Stop By and See Us
an interview with
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
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
I’ve received postcards from James Velvet.
J: I love writing
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
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?
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?
“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
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
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.
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.”
“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.
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
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
influence have engineers and producers had on your finished products on
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
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
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
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. . .
* * *
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
“Tomorrow’s a New Day” your attitude?
J: It’s got to
don’t have to look at every passing day as a lost day. My music is sort of
don’t have to be miserable to write a song.
But I can work through some misery by writing
You’ve also gotten more political in your songs. Do you think
that’s also a result of getting older?
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.
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?
My audience has. But my audience is pretty
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?
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
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
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?
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,
F: It kind of completes the
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?
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
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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?
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
F: Do you have
any specific shirts or clothes that you like to wear while performing?
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!”
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?
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
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
F: Is that yours?
J: That’s the
bridge to “Spend My Time With You.”
I’m recording that now with The
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.
“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?
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.
Let’s say you decide to move away.
J: It’s been
talked about right around this very table.
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