Episode 144: Susan James
Air date: 9.23.2015
“Ten thousand dollars,” was the utterly random guess a young Susan James gave to a circumspect fan at a California Bay Area show when he inquired how much money it would take for her to make an album. At that point in her career, James had finished college, been bitten by the songwriting bug and was kicking around Palo Alto playing shows. She’d fallen into a regular gig at a bar and had started to build a small following, but her path forward wasn’t clear. That shy fan turned out to be Burrell Smith, an early engineer at Apple who’d made a fortune designing components for the nascent Macintosh computer. Smith showed up at one of James’ shows soon thereafter with a bag containing $9,999.00 and shyly gave it to her - ample funds for her to launch her career with her first record. Five albums and numerous international tours later, James is still at it, crafting songs in the rich tradition of California psychedelic folk/rock. But her new album, Sea Glass, represents a major leap forward in sonic exploration for James. Eschewing her principal instrument - the guitar - and composing on the piano forced her into a decidedly uncomfortable but inspired position, and the results exemplify her courageousness as an artist. Lyrically, a pair of songs with nautical motifs allows James to explore themes of conservation - both emotionally and ecologically. Sonically, Sea Glass creates an expansive realm by utilizing a diverse instrumental palette; along with the standard-issue guitars, bass and drums; marimba, strings, harpsichord and layered Leonard Cohen-style female backing vocals combine to make the album an orchestral pop masterpiece. The ten songs on Sea Glass are flower power music for a new, complex age.