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At just 18, Andrew St. James is likely to make songwriters twice his age throw up their hands in defeat. The San Francisco native blends a cool cocktail of folk, soul and vintage rock and roll while peeking out from behind his decidedly hip Ray Bans.
All of that wouldn’t mean a damn, though, if the music weren’t blindingly brilliant, timeless and genuinely soothing all at once. Writer Hannah Lowry recently caught up with St. James after the debut of his video for the track “Cassidy,” which recently premiered on performermag.com.
What was your musical childhood like? When did you start making music and what made you decide to take it to the next level?
As a child, I was in a boys’ choir – The San Francisco Boys Chorus – by the time I was 11 years old. I loved it, and was really into the music. At 9 or 10, the choir went to Jacksonville, Wyoming for a jazz festival that was televised on national TV. I remember the feeling of traveling and performing making everything worthwhile, and that’s when I knew I wanted this. Took me a while to start writing; I was bad then, but I knew since I started performing professionally that I always wanted to do that.
I use it for sure. Vocals, obviously. When I was 9, I started piano. I played a lot, I’m a jazz pianist, and so I play that on my album. I think on piano and transpose to guitar, since the guitar is more practical.
How did your parents take it?
They were always very supportive. I’m stubborn; from a young age, it was obvious that I wasn’t gonna do anything else. I wouldn’t do work, but I’d sit around and listen to records. I didn’t do awesome in school but I got by; it was obvious then. They’ve been supportive since I started and until now, always behind me. There was initially a scare regarding the risks of making music a career, and how I will be scraping by. But they realize that it’s not important to me. If I’m successful, cool, but If I’m not playing music I won’t be happy.
Tell me a bit about your approach to writing. Do you start with the lyrics or music first?
I write in two ways. Sometimes it’s spur of the moment and I’ll have a chord progression and I’ll be stuck to it and sing stuff, gibberish really, but words do come. Later I sit down with a pad of paper and write everything out. I also start with lyrics as poems, free verse, and I take them and interpret them into songs. It’s a bit harder that way, more tedious, but if everything is nice enough, it’s worth it.
Where would you say your music comes from? What inspires you the most?
A lot of my music is inspired by parts of my life and growing up in San Francisco. A lot of the feeling comes from people I know, and have had the privilege of knowing. I learned a lot from seeing their struggles and who they are. I’ve always been pretty politically aware, pretty involved. I’ve been able to personally understand and create opinions on the way things work, and the way people are in advantage or disadvantaged by the systems in the United States. Understanding what’s going on has informed a lot of my writing, because I think it’s important to write about [current events]. There’s a lot of fucked up things [in the world], and you need to get people to think about [them] so they don’t forget.
I started with friends obviously. There was a base of people I saw every day at school or met around musical life as a kid. Growing up, a lot of people would come out and see bands play, so word of mouth, people started to keep coming. There’s a crowd sort of following me around, which is awesome, and a lot of them seem to be over 45 and under 70, and they hear what I’m saying. That’s the core of my fans. That’s pretty cool to see what they’re interested in and thinking about.
What sort of gear do you use? Are you into vintage stuff?
Piano and acoustic guitar, mostly. I love vintage gear; my producer has sweet old vintage gear…I use Hammond organs and I play a Gibson J-45 acoustic a lot. I bought it about two years ago, and I play an old Epiphone electric when I’m recording, I don’t perform with that. I use a Fender Jazz Bass, too, which is really new [for me].
If you could play with any one band in history, on stage in front of a crowd, who would it be?
You couldn’t play with the Beatles because there are already four of them. Rolling Stones? Too much rock…Bob Dylan wouldn’t work out, either. Grateful Dead sounds like fun. If I had the opportunity to do that, I’d be happy…
Give me your Top Ten anything.
2. Gibson J-45 Acoustic Guitar.
3. Guinness. [Editor’s note #1 – we don’t condone underage drinking…wink]
4. Fake bamboo plant.
5. New York Times – I’m an avid reader, unfortunately.
6. Farm festival produce. I was tricked into somehow ordering corn, so now I have corn being delivered to my house.
How many more do I have? [Editor’s note #2 – you have four more, Andrew. See kids, it pays to stay in school…]
I’m thinking about saying no because I don’t wanna sound like an asshole, but you gotta go out there and play what matters. In my opinion, it seems like there aren’t enough people who write music about the problems in this country. I think we’re in great need of artists who can step out and write about what’s happening. They may be scared of getting yelled at, but I think that’s a big role that needs to be filled.
photos by Peter Ellenby