José James: Blonde Ambition

Johnny Burgos Slider

By Chris Wells
When José James cut his fourth album No Beginning No End in 2013, he left the life of the independent artist behind for a long spell with Blue Note Records. The March 6 release of his ninth album, No Beginning No End 2, marks his return to the indie life, but this time he’s set up his own record label, Rainbow Blonde, for the purpose. There are, he says, a couple of reasons.
“On the one hand, my musical team, Taali and Brad Bender, have been producing my work with me all these years anyway – we did the music together, handled the concept, art direction… everything. There was never any A&R – it was just us. So it wasn’t that dramatic to do it for ourselves this time.
“On top of that, the music business has become so corporate. I mean, Hasbro owns both Peppa Pig and Death Row Records now! This way, when someone asks us something about what we’re doing, we have control over it – music and career control. It’s what Ray Charles and Nina Simone and John Coltrane all fought for. And every one of them, with the exception of Ray, did not own their own masters.
“I have been in a major label structure and I think now you either go fully independent or you’re… not. We make all the decisions, we own everything… and it’s the most fun making music I’ve ever had. I really had no idea how destructive it could be to your creativity when you’re in a conditional relationship – by which I mean, everyone at the label would love you when you had a hit record, but they turned their backs if things weren’t going so well, or you had a bad review. And yet they still owned your masters. That’s not a good feeling. It is a good feeling to go into a meeting with Spotify or whoever and know I can make a decision about myself right there and then.”

The first No Beginning No End is one of José’s most loved albums. Like me, you probably knew that. But guess what? José himself did not. Well, not until he’d spent a couple of years on the road supporting his 2018 Bill Withers project, Lean On Me.
“I don’t know that I actually appreciated No Beginning 1 as much as my fans have,” he admits. “I mean, I just make the music and it’s all great and important to me… and I move on, right? But I did a post on Instagram after I’d finished the Bill Withers tour, saying, ‘What if I did a No Beginning 2?’ – and people went insane! I got thousands of replies, many of them saying, ‘Man, that album changed my life’. Reading those comments I was like, ‘Woah! I guess this thing penetrated in a way I didn’t fully appreciate’.
“Also, doing the Bill [Withers] project also helped me understand the music and the role of an artist. Bill co-signed the project, but obviously he wasn’t performing – yet I could see how his music was continuing to uplift people and change the world’s conversation. I found that fascinating too. I think through him and his example, I began to see it was more about the culture and how music can live on without you.
“And thirdly, personally, I’m now very much in that same space I was in when I made No Beginning 1. There’s a reason I didn’t go right ahead and make No Beginning 2 back then – because I wasn’t in that place at the time. But now I’m independent and I’m wanting to focus on concepts of freedom, of songwriting, and also that period of time in the mid-to-late seventies when you had great songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder collaborating with jazz and session musicians. I’ve always been fascinated by that analogue. To me, it was the whole sound of what became neo-soul and gave us Mama’s Gun and Voodoo. So, yeah, it all seemed to come together and aligne, ‘cause I’d do a festival with Ledisi and then another with, say, Lizz Wright. I’d get a call from Christian Scott. It was all organically evolving.”

No Beginning 2 has a similar soul-jazz-blues-folk mix to its predecessor. It’s also – just like NBNE 1 – filled with guest contributions, ranging from top names like Ledisi, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Erik Truffaz, Lizz Wright, Laura Mvula and Aloe Blacc to relatively lesser-knowns, such as New York’s J. Hoard, Hindi Zahra and Cecily. The latter, for example, is a remarkable singer from Washington DC who sounds a lot like higher range vocalists Deniece Williams or the Hutchinson sisters.
“She was recommended to me by Ben Williams, the bass player, who is also from DC,” explains José. “And y’know, DC is especially proud of its own thing; people are unapologetically into their culture there – like go-go and disco and real hard jazz. I’m telling you, a DC jazz fest is always a joy to be a part of.
“Anyway, Cecily opened for me when I played at the Hamilton one night. I was backstage and thought the DJ was playing a Donna Summer record. Ben said, ‘No, man, that’s Cecily’. So I went out there and was blown away by her pure voice. We talked and I asked her if she’d be a part of this album. I hope it gives her some exposure ‘cause she’s great.”

As for some of the more familiar names, Ledisi had been high on José’s list of favourite vocalists for years when finally they found time to talk properly after both opened at the Hollywood Bowl for George Benson.
“That was about two years ago,” recalls José. “It was the first time we’d had a chance to hang out and talk shop. It was an amazing hang and it planted the seed for this collaboration. I told her about my going independent and this project and she was right into it. In fact, she’s just gone independent herself.
“I have to say everybody has been very gracious with their time on this project. It’s the essence of real collaboration.”

An interesting aspect of which turns out to be James’ willingness to put some of the artists in areas they’re not usually known for. The Laura Mvula track is a prime example – it’s old-school jazz and the Brit really lets go like [to this writer’s ears, at least] she hasn’t thus far anywhere else.
“I’m really glad you brought that up – about putting people in different spaces – ‘cause no-one has talked to me about that yet. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but within the world of No Beginning No End, which I started to think of in a very cinematic way, there were literally no rules, no boundaries on what we could do. When I was writing that song for Laura, I wasn’t thinking about what works for her, but more, ‘How can I express our conversations together in music?’ Because we would talk about our emotions and blackness and unity and fame and personal stuff that you don’t normally discuss. The concept of that song, Nobody Knows My Name, just came out of that and it translated into this hard bop anthem that Charles Mingus might have considered during the 1950s. Anyway, people like Laura are beyond category. She can sing and play literally anything, and it will destroy you. All the people on my album are that way. I am fascinated to hear what her fans make of what we did.”

José is already well on the way to releasing a second Rainbow Blonde project – the vocal debut of the aforementioned bassist Ben Williams. He describes it enthusiastically as a “beautiful, civil rights referencing, political R&B album,” and says, ‘Man, if you like my album, then this one on Ben is going to blow you away.”
For José, the future is all about artistic communities reaching out, making connections and following their own lead. So does he think the major labels are now irrelevant to what he’s trying to achieve?
“Maybe. But, to be fair, what is also difficult for a Verve or a Blue Note is that whenever they put out something new, they are competing with their own past all the time. For us it’s only about the future. So for an artist like, say, Robert Glasper, he is competing with the label’s history – people Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Horace Silver. They might put out a reissue of a Miles Davis record that goes to number one on the jazz chart – so suddenly you’re left thinking, ‘Now I’m competing with a dead person?’ That’s a weird feeling.
“Look, I understand this jazz business as well as anyone else, but we’re not competing with anyone else. Our work stands on its own. Which is why we can attract artists the calibre of a Ben Williams, who left Concorde to work with us. I think you’re gonna love album – it’s a masterpiece.”

No Beginning No End 2 is released by Rainbow Blonde Records.