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On The Sofa
Frank Critelli
An Interview Series

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Stop By and See Us Some Time
an interview with
James Velvet

by Frank Critelli   

Hamden, CT

Frank: A lot of people around here would consider you to be a prolific songwriter.  Talk us through the James Velvet songwriting process.

James: I am prolific, I guess…relatively speaking, but it takes me a long time to write a song.  They never just tumble out.—So the James Velvet songwriting process is, in general, late at night or while I’m driving my car, a little melody and lyric will come into my head.  It could be a line, or half a line or two lines…usually it’s two lines: a scan with a rhyme in it, or at least some internal rhythm.  What I’ve been doing for several years now is not immediately picking up my guitar.  I’ve been trying to finish writing the melody and lyrics in my head while I tap (taps on the table like a metronome and hums a short melody).  So I’m working with the time as opposed to working with the chords.

F: So would you say that your songs are melody and lyric driven or beat driven?

J: It’s all lyric-driven.  That’s why I got into writing songs: to write lyrics.  I’ve been writing words, in one way or another, my whole life.  I’d consider myself a playwright, an essayist…also a champion postcard writer.

F: I’ve received postcards from James Velvet.

J: I love writing postcards.  It’s quick and it’s easy.  It’s like the haiku of western communication.  …So, it’s all lyric-driven for me, but it’s also soul-driven; it’s spirit-driven. That’s why I got into playing music, it’s good for the soul.   I’m not that fluid of a guitar player…I’m just okay, and that’s why I try to remove the guitar from the songwriting process.   I get the melody and the lyric, and I just tap out the time.  That’s really important: it’s all about how it sits in time.  It means nothing if it doesn’t sit in time the right way.  I can more or less get a song halfway done…I shoot for halfway, maybe a verse or two and a chorus.  I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get a bridge just in my head because that’s the hardest part.  Then I pick up the guitar, and if I’m spot on, I automatically know what chord to play to start the song just from having worked it in my head a week or two already by then.  And if things go well, I can work the guitar part out pretty quickly.  Then I’ll start working on the bridge if I think the song needs one.  Not all songs do need one.  That’s the hardest part for me.  I’ve spoken to a lot of other songwriters who feel the same way.

F: How many of those ideas that start off in your head actually come to fruition?  What percentage would you say?

J: Like 90-95%.  They don’t all make it to a record or a gig, but they almost all get finished.  There are a few scraps and pieces that I have in a folder, but most of them get finished.

F: How much do you concentrate on the “Craft of Songwriting,” like putting the pieces together and constructing a bridge…?

J: I work a lot on the craft.  I think that’s one of the appealing things about songwriting to me.  I have a brain that likes to organize things and put things in good balance, and a three-minute rock song is really about good balance.  Four extra bars at the end might throw the whole thing out of whack.  I’m always working on that.

F: Which of your songs come closest to achieving that balance?

J: “Here Today” has the best bridge I ever wrote.  “I Got a Shirt” is so well-written that you can perform it any way you want to.  It’s a well-balanced song.  I’m proud of a lot my songs for different reasons.  “Purple Moon?” Three chords, but there’s a balance to it; it’s how you put the three chords together.

F: What James Velvet songs miss the mark?

J: (thinks) “Freedom Ring” was too heavy-handed for what I wanted to do.   It sounds like a funeral march.  I wanted it to sound like an active march, like people protesting in the streets.  Some of the songs on Foreign Movies too.  I wanted them one way, and they came out another way… but that’s mostly about me, not the band.  It’s because I haven’t gotten a song together enough for them.  Take “I Got a Shirt.”  I could bring that song to any of the musicians I’ve ever worked with, and they’re going to get it in about five minutes because it’s a well-written song.  “Strawberry Blonde” is a song that I really like a lot, and it means a lot to me.  But I didn’t write it as well as I should have when I brought it to The Mocking Birds.  They still made a pretty good recording out of it, but I’m actually performing it better these days now that I’ve re-written it. It’s simpler and more direct now than when I first wrote it.

F: What other songs have changed over time?

J: I re-wrote the melody to “John Alley” on the chorus so it wouldn’t be so much like the verse, and I appreciate it much more now.  Some people don’t like the way I do it now, but I like it better.  I don’t go back to consciously change songs too often.  I’ll go back from time to time and rearrange them just for fun, but when they’re done, they’re pretty much done.

