In 2018, L.A. folk artist James Houlahan found himself on the road playing shows to a deeply divided America. Social and environmental issues had created rifts that stretched nationwide, so he began writing new material to reflect this. The resulting album, Ordinary Eye (out Nov. 20), doesn’t offer quick fixes to encroaching authoritarianism or the climate crisis, but it’s a heartfelt, often gorgeous mediation—the soundtrack to a world in tumult.
The record was produced by Fernando Perdomo (Jakbo Dylan, Echo in the Canyon) and features drummer Danny Frankel (Lou Reed, Fiona Apple) as well as violinist Scarlet Rivera, who played the unforgettable fiddle parts on Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, most memorably on “Hurricane.”
Vents had a chance to catch up with Houlahan who took some time to offer insights into the recording of the album, the writing process and the strange experiences that led to its creation.
Hi James, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Hello! Thank you for having me. I’m doing ok. Trying to make the best of this 2020 pandemic roller coaster nightmare. Staying focused on music—to the extent that is still possible.
Tell us about your latest single “On My Own.” Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
“On My Own” is an adaptation of the myth of Sisyphus. The story of a man doomed for all of eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down each time. Except in my version, he likes to sing while he works. Truly “rock” and “roll.” But seriously, I think I was looking for a model of perseverance. And I found it in this myth. Myths can do that for me sometimes. The song is an attempt to get inside the head of someone who is mired in futility and despair, yet rises again and again to do what they can. Someone getting in touch with an inner wellspring of confidence despite all the absurdity swirling around them. It seemed like a useful perspective in these insane times.
Any plans to release a video for this track?
Maybe. It is a very visual kind of song. So far, I have two other videos for the new album—for “What Is Our Love” and “As It Is”—which will be coming soon. And I’m also at work on a third for “Writ In Water.” Hopefully, I can develop one for “On My Own,” but we’ll see. I really need to have a solid visual idea for a video before I start working.
The single comes off your new album Ordinary Eye—what’s the story behind the title?
I noticed when putting the songs together for this album that they all mention something about eyes, or seeing or bearing witness to the world and what’s happening in it. All of the tunes are about engaging with the environment in some way. And I don’t mean “the environment” in any abstract way. I literally mean the present, ordinary conditions around you. It’s so easy to turn away and not look at what’s happening around us. But we have to somehow find the strength to not look away. To stay engaged. Especially in times like these.
What do you do when the world is falling apart? One useful thing is to bear witness to what’s happening. To really try and understand our present circumstances, which is no easy feat. There’s that cliché about “living in the moment” or “living in the now.” Could there be anything more difficult? Truly living in the now seems to require a level of spiritual discipline or maturity I have yet to acquire. But perhaps there’s a way through imagination. Through inspiration and music. There’s an Arab proverb that says, “When danger approaches, sing to it.” So maybe there’s a role for song in helping us face the world around us. We live in dangerous times, and they require a certain kind of music.
What was the recording and writing process like?
Amazing! I worked with Fernando Perdomo, the very talented producer and musician who runs Reseda Ranch Studios in L.A. We brought in the incredible Danny Frankel to play drums and percussion. Danny is such a great artist, and I’m truly fortunate to work with him. I was also beyond excited to have the great Scarlet Rivera add violin on several tracks. She just about blew my mind with her playing. Took the music to a whole other level. I’m thrilled and honored to have her on the album.
What role does Los Angeles play in your music?
Most of the songs on Ordinary Eye came out of touring around the country the last couple of years. L.A. is a great place to live, but it’s necessary for me to get out of town now and again. It’s a really big country, and as a kid from New England, I find traveling around the American Southwest in particular to be a borderline magical experience. The land out there does beautiful things to your head.
How has Bob Dylan influenced your songwriting?
Bob Dylan is a man of many bridges—for me and just about any other songwriter coming after him. He’s a bridge back to an old, weird America that lies in the shadows, on the outskirts of our collective memory. It was Bob that led me to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and so much more. He is also a bridge forward—or sideways?—into the world of literature. He embodies the vision and aesthetics of writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg, all the way out into the surrealism and frenzied symbolism of a Rimbaud or Baudelaire. Bob Dylan greatly expanded the possibilities for songwriting, for lyrics. What they can do, where they can go, what they can mean. Any songwriters who would call themselves an artist owes Dylan a debt of gratitude.
What aspect of America did you get to explore on this record?
Let me tell you a story. I was playing a show in Boulder, Colo., last year. After my set, this eccentric-looking guy approached me and asked if I had any songs about climate change. I said no, and he implored me to go outside in the alley with him at that moment and write one. So he could add it to his “database” of songs about climate change. I wanted to help, but I needed to watch my merch table so I had to pass on his offer. He drew a picture of a baby orangutan for me, saying I should look at it to help inspire me to write the song. It was an odd but touching moment.
Later that same night, I was in an empty bar at closing time, eating a sandwich. This guy tries to come in, and the staff wants him to leave. He starts yelling about “Democrats” and physically threatening the wait staff and the bartender. He said a lot of weird, insulting things. He really wanted to fight someone. Pure, unfiltered vitriol. I think at one point he said something like, “I will rip out your eyes and eat them.” It was nuts! Another angry Trump supporter, trying to bring everyone down to their level. Trying to bring everyone else into that world of fear and anger that they live in on a daily basis. Security showed up and threw him out. He disappeared before the police could arrive. And there I was in a corner of the bar, just trying to eat some food. Hoping for a bit of calm.
These two experiences, occurring within hours of each other, became like a microcosmic window for me into what our country is like right now, with all its urgent issues of climate crisis and social inequality. There are the people who want to do something to address these things, and the people who just want to revel in their anger and tear everything down. It’s a crazy environment of division and emergency. I find it really hard to take it all in, honestly. But somehow the songs that ended up on the album began to take shape after this experience. Maybe they are my way of coping with it all.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
I try to find inspiration wherever I can get it. But I will say that spending hours and hours driving around the country alone with your thoughts can definitely lead to new songs. But if I literally answer this question of “where”—it’s a place where I’m no longer looking at my smartphone. Where I’m probably off by myself somewhere, away from all chattering technologies of distraction. Maybe out walking down a quiet road. In some place where my thoughts can come and go as they please, uninterrupted. And where there’s space for an idea to rear its head and be seen, collected and brought forth and forward into reality. That’s where I find inspiration.
What else is happening next in James Houlahan’s world?
I hope we can get past this pandemic soon. There’s so much uncertainty, so much confusion. All of my plans for touring are out the window for the time being, like with most musicians I know. So I’m in a kind of limbo at the moment. Not sure how long it will be before normalcy returns in some form. But I’m looking forward to it when it happens.
In the meantime, I just moved from East Hollywood to the green wilds of Topanga. And that is definitely an adjustment. There’s much more room in my new environment for peace and quiet, and the chance to get some perspective on what to do next. I’m ready for 2020 to be over and looking ahead. Eyes forward!