Singer/songwriter Shawna James speaks like a sure woman, and her singing voice inhales and exhales with a moving, vulnerable, longing presence. With a strong, soulful edge, her 2007 debut, Honey, packs a sweet punch. Hard to believe the powerhouse voice comes out of James' slender body.
From one story to another, James flutters, rapidly switching tones, alluding to her scopey pipes. With reddish-brown, choppy-artsy hair and small, chiseled features, James is thoughtful and playful, and she chats freely and openly.
From Cincinnati, James' mother, Myra Snyder, was a regionally famous Country music singer who opened for Hank Williams Jr. and Loretta Lynn, among others.
James says, "When I was 6, I was sitting in my grandma's lap at Latonia Downs and I was embarrassed watching my Mom sing.
Then I saw the adulation of the crowd and decided that's what I wanted to do."
In 2003, James hocked her violin, took a spontaneous Nashville trip and switched to guitar. Winning a Best Jazz Vocalist award for performances with the local Jazz big band Pavilion Music Company, James credits Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Nancy Wilson as early influences.
"I think that's why my voice became so big," she says. "I'd listen to them and try to sing over them."
Soon after, she submitted songs to the local MidPoint Music Festival and was accepted:
"I only had four songs," she says. "I wanted to write like Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams. I walked around the house with my guitar to get used to the feel of playing standing up."
Local musician Mike Landis played guitar with James until one Southgate gig when Landis had a scheduling conflict. James was forced to handle the show alone.
"I struggled my way through it," she recalls.
Honey's songs grew out of James' love for Scotland and "a life turn."
"I went through a depressed spell, didn't write for like two years," she says. "Then I snapped myself out of it. I had a friend who was reading trashy novels set in Ireland ... it made me want to travel. Then I got online to see if I could meet anyone interesting and these connections excited me. Call it foreign inspiration."
Online, she met Glasgow singer Paula Knight and others who sparked a creativity surge. During the 15 weeks before leaving for Scotland, James recorded Honey and booked numerous gigs overseas. Then she hauled her CDs and guitar around Scotland's streets this past July.
Already playing on local NPR outlet WNKU, Honey was recorded by The Hiders' Billy Alletzhauser, who played guitar on the album. Ed Cunningham (The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars) and Todd Drake (Ruby Vileos) also contributed. Live, Chris Mundy (Tonefarmer) also plays guitar. James plans a CD release party before she returns to Scotland in the fall.
On songwriting, she says, "Basically I stumble on a chord progression and the emotion it makes me feel. I'm not one of those people who bought a bunch of records, but I have a grasp of my emotions. I know what sounds right to me. I'm not a revisionist ... the way it comes out, that's the way it stays."
Honey begins with "I'm a Ghost," which holds the sexy feel of Beth Orton's Central Reservation. As the album progresses, slowly, the sound strays, shouting out to jazzy deep throaters, often as deep, sensuous and deliciously mean as Fiona Apple. James' work is that of a crowded soul, with hearty vocals, raw Jazz, Blues and Patsy Cline-ish old-school Country mixed with modern biceps. "Helping Hand," a sultry ballad, screams for attention; this track is aching and gorgeous, from the belly.
"I get a feeling that comes over me, where it feels like everything's aligned, and I pick up the guitar and what comes out comes out," James says. "That's my goal -- to transfer my emotion from me to you and let you have your own feeling about it."
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