F: How about “Bones & Clones?” A lot of the songs on that record had made appearances on other records.  How was your approach to recording those songs for “Bones” different than when you recorded them the first time?

J: They were recorded by The Mocking Birds the first time around, and that was the “Sorta-Live” approach.  We worked fast.  We very rarely took a lot of time on a record…which is why we could make so many.  We worked fast and that made it cheaper.  Bones & Clones was my present to myself.  I wanted to work with a good producer, Jim Chapdelaine, and I wanted to take my time.  We sat down with about thirty of my songs, and picked and chose until we found an album’s worth that seemed to fit together right.  We worked on those songs exhaustively.  If the Bones & Clones versions are better, it’s because we had the luxury of time and maybe a little bit of hindsight.  We tried to more fully realize the songs.  And that’s not to disrespect The Mocking Birds versions.  In fact, we tried some songs that The Mox did better so we left them off the album.

F: Explain the trademarked “Sorta-Live” technique of recording.

J: “Sorta Live” means there are few or no overdubs and punch-ins, even though you’re recording multi-track. So you end up mixing a performance instead of a “track.”

F: “Bones & Clones” is definitely my favorite of your records.

J: Mine too. It’s got my favorite songs on it, and every one of them is well produced and well performed.  I like all the songs on it.

F: What’s your least favorite record?

J: A tape I made called Practice, Practice, Practice back in the 80’s, even though I pulled a couple of songs off it last year for Wide Awake In My Head.  I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I just had these songs. So and I went to River Street Studios in New Haven and recorded them with some friends.  A couple of the tracks were pretty lousy; a couple of them were pretty good…the two that made it to Wide Awake, but that was the worst recording I ever made.  But I like the others to varying degrees; I do.  I think they’re good.

F: Some say you have to write ten or so crappy songs for every good one.   Is that true for James Velvet?

J: I don’t think so, but that’s a judgment call.  If I didn’t think they were good, I wouldn’t record them.  I really work on them.  I won’t bring them out in public if I don’t consider them finished.  Once I consider them finished, I think they’re generally pretty good.

F: What influence have engineers and producers had on your finished products on record?

J: A lot. If I’m not working with the right engineer who’s in the right mood, it impedes my creativity.  It’s important for the flow of the session.  For The Mox, when Vic Steffins had it going on, so did we.  A good engineer hears what you say and responds with what you need, and that includes so-called “negative” feedback.  If you trust your engineer, you can take that and it’ll help you make a better record.   I don’t think we get enough constructive criticism on the local scene.

F: What would your criticisms of your own songs be?

J: I think the lyrics aren’t always readily understandable.  I don’t try to be cryptic, but sometimes it comes out that way.  Sometimes I don’t succeed in making them as clear as I want them to be.

F:  So you don’t have a blue boat?

J: I must! I wrote two songs about it. (laughs)

F: How about “Suicide Note?”

J: That’s just like a joke, I think.  It’s supposed to be heard as a joke.

F: How many of your songs are about a specific event?

J: They all come from a personal place, but most are not specifically about the events of my life.

                                                      *   *   *

F: Some people might not know that you started as a performer in theater.  What prompted the switch from theater to songwriting, and what influence did your theater experience have on your songwriting?

J: Well, like a lot of people, I was in high school bands.  I played the bass because it was only four strings…you know, learn it fast, get in a band, play the gig, meet the girls…all in one month.   Oh, and grow your hair, but that usually took two or three months.  And then I moved on to quote-unquote “more serious pursuits”, i.e. theater.  I went to college and I worked in professional summer stock doing theater, and I ended up starting my own theater company.  In my theater company, I wrote the scripts and directed the plays.—Well, I wrote a play that had songs in it.  I still had an old cheap six string guitar in the corner since high school, and I just found myself picking up the guitar more and more to write more songs for the play.   And I just realized that I missed rock and roll really bad.  I missed it completely; it was like I had taken a wrong turn for ten years.  And I moved on; I just said I’m not going to do theater anymore.  I did it.  I’m glad I did it.  I learned a lot, I did a lot, I saw a lot, I met a lot of people, but I moved on.  I had to commit myself to music.  I’m not a multi-tasker.  It’s really hard for me to put myself in five places.  I have to sort of focus on one or two things, and music became the primary thing for me to focus on.

