Entertainment Features



By David DeRocco                             dave@gobeweekly.com  https://twitter.com/?lang=en 

As far as musicians go, COLIN JAMES has always been a chameleon with a penchant for change. In recent years, however, he’s been quite comfortable blending in with multiple hues of the blues.

Case in point – Colin’s latest release, OPEN ROAD, the 20th album of his career and the most recent in a string of acclaimed blues records that have elevated Colin’s status on the Billboard Blues charts and in the minds and hearts of American blues fans. So much so, that the multi-Juno winning, chart-topping, 27 time Maple Blues award winner is looking at a tour that will take him into major US markets like New York and Chicago.

It's not like this is a surprise. His self-titled 1988 debut, featuring two self-penned hits “Voodoo Thing” and “Five Long Year,” became the fastest selling album in Canadian history, winning him the first of seven Junos and an opening slot on the Keith Richards solo tour. More recently, Colin emerged from COVID isolation to join blues legend Buddy Guy on a string of U.S. dates that resulted in standing ovations every night. After nearly 40 years of making uncompromisingly distinct blues, rock, and big band, Colin James is on the verge of a major American breakthrough.  Before that happens, he rolls into St. Catharines to play the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. Colin took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly.com about  creating in times of COVID,

GOBE: The last two years have been a blur for most people, but also a time for lots of deep self exploration, contemplation, and re-evaluating priorities. Was there any great epiphany for you during COVID in terms of your career, your music, your family. Was there any great lesson or personal takeaway from this COVID experience?

COLIN: We’re finally coming out on the other side of it now, but like anyone else it was very difficult not to do what you’ve done your entire life for two years. I think any musician can relate to the fact that if you’ve been this your whole life, in my case since I was 15, I’ve never gone through that much time not doing it. Coming out of COVID straight into touring with Buddy Guy – we just got off a four-week tour – to do what you’ve done your whole life for 19 shows in a row, I just realized that I feel most comfortable there. Just working every night, on stage, with a guitar on my back. That’s how I stay in shape too. This whole pandemic was tough for everybody. Thankfully I made a record during it. Even then that was difficult because my coproducer was in England. We did everything from a distance. I don’t like creating in a bubble. But everyone made it through and it’s just great to be back at it.

GOBE: How challenging was it working in isolation while collaborating with people across the Atlantic on the new album?

COLIN: Usually on a writing cycle, once I finish a record I’m ready to move onto the next one. Sometimes that will mean three or four flights. I’ll fly to Toronto. I’ll fly to Nashville. I’ll write here in Vancouver. I couldn’t do any of that. I had to kind of look for songs, write my own songs, do some stuff on line with other writers, but I don’t love that. Technically everything worked amazingly well. The fact that I can make a record with somebody in a completely different time zone thousands of miles away is a testament to what you can do. It’s just that you’re working in a bubble. Music is such a giving and taking thing and I just missed that. Now I can get back to that. We’re slowly opening doors in America now. My career after all these years is kind of opening up south of the border so it means there’s a lot of work ahead of us. We’re playing Boston and New York and Chicago this summer. I’m just looking forward to opening up some new ground.

GOBE: How does that feel at this point in your career to be cracking doors open in the U.S.?

COLIN: Kind of bizarre. A lot of people are saying ‘I heard your name but why didn’t you come down here for so long?’ I have to sit there and go ‘I don’t know what to tell you’ and explain to them how expensive it is to tour in the States and it’s easier to tour Canada. It’s a lot more expensive to go down there and start trying to do it all over again. But it was after we made Blue Highways in 2016 when this kind of started. It’s not like I thought I’m going to go out and finally tackle America. We noticed when we put out Blue Highways it started getting a lot of airplay worldwide in the blues world. This is kind of my third record in that series. People are coming up to me and asking ‘where have you been.?’ I explain to them I’ve put 20 records out and they’re like, what! A lot of them remember me from Little Big Band 1 or “Just Came Back” from the late 80s. I have to explain I’ve been playing the whole time. I have an American agent now. We’re getting more work. I guess sometimes you just have to have patience. Would I have wanted it this way? No! But it’s more important for me now to open up my world than to make money. My kids are in their 20s, I’m prepared to work. I’m ready to get back on the road.

