On the eve of Samuel James's second CD release on Northern Blues Music, For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen, we needed to catch up on all of his happenings since the release of 2008's Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy.He is perhaps Maine's most-traveled musician these days, having, in the past 18 months, been flown to Poland to perform for 5000 people (after just an hour of sleep) and featured in France's Rolling Stone (complete with an interview-and-photo layout that dwarfed Kanye West's on the same page). And then there were the shows in Spain, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Paris (he and his girlfriend, album namesake Rosa, flew there on Election Day, and "a half-hour before we landed they announced that Obama had won and the entire plane ripped up in applause and we were the only Americans," James recalls).
His trip to Los Angeles seemed most star-crossed. First, he broke strings on both his guitars. Then he tried to fill the time with a joke. "It wasn't a mean Jesus joke ... it was very innocent." The crowd went quiet. "They're just like, 'whatever, who cares.' I'm used to either somebody who doesn't like it or they do like it, not that they don't care. If they don't care it's like I'm boring." It wasn't until after the show that he learned it was a Christian-themed blues club. As a final touch, the ad in the paper had not said "Samuel James." Instead, it advertised "Sam Adams."
He's quiet, though, about his favorite club or artists to play with outside of Portland. It's like asking a Bostonian what their favorite team is, apart from the Sox. He came up through Portland's open-mic circuit, and has sold out SPACE Gallery. "I feel like a charlatan a lot of times. I feel like any second someone's going to be like wait I can do that, that's bullshit. Pull the rug out from under me." Outside of SPACE and his many-artist, pan-genre CD-release parties, James says his most memorable line-up was the Memphis in May International Festival, playing on the same bill as Kanye West, Aretha Franklin, and Calvin Cooke.
Touring comes with its hazards, though, as well as its joys. "On a flight from Portland to Chicago, a very normal soccer-mom, Sarah Palin-looking lady sat next to me. We talked like you would when you're sitting next to somebody as disposable friends. You know, 'This is what I do for work,' 'I have a girlfriend, her name is Rosa.' As we're de-boarding she hands me a business card, and then she hands me a bigger business card with hers and her husband's name and a little clip-art bicycle and skier, and then she hands me another card and says, 'And here's this too' and it's got her and her husband naked in a tub and it's got their e-mail address, and says they belong to a swinger Web site. I'm going through my mind like, 'Is there some sort of language code that I didn't know that I was saying?' That's the weirdest moment ever by far."
Stories are what keep the blues alive for him. James describes himself as "a songster. I'm writing stories. I'm trying to follow this really old, old black American tradition. There's lots of people out there playing blues. I'm much more a performer, showman and writer than I am a musician." He describes the tradition as "a genuine way of telling a story and affecting somebody. The story idea is innately human. The people that I really admire are the people that can say something that everybody knows but nobody's really said yet. Someone like Bob Dylan, who can in five words state an emotion that we all are familiar with and there's no a word for it."
Perhaps without meaning to, he makes a foray in that direction when talking about the role of love in his music. "In the songs that are blues songs, 100 percent (is about love). Most of the songs on this new album are very obviously written for Rosa, and I think everybody knows how I feel about her."
Sonya Tomlinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SAMUEL JAMES |releases For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen | on Northern Blues | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | August 22 | www.myspace.com/sugarsmallhouse