What did I learn from theater?  I learned that it’s about work.  You don’t just wake up brilliant.  It’s about preparation, and when you’re writing, it’s about re-writing.  It’s about finding the heart of the matter.  If you write a song, and there’s one good line in that song, then you have to let that line inform all the other lines in the song.  You can’t just say ‘Oh, I’ve got one good line, and five pretty-good lines…that’s good enough’.  You have to go back and start with that good line and let it write five other lines that are just as good.  That’s what I learned from theater because staging a play is about repetition, and finding out how all the parts connect.

F: You said that you’re not a multi-tasker.  I might disagree with that.  You’ve worn a lot of hats over the years: solo performer, bandleader, songwriter, music series coordinator, radio show host…  How do each of those roles affect the others?

J: Well, all those roles are really part of the same garment for me.  They’re all more or less seamlessly attached. I call it music.   I’m not also trying to do theater, or visual art, or accounting, or corporate management…I’m doing music.  So, yeah, I do a lot of those things. They all bring me pleasure, and I try to do them well.  But the biggest kick is leading a band.  Playing rhythm guitar in The Mocking Birds was intensely pleasurable.  I’m driven by the writing, but that’s hard and kind of lonely.  It takes time.  A band also takes time, but when you get onstage, and the drummer counts four, and everybody kicks in and you sound great together. . .  wow!

                                                             *   *   *

F: The Mocking Birds have a lot of history in this town.

J: The Mocking Birds were together for 12 or 13 years.  We started off as a duo: me and Bill Beckett, who was a brilliant guitar player.  And we started off as a cover band.   We worked quite a bit and gradually got a lot of my originals sewn into the act.  And little by little we grew more into an original act.  Johnny Java joined on bass after less than a year, and Scott McDonald joined on drums within a few months after that.  And lo and behold, we were a four-piece band with some smokin’ originals.   We were working on an album which came to be known as Foreign Movies.  We’d rehearse every week for that album, and you could feel the progress from week to week.

F: The Mocking Birds had a long-standing relationship with café nine.  What were some of the ways that a regular monthly gig helped the band?

J: It helped enormously because we had somewhere to hang our hat every month even if there was nothing else going on.  I had a deal with Mike Reichbart.  We’d make a handshake agreement every January for the band to play the last Saturday of the month for the next twelve months.  No matter what happened, the group never fell out of touch because we always had a gig coming up.  And everybody always had enough pride to want to be prepared for that gig, which meant at least one rehearsal, sometimes two or three a month.  We got good.  Rock ‘n roll is an imperfect thing; it’s about chemistry.

F: Since you mentioned chemistry, The Mocking Birds had a few lineup changes over the years.  Do you have a personal favorite lineup?

J: I can’t say that I do, and I’m not just trying to be diplomatic.   All the lineups of The Mocking Birds were way cool.  Each lineup had different things going, and I appreciated all of them.  I think we were at our tightest in the late nineties when Scottie (McDonald), Dick Neal, and me, and Johnny Java were together for several years.  We went into Horizon Studios and made Gone /Tomorrow… fourteen songs, no frills, just a really good band playing with very few overdubs. I think that might have been our most powerful point.  But like I said before, my favorite thing is strapping on that rhythm guitar and fronting a band.  The Mox was a great band to front in all its incarnations.

F: Talk to me about the year’s worth of EPs.

J: We almost achieved that.  We fell down on the last one, but it was a great idea.—I write about the seasons a lot, and it was just an idea I had to record an EP for each of the seasons, real quick and live, and we’ll print up just a hundred or so copies ourselves.  We had Spring Forward, and Summer Born Great. Then it was supposed to be Fall Down Drunk.  I started to write tunes for that one, but we lost our drummer.  The last one was going to be Lyin’ In Winter or something like that.  Those two became Ten Thousand Nights.  So we put out three three-song EPs, that later became The Mox Box.  The whole purpose behind it was just to keep us busy and active.   A band can’t exist without a goal.

