Interview

Colin James Takes You on a Journey to the Blues Highway

Photo by: James O’Mara

Last month, Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Colin James released his 18th album (Blue Highways) via True North Records. Co-produced by James and Dave Meszaros (Wake Owl, Old Man Canyon), the disc features 13 blues classics recorded over two days in 2015 at the Warehouse Studios in Vancouver.

Blue Highways pays tribute to some of the singer/guitarist’s longtime blues idols, including Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Freddie King, Jr. Wells, Buddy Guy, Peter Green, Robert Johnson and William Bell. I saw James perform these songs at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern and interviewed him a week later about the new record, the blues, and life as a musician in the year 2016. 

When James and I chatted, it was a rainy Wednesday, typical for early November in Vancouver. “It’s a good day to talk about playing the blues,” he said. 

David McPherson: Describe how Blue Highways was born? I understand the albums genesis was very organic.

Colin James: It’s funny. Often, these things start in small organic ways. The band and I were having dinner one night on our tour last year and realizing it was coming to a close, we figured maybe we should just go in and record. Songs like Freddie King’s “Going Down” we were doing most nights at sound check for fun, so we decided to go ahead and just do it. I started by asking myself: what are some of the songs I didn’t do over the years on Little Big Band records? Then, I went through the rolodex in my mind to find songs I’ve loved since I was 16; there were enough of them and still more there that didn’t make a Little Big Band record. There are some I mis-cut in the wrong key and I had to chuck them because I didn’t match them to my vocals. That’s the problem of doing 30 songs in two days! It was a way to put out some music gladly and quickly. I often use a studio band, but it felt good to use my own band this time and I’m happy with how everyone played.

How did you choose the songs that made the final cut on Blue Highways

First, there were songs I’ve had a connection to since I was a kid. When I was growing up in Regina, Manitoba, I named my first blues band The Hoodoo Men after Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues. At 16, I opened up for George Thorogood and John Lee Hooker with that song. “Bad, Bad Whiskey,” is another song I've always loved ... it’s  just one of those songs. I always had a bunch of songs I kept in my back pocket over the years and would watch to see how many people covered them. The acoustic song “Riding in the Moonlight/Mr. Luck” I was playing that one busking on street corners in Manitoba when I was 16. The disc opener “Boogie Funk” was one of the newest songs that ended up on my radar. I got on the Freddie King train more recently watching old YouTube videos. We’ve been playing that one on blues boatcruises the past few years and when we played that one, it always got the crowd going. I had to think twice abotu recording it because it’s such a lively, speedy monster of a song, but it ended up being a good call. 

What is it about the blues that makes so many musicians return to eventually? 

It’s basically the building blocks of rock n’ roll. There are so many versions: from low-down Chicago electric blues to the Delta blues to New Orleans flavoured blues and the LA sound … just so many aspects. In the last few years, people have got used to derivative blues with bands like The Black Keys who are overdriving it and giving their vocals that distressed treatment; it’s allowed people to rediscover the genre and there’s been a bit of a renaissance. It’s funny, ever since I’ve been in the business, there has always been a return to some form of the blues, from the Tex Mex and Stevie Ray Vaughan to the rockabilly surge of the mid 1980s. Every 10 years, there are twists and turns and the blues presents itself again in a new way.

In the blues tradition, it’s always been about bringing that tradition along. That’s been the nature of it. If you can put a new spin on it, you can turn young people on to some of those older songs and they will start asking questions like: Who did Bad, Bad Whiskey?” I love that. I still remember seeing Muddy Waters back in 1981. I remember that night. It was raining outside and I thought maybe I shouldn’t go and my mom saying you better go. I’m glad I listened! To this day, I can’t believe I saw Muddy Waters. 

What other music beyond the blues are you discovering these days?

There is so much to discover. I’m quirky that way. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Beck, like Sea Change, and his last quieter record. I’m also listening to a lot of Nick Drake. When I listen to something I tend to listen to something all the time.

With 18 records under your belt, you are now a veteran of the music industry. Youve certainly seen a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns on this well-worn highway. Any thoughts on the music business today?

The business has taken a massive cleave through the skull. It’s hard for everybody now. If you are a young player, just starting out, how will you get someone to invest in you when you can’t bring anything to the table? It’s the end of the industry and the end of people having autonomy. People need to find other ways to make it work, that’s all. It’s that much harder now to twist the arms of people [at a record label] unless you want to put your house on the line. In my career, I’ve never made money off my record sales; that was never part of my equation. It’s harder now for young artists ... hard to have their stuff stick to the wall when you don’t know where the wall is. For me, it’s about playing music and playing live and that’s something people will always want to see and what I’ve always enjoyed. After 30 years it becomes your life’s blood and what you know. I still get nervous though. This fall I’m going to England and playing cities I’ve never palyed before opening up for Beth Hart