Interview: José James Celebrates Bill Withers at SOPAC on March 2

Photo credit: Janette Beckman

“I met him last year and he was very gracious. He said that an artist is an extremely sensitive person who carries an enormous burden. The gift of insight and connection. We can’t turn it off and for some people that kind of sensitivity can be too much of a strain.”

– José James on speaking with Bill Withers

José James knows how to cover a lot of ground.

In addition to touring the world, the vocalist claims a vast musical lineage. James gives credit to Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and A Tribe Called Quest as major influences.

And now he’s ready to offer up his celebration of music by singer-songwriter Bill Withers. José James’ immense vocal talent will be on display on the mainstage at South Orange Performing Arts Center on Friday, March 2.

Withers’ music is both classic and immediate. Songs such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” and “Just the Two of Us” and, of course, “Lean on Me” are very much part of the American songbook.

And those songs can be overwhelming in their emotional depths.

“Now I must die by my own hand
’cause I’m not man enough to live alone

Hey, hey she’s better off without me and I’m better off dead.”
— from “Better off Dead” by Bill Withers

Born in Minneapolis and based in New York City, James has been singing Withers’ songs during his live shows for some time. He’ll now offer up a full set of these songs next month at SOPAC. And James’ voice certainly possesses the gravitas to explore this work.

The impressive musicians James has assembled for the show include Nate Smith on drums, Reuben Rodgers on bass, James Francies on keys and Brad Allen Williams on guitar.

We had the opportunity to catch up with the vocalist this week while he’s been busy playing in Tokyo.

Photo credit: Janette Beckman

Donny Levit: You previously worked on a collection of songs by Billie Holiday to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday. How long has Holiday been an interest and influence for you?

José James: Billie Holiday is one of my first memories. I was three years old and I was pulling out my mom’s LPs. I stopped when I saw the Billie Holiday album cover – it transfixed me. My mom played me the album and so I’ve literally been listening to Billie my entire life. She taught me everything I know about jazz singing.

DL: Did working on the collection of Holiday songs lead to exploring work from other iconic singers, such as Bill Withers?

JJ: Not really. I’m just fascinated in general by the artistic process … with becoming. I have a few key people that I spend the most time with: John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and lately Bill Withers. His music just naturally started coming up in my live shows. A lot of the time another song will happen on the groove or vamp of one of my songs. Al Green, Dead Prez, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers.

DL: Your music fuses an array of styles. I thought about Gil Scott-Heron’s album “Pieces of Man” when I started listening to your music, watching your performances, and even noticing your different “looks” during those performances. Scott-Heron’s songs “Lady Day and John Coltrane” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” are on the same album but they serve as such counterpoints. When you write, do you focus on a particular genre or do you like to expand beyond that idea in your own composition?

JJ: I try not to think about genre at all, ever. I hate labels in music and I think the best artists and songwriters — Bill Withers included — strove to move beyond labels. You just let the idea happen and trust your process. That’s the best way to create.

DL: Withers has a fascinating background. I’m always amazed when I think about how this man, who created an instantly recognizable sound, struggled with a stutter when he was growing up. Did you have any barriers or major challenges as you began to hone your craft?

JJ: Not really. I left home when I was 16 so I was pretty free to just make music on my own and I’ve been happy doing that ever since!

DLI know you had a chance to meet Withers. What did he say that resonates the most with you as an artist and as a singer of his work?

JJ: I met him last year and he was very gracious. He said that an artist is an extremely sensitive person who carries an enormous burden. The gift of insight and connection. We can’t turn it off and for some people that kind of sensitivity can be too much of a strain. He’s very compassionate to the artistic process and temperament.

DL: What contemporary artists and/or current albums are you listening to right now that are exciting to you?

JJ: I really love the new generation of Black artists out there: Moses Sumney, SZA, Khalid, people like that. And of course amazing songwriters like Frank Ocean, James Blake, Khelani, Solange. There’s thankfully just so much new music to listen to I can’t keep up!

Lean On Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers performs at SOPAC, 1 SOPAC Way in South Orange on Friday, March 2 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and information for the event are available here.

Read about singer Alexis Morrast, who will be playing SOPAC on Sunday, March 11.