F: Were there drawbacks to your twelve-year residency at café nine?

J: Yes.  When we started, café nine was largely a cover-band bar.  We had to fight pretty hard to break that mold.  We were able to do that because Mike Reichbart stuck with us when we started playing more originals.  It was hard because as a musician, you want to play what the room wants to hear.  If you’re lucky, the room came to hear you, and if you’re even luckier, they came to hear you do what you want to do.  But that doesn’t always work out, does it?  There’s an old axiom that says “Play the room.”  And we did play the room; if there was a ton of people that wanted to hear us play our crazy dance covers, then we would do that, so it made it a little hard to focus on the original stuff, but we got really courageous, and starting playing more originals.  Mike stuck with us through some lean times, and we re-emerged as an original band that did a few covers instead of a cover band that played a few originals.

F: How much of that had an effect on Mike and the attitude of the bar? Certainly these days it’s considered a room for all original music.

J: Mike became my friend because we respected each other.  We were friends without being tight buddies before he even opened café nine.  I was a bartender for him when he opened up.  In fact, he didn’t open it as a music bar, he thought of it as sort of a late night place where musicians could hang after their gig.  He wasn’t planning on putting music in there…he had little coffee drinks, espresso, cordials, and the floors were all shiny and polished.  But he always knew and respected musicians so he figured he’d hire some of his friends in there and see what happened.  I was lucky enough to be the first guy to play at Mike’s for a party.  He hired me and Bill Becket, and he liked us.  Then he hired The Convertibles, then he started getting some blues bands in there, and before you know it, he’s putting together a music schedule.—But to answer your question.  Most of the bands were doing covers, and we were trying to do more originals.  Mike really respected that. Gradually the room morphed into more of an original music bar.  And yes, I like to think that the Mocking Birds had an effect on Mike and cafe nine.

F: Tell me about the difference between the Mocking Birds and the Mighty Catbirds.

J: The Mighty Catbirds is what I would call a “project” at this point.  It’s has different identities with different players.  I started it as an acoustic project, but that didn’t really work, so now it’s more of an electric project.  It’s got all the usual local band problems. (laughs) -- It’s still getting itself off the ground.   I’m just hanging onto the name and we’ll fit something into it eventually.

F: You’ve also been in a few bands as a backing musician. What do you gain as a songwriter from playing bass in some of these bands?

J: Bass was the first instrument I ever learned. I feel pretty free on it, and I really enjoy playing it. I took up rhythm guitar ‘cause it’s hard to play bass and sing lead.—What I get out of backing up singers like Chris Buskey and Calvin DeCutlass is I get to work on good songs from another angle, the arrangement and performance end of things. Also, I get to steal their ideas.

F: Is there a difference between being a musician and being a songwriter for you?

J: There are certain guys in the scene with great chops.  There’s Dean Falcone, Dick Neal, Jon Peckman, Johnny Java …these guys are musicians with a capital M.  I’m a musician with a small m.   I’m a songwriter.  What I offer to music is my melodies and stories and lyrics and my personality.  I come at it from a different point of view.

                                                            *   *   * 

F: I see a big difference between the writing on Foreign Movies (1993) and Still Here (2002.)  How has your approach to songwriting changed since you were 25 or 35?  What effect has getting older had on your writing?

J: I write more about time now.  I write about loss.  The concept of time seems to sneak into everything I write about now whether it’s relationships, jobs, friends… it’s more about how things fall out over the course time as opposed to specific instances.

F:  Tell me more about that.

J:  Well, here’s one thing that hasn’t changed.  I got into songwriting as a sort of catharsis, a musical and lyrical catharsis to release a lot of stuff that was inside of me, and that I had to get out.   I did that and I’ve done that and I continue to do that.  I still work on that level, but the things that I need to get out are different now than when I first began as a songwriter.  A few years back I wrote a couple of songs that were very meaningful to me that had to do with the death of one of my parents. Therapy writing.  Whether they are meaningful to the audience or not, I’m not sure.—Back to your question, I deal more now with the passage of time and what that means. It’s not about specific moments in time. It’s more about incidents and life experiences that happen over the course of time and how time affects those incidents. How time determines the truth, how it writes the story.—So I’m still writing things I need to get out.  Whether it’s a song in the first person or the third person, I’m still writing and I still use the guitar as a physical, cathartic instrument. It feels great to play.  But the things that I need to get out are different, so the way I get them out is different.  I’m 55 years old.  I’ve seen friends and family disappear, I’ve seen new horizons come up and I’ve seen old horizons go away.  So I’ve got different things in my heart, on my mind and in my soul.  Songwriting still seems to be a pretty good vehicle for me to sort through those and deal with those on my own level.  That’s the phrase I wanted to use: I’m sorting through stuff and dealing with it to help my own life along.

