Shawn James feels it’s his duty to leave everything he has on the stage when he performs. A few years ago at a festival in Germany in front of 3,000 people, James outdid himself in the leaving category.
“It was late at night and the fans were wild and hungry,” James said by phone from Fayetteville, Ark. “In an effort to be dramatic, I growled, lifted my guitar way up in the air and when I brought it down, the neck of the guitar cut my eye.
“I was bleeding on everything. When I turned to my bandmates, they gasped. I didn’t really know how bad I was cut until after the show when I went to the emergency room and got four stitches from a Russian doctor.”
The show went on. No way James was going to quit. And expect him to bring that intensity to his show April 18 at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame/
After seven years of being on the road, this is a good time to be Shawn James. He’s an overnight success after playing nearly a thousand concerts all over the world and logging thousands of miles in between.
His latest album, "The Dark & the Light," released in March, has gained more than a million hits on Spotify in less than three weeks. James is getting airplay on commercial stations across the country for the first time in his career. James is being compared to artists Hozier and The White Buffalo.
It’s a dramatic leap from seven years ago when he was unloading trucks in Fayetteville at 4 a.m. James, now 32, quit that job to busk (play for money) in front of theaters.
His voice has been described as a force of nature and some of that comes from growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
“I was the only white dude in all-black choirs in Pentecostal churches,” James said. “I was also trained in classical music and opera.”
In one song, James can sound like he’s at the corner of damnation and redemption and give compelling vocal reasons why he should follow both paths.
His background, as well as his multi-octave range, allows him to sing comfortably, if not passionately, in a variety of musical genres. He can sound like blues singer Robert Johnson, sing haunting Irish folk songs, unload blistering rock 'n' roll tracks as well as do covers of songs like “That’s Life,” that would make Frank Sinatra proud.
His latest album was produced by Jimmy Messer (AWOLNation, Kelly Clarkson, Kygo, The White Buffalo) and is his first for L.A.-based indie label Parts + Labor Records. He has released more than 70 songs over the past five years.
Some of the inspiration for the album comes from his father, who died an alcoholic, and chronicles the journey from the “despair to the heights of ecstatic communion.”
“The blood that filled his veins flows through mine/It’s not that I’m ashamed but how can I redefine how your story ends,” James sings.
“The record’s about turning the darkness and pain I’ve experienced in my life into songs that can inspire others to make the best of hard times,” James said.
His songs have been featured on HBO, CBS and the Sony PlayStation video game "The Last of Us 2." More recently, he recorded Macy Gray’s Grammy-winning “I Try” for Grammy.com’s “Grammy Reimagined” series.
With all his travel, James has never been to Bakersfield but looks forward to coming.
“I enjoy meeting and talking to new people,” James said. “I don’t hide in the green room before and after the show. I’m out there shaking hands, pressing the flesh, and hearing their stories.”