Natasha James – An American Troubadour

by Eric Harabadian

Natasha James is an American troubadour in the purest sense of the word. The Sonoma, California-based singer-songwriter emotes from her soul and approaches her material with an authenticity and grit that harbors no pretense or fabrication. She speaks the truth and her songs are vibrant and illustrious stories that are as compelling as those of Woody Guthrie, Lucinda Williams or Gram Parsons, of whom she is often compared.

James has also served as a musical ambassador, of sorts, recently taking herself and guitarist James Harman over to Europe for some select dates this past February. “Many years ago I toured there in the ‘70s,” says James. “I was really happy to go back because it had been so long. Back then there were borders between the countries and there was none of that now. I loved performing in Germany and European audiences, period, are right there with their fans; they’re really enthusiastic. They buy merchandise and we had fans that downloaded my pictures from the web and printed them on 8×10 paper for me to autograph. Of course, I brought 8x10s for them anyway but their enthusiasm was really great!”

The duo recorded a club date in Mannheim, Germany that is slated for upcoming release on a German label. And the gracious fair-haired James had nothing but great things to say about her touring counterpart. “He turned 21 on the plane flying over to Paris,” says James of guitarist James Harman. “He’s a seasoned musician who’s a monster player. I have no doubt that by the time he’s 35 he’s gonna be a world wide household name. Watch out for him!”

Back in the states the soulful and smoky voiced James has been hard at work devoted to putting the finishing touches on her upcoming album and single My Country Has the Blues. It is a cleverly crafted title in that her original sound has historically been a seamless blend of country and blues. From earlier albums like Bad Judgements to her previous award-winning effort Tequila Time, James has always found a home in both worlds. But with My Country Has the Blues there is a deeper irony and meaning behind her lyrical and musical content.

“I get put on a lot of country stations and a lot of blues stations too,” explains James. “There’s really not that much difference between the two when you think about it. You put a slide guitar, harmonica and a B3 organ in there and it’s a blues tune. You add a fiddle and a pedal steel and it’s country. So I thought ‘my country has the blues.’ But then, of course, I thought about all that was happening with our nation.” James’ manager actually encouraged her to express some of the concepts and ideas they had talked about in conversations regarding world events and including them in a song.

James’ odyssey toward the making of this album intersected the perfect storm of visual art paired with socio-political commentary and personal enlightenment. Following a return from a gig at the Ensenada Jazz Festival, James was driving home on California’s I-5 freeway when she stopped for dinner at a place called Harris Ranch. The restaurant’s orange crate art on the walls became the inspiration for her upcoming album’s vintage looking cover.

“I thought cover art in that style would echo back to America during the depression and back to the land,” says James. “From fruit pickers on up—we are all part of this human equation and part of this country. And I get so tired of people that wanna spread hatred and point fingers that will divide and tear us apart as a nation.”

The country-blues chanteuse pauses thoughtfully and then continues, “I don’t care if they are from the Tea Party or if they’re right or left wing. I do care if they’re committed to making this world a better place for each and every one of us. I wanted to galvanize people and get them to work together in a conscientious fashion.”

James has always addressed various aspects of the human condition in her songs but there is a passion and purpose to My Country Has the Blues that is personally unprecedented for her. There is a maturity and evolution in her sound that is at the fore.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of people that I know from every political persuasion and everyone thinks they have the ticket to heaven (laughs),” says James. “I say the only ‘ticket’ here is let’s work together as a nation and let’s put this back together again. That is what the song is about. And it all ties back to the cover art—make this country remember its roots and remember where it’s been. Everybody whines so much. We need less whining and a little more action!”

The album My Country Has the Blues will feature many of the same people James has been working with for years now including engineer and drummer Ronnie Rivera, bassist Steve Evans, keyboardist Herman Eberitzsch, lead guitarist/backing vocalist James Harman, guitarist/backing vocalist Dave Aguilar, flautist/backing vocalist Mindy Canter, backing vocalist Russ Whitehead and backing vocalist Kerry Daly. It is produced in conjunction with Stephen Hart (White Stripes, John Lee Hooker, Neville Brothers) and mastered by four-time Grammy winner Gavin Lurssen at the Site Recording in Marin County, California.

This album also has an interesting subtext to it that was naturally born out of James’ own personal challenges and struggles. “This record unintentionally has a spiritual feel to it,” explains James. “I was dealing with some serious health issues and am out the other side now. But when you get critically ill you really get taken down to what is really valuable in your life. For me it was my children, my family, leaving behind a legacy of good music and making time for the people I care about. So at the same time the country was going through these blues I was going through some of them myself. I recorded the album with double pneumonia and a collapsed lung. But, you know what; all the scratch vocals are the ones I’m using on the record. It’s what it is and it’s good, it’s real.”

And, when referencing Natasha James and her material, “real” is most certainly the optimum word here. Much of My Country Has the Blues are songs about everyday people and their striving to live better lives and improve. This is illustrated most beautifully in songs like “Angels with Broken Wings.” It’s about all of us trying to be the best we can be but still riddled with many flaws. In it she writes: “ I see that glimmer of hope in each and every eye/it’s a window to the soul/we keep passing like ships just out of sight/and we try and we try and we love so strong/hoping that by and by we’ll get it right not wrong.” Another new song “It’s Really Over” addresses the fracturing of a relationship with a rare depth and poignancy as James states: “We’ve been rude and too polite/we’ve been wrong and we’ve been right/what we haven’t been is here in some time. That’s when you know it’s really over for sure, when you don’t want to even argue anymore. And then, of course, there is the single and title track of James’ new album “My Country Has the Blues” which at its core states: “My country has the blues/she’s just like me and you/she’s trying hard but she’s confused/we better help her to get through/instead of standing on the sidelines, we better get some guidelines/instead of criticizing, we better start uniting.”

“Much of the new album is observational,” explains James. “I get so annoyed because a lot of people’s writing is all I…I…I! You wanna tell them please go get a diary and shut up (laughs)!”

Natasha James upcoming album My Country Has the Blues—featuring cover art by Don Ponte from a photograph by Raymond Van Tassel—is slated for release in September 2011. The single is being released to radio as we speak.

“I’ve got the same team on this record I’ve been working with and that’s nice because everybody knows the kinds of sounds and tones you’re going for from jump,” concludes James. “This album will be even rawer than the last one.”

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