F: One of my favorite songs of yours is “Limousine Parade.”   A clear death theme; it even has a verse about Curtis Mayfield’s death.  But even your songs about Loss seem upbeat and optimistic.

J: That’s life!

F: Is “Tomorrow’s a New Day” your attitude?

J: It’s got to be.  You don’t have to look at every passing day as a lost day.  My music is sort of tragi-comical.  I don’t have to be miserable to write a song.  But I can work through some misery by writing a song.

F: You’ve also gotten more political in your songs.  Do you think that’s also a result of getting older?

J:  It might just be a result of getting more comfortable as a songwriter.   I’ve always been political; the theater I did before I became a musician was politically oriented. There are artists who are strictly political, and there are artists who say there is no room for politics in art.   I’m somewhere in the middle; I don’t think it’s possible to take politics out of art. My songs are about my life and my friends and the worlds we live in; naturally, politics comes into that.  If you go back to Foreign Movies, there’s a song on there called “Dark Wind” about the conservative whiplash that’s still going on in America.  I’ve been talking about politics for a long time.  Sometimes it just bubbles up a little closer to the surface.

                                                           *   *   *

F: What’s James Velvet’s goal now?  What do you aim for?

J: I wish I was as coherent about myself as I was about The Mocking Birds.   I’m really just trying to finish this one record now, and find the right people to accompany me as The Mighty Catbirds.  It hasn’t gelled yet, and I don’t quite know how to make it gel.

F:  The things you write about are different, your attitude towards music is different.  Has the audience evolved along with you?

J:  My audience has.  But my audience is pretty small.  It’s asking a lot of pop music to actually deal with mature themes.  The critics always talk about it, but I don’t think that pop music actually deals with aging and time spans all that well.  It’s about 3 minutes.  It’s about Saturday night.  It’s about moving your feet around, which it should be.  It’s hard to deal with much more than that in pop music. Whether you call it folk, singer/songwriter, Americana or whatever, it’s about quick impressions.—So has the audience evolved with me?   Well, my small audience may have, but I think actually what I’m doing nowadays has limited applications to the pop music world.

F:  Does that bother you?

J:  Yes.  Because I love doing it.  It bothers me to think I’m not going to have anybody to do it for if things evolve the way they are evolving.  I don’t feel negative about that, but I don’t feel as hopeful as I once did.  I don’t have the hopefulness that I used to have that makes me want to sit down and write.  I still want to write, and I still have some hope that people will want to hear what I come up with, but that hopefulness that implies the future is not there.  That’s because there’s not much future there! (smiles)  No matter how you slice it!  I have less time ahead of me than I did when I was thirty years old.

F: My friend Mark Miller (poet, English professor) is hovering around 55, and he always says he has more road behind him than in front of him.  To me, that communicates a sense of urgency.  Do you feel a sense of urgency about your art?

J: I feel a sense of urgency that alternates with a sense of acceptance.  I’m not ready to die.  The acceptance is just a realization that I’m not thirty anymore.  It’s knowing that I’m writing about different things, and I’m writing for a smaller audience, so that’s what I’ll do then. I feel the need to keep on.—There was a real sense of urgency when I was younger!  (sings loudly)  “It was a two-wheel drive on a summer night/ I was cruisin’ fast, she was holdin’ tight.”  Now that’s urgent!

F: I’m assuming you will always write. What would cause you to stop performing?

J:  The lack of audience interest, which can happen.  If you don’t mind me switching tracks here… The other part of songwriting, if you’re going to be a local songwriter, is being able to promote yourself.  You need to be able to get gigs, find fans, and build an audience base, and if you can’t do that, if you can’t build an audience, no matter how good you are eventually you’re not going to have any place to play.  I really believe that if you are a songwriter or musician you are not happening until you’re performing. There are people who disagree with that, but…

F:  It kind of completes the communication circle.

