Canadian country artist David James is currently working his way up the charts with new single Don’t Mind If I Do, with lots more in the pipeline. David joined me via Zoom for a great chat about the cultural capital of Canada, what an average day is like for a country star, recording songs written by the biggest names in country music, and why he decided to make my favourite song of his a duet – enjoy!
Ciara’s Country (CC): I am delighted to be joined by Canadian singer-songwriter David James. David, one of your songs made my list of my favourite songs of the year earlier this year, so I am so thrilled to finally meet you!
David James (DJ): Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you today.
CC: Can you tell me where in the world are you today?
DJ: I’m in Winnipeg. I was born and raised in Winnipeg, right in the middle of Canada, so if you throw a dart right in the centre of Canada, that’s where I’m at! I’m actually in the process of moving right now, so things have been a little chaotic the last couple of days, but it’s always exciting to move. Moving the boxes and all the heavy lifting and stuff sucks, but setting up the new place feels really nice – you decide where the furniture goes and stuff like that.
CC: I don’t think I’ve ever had somebody so enthusiastic about moving! Was this move a career move, or just because you wanted a change of scenery?
DJ: Just a little bit of a change. I really do love being in Winnipeg, close to family and all my friends. I definitely value all my close relationships. Usually for career stuff – for songwriting or recording – I’m often down in Nashville or over in Vancouver, where my producer lives, so I’m always bouncing around. At the end of the day, you’re only a two or three hour flight away from everywhere on this side of the pond, so it’s always nice to stay close to family as often as you can.
CC: A little bit further for us in Europe to get to any of those exciting places! How does life in Winnipeg differ from life in Nashville?
DJ: Canada and the United States are a little bit similar, but we’ve definitely got some differences. There are certain cultural things and politically, Canadians are a little bit different from Americans, but what draws me to both, and what really drew me to Nashville after having grown up in Winnipeg, was the sense of a community. Once you’re involved and you’re meeting people, it just feels very welcoming and engaging.
I really love the arts and the culture in Nashville too, which is also really prevalent in Winnipeg. It’s a foodie’s dream, all these amazing restaurants and amazing places to go see live music. They both really value the arts a lot, and so for me being an artist, it’s always really nice to be around people like that. That’s the coolest thing about Nashville or Winnipeg – any night of the week, you can walk into a bar, and you can be listening to this band full of some of the world’s top musicians, just playing music. That’s always pretty special too.
CC: You certainly sold Winnipeg to me, I think I might add that to my bucket list destinations!
DJ: I will warn you, you can’t go in the wintertime! It gets down to minus 50 Celsius, it’s very cold. Winnipeg is the coldest major city in the world – we have a lot going for us, but you can’t come in the wintertime, you have to go in the summertime.
CC: That is definitely important to know – minus 50 degrees and I don’t mix well! I guess it’s a pretty different week for you this week in terms of moving and all, but maybe you can give me an idea of what an average day, if such a thing exists, is for a country music artist like yourself?
DJ: I think COVID has changed a lot of that. In 2019, for example, I was on the road touring or recording for about 280 days out of the year so it was quite a lot. To go from that to being at home every single day, day in day out, was a bit of a change for me. During the past year and a half, it’s been a lot of songwriting with other writers but on Zoom or FaceTime as opposed to in Nashville and doing it in the studio or in the same room. That’s been a little different for me, but I like it. I’ve just been working on songwriting and trying to write for other artists too. I will say it’s been really nice that most artists and songwriters are able to have a little bit of a studio at home, so you can still be working on things, so for me that was really good, just being able to like work on some ideas.
On a given day, I’m usually just writing, recording or working on somebody else’s record. I just can’t wait to get back to touring because there’s nothing like being on stage. You get addicted to it, it’s almost like a rush! You’re filled with adrenaline and you have such a connection with the audience. When you’re on stage and you’re playing your music, you’re pouring your heart