- Smooth Jazz Network
James Day: Behind the Beats
Updated: May 4, 2022
Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: James Day, or more recently known by the name JD's Time Machine.
I think of you as the 'King of Collaborators’. Tell us about your process in selecting singers and musicians for your recent projects.
Well, I really grew up just wanting to be a songwriter, like Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Goffin & King, Gamble & Huff, Rod Temperton & Quincy Jones. But the business changed so that many of the songs you hear on the radio today are created by singers writing words over pre produced tracks, samples, or beats. Very few look for outside material anymore or think of songwriting as an equal artform as singing, requiring the same amount of dedication, study, art, skill and gift. There are very few people who just write songs for a living anymore, if they do, they co-write and are like ghost writers making a signed artist's ideas come to life. I wanted to write my own songs, from my own inspiration, tell my own stories and have more artistic control over the production and arrangement.
After having several disappointing cuts on major labels in my late 20's and early 30's I decided SONGWRITERS should be able to make their own albums too, just like producers and even DJ's do now. So, that's what I did. J.D's Time Machine is my vehicle to write my own songs, make my own albums, and be an artist in my own right. I choose my singers, musicians, co-writers and producers based on how I hear the song in my head, and often I hear several versions, that's why I do a lot of remixes. I will STILL write for other people's albums, like the Lalah Hathway, Glenn Jones & Regina Belle cuts I wrote...but it has to be a very special artist and project. In the case of KISS OF FREEDOM I hired Cleveland Jones to sing a demo. After hearing his voice on that song both myself and co-lyricist Makalani said there is no way anyone else can sing it. Cleveland has a supernatural gift and I know in my heart this song is going to elevate him to superstardom. Grammy's take note!
Over the past couple of years, you’ve had several hits in the smooth jazz world. How did you connect with smooth jazz?
I still write what was POP/R&B in my day...Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Patti Austin & James Ingram...it's just that it is NOW known as smooth jazz. Plus, smooth jazz lets me use more live instruments like saxes, trumpets and guitars and have more chords and bigger melodies than today's pop/urban music.
You have had some health challenges. Please talk about your process in working through and overcoming these serious hurdles.
I went to school in NYC to be a singer and a dancer and I lost my hearing and my balance to Meniere's Disease. At first, I covered up all my albums in sheets cuz I was too dizzy to move them all, and my bedroom became a musical graveyard. But my love of music did not die and it took over...creating songs in my head, lyrics and melodies, and then I went out and got a keyboard, and then a 4 track tape recorder, a microphone, a drum machine and using the hearing I had left in one ear I ending up writing songs good enough to win the Billboard & John Lennon Grand Prizes in R&B and Gospel, and a Scholarship from the Songwriters Hall of Fame (given to me by my Idol, Hal David, by the way.)
Over the years I've lost even more hearing and it's very challenging, sometimes I can't hear anything except the ringing in my head. But my brain has an inner ear that keeps making music even when I can't hear it on the outside....and with the help of great friends who are also very talented musicians, singers, and writers, sooner or later I find a way of getting them out. I tried a cochlear implant a few years back but that didn’t work. There are a few other things I might try and also, I'm upgrading my hearing aids this year.
What are some of your early influences and how did they shape your music?
My grandfather saw my love of music very early and by the time I was 4 he would let me take home one of his albums every time I visited. He had a room that was wall to wall albums in every style but a particularly great collection of Black music. The first album I took home was Natalie Cole's Inseparable...later it was Billie Holiday, George Benson, Joni Mitchell, Donny Hathway...you name it. I was very lucky to have been exposed to all that great music when I was young and had 2 good working ears...it is those stored memories of sound that I utilize to create music today.
This has been a challenging year for everyone. You have continued to produce new music throughout, which is a wonderful gift to listeners and fans. How have you handled the challenges presented by the pandemic?
I take care of my mom full time anyway, but this year it was almost entirely me & her together for a full year to keep her safe from COVID and for neither of us to be exposed. She's 87 with two co-morbidities so there's no way we were taking any risks. Recently we both got our 2nd shot and are getting ready to free ourselves up a little and have family over and I'll be going to some studios to work on music. The songs I created during the pandemic were completely done over the internet. Mixing sessions here that were cut in LA, ATL, Boston, Italy, San Francisco. But that's the way a lot of us work now anyway, so it wasn’t that different, it just took a long time because Kiss of Freedom is almost ALL live musicians and vocalists.
Any artists you would like to collaborate with in the future? Or any you would have liked to, but missed the opportunity?
I've been blessed to work with many of my favorite artists I grew up listening to in my late teens and 20's and some of today's brightest stars too...in Smooth Jazz I've been very lucky to work with #1 artists Maysa, U-Nam, Lin Rountree & Walter Beasley. I would still love to hear a song of mine recorded by Chaka Khan, George Benson, Patti Austin, Jeffrey Osborne...and I'd love to write a whole album with Lalah Hathaway...her voice does things to me.
The music business continues to change and present challenges. Do you have some advice for up-and-coming artists?
Know who you are and your soul's purpose and unite that with the art you create...give it a reason and a meaning bigger than just yourself...you'll reach far more people than just writing diary words about yourself all day. Listen to people better than you, more skilled, more gifted, who have bigger vocabularies both musical and lyrical...you'll learn a lot and get a lot better, and you can still apply what you learn and use it in your own unique way. I was never afraid to walk right up to Grammy winners and #1 Chart Toppers like Preston Glass and Gordon Chambers (Whitney, Aretha, Anita, etc.) and say, "hey, wanna write a song together? what do you think of this idea?" And guess what, I've written with both of them. As far as making money from music I am the last person to give advice, at 56 I still haven't figured that out. I make music because nothing brings me more joy or healing and I hope that it is what my music brings to the people who listen to it.
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