In the world of music, bigger rarely means better. Often, the most magnificent music appears in the simplest of clothing.
In the case of Californian folk artist James Spaite, a cello, a guitar, and a pair of voices are all it takes to craft a record that is breathtakingly beautiful and immensely satisfying.
James was one of the reasons we started The Cellary—we fell in love with his music and wanted to learn more about where it comes from. So we were nothing short of thrilled to get the chance to chat with James. Check out our conversation below, and then check out his music. You won’t be disappointed.
Ethan Weitz: James, how did you get started with writing music?
James Spaite: That’s a good question. I’m going to split it into two categories, actually: music and lyrics. When I first started writing music I actually would only write instrumental guitar pieces. I hated my voice. I thought I was a horrible singer. And I even reference that in some of my music in different places. And so I would just write instrumental pieces and that’s how I actually got into percussive finger-style guitar. I was like, “You know what? I can’t sing, so I might as well do something cool with the guitar.” And so around 8th grade I got creative, thought I was the first ever and then sort of figured out that people have been playing percussive finger-style guitar for a really long time. You can imagine how let down I was because I thought I was really original.
I think something that kind of kept me running with music was that I have ADHD and interestingly enough there is like this hyper-focused portion of ADHD. A lot of times people just think, “Oh you can’t focus on anything,” whereas the actual truth is that people with ADHD are able to focus really, really well on things that they are interested in. For me, that was music. I would think about my guitar all day during school, and then when I’d get home I’d just go and lock myself in my room for six hours and play.
I started writing lyrics in a gap year between high school and university. Out of that time came a lot of songs that I kind of threw away. But there were a few that I held on to, like “Effort,” which ended up on the album “A Woman Gave Me Music.”
Ethan: Has getting a degree in psychology influenced your music at all?
James: Absolutely, especially in a lot of the music I’m currently writing. There are a lot of themes that stem from sociology and psychology. I also grew up in the central valley of California—I’m from Visalia. It’s a very diverse area and my mom studied sociology in college, so I grew up with a distinct sociological lens on the world. So that is something that has significantly influenced not only my music, but my entire life, as far as being curious about questions of how human beings interact. It all fascinates me.
Ethan: Musically speaking, do you have any artists or styles that really inspire you?
James: Top five, I feel comfortable saying: James Taylor, Kool & the Gang, John Doan (he’s a Celtic artist), Antione Defour (he’s a percussive finger-style guitarist), and I would have to say the last spot is split between anything Justin Vernon or Michael Gungor.
Emily Cardé: Could you tell us a little bit about the first song you ever wrote?
James: The first lyrical song I wrote, I wrote for a girl I had a thing with in high school. At the time I thought the song was really sweet, but looking back now I realize that it was plain terrible. I played it for her at a bonfire over at a friend’s house one time. Literally zero response. Then, I was so sad, but looking back, it’s really funny.
Emily: That’s so sad! It’s good that you can look back and laugh.
Ethan: Let’s transition now to your record, “A Woman Gave Me Music.” What made you want to put it together, and are there any themes or unifying concepts throughout the album?
James: “A Woman Gave Me Music” was inspired by my grandmother. She was a source of warmth and tenderness alongside music. I remember I used to go up to Oregon to visit my grandma, and I would lay under her baby grand piano as she played. And I would just listen to the sounds and try to take it all in as much as I could with my little ears.
So with this album I decided to do a beta test to see if people liked where my mind sits with writing lyrics and themes. I pretty strongly believe that every songwriter (or any kind of writer) generally tends to sit around five or six themes that they about in their music. So I did a stripped album—there’s only vocals, guitar, cello and a little bit of percussion.
The themes in the album are still consistent in a lot of my writing today; they just take on a little bit of a different face. Themes of love, questions, pain, nature, restoration, or there being a capacity for things to be restored. I write the majority of my music out of my own experience, and oftentimes that is paired with some form of pain. So my intention in writing a lot of those songs was to give voice to that pain, and not try to shun it or push it away, and also hopefully to tell others that pain is okay. Don’t run from your pain. Become friends with your pain and understand how it works. Give it a high five each time you see it.
Emily: Two of our favorite songs of yours are “Effort” and “Worth,” which bookend the album. What are the stories behind the writing of those songs?
James: I wrote “Worth” during a time that was really difficult for me. I lived in Argentina in 2013 for about seven months. I lived in the capital of Argentina, which is basically comparative to the New York of South America. Where I lived, there weren’t very many people who ascribed to a lot of the morals that exist within Christianity. So, the world I lived in was shaken up a bit. And so “Worth” is basically about some of my interactions with God at the time as well as some of my interactions with a girl that I had feelings for. She touched my hand one time and I looked at her and thought that I could see that in her eyes there were questions: “Am I valuable to you? Do I mean anything to you, or are we both just kind of lonely and a couple thousand miles away from where we actually live right now?” On a larger level, I think “Worth” speaks to a very screwy and self-interested system of dating and love and romanticism in our culture.