J:  For me it does.  It goes back to if the tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it…. If I write a song and nobody hears it (giggles)…  I want people to hear my songs.  They don’t have to like them, but I want them to hear them.

F:  I’ve seen you perform in various configurations.  In a full band, rocking with your cock out in café nine… I’ve seen you solo at the All Gallery telling stories. I’ve seen you as a storyteller at Fray Day, and I’ve also seen you play with a standup bass player in a kind of old time-y setup.   What is your favorite setup to get your message across?  What is the best release for you?

J:  It hasn’t happened yet.—The four-piece electric rock-n-roll band was the best setup for me 10 years ago and maybe even five years ago.  But my songs are changing and I’m evolving and I don’t quite have the vehicle yet that I want.  We talked about the Mighty Catbirds before.  The Mighty Catbirds may eventually be the vehicle to express the songs I’m writing these days.  Me performing solo is not enough.  I’m never satisfied with that.  At least for now, I’m not real comfortable being a solo performer.  A lot of people find that kind of surprising but it’s not something I ever set out to do. I got into music back in high school with a band.  We sang harmonies walking down the street together. That’s how I got into music without even thinking about it: me and my buddies just always did it.   Kind of like you and your friends might have always played baseball or you and another friend might have always drunk beer together or drove cars around. Those guys and me always made music.—It’s odd. I set out to be a songwriter, which, for me, is an intensely lonely, way solo preoccupation. But to perform the songs, I think of myself as collaborating with one or more people.  Future high school buddies perhaps. I hope I’m lucky enough to come up with the right combos in the right situations.

F:  Where do you see yourself going from here?  What do you hope to be doing with your music 10 years from now?  Will you still be releasing records?

J:  That’s my hope.  Whether I can or not, I don’t know.  That’s one of my failings as a musician; I’m not necessarily good at building an audience or getting gigs. I don’t have any kind of commercial vision for myself.  If you’re asking me just aesthetically what my vision is for myself ten years from now, I’d like to be writing songs.  And I’d like to be recording them with a group.  And playing them for people.  But I know that’s not going to happen unless I can figure out a way to have audience interest to sustain the music.  So I don’t know where I’m going to be in ten years.  Some guys would know.  Some guys would say “I’ve got the vision and I’m going here,” and those are the guys that maybe make it into the charts when they’re in their 20s; I don’t know.  I’ve never known anyone like that.  But I presume that there must be some people somewhere out there with a business vision as well as an artistic vision.  But I don’t have that vision.  I can’t tell you where I’ll be ten years from now.

F:  We kind of touched on this in private conversation.  Does it bother you that you haven’t quite achieved a bigger commercial success with any of your songs?

J:  Yes.  That being said, I never had a vision for a huge commercial success.  All I ever really wanted to do was write them and make them sound good and perform them and record them and have people hear them, and I’ve done that.  I should say, and I should be very emphatic, I’m quite happy with the fact that I have been able to make such good music with such good musicians and have an audience for it for all these years in the Connecticut area.  I know I’m lucky, because for every one of me, there are 20 people that wish they could have that kind of following.  So I’m not bitching, but I am dissatisfied that I haven’t yet reached a larger audience.  I don’t think there’s a songwriter around here that wouldn’t like to reach a larger audience.  Writing songs is hard work, and it’s important work. It’s important to you and what you do in your life, and how you feel about yourself and how you relate to your friends and family.  So naturally you want that work to be acknowledged by a wide audience.  I’ve never had dreams of platinum success.  In fact, I don’t think I’d want that.   But I have had dreams of more than just 25 people at café nine on a Tuesday night hearing my songs.  (laughs) And I’ve yet to figure out how to achieve that dream!  But I haven’t given up either.

F: You’ve had songs on a few soap operas though.

J: Years ago I sat down with my friend A.J. Gundell and a case of beer over the course of two or three nights and we finished ten songs; I mostly worked on lyrics and melody.  And all of them were accepted by the soap opera, the publisher; so I was looking at royalty checks for a few years on these.  I said “This is sweet!”

