Q&A with Canadian renowned blues-rocker Colin James - has thrown open the door to welcome a house party’s worth of friends and mentors

"Blues has informed and influenced jazz, rock and roll, soul and pop music. It is in the fabric of almost all musical culture in one way or another."

Colin James: Under the Blues Rockin' Sun

To a recording artist, having a bunch of big-name guests on your album can be a double-edged sword: It’ll get you some attention, sure, but there’s always the danger you’ll find yourself pushed out of the limelight—a supporting player in your own production. Fortunately, no one elbows Colin James into the wings. With nearly four decades in the business—and an armload of sales records and peer accolades to show for it—the Vancouver blues-rocker has thrown open the door to welcome a house party’s worth of friends and mentors on his 21st and latest, Chasing the Sun, which streets on August 23rd. Appearances by the legendary likes of Charlie Musselwhite, Lucinda Williams, Darryl Jones and Charley Drayton energize an album that cooks with the intensity of a thousand spotless reputations. But the formula remains 100-proof James throughout—a distillation of the singular and passionate vision that’s enshrined him in the hearts of millions of record buyers worldwide as a musician’s musician.

(Colin James /Photo © by James O'Mara, All rights reserved)

Chasing the Sun is the latest landmark in a career that’s been hitting high after high since 1988, when James’ self-titled debut became the fastest-selling album in Canadian history and won him his first JUNO Award. (It helps when one of your earliest champions enjoys a profile like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s.) Since then, James has collected multiple gold and platinum awards, scored a #3 radio hit in the United States (“Just Came Back”) and shared musical airspace with a who’s who of greats, including Keith Richards, Albert Collins, Albert King, ZZ Top, the Chieftains, Carlos Santana and Buddy Guy. In the process, he’s received eight JUNOs and 31 Maple Blues Awards and been inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame.

Interview by Michael Limnios     Special Thanks: Colin James & Mark Pucci Media

How has the Blues influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture?

Well, in a way, it's influenced my whole life. My love for the music ultimately led me down this road and has introduced to me to so many like minded people. Not just musicians like Albert Collins or Yank Rachell but other fans and lovers of blues, R&B, gospel, etc.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Well playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan was a huge thing for me of course and Bonnie Raitt and I have stayed close for years and I just love her. She was on my second record years back. The best advice I got was to buy a house early on in my career and someone else once told me to never start a show late as the audience is important and, when they have a sitter or whatever, puts you behind the 8 ball before you even start the show. I took that to heart. 

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I think as you get older you start to trust your take on things more and you stop deferring to other opinions of what kind of music you should be making. The thing that has remained the same is that building a recording takes time, patience and work. You have to make the creative space for yourself and once you do, it has a snowball effect and one idea spawns another, etc.                        

"Well, I don’t know … I guess as generations change and music and tastes change, there are fewer people walking the earth who can explain what seeing someone like Muddy Waters was like live and soon enough, no one at all. The memory and the reverence for their art is worth something. I suppose any music or art is indirectly shaped by current tastes and what came before as well." (Colin James received eight JUNOs and 31 Maple Blues Awards / Photo © by James O'Mara, All rights reserved)

You’ve one more release with Stony Plain. How did that relationship come about?

Stony Plain is a label I have listened to since I was a kid. A lot of John Hammond’s records have been released on Stony Plain and I am a big fan of John’s. So many pixilated records for me were released on Stony Plain, so I am happy to be in that company.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album "Chasing The Sun" (August 2024)?

Making this record with Colin Linden was a wonderful experience. Colin and I have been friends for many, many years and the home studio he built in Nashville is a beautiful space with pictures of Howling Wolf, Son House and Jelly Roll Morton, among others, on the walls. There is a reverence for the music that can be seen in the art and furnishings as well, as the vintage instruments and killer mic choices that the studio has. My guitar station was at the foot of my bed, so it was straight out of bed, slam some coffees and straight to work. Having a rhythm section like Darryl Jones and Charley Drayton was a dream come true, and what great people they were to work with as well. I had to sing Lucinda William’s song, “Protection,” for the first time with her in the room, so that was daunting. I loved singing with her on this track, as I have been a fan since the release of Carwheels on a Gravel Road years back. What a writer and rock and roll spirit she is.

What is the driving force behind your continuous support for your music? What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul/emotions?

I would have to say that after the 20 records I have made over the years, there is a trust there with the fans of my music. They have allowed me the space to grow and change over the years, and I really appreciate that. A recording is a time stamp of where you are at that time, and although you have to take that seriously, there is a point you have to release music, let it go and start again with a clear mind and try not to overthink everything.

