I found myself flailing in December. The world was heavy, slowly crushing me under its weight of angst and mounting responsibilities. My thoughts were a pensive fog. Where’s the out from here? As the world accelerated around me, the answer was to … stop. Stop thinking, stop moving, stop engaging with everything beyond this exact moment. I needed to relieve myself of the grinding trance of the day-to-day grind, if only for a couple minutes.
My relief came in the form of Brendan Willing James. I’d known him from his connection with Echo Magic, a collective of musicians, artists and sound aficionados — including James, Scott Hirsch (formerly of Hiss Golden Messenger), Daniel Wright and Erin “Syd” Sydney — that are imbuing the sui generis of Ojai, California into rich sound designs and melodies. James is a multi-dimensional creator who dabbles in music, poetry and photography, his art clean, striking and resonant in all its different mediums.
The songwriter’s newest EP See You Soon (produced by Wright and mixed by Hirsch) was released on December 18 as part of a listening party for fans and interested folks. He’d encouraged fans to sign up for a special number to connect, essentially a text chain directly linked to James’ fingers. In the lead-up to the party, he sent kind salutations, he sent music playlists. Quite a weirdly natural way it turned out to interact as a fan with a musician, straight to my phone without using an app or email.
But most importantly, James sent us curiosos instructions to come with nothing but our undivided attention to the party. So often we cruise idly through the consumption of music, media and talking points. We’re hungry to consume, not necessarily hungry for the content. James wanted us to savor the music for what it was, the truth of the way it made us feel for 15 minutes.
So I did. The world was a frothing buzz until I lay down at 9 PM on the carpeted ground of my apartment, head between the speakers and eyes toward the ceiling. I hadn’t been this intentional about listening to music in months. See You Soon wafted in from the coastal California mountains, clear and soft. James’ songs were quiet, deliberate and lovely, holding me gently in strong arms full of compassion and hope. Acoustic vibes echoed around me, a panacea of radiant folk and graceful introspection. It was a sonic balm that soothed my dry, cynical skin.
And when those 15 minutes were up, the world certainly didn’t change to accommodate my frustrations. But I was able to pause and put those frustrations to rest, to find my own inner peace and allow myself to be saturated in the finite majesty of the moment.
“I feel a certain way when I listen to this music and maybe this type of thing can help other people, without getting a savior complex about it (laughs). When I do write songs and sing and perform them and put out records, there is an element of wanting to give people something positive, to create a certain inspiration in somebody. To me that’s the ultimate goal in making music and there’s lots of ways to do that, music is so emotional like that. It was interesting to go after that very specific meditative vibe,” said James.
The deliberate care of James’ music and the community of like-minded artists and followers he’s creating is inspiring and welcoming. It may take a while for the dust to settle and for us to start rebuilding the rubble around us. In those moments where it gets tough, I’ll remember to find the time for myself, to keep myself inspired by the positive things people are doing around me. You lose sight of all the good things when you don’t take the time to appreciate it. I’ve relearned I gotta take the time.
The following is a conversation with Brendan Willing James. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I signed up for your text community, never seen any artist do that before. Why did this appeal to you?
My friend Zach Clark started doing this and we’ve talked a lot about a lack of overall connection on Instagram. At some point you are fighting the algorithm and you are not getting all the people you want to directly hear your music. A lot of them want to see more of it and they won’t and the thing about the phone number is its a direct connection.
I’m putting out music, photography and words, things I want to connect with people on. It’s an experiment and so far it’s been a ton of fun and I can have people direct text me back, it works like a regular phone number or email list. I can have a private conversation and connect with anyone who wants to connect in a mass way, then go back and forth directly if people want. Whether or not they chose to respond or listen, I know they get it and I can put out whatever I want that I think will connect.
You put out a playlist of the music you felt was inspiring for the sound of See You Soon. Can you point to any specific sounds, structures or ideas from that playlist that were directly infused into your work?
