot of different themes going on there,” he admits. “I like to try and write from the whole spectrum of my experience.”
‘News From Nowhere’ is a lilting, alt-folk record, with strong threads of Celtic and pop music running through it melodically and rhythmically. The violin features prominently, though plucked and strummed rather than bowed. While some songs are spacious, many are densely textured.
“Atlantis was one take live, just me and the ukulele, and then I added a few strings and a few synth-y things,“ he explains. “I tend to go for reasonably dense textures… the key with that is to not overcook it!”
While James uses the looping station in his live performances, for ‘News From Nowhere’ he arranged the music in the studio.
“It uses exactly the same principles… for certain songs, you create a four to five chord pattern, and repeat that over and over,” he laughs. “A lot of the arrangements were developed [live], and I took them into the studio and tried to replicate that.”
The album takes from James’ background of playing covers, and Celtic music. “I think there are lots of different styles on the album… I thought if I limit my palette not by genre, but by instruments that I use… then it’s going to have a cohesive sound. I hope I’ve achieved that.”
While ‘News from Nowhere’ is a new release, some songs have already had a life of their own – Alive recently came second in the Folk/Singer-songwriter category at the ‘Unsigned Only’ international music competition. The exposure has been beneficial.
“It helps, maybe from a music industry perspective… I’ve been added to a bunch of Spotify playlists, which massively increases your exposure online.”
Then ‘800 Words’ called.
“Someone who organises the music for a TV show stumbled across [Alive], I don’t know how.”
James supplied them with five further demos, and finished versions were used on the show.
“It’s borderline ludicrous… The licensing side of things is very, very cool, especially for someone who’s used to doing lots and lots of gigs to survive!”
After the album release and tour, James plans to work with Zoe.
“I’m looking forward to… [doing] some work with my wife’s songwriting… we haven’t had a lot of time to do that, but I think that’s next.”
James’ ‘News from Nowhere’ is available from Bandcamp. A release tour begins at the start of October, taking in NZ and the east cost of Australia.