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Introducing Folk/Americana Singer-Songwriter James Lee Baker

A classically trained musician, James Lee Baker fuses influences from acoustic singer-songwriters like David Mead, Ellis Paul, John Gorka, Gregory Alan Isakov, Bob Dylan, and Slaid Cleaves. He embraces open tunings to create an unconventional but welcoming sound and timbre to his playing. Trained briefly by Richard Gilewitz, a renowned fingerstyle guitar player, James Lee’s fingerstyle guitar playing is rich and melodic, pulling listeners into memorable motifs and atmospheres.

In 2017, Baker released a Texas-inspired full-length project called “Home Again.” Harnessing his experience in technology, Baker recruited talented studio session musicians, accessing performers from Los Angeles, Canada, The United Kingdom, and Denver. “Home Again” is a Country-flavored Americana album, rich with instrumentation like dobro, lap steel, fiddle, and harmonica.

In March, he released an EP of Folk/Americana songs called The Canadian River. The single of the same title placed #23 on the FolkDJ radio charts in April of 2018, and the song “Two Cageless Birds” went on to be selected for the John O’Hara Songwriting Performance Grant.

James has played at several prominent venues including the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles, The Fox Theater in Boulder, and Swallow Hill and The Walnut Room in Denver.

Baker took time to answer a few questions for this exclusive interview:

ME: So tell us your story. Where did you grow up? What made you decide to become an artist?

James Lee Baker: I was raised in Amarillo, Texas to a musical family. Though everyone had day jobs, my father was a drummer, my mother played guitar, and my grandfather was a piano player. We were involved in church a lot so music was a part of my life since birth. In the summer, I would attend music camps where I would learn things like sight-reading and conducting.

The music sort of chose me. I’ve always found that music adds an emotional dimension to life and creates depths to memories and stories. It is also something that brings people together and helps us express our desires, frustrations, successes, and failures in a way that others can relate to. As a songwriter, this is where an ever-flowing source of inspiration comes from.

ME: Since everyone was a start-up once, can you give any smaller or local bands or artists looking to get gigs and airplay some tips?

James Lee Baker:  Focus on building a good product. By product, I don’t mean a CD. In the world today, there is a giant wall of white noise that, when broken down, reveals the plethora of musicians trying to “make it”. In the end, what will separate you from everyone else is knowing what your product is, knowing how it is unique from other people, and knowing what value you have to add to your listeners’ lives.

When you think of yourself as a business delivering a product, it changes the way you look at yourself as an artist. Do you dress nicely (and uniquely) when performing in public? Do you think outside of the box in your songwriting? Are you taking risks? What are you doing differently from other musicians?

Lastly, try investing in other musicians. Go to conferences, festivals, retreats, etc. and meet your peers. Invest into them, co-write with him, buy their stuff. Soon, you’ll be sharing the stage with them on a split bill or opening up for them.

ME: Do you ever make mistakes during performances? How do you handle that?
James Lee Baker: All the time. That’s what art is! If we couldn’t make mistakes, people would probably prefer to just put headphones on and listen to the perfected recording. I think it shows how human we are.
When I do make a mistake, I either carry on as if nothing happened or I make the situation light-hearted with a joke. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s learning how to react to mistakes that helps people see the kind of person you are.

ME: Do you tour? Anything interesting happen on tour that you think our readers would enjoy hearing about?

James Lee Baker: Sort of. Chemistry and attentiveness are important for me in a performance and I tend to gravitate to house concerts and listening rooms for performances. I like to think of myself as “boutique artist”. I hand-select the places and communities I want to invest into so that I can deliver an exceptional and personal performance for them. I typically play 10-20 shows per year and mix conferences, festivals, and retreats into that.

ME: Any planned studio upgrades? What are you working with now?
James Lee Baker: I have a home studio that uses a Shure SM7B for vocals. I love that thing! Combined with a good dynamic EQ, it handles the most sibilant of voices and is very forgiving. I presently play an amazing guitar – a Collings D2H. 

ME: How do you find ways to promote your music? What works best for you?
James Lee Baker: People love a good Facebook or YouTube video. I can sit my phone down on the desk and just doodle around on a song i’m working on, share it with my fans/friends and get more reception from that than a budgeted commercial-grade music video. People love the human connection in songs and it doesn’t take too much production to make that happen.

ME: If you could perform anywhere and with any artists (Dead or Alive) where and who would it be with? Why?
James Lee Baker: I would love to perform with David Gray or Gregory Alan Isakov. Both artists are captivating and do a good job of keeping hundreds, perhaps thousands of listeners at a venue engaged in an intimate and moving song. It’s awesome to see and stand in near silence around so many people while a handful of well-practiced and coordinated performers shift the emotional landscape of the room.

ME: So, what’s next? Any new upcoming projects that you want to talk about?
James Lee Baker: I’m presently in discussions with several prominent names in the recording industry to record some singles that I hope to have out in the next six months. Depending on how the writing process goes for me, I may release an EP early next year with a few recently-written tunes.
Otherwise, i’m diving into the Folk Alliance community and will be attending NERFA this year in Connecticut. 

ME: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
James Lee Baker: I would probably spend my free time in a garden or in front of a canvas. I love art and nature and, if i’m not doing one, i’m doing the other…or at least pining for it.

ME: What should fans look forward to in the next year or so?
James Lee Baker: I’m doubling down on the writing and recording process to try and put out a full-length album late next year or early 2020. I want the songs on this project to be vetted in critiques from other writers and recorded by incredible people with talented session musicians. The subject matter will largely depend upon my muses, but I am aiming to tell the stories of people that we don’t normally talk about like the cowboy, the CNC machinist, the airline pilot, or the church pastor. I’ve spent my youth singing about introspection. It’s time for some extrospection.

ME: Any Shout-outs?
James Lee Baker: Anyone who read all of my responses to this interview and those who know and support my music efforts. Thank you!

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