Thursday, August 6, 2009

Derek James: The Road Less Taken

Perched casually at an outdoor café on Houston St, a beautiful Australian cattle dog named Bailey draws constant attention. Leash tied loosely around her neck, she meanders about the chairs, stopping occasionally to lap a quick drink from her Frisbee-turned-water-bowl and soak up affection from intrigued passer-bys, wanting to know the breed of this lovely animal.

The proud papa happily responds to the questioning strangers, taking time in between light conversation and delicate laughter to pet Bailey and crack jokes on the eternal awkwardness of human nature. Bailey looks up at her owner, a well-known singer-songwriter with a twinkle in his eye, dry wit on his tongue, and effortless charisma, lays back down on the sidewalk, and continues to take in the New York scenery, as Derek James begins his tale of the fascinating journey that brought him to this infamous LES street corner.

The Syracuse University philosophy major struggled as a teenager, always wanting to sing but being embarrassed of his voice. Derek compensated by using his “Adam Sandler” voice to “joke sing,” until finally opting for a few voice lessons in college. The lessons helped James loosen up, although his confidence waned after an impromptu dorm room performance freshman year. “I played for a group of girls on my floor, and when I started to sing they all started laughing. And I wasn’t doing the [joke] voice,” Derek recalls, his smile widening. “I thought ‘Oh crap, that’s not the response I wanted.’”

It wasn’t until his last year of school living abroad in Australia that James finally attended his first open mic, finding comfort in a place far from the US. After the year in Australia, Derek continued his international travels and moved to the South of France, where he worked simply playing music on the streets, earning up to 125 euros a day performing for a few hours with a four piece band. James took time during this bohemian lifestyle to dig deeper into the music and lyrics he started writing in high school and college, making friends, trying out new tunes, and embracing the non-judgmental culture. The singer-songwriter lasted in France for a year, before moving back to the States in 2004, finally ready to perform and share his music with those who spoke the same language.

The story only begins there. Upon returning to NYC, Derek needed to find a way to survive while building his music career, so he lived for a year and a half with a family as their “manny.” There was no pay involved- James lived and ate for free while serving as a surrogate brother and son to the family. The experience was humbling for Derek as he points out the irony: “I was living as a nanny because I couldn’t make the kind of money living in NYC as I made on the streets of France.” Nights were spent hanging out with the family dog in the basement of the house, editing bar mitzvah videos to make extra cash.

In the meantime, James dove into the New York scene, dropping off demos and booking gigs at CBGB’s, The Continental, and Pianos, to name a few. Eventually this persistence paid off, and it wasn’t before long that Derek found himself opening for Blues Traveler at a huge outdoor music festival in Virginia. Family and friends flew in to see his big debut, but weather conditions prohibited the show from happening. “Wind was blowing, rain was jumping in your nose and flying in every directions, and people were standing with water up to their ankles and umbrellas over their heads just waiting for it to clear up,” Derek describes of the unexpected high point of his career, “Even though we never got a chance to play it was still an awesome experience being around this huge tour bus and successful band.”

Now Derek James is a mainstay in the NYC artists scene, playing Rockwood Music Hall, Bowery Ballroom, and joining forces with other artists for concerts like the “Rocks Off!” boat cruise around Manhattan. Citing the community as being “rich and dense” with talent, Derek credits the music scene with greatly helping his career, passing creative ideas back and forth amongst friendships formed with fellow musicians. While choosing to live in NYC specifically for the community, Derek also enjoys time away, traveling and experiencing the great outdoors. “My need for playing and touring is wider than the Lower East Side,” James explains. This fall, James will embark on another lengthy tour booked through NACA (National Association of Campus Activities), as well as producing a brand-new, full length CD, loaded with the satisfying blend of the acoustic power and soulful swing audiences have grown to love.

Derek’s sound, unique in delivery and addictive in nature, is a powerful compromise of classic acoustics, rogue gypsy street music, and clever, catchy lyrics, providing audiences with a thoroughly entertaining and audibly pleasing performance… still humming along well into the following day. Despite hesitations and uncertainties growing up, James was always drawn to the magic of the stage. “Whenever I saw concerts when I was younger I was always mesmerized by these few people on stage moving this whole mass of people. I always wanted to do that,” Derek states with excitement. “I don’t want to be in the crowd, I want to be moving the crowd.” No surprise to anyone who’s witnessed a Derek James performance, rich with passion, humor, and excitement and exuding the natural love this singer-songwriter has for his art.

Whether a street performer in France, a manny in a suburban New York basement, or a reigning rocker lighting up the stage, Derek James is an act the needs to be seen. One listen to his current CD, “Stray,” leaves you hungry for the next line-up of brilliantly constructed, musically captivating songs that resonate of a time when music was for dancing, swinging, and singing along. James’ energy is memorable; a true boy-next-door embracing life’s simple pleasures and loving a quality laugh, time with family, friends and his dog, and the occasional practical joke. Hooking you instantly and plastering a perma-grin on your face that’s hard to shake off long after the last note has subsided, Derek embodies the spirit that so many New Yorker’s crave during stressful, difficult times… live, laugh, and love.

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