Joshua P. James and his bandmates trust their instincts on debut album 'Building a Building'
A change in Joshua P. James' songwriting and in the way he viewed his bandmates led to the dissolution of his previous project, the Americana-minded Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes.
“I grew up listening to classic country music, and that's a part of my life. I don't shun those songs. That just didn't feel exciting to me anymore,” said the singer and guitarist recently at a local taproom. “I was starting to hear the band more as the song was developing, versus writing it to be able to play it onstage by myself and then fill in the background with a band.”
After solidifying the lineup for new project Yellow Paper Planes (Brandon Woods on drums, Peter Mendenhall on bass and Jeremy Ebert on keyboard and guitar), then writing and rewriting and ditching some new songs, followed by some unforeseen setbacks (Woods broke his hand at the end of 2013), the band finally turned a corner after recording and releasing 2015 EP Feather's Touch, which was the first tentative step toward becoming the band James hoped it could be.
“Forcing ourselves to get in the studio and be as efficient as possible carried over into how we were starting to develop new songs,” James said. “From that point on we were like, ‘Let's trust our instincts a little bit more.'”
James has embraced more of his rock instincts, as well, incorporating his love of bands like Sebadoh and Built to Spill. “Those are bands I was into in high school,” said James, whose forearm is tattooed with an image from the liner notes of Built to Spill's Perfect from Now On and a magnolia blossom, in honor of his 4-year-old daughter, Magnolia.
In making Yellow Paper Planes' new album, Building a Building, James and his bandmates challenged each other not to fall into any singer-songwriter ruts. “I explicitly said, going into this record, I want to be able to not play my guitar at all and still have these songs make sense,” James said. “That was a key point for us to make, because then everybody else's focus shifted [from] following me and whatever strum pattern I'm putting down to trying to understand the song.”
As his sound has progressed stylistically, James has also sought to dig deeper into his insecurities lyrically, wrestling with how to be a husband and father (“Worry about my baby/Worry about my wife,” he sings on “Sword and Stone”), as well as life's knottier philosophical questions.
“As a writer, it was [previously] easy to create a story around a personal experience, and then separate that from yourself and write about it,” he said. “I feel a little more comfortable now about writing directly about those things, not having to push them out a certain distance from me. … Unfortunately, it also unlocks a lot of my existential dread.”
Building a Building, which Yellow Paper Planes will celebrate with a release show at Ace of Cups on Friday, April 21, operates on several metaphorical levels, one of which is James' workmanlike approach to his music.
“It kind of fits me to think that I'm building something,” he said. “My family, especially the James men, were very blue collar. My dad was a 33-year welder for Timken. His dad before him was a welder in the Army. He fixed tanks in the Korean War, came back and worked at a steel mill and ended up being a shop teacher — just a lot of guys who worked with their hands, worked hard and never complained about it. So I think osmotically I kind of learned that from them. I hope I did.”