Elana James officially releases her second solo album ‘Black Beauty’ on Tuesday, February 24th. You can stream the album in its entirety until then in the player below!
Elana James has been playing music since she was four years old. At that very young age, she took up her mother’s instrument — classical violin — and continued those studies while getting a degree in comparative religion at Columbia University. Along the way from there to here, James switched over to fiddle, worked as a horse wrangler, traveled to India, founded a Western swing band (the Hot Club of Cowtown), moved to Texas, toured with Bob Dylan, and all sorts of other fun things, though not necessarily in that order. Now that she’s here, she’s releasing a new solo album, ‘Black Beauty’.
KM: You’ve traveled the world as a musical ambassador, officially and otherwise, and are also something of a religious scholar. What’s it like, using music to build bridges that wouldn’t otherwise be built?
EJ: Music has always thrilled me because of that very thing. It’s like a drug that goes directly into the bloodstream of whatever culture you may enter. Many times in my life I’ve played with people and we don’t speak a word of the same language, or are from completely different cultural backgrounds, and sitting down together and playing feels like being with old friends after just a few moments. Ghyorge Angel from [the Romanian Gypsy band] Taraf de Haidouks was like that, also people I met in India when I was studying over there so many years ago — Mongolia, Azerbaijan, the American West. Even just now in Samois, France, this summer for the Django Reinhard festival. The song begins and that’s it. Also, being female, there is a way in which you get a sort of “honorary male” reception in some places and are outside the usual boundaries of what’s considered culturally appropriate.
Music and religion are these extremely powerful forces that are thrumming beneath the surface of everything, at all times. You just have to scratch the surface a tiny bit and see how much they reflect and illuminate what is going on socially, spiritually, morally, in everything around you.
Draw a line between Texas Western swing and North Indian classical music. Are you the only connecting dot?
I know Bob Livingston (Jerry Jeff Walker’s long-time bass player and a great performer in his own right) had a project going for years out of Austin where he blended South Indian Classical music with American traditional music and cowboy songs. He called it Cowboys and Indians. For some reason, there’s not more cross-pollination between these kinds of cultures.
But one thing that absolutely influenced me when I was studying Dhrupad in India right after college was that my teacher, who was a true bohemian and also very religious, would take three or four of us on these adventures in the countryside where we would have picnics with these forest-dwelling renunciates and sing and play devotional songs, or take a little boat down the Yamuna River at sunset and we’d play these devotional songs or bhajans as the sun was going down. And, invariably, he would eventually turn to me and say, “American Git!” (American music), and want me to play a hoedown on my viola. And, of course, I would!
That turned out to be a guiding point for me — that the music I came from and could call my own was as exotic and exciting to him as his music was to me. It’s all relative. And that really gave me more confidence to give myself over to the fiddle and Western swing, fiddle tunes — to reflect where I come from and the richness of it. As Johnny Gimble likes to say, “If you try to sound like someone else, who will sound like you?”
Of all the people you’ve played with, who has been — not your favorite, necessarily — but the most memorable or most striking?
Too many come to mind to name just one: Bob Dylan, Whit and Jake (my Hot Club of Cowtown Bandmates), Willie Nelson, Erik Hokkanen, Johnny Gimble, an old-timer Gypsy accordion player I played with on the street in Bergen, Norway, once, playing duets with my mom or my sister. Just last summer, sitting around a table late at night at a caravan in Samois with Tchavolo Schmitt there singing and playing his guitar, singing traditional Gypsy tunes, a campfire.
Last month I got to sit in with a wonderful band on St. John in the Virgin Islands — the Hot Club of Coral Bay — and Terre Roche sat in and did a few of her new songs with the band. It was amazing to hear her sing and play right next to me. I have always been a huge, huge fan of the Roches. Of course the Bob Dylan tours, when he would be playing harmonica or his keyboard and we’re trading riffs, call and response. Playing cowboy songs with Don Edwards next to a swimming pool in Southern California a few years ago. Willie Nelson singing “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” every night for a month as our encore when we did that minor league ballparks tour. Getting to play twin fiddles with so many of the Texas Playboys over the years and, as we’re playing these tunes together, watching each other, watching each other’s bows, knowing that this is how it was in 1942 when they’d play the huge dances throughout Texas and the Southwest with Bob Wills right there, hollering and waving his bow.
You played with the Hot Club of Cowtown for a long time before going it alone. How was that transition? And do you have a preference — band or solo?
Oh, I’m for sure still playing with the Hot Club of Cowtown. Putting out my own album (This is the second one.) is a simultaneous thing, not instead of. There are differences in each, absolutely. I’d say going it alone is generally more terrifying, since you feel like the weight of the show rests on your own shoulders. And it does! And, at the same time, there’s more room to make artistic decisions and try things that are maybe outside the artistic “charter” agreed upon by the band members when you’re in an actual band.
One of the things I appreciate about being in a band is that, whatever you have to say musically, it has to go through the gauntlet of the other band members — the taste police — and everything gets the “treatment” which is the sound of the band. In our case, it really is greater than the sum of its (three) parts. But playing solo is thrilling. I love to sing, and it’s fun to sing every song every set, or just think of songs you haven’t played in a while, or that you love, and just call them for the sheer joy of it, not worrying if it’s okay with anyone else because… not breaking up the energy of the set as you want it to unfurl because… you know, it’s your own show!
When you’ve done the amazing things you’ve done, played with the legendary talents you’ve played with, how do you set goals that could possibly surpass those experiences?
It’s all relative. I would just like to continue to be able to play, to be a musician. As Isaac Stern said so beautifully (This is from his obituary in the New York Times from 2001.), ”I have been very fortunate in 60 years of performance,” he said in 1995, ”to have learned what it means to be an eternal student, an eternal optimist — because you hope the next time will always be a little better — and eternally in love with music. Also, as I said to a young player the other day, you have no idea of what you don’t know. Now it’s time that you begin to learn. And you should get up every morning and say thank God, thank the Lord, thank whomever you want, thank you, thank you, for making me a musician.”
Elana James’ new album, ‘Black Beauty’ will be officially released on February 24th. Until then, you can stream the album in its entirety below and pre-order the album at HERE.