Stephie James’ musical career began when she was just 15 years old, at a Detroit coffee shop she and her brother opened together. “There was really nowhere for younger people to perform; we were too young to play in bars,” she remembers. Almost every night, she’d get on stage and play her own music as well as covers of songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Carole King. Then, one night, R&B icon Anita Baker walked in and watched her play. In what felt like a dream, they talked for the whole evening, and eventually, Baker invited James to tour with her. Before long, she was regularly opening for her shows.
Since then, James has provided backup vocals and guitar for country singer Nikki Lane, toured with rock band Clear Plastic Masks, and worked on production at The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s studio. Clear Plastic Masks’ Matt Menold — who also happened to be James’ favorite guitarist — encouraged her to make her own record and even offered to be involved in it. She dug up songs she’d been writing over the past few years and recorded what would become her debut EP THESE DAYS, out September 18, with Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic.
“I’m just really excited to put something out that I created,” says James, who is currently based in Nashville. “It’s weird being an artist and not having had anything out for so long. It was frustrating to have songs and things we’d been working on over the years but not really putting them out, and it was nice to finally show something we’d been working on for so long and be like, ‘This is kind of what we do.'”
James considers THESE DAYS something of a heartbreak record, focused on navigating relationships and sexuality. Her first single off the EP, “Sin City,” gives off blues vibes as James sings of a romance with an archetypal bad boy. She followed it up by releasing the title track, a slow, dreamy, reverb-filled ode to the magic of new love, and “Lost With You,” a deceptively sanguine-sounding ballad about a dysfunctional relationship. “West of Juarez,” which has not yet been released, incorporates strings and western influences.
James’ latest single, “Where the Sage Grows,” is more cheerful, with folk and country influences as well as a bit of old Americana. She and Menold played a dual guitar part together, then he overdubbed organ and pedal steel parts on it. James’ spirited singing produces a carefree mood, with vivid lyrics about her experiences as she toured the West and Southwest. The song also has a deeper symbolic meaning about “leaving your past behind and starting fresh, allowing yourself to let go of things that hinder you,” she says.
James has a diverse array of musical influences, including Billie Holliday, David Bowie, The Kinks, and Roy Orbison, and all of these are evident on the EP. James’ smokey voice gives off a jazzy vibe, and the instrumentals carry hints of country as well as classic rock. The band was recorded live in the studio, giving the music a sound true to James’ roots as a performer.
She chalks up her unique musical style to growing up in Detroit. “I wasn’t listening to the same things as most people,” she says. “I had so many influences, different sights and sounds around me. Everything from those Motown records to the Detroit rock ‘n’ roll stuff, to the more recent garage rock sounds coming from that area — everything coming out of Detroit had a kind of grittiness to it, and I’ve always been really intrigued by that.”
For her part, the artist has left her own mark on the city: the coffee shop she started, Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters, still exists and now has three locations. They’re mainly run by her brother now, but she still manages bookings. During quarantine, she’s taken a break from this endeavor as well as her live shows in favor of watching “every single Scorsese movie.”
“Putting singles out in the pandemic is interesting,” she says. “Everybody’s home and maybe consuming media and content, so it’s kind of a cool time but also very weird that we haven’t been able to tour them.”
Even after all the varied things she’s accomplished, they’re just the first of many — the next goal on her bucket list is to write music for film. “Pairing audio with visual has always been really interesting to me,” she says, elaborating that her ultimate dream is to create music for a David Lynch movie. “If that’s too far fetched, I would settle for Tarantino.”
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