"I have a love for history, I love that when you look at anything like a mountain range or the moon, you join countless thousands whose eyes have seen the same thing for generations." (Colin James, shared musical airspace with a who’s who of greats and been inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame / Photo © by James O'Mara, All rights reserved)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Again, it is important to listen to your instinct of what is needed on your musical path. Sometimes you want to rock, sometimes you are drawn to songs with more introspection…it’s all ok. There is no right or wrong way to further a career. Often things that seemed like a bad choice at the time end up being a godsend later and things that seemed like career suicide at the time end up being the right  decision that was made in the long run and surprise you later.

Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues? What is the role of a poet in today’s society?

Well, I don’t know … I guess as generations change and music and tastes change, there are fewer people walking the earth who can explain what seeing someone like Muddy Waters was like live and soon enough, no one at all. The memory and the reverence for their art is worth something. I suppose any music or art is indirectly shaped by current tastes and what came before as well.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

I have always had a bit of stage fright but that always keys me up and gives me energy as well.

Life is more than just music, is there any other field that has influence on your life and music?

I have a love for history, I love that when you look at anything like a mountain range or the moon, you join countless thousands whose eyes have seen the same thing for generations.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Lot's of great memories, but getting a chance to sing with Pops Staples years ago was amazing. I also really enjoyed the times Albert Collins and Stevie Ray got me up to play with them.

"I have always identified with blues music since I was a kid. As a singer, I love the fact that every time you sing a song, it is different depending on how you feel, so it’s constantly changing even if it might be the same song. I have met so many fantastic people in the blues and music world and I think we all share that love for the great artists of the past and want the music to stay alive and vital." (Colin James & Stevie Ray Vaughan, Canada 1989 / Photo © by David Betito, All rights reserved)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I guess I miss the large variety of singers from the early days that had such character in their voices. Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Charles Brown, Lazy Lester and Roy Brown all had such distinctive styles.

What does the blues mean to you? What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your blues paths?

I have always identified with blues music since I was a kid. As a singer, I love the fact that every time you sing a song, it is different depending on how you feel, so it’s constantly changing even if it might be the same song. I have met so many fantastic people in the blues and music world and I think we all share that love for the great artists of the past and want the music to stay alive and vital.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Blues has informed and influenced jazz, rock and roll, soul and pop music. It is in the fabric of almost all musical culture in one way or another.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Albert King, SRV, Robert Johnson, Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Peter Green with your generation?

When I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, I thought he was Albert King. Stevie could really channel Albert like crazy. I guess all of these people affected me when I was young and some of the songs like Hoodoo Man blues I have been playing since? I guess it's important to keep the names alive. Younger people now didn't get a chance to see Stevie or Albert so it's important to keep their memories alive.

"I think as you get older you start to trust your take on things more and you stop deferring to other opinions of what kind of music you should be making. The thing that has remained the same is that building a recording takes time, patience and work. You have to make the creative space for yourself and once you do, it has a snowball effect and one idea spawns another, etc.” (Colin James, Albert Collins & Buddy Guy, Montreal Canada, 1991 / Photo © by David Betito, All rights reserved)

How do you describe previous album "Miles To Go" (2018) songbook and sound? Are there any memories from the album's sessions which you’d like to share?

Not unlike my last record Blue Highways, these songs are ones I have known for a long time and have had a lifelong connection with. We tried to keep the record mostly live off the floor, and I record way more songs than we need. That gives me a chance to keep some and throw away others as you find out what you can bring to them.

What touched (emotionally) you from Muddy, Wolf, Blind Willie, Blind Lemon, and Robert Johnson songs?

All of these great musicians have such an individual voice and style. Blues singing and playing can be so different player to player and singer to singer. That what makes it so rich.

Where does your creative drive come from? What characterizes Colin James' music and songs?

I have always loved to listen to and play music. Even after all this time, I can’t wait to start on whatever is next and start to gather material and write material. It’s a moving, changing thing and there is always something new you should be doing! 

I am still so grateful to be able to play guitar and sing for a living …. that never gets old for me. A childhood ambition that I have been able to keep working at.

If you could change one thing in the musical world, and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It’s really hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and I suppose that I wish the industry had treated the artists more fairly from the start and that young people coming up now had a better career model to work with. This singing game show mentality isn’t doing the career musicians any favours either... On the bright side…music will always be awesome and needed.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Canada. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

There are some really dedicated blues players in Canada and a lot of talented people. The Blues is universal no matter where you are.

"My love for the music ultimately led me down this road and has introduced to me to so many like minded people."

(Colin James / Photo © by James O'Mara, All rights reserved)

How do you describe Colin James sound and songbook? What characterize your album ‘Blue Highways’ (2016) philosophy?

Well throughout my life I have played rock, rockin' blues, country blues, jump blues and swing but on this record I wanted to have all blues. Some of the songs on this recording I have been playing since I was 16 but never recorded. We tried to keep it as live as possible and really tried to stay pretty natural with the guitars sounds.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day..?

I guess I would love to go back in time to the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago and catch Howlin Wolf or Muddy in their prime and get a feel for what that would have been like.

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