When Justin Nathan Barber broke my little heart in my early twenties, I didn’t take it too well. I have foggy memories of turning up at his parents’ house at 4am, fuelled by strong continental lager, and climbing up onto his roof. I thought this grand gesture might somehow win him back, although it only seemed to enrage his furrow-faced father who had to fetch his six foot ladder wearing only a towelling dressing gown. Thus began the official period of mourning. Each week my friend Keith would take me on a long road trip, as I dramatically wailed in the passenger seat, swigging wine out of a bottle, and listening to The Best of Bread on repeat. “Steph, I don’t think this music is helping you…” LEAVE IT, KEITH. LEAVE IT.
James M Carson is a singer songwriter who likely hails from California in 1971. Wearing a denim shirt and sporting floppy dark hair, he looks like a cross between David Cassidy and a fit Brian Cox. As I introduce myself before the show, James immediately tells me he has a confession to make. He’s pulled his back out whilst loading the washing machine so has had to take… a tramadol. I did say I might try to make his explanation look a bit more rock n roll but I cannot lie to you, dear reader. James has already started making significant waves with his thoughtful, well-crafted, introspective lyrics and was recently featured by BBC Introducing Manchester.
Tonight I’m at Night and Day’s Local Showcase, which in typical Night and Day fashion, lumps together a great bunch of completely dissimilar acts. Although in theory this seems like a very good idea for the average gig enthusiast, in reality this amounts to divided clusters of audience who all get up and leave after their act has finished (or worse – talk through the acts they don’t know).
Fortunately, James is on first so gets the lion’s share of the crowd who to be fair, do manage to listen attentively. To say that James’ voice is soulful and tender would be an understatement – the quality of his tone is soft and gentle although this is nicely balanced with an impressive vocal range and a self-assured confidence during powerful moments.
Some of the chord progressions and finger styles are all very reminiscent of the whole 1970s soft rock vibe and he reminds me of all things Big Star-y and Bread-y (now does my opening gambit make sense?). In today’s wipe clean culture of lowest denominator chart songs and people with eyebrows shaped by Pythagoras’ theorem, I long for the days of simplicity. I like my music organic, written using elbow grease and conveying some kind of universal truth which we can all relate to. James’ lyrics certainly deliver on this front – warm, homespun, and revealing a deeper vulnerability.
You get the real impression that this is a person who has experienced real pain in his life, perhaps even a man who hasn’t quite figured himself out yet. Off stage, James seems silly and playful. He reminds me of a large bounding black Labrador. I ask him what the themes of his songs are, expecting wistful poetic musings about existential angst. His response: “Moaning.”
Give over. Tell Sounds about the meanings behind some of your songs.
“Well, Stalemate was written by me when I was in a band. That’s about bottling up life inside you. All your emotion, expression, passion and talent and hiding it away and just being normal… getting into the same rut as everyone else… but inside you’re screaming. I think that playing it safe and being unchallenged are dangerous comforts. In that sense you’re not living.
“Another song – Twisted Shapes – is about when you feel trapped in a loop of the same grievances that never resolve, and you just keep going over and over the same point but never actually moving on. That you almost don’t recognise yourself anymore – you get numb to it. Then when you try to make a change or speak your mind you get it all wrong because it comes from a place of bitterness and resentment. Day by day there’s all these little battles you’re trying to win that amount to nothing really- other than some illusion of control.”
Despite being the same age, James’ hands look a lot younger than mine. I can only assume he has never had to lift a wall unit, or perhaps bathes in milk every evening whilst sipping on a Babysham. I leave the gig and go home immediately to start planning our wedding – I expect we shall be married by the summer.
Catch James M Carson at Gullivers, Manchester on April 19th, and no, of course I would never use my job at Sounds Magazines to chat up attractive musicians (said no music journalist ever).