GOBE: It’s been 34 years since your debut, kind of a lifetime really. What do you know now that you didn’t know then, or what have you learned through the course of your career that has you well situated for this next period in your career?

COLIN: I guess I know now that it can be a long road. It’s nice if you have a huge, massive hit when you’re young. It would be nice if things worked out the way you’d like but they don’t. But being happy with your lot, being comfortable and happy even if it’s not perfect, that’s life isn’t it. This whole tour with Buddy Guy, the first show I played after two years of nothing was Los Angeles, Beverly freakin’ Hills, opening up for Buddy Guy in a town most people don’t know me. We got a standing ovation on the very first night. That was really exciting, to find out that the connection musically doesn’t have to be through people who know your music intimately. I guess I’ve learned patience and just seeing it through.

GOBE: You are a seasoned veteran but when you’re touring with Buddy Guy you’re the young one. How inspiring was it to see Buddy still doing what he does at his age?

COLIN: More inspiring than I ever thought it would be. I’ve known Buddy since 1989 and I played with him in the late 80s early 90s and subsequently. But we always see each other, say hi, and I wouldn’t see him for 3, 4, maybe 5 years. This time we played together every night and he got me up to play with him every night. So I hung out after my show all night waiting to get up with Buddy. And I really got a chance to see him for multiple nights in a row and watch somebody who’s been doing it his whole life since the late 50s and watch someone who can control and audience with a look. The way he talked to the audience. There was a lot to learn there every night.  

GOBE: You’ve learned a lot from a lot of mentors. I’m wondering if you had mentors for your acting. I noticed in your video for “Down On The Bottom” the lip-syncing was perfect. It had a real air of authenticity to it. What was the process in the making of that video?  

COLIN: You just sing to yourself, and they have a playback but the playback is pretty quiet so you just kind of fil in the blanks. I usually just sing it like I normally would and I’m  usually pretty aware if the lipsync is off. You just be careful. I’m conscious of that. I don’t like it when it looks fake. I’m a bit of a taskmaster. I had a great crew on that video. It was a three-man crew, a steady cam operator, myself and the director. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed making a video as much as that day. The video maker was the son of Craig Northey of The Odds, so this is one of my best friend’s son directing and he just did a great job.

GOBE: You’ve got kids in their 20s. Do they turn you on to any new artists or musical styles? Is Colin James sitting at home listening to Billie Eilish or Lizzo?

COLIN: No so much Lizzo and Billie, but The National, Wilco with my son. He loves Wilco and The National, Grizzly Bear, he loves a lot of the new stuff and it does affect me. Sometimes I’ll hear something and go what is that? I don’t like all of it but it’s super important to keep your ear to the ground. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration in unlikely places.

GOBE: There’s some fantastic guitar on the album, even rock licks on songs like “Down On The Bottom.” People keep lamenting the death of rock radio, but it seems to have started when the rock format abandoned artists whose music was blues based. If you released your debut today, do you think there’s a programmer out there smart enough to play it on a rock station?

COLIN: Boy, I don’t know. We’re so compartmentalized in our radio listening. I think there was a day when you had classic rock and a mix of this and that. Today it’s so compartmentalized that I just don’t know. One thing I do know is never say never. One minute something’s happening and two years later there can be a rockabilly craze. I’ve learned one thing after 30 some years of doing this, you think you know but you don’t. Something can happen that can change music on its ear. That’s why it’s so important to stick to your guns and not try to chase trends.  

GOBE: Your last album won a Juno and a bunch more Maple Blues awards, bringing your total to 27. You’re kind of the Meryl Streep of Maple Blues Awards. How important is winning those awards to you?

COLIN: In the case of the Maple Blues Awards, there have been times in my life where the music I play got away from radio play and you don’t get the kind of exposure that some other artists do. It’s nice to have a category that has managed to live on and give you a little hope when things aren’t going your way. It’s been nice. It is important to have recognition in things away from the mainstream.


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