“Effort” was actually one of the earlier songs that I wrote in that period that I told you about—my gap year between high school and university. It was one of the ones that stuck around. It was basically just a song about common themes that have existed throughout humanity for a very long time, even that we see in spiritual writings: that humans will believe lies that we’ve exchanged for a truth that may exist. I believe that God is the source and fullness of all love and care and compassion and morality and ethics and all of these things. And so if God has created all things, including us, then value stems not from us striving to do things, but from the one who gave the value by creating it. So that’s what “Effort” is about.
Ethan: What would you say is the most meaningful song that you’ve ever written?
James: The most meaningful song, in my mind, that I’ve written—and this is heavily influenced by the sociological and psychological view that I have of the world—is a song called “Coyote.” I wrote “Coyote” about two years ago now, and it will be on an album I anticipate putting out within this next year. Basically the song is about some experiences I had working in agriculture in the Central Valley of California. I worked on a blackberry farm, and we had this problem with coyotes coming out and chewing up the drip lines. So we covered the lines with bitter stuff and then we put out extra buckets of water for them to drink out of, but they were still coming and chewing up the lines. We were so confused.
One time when I was driving back down to San Diego, I was thinking, “Man, these animals are so stupid. I don’t get it.” It seems to me like it would be unpleasant for any animal to stick their face into a thorny blackberry bush to chew on something that tastes bitter and then to drink up muddy water, especially when there’s a better option available. It seems so dumb, but it kept happening year after year. So I figured that the parent coyotes were teaching the pup coyotes, “This is how you be a coyote, you’re furry, you howl at the moon, this is how you get water, this is how you function as one of us.”
And I realized that this is incredibly representative of humanity. There are voices—like our own or our parents, or our race, or cultural or ethnic heritage, or our socioeconomic status, or the grades we get in school, or others’ expectations, or the people we surround ourselves with, or a certain religion that we may adhere to—all these different types of things that we oftentimes allow to define us. I believe that nature, our biology, has an important part to play in the formation of our identity, but also that our “nurture”—all the things I was just mentioning—has a very important part to play. However, I think that we have a huge capacity for choice, and we can choose to not accept things that we are taught to believe about ourselves or others, like, “That is the color of ‘their’ skin, therefore they will behave this way,” or “This is my ethnic/racial heritage, therefore I’m good at math,” or “I’m a lawyer, your mom’s a lawyer, you’re my daughter, therefore you will be a lawyer,” or a million other statements of the same nature. We hear ideas like these all the time, and people like to throw them around all the time.
And so my hope in writing “Coyote” is to encapsulate the idea that we don’t have to just remain in the biological or social structures that are handed down to us, or the decisions of our parents, or the culture that we inherit, but we have the capacity to make our own choices. And I think that that is beautiful and good.
Don’t run from your pain. Become friends with your pain and understand how it works. Give it a high five each time you see it.
Ethan: On the lines of the new album that you’re putting out, is there a specific direction that you are going with that? Is the music style going to be similar or different from your current album?
James: My last album was influenced by my past and the people I love, and now with this new album I want to give you something that is directly from me. It will still float somewhere in the waters of singer-songwriter, but it will be a lot more orchestrated and produced. So where there were only five instruments in the last album, the next one will include tons more, like a full drum set, violin, bass, French horn, saxophone, piano, glockenspiel, and other random instruments. So it will sit between singer-songwriter, percussive finger-style guitar, and orchestral music.
And as far as the lyrics go, the hope is to give voices to those who may not have voices, or at least to address some of the issues that I feel like go overlooked. And then alongside that will be other songs that include themes of family and—as is very common for songwriters—different themes of love.
Emily: Now that you have finished college, are you planning on focusing primarily on your music?
James: Yes, I am focusing more on music. I am actually in the middle of a tour of the West Coast. I decided for this tour I wasn’t going to work with any bookers/promoters; I did everything on my own, with the intent of bringing music into a common space, where human beings just kind of connect through curious mathematical intervals that we have assigned aesthetic beauty and labeled as “music.” So I am playing in a bunch of random different places all along the coast. I’ve played in coffee shops, people’s houses, backyards, a barn or two, an avocado orchard, someone’s library, a fire at someone else’s house, a couple of different clothing-like boutique stores—all these places where you wouldn’t expect music, to draw music back to a common space where people actually spend time with one another to reference the fact that music is existent in everything and it’s beautiful. So that’s my direction at the current moment, and naturally in the future I’ll keep recording and putting out music.