F: Did they air your own performances?

J: No, I just helped to write them, and then they were demo-ed out by professional musicians.

F: That must have been really cool!

J: It felt great!  It was easy, man!   I just sat down with a friend and drank beer and they sent me checks.  But I haven’t followed that market very much since then.  I wanted to write my songs, I didn’t necessarily want to write what they were looking for.

F: What are some of your favorite themes for songs?

J:  Time, and how it affects relationships. Night and day. Winter, spring, summer, fall. I write about friendship a lot.

F: Why is that?

J: I’m not quite sure, but friends have been important to me since I was a kid.  I had a brother who died when I was quite young, and I sort of took on a lot of friends to make up for that.   I don’t have a large family.  You won’t find me writing about family very much.  I write more about friends than family, so it sort of becomes the “family of man” after a while.  I guess I write about loss.

F: Is the line from “I Got A Shirt” about your actual brother?

J: Yeah.  And that’s total therapy for me.  And in a goofy song like that, it doesn’t matter if anyone knows what it means.

F: Is it an actual shirt?  Do you still have it?

J: No, it’s a bunch of different shirts.  But there are certain shirts that make you feel special, don’t you think?

F: Do you have any specific shirts or clothes that you like to wear while performing?

J: Yes.  Lately I’ve been wearing this yellow tee-shirt with a blue denim shirt over it, and you said “Hey, that’s what Lennon wore in the picture inside The White Album. “  And I said “Yeah, I know!”  (laughs)

F: I’ve seen you wear blue suede shoes too.

J: I’ve got my blue suedes. I wear them when I want to spiff up a little bit.

F: Does your style of dress have an effect on your delivery?

J: Yes.  In fact lately, with The Mighty Catbirds, I’ve been wearing a sports coat because it makes me feel more adult or something.  So I think I sing a little differently.  One of my ambitions is to be in a band where we can all wear suits, and we can all behave like adults on stage… I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but we’ll see.

F: 55 and you still don’t feel like an adult?

J: No, I don’t!

F: Do you think that’s especially true for songwriters and musicians?

J: I don’t know.  There’s a psychological term for it this I can’t think of right now, but I do think everybody has an age that they live their whole life.  Some people are ten years old their whole life, or 70 years old their whole life.   Now, I’m not making this up, but I’ve always felt like I was like 50…since I was 15. --  I think everybody is preoccupied by age and time.  As you get older, it becomes even more of a preoccupation. (sings and taps)  “Time is the thread of revelation / unwinding year after year / it goes it’s own way and it gets the last say / I wish you were still here.”

F: Is that yours?

J: That’s the bridge to “Spend My Time With You.”  I’m recording that now with The Catbirds.

F: So the next Velvet effort will be a Mighty Catbirds record?

J: The next James Velvet record is going to be a dog’s dinner. I’m recording some tunes with The Catbirds, and I’m recording some tunes with Patsy O’Brien and Jenn D.  I’m working on a couple of tunes with Nick Appleby (Jellyshirts, Buzzbaby, Mold Monkies), where we’re taking a very Nick-type of pop approach.

F: “Dog’s Dinner” sounds like a good working title.  Want to give me a little teaser or anything?  Maybe let us know a few other tunes that’ll be on it?

J: You’ve probably heard most of them because I’ve been playing them live for a couple of years.  Patsy and Jenn and I will be doing “Riding on a Train” and “(What’s So Holy About) The Holy Land?” We’re also doing a little ditty about murder called “It Just Happens.”  That’s one I don’t perform out much.  I’m hoping to work with Jim Chapdelaine on “Disappearing Pictures” and maybe one other tune. I’m working on “Our Good Love” and “Trick Of The Light” with The Catbirds. Nick and I are doing a sweet version of “Castles Made of Sand.”

The whole thing might be ready by next spring.

F: Let’s say you decide to move away.

J: It’s been talked about right around this very table.

F: Let’s say Velvet moves to Burlington, VT next month.

J: That’s the name that keeps popping up. . .

F: How does he want New Haven to remember him?

J: Hopefully New Haven remembers me as a good guy who wrote some good tunes and played with a rockin’ band.

  Get more info on James Velvet HERE
 & more info on
Frank Critelli HERE.

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