Shawn James is coming to Whiskey Jacques’. The singer-songwriter embodies the best qualities of the contemporary Americana blues scene, with thought-provoking lyrics, instantly catchy tunes and a singularly soulful voice.
James seems to straddle a line between two eras. His music, seeped in elements of traditional gospel rock and blues, feels intrinsically tethered to the hard, long months of busking in which it was forged. While many of his musical sensibilities may seem refreshingly old-school, James’ success as an artist follows a quintessentially contemporary path.
In 2012, James pulled off a statistically unlikely feat of commercial daring and released his self-produced debut album, “Shadows,” to great success, despite limited hardware and budget. He funded the whole thing with what he described as “strategic busking” in downtown Fayetteville, Ark., and over the summer, recorded the album himself.
“I made it in my bedroom with one microphone and a little Mac computer,” he said without exaggeration.
A few musically inclined friends laid down supporting instrumentation, but the entire production proceeded without professional studio equipment.
Modestly downplaying ingenuity and originality as a singer-songwriter, James said, “Eighty to 90 percent of the reason I was able to have viral success and snowball like this is because of YouTube and streaming and Reddit and the communication of the internet in general. Facebook and Instagram have allowed fans to communicate with me directly.”
“Shadows” exploded online. Its lead single, “Through the Valley” has racked up more than 12 million individual plays on Spotify and has been heavily featured on numerous television programs and in the blockbuster PlayStation game “The Last of Us, Part II.”
His fourth album, “The Dark & The Light,” was released only a few months ago. Though replete with his signature melancholic introspection and predilection for minor keys, the new record demonstrates a great deal of artistic growth and signals a period of transformation.
“With previous records, I often set out saying, ‘This record will be folk, this one blues, this one will have this voice, etc.’ I did that for a while,” he said. “With ‘The Dark & The Light,’ I finally felt comfortable enough to showcase everything I can do. It’s a culmination of everything I’ve done throughout my career so far.”
It also adopts a much more hopeful and optimistic outlook on life. James acknowledged that a fair amount of any art “comes from trauma and pain,” but said that “these dark things don’t just have to be horrible memories when you can learn from them.”
From soulful hometown odes like “Chicago” to contemplative musings on impermanence like “When I’m Gone,” to confident resolutions toward personal progress like “The Weak End,” James’ new album runs the full gambit, chronicling one man’s journey to find, as that last song goes, “a balance between the light and dark … and a meaningful fate.”
“You can shift that energy into something productive,” he said. “The older I get, I find I like a lot more balance. I used to despise songs with positive messages, but then I realized that the songs people really relate to, that touch people and maybe help them in their lives are the ones with uplifting moments. Maybe they touch upon hard things, but they offer resolution.”
Though his lyrics frequently bear a gritty, defiant, rough outlook, James could not give off a more amiable demeanor in conversation. Full of chuckles, wisecracks and a self-deprecating charm, a conversation with James exposes more his roots in Chicago gospel than his teen heavy metal phase, though he credits the latter as equally formative stylistically.
James will bring his balance between the dark and the light, his boot-stomping rhythms and his smooth, soulful voice to the stage at Whiskey Jacques’ on Saturday, July 13. Doors open at 9 p.m., with a mere $7 entry fee. Visit whiskeyjacques.com for concert details, and shawnjamesmusic.com to learn more about this insightful singer-songwriter.