Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Sailing”?/Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
This was one of the first songs I wrote for the record. I had to do a lot of rocking, swaying, bouncing and a bunch of other movement to convince my infant daughter to sleep. I felt like I was always on a boat and that contributed both to the specific rhythm and the lyrics of this song. I then asked my friend, artist Selina Trepp, to make a video for the song and I love the animations of boats she created for the video. My partner and I talked a lot about dreams and how they are these journeys all of us take every night that we don’t remember and how we have no idea where our daughter’s subconscious goes either. We sleep so many hours of our life- especially babies and young children- and where do these journeys take us?
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
It was just a few hours of Selina shooting me singing the song in her studio (well, lip-syncing) and then she made the animations inspired by the song. She felt it was important to include me in the video but to kind of have me “floating” in the frame, hence I’m wearing a black shirt so I blend in. All in all, it was a very fluid and easy collaboration.
The single comes off your new album Quiet Night – what’s the story behind the title?
Well, the direct inspiration comes from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s song Corcovado. The English lyrics are “quiet night of quiet stars” and that was the jumping off point. My partner and I used to live in Brazil and bossa nova, while not my favorite Brazilian music, is very soothing and we listened to quiet a bit of Joao Gilberto to help soothe the whole family when our daughter was an infant. I wanted to invoke the feeling of being away while everyone else is asleep. That’s just a necessary thing when you have a child- you’re awake when you would rather be sleeping and it’s just part of the rhythm of the experience. I wanted the title of the record and the song to evoke that experience. There’s a darkness and mystery to the middle of the night but a tenderness as well.
How did you come up with the idea for a whole lullaby album?
I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety during the first few months of my daughter’s life. I noticed that I was humming to myself all the time while I was trying (and a lot of the time, failing) to help my daughter and myself to sleep. Once I had recovered, and frankly everyone was getting more rest, I decided to take some of the melodies that I was humming and write songs. It seemed natural that they would be lullabies. Once I had 8 songs I reached out to other musicians in Chicago who I admire and are also the parents of young children. I wanted the instrumentation to be soothing so I chose bassoon, bass clarinet and vibraphone to accompany my vocals and classical guitar. It all came together beautifully and really does work to soothe children and parents, and really anyone that needs to take a break and relax.
When focusing on the target for this record – what made you want to focus on the parents rather than the children?
As a parent all your focus is on your child. We put ourselves second by biological design. At the same time, we are struggling to take care of ourselves, get enough rest, eat properly, etc. I don’t think I realized when I set out to do this project that the songs were going to soothe parents as much as children but I love the end result. I think the record invites anyone to just take a few deep breaths and rest a bit. You don’t have to be a parent. I have a family member that struggles with migraines and insomnia and she told me the record has been tremendously helpful to her. Primarily I see Quiet Night to be about love. The love a parent feels for a child is all consuming, but at a certain point we have to take care of ourselves and rest so we can be better caregivers for others in our lives.
Did you always intend to approach this material as a conceptual piece?
Yes, I think so. The melodies that came out of my coping process were certainly not a conscious composition decision, but once I realized what was going on and had the idea to record the melodies the concept took shape pretty quickly. I also teach early childhood music and I had really always thought of my songwriting practice being separate from my teaching but the two worlds came together with this project. That being said, the songs sound congruous with my earlier work. The idea for the record was conceptual, and the choices I made for lyrical content and instrumentation play into that concept, but the music itself sounds very similar to my previous work in many ways. Before recording I thought that this record might end up being an outlier in my catalog, but it totally fits in.
How was the recording and writing process?
The only challenge I confronted during the writing process was realizing that it’s actually really hard to write multiple lullabies and not repeat yourself over and over. The theme is the same- go to sleep, I love you, go to sleep, I’m tired, I love you, go to sleep- but coming up with different metaphors and ways of describing one idea was pretty challenging. I’m proud of the themes that run through all the songs and how all the songs interconnect. There are recurring celestial and nautical themes that emerged. The recording process was slow, mainly because everyone involved are parents of young children and scheduling sessions wasn’t easy with everyone’s schedule. But, it was very fluid. We would do one instrument at a time, then I would have an editing session to get the track ready for the next session. It took a long time and was a different way of working than I’m used to, but it really fit the nature of the project.
What role does Chicago play in your music?
One of the most striking things about making music in Chicago is what an open and collaborative experience it is. There’s so much cross-pollination in different genres and improvisation and trying new combinations of musicians is just the way music is made here. I think that’s true across most genres. This is a city where people work together. It’s scrappy and maybe not always the most polished, but people work together so well here. I wasn’t writing music or making records until I moved here 10 years ago and being a part of such an openly collaborative and encouraging musical community has been incredibly rewarding.
How Patsy Cline and Neko Case has influence your writing?
I think they both influence my singing more than my writing, although I am inspired by Neko’s combination of literary wit in her lyrics along with emotional immediacy. My voice has been compared to Patsy Cline for a long time and I’m honored by that. There’s a simplicity to the songs she interpreted that I definitely try to emulate. A song doesn’t have to be complicated to have a profound emotional impact.
You were kind of a dark place when writing this record – so was this album serve as some sort of therapy?
This record has definitely healed me in ways that I’m just now beginning to understand. In fact, it keeps opening more layers of healing and love that I didn’t perceive just a few weeks ago. I joked yesterday that the record feels like a “love onion,” which is a ridiculous term but that’s what making it and talking about it feels like. There are so many layers to how it has helped me grow and develop as an artist, but also a parent and human being as well. I don’t think I’ve ever created something that was just so emotionally direct and simple before. There’s a purity to it that I’m so grateful for.
How did you get to balance the dark aspect with the much brighter and uplifting themes of the album?
Well, I do believe that there’s a melancholy inherent in these songs and pretty much all my music. I think that’s just who I am. I feel things deeply and I’m pretty open and honest about my emotional terrain. But ultimately this record is about love- It’s a record of love songs. I’ve never felt more capable of loving than when I became a parent. There’s depth and beauty that I never thought was accessible until I looked into my daughter’s eyes and see how much she loves me. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time. I think I balanced it with Quiet Night with the fact that the lyrics, with the exception of “You’re Always At Home” are all pretty light and breezy. I didn’t write these lyrics from the depths of a postpartum mood disorder. The melodies came out of that and then I wrote the lyrics many months later. But my challenges early on as a parent definitely informed my creative practice in making this record, it’s just not that directly audible in the material.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
I love Thor Harris’ project Thor and Friends, that was a big influence on the project. Molly Drake (Nick Drake’s mother) wrote some lovely, but also dark, songs that influenced me at the time of composition. Steve Reich, Kris Kristofferson, Joao Gilberto, Erik Satie, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I did think a lot about the instruments and music that soothes me- mid to low tone and repetitive structures- and brought that into the songs and arrangements.
Any plans to hit the road?
I plan on doing a short tour to promote Quiet Night in the fall along the East Coast. Life is just too busy summer for touring.
What else is happening next in Angela James’ world?
I’m playing shows all over Chicago in conjunction with Quiet Night’s release. I just launched a monthly series called ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ where myself and a few other musical collaborators play lazy country songs at a venue while a pop-up brunch is being served. That’s been super liberating and fun just to play great songs with friends once a month. I’ve just started working on recording a new record of material that I’m hoping to put out in the fall of 2020. And life with an almost three-year-old is pretty awesome.