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These are exciting "Days" for Oakland County's Stephie James
After years of working primarily for others, these are becoming — if all goes according to plans — Stephie James' days.
The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who was raised mostly in Royal Oak and attended Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac, released an EP called "These Days" earlier this year. James is no stranger to making her own music, but it's a stepping out of sorts, a confident bid for the spotlight from someone who's become accomplished in music industry support rolls.
"I've been working as a sideman, kind of forever, doing production on other people's records and touring," James, who was born Stephanie Hamood, says by phone from Nashville, Tenn., where she currently resides. Her credits include work with Anita Baker, Steve Earle and Nikki Lane, as well as sound engineering for Buddy Miller and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach in their studios. "I just kind of had these songs that I'd been working on. This is a weird time to put out a record, but we'd been sitting on them for so long I wanted them to come out already."
James was "chipping away" on a full album and had a full slate of touring planned before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the live music industry. But she didn't want to risk anything become stale.
"Touring is the first way to really promote an album, but I was like, 'Let's put out an EP, five songs.' Y'know, maybe people need some good noise right now, a break from all the craziness, so maybe it's OK to put it out."
"These Days" is certainly likely to whet listeners' appetites for more from James.
Though her style and reputation is steeped in Americana, and "Where the Sage Grows" is a bona fide country two-stepper, the five songs add a noir pop lushness to James' arsenal, touching the right blend of retro and contemporary and driven by an abundance of melody. Co-produced with Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes) — and featuring guest appearances by fellow Michiganders the Accidentals and Dominic Davis from Jack White's Band — "These Days" is an arrival statement that demonstrates just how much James has absorbed during a career that dates back to her teens.
"When I set out I felt like, 'I really like this Phil Spector record. I want to rip that off,'" James explains. "There are a lot of influences that are bleeding into it, but when we play it and it's my voice and my own lyrics, it comes out being a completely different thing. It still feels like me and guys in the room playing the song."
James has been playing for about as long as she remembers. She grew up in a musical household, listening to Rogers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and other classics from the Great American Songbook.
"That was the only thing I ever wanted to do, just write songs and sing them. There was never a moment I considered doing anything else," James recalls. She started writing her own songs when she was about 13. "I got some (Bob) Dylan records, and it was kind of all over." Her artist surname, in fact, was inspired by a Dylan quote.
She began performing with bands and on her own, frequently at Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters, which she and her brother opened in Rochester. He now manages its three locations. "Me and my friends were in high school and couldn't play out much," James recalls. "It was a place to build a little music community with our circle. I was doing the booking, then once my brother started roasting coffee it became more coffee-focused, and he was crushing it."
Dessert Oasis was where Anita Baker discovered James, however.
The Grammy Award-winning Detroit singer stopped in with friends one night while a "terrified" James was playing, but Baker liked what she heard and had a long talk after James finished. That led to invitations to visit Baker's home in Grosse Pointe and later to accompany her on the road — and, one night in Atlanta, to get onstage and open the show.
"She was running late and was like, 'Man, I really wish I had somebody to buy me some time. ... Why don't you go out and play a set?'" James, who was 17 at the time, recalls. "I didn't have a guitar. I was just wearing a T-shirt, I didn't have a band, there were 12,000 people waiting to see Anita Baker. ... The production manager was like, 'We can get you a guitar. Can you do it?' and I said 'OK' (laughs). It was trial by fire. I just had to walk out there and play and try and win 'em over.
"I've always been somebody who kinda does well under pressure. If you put a gun to my head, that's when I act well."
That's served James well as she's pursued other ventures in music, touring and eventually moving to Nashville about five years ago after traveling back and forth to Music City for a few years prior. Among her credits are engineering albums for Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Wood Brothers and more.
"I was working a lot of sessions where I realized I was surrounded by people that I should learn everything I could from," James says. "I went from buying their records and sitting at home and listening to them to sitting in the room where they're making them.
"So I absorbed as much as I could and learned. I think that informed everything else I would do afterwards, but you don't realize it as it's happening."
It was Earle, in fact, who helped propel James toward making her own music.
"At some point Steve said, 'What you're doing with Nikki is cool. Do that as long as you have to, but as soon as you're able to, focus on your own thing,'" recalls James, whose song "Silent Film" was used in Michael Bolton's 2018 documentary "American Dream: Detroit." "That was a kick in the pants for me."
Using her "These Days" EP as a calling card, James is looking forward to finding out what's ahead. A full album remains in her plans, and she looks forward to getting back on the road whenever things open up. In the meantime, she continues to write and stockpile songs and also is pushing further into video, including a recent clip for the track "West of Juarez."
In short, James is building her own story after helping to write so many others' — but is being deliberate and judicious about it.
"At this point, I've got something out. I feel like I have something to show," James says. "I feel like I can be a little more patient before I put the next thing out and make sure everything's the way I want it. You have to be patient. As impulsive as I am in a lot of ways, I definitely try to have some reserve with this stuff."
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