There was an overwhelming feeling among people this year that a lot of points of connection were taken away and that amounted to a feeling of solitude and to slow down. You listen to the EP and it’s really intimate, slow and methodical. Listening to that kind of stuff — melancholy stuff with a tinge of hope — I just got into that mood. Chilly Gonzales and Philip Glass and Brian Eno and ethereal loops of instrumentals. I thought about putting an instrumental track on there and I will for the next one, but that’s a lot of the stuff I’m listening to. Editing photography, I’m listening to these really drawn out songs that take a long time to develop, they’re very patient and they know what they are doing.
The funny part about that talking about Instagram and connection, there was a lot of rushed anxiety to fix this isolation we were feeling with products to get your message out there. For better or worse I’m pretty contrarian, so when so many people are rushing, I’m slowing down and getting quieter and more patient.
In the case of this record, I wanted to make an intimate and quiet piece and see if I can get people to listen to it in a year when a lot of things are fighting for attention. It was a challenge I gave to myself, something I feel really strongly about that would help people for meditation practices and breathing and slowing down and taking the time to know what you want, to craft your message before it goes out. It’s the opposite of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, there’s a whole culture of not thinking before you speak. I don’t subscribe to that.
How did you spend your listening session during the launching of the EP?
I smoked a joint at nine and my partner and I laid on the couch, lit some candles and just listened. Another element of this that I want to talk about is something I’ve been doing for years. When I send somebody something I want them to hear that I’ve made I like to put it on right after that, sort of like I’m listening together with them. When that night’s listening party came it was cool to do that on a larger scale because I knew a lot of people were listening, though I didn’t know how much. I pictured a lot of my friends and bopped around geographically in my mind into what I thought people’s living rooms or offices or late-night walks looked like. I tried to tap into that shared energy as best I could.
One guy in particular said he had never in his life taken time just to listen to music, it’s been on and I’ve done other things. He’s in his 30’s. I was so honored because I’ve smoked a bunch of joints and listened to a lot of music my entire life and it was his first time (laughs). I really tried to get into that upper jet stream of thought that we were all connected and the feedback I got was that people were kind of doing the same thing.
“Living On Grace” is hard song not to be a little in awe of. Can you explain more about what’s in that song for you?
I really tapped into the struggle that was happening back in April or so. You were seeing the scrambling and a lot of heavy energy. It starts “When the dream died, we all cried” which I felt was the bubble bursting from all these pressures that had been mounting. We are locked down, the economy stops and these truths would come out and we’d argue about them. It had this Dust Bowl era vision and emotion. It was kind of a Delta blues riff (plays riff on the guitar).
I was playing that riff around for days before I was writing. I haven’t played a lot of music in that particular style. That was the starting point and I started tapping into the American hardships, the midwestern and southern farming of blue-collar workers. What were they feeling when not a lot of people were looking out for them and the government is not really functioning the way you want it to. It was a real darkness I was tapping into but I have this thing where I like to weave in a little bit of hope. I wanted the verse to be dark and then the chorus to lift up.
Having written it in April, I do feel a little bit of bubbling of hope, though we are still very much in the thick of it. We’re going through this reckoning of doing a lot of things poorly and avoiding fixing them, between what’s happening with people and races and classes. This bubble has popped and we are all in this stew together and we have to figure it out. I have hope that we will and this experiment won’t die.
I know you are a part of Echo Magic Sound down in Ojai. What are some of your plans for the year as it progresses?
We’re getting more into producing podcasts and trying to find a way to cover what with a unique spin that involves music and moods and stuff, talking about things we are passionate about in the music world. We want to make more records.Scott has a new record coming out, Dan’s got a new Radio Skies record. Essentially, how do we take these specific little stories in Ojai and its special valley energy? It’s all patient, baby steps. It’s moving but at the pace of everything else. We’re growing as a team and stoked to be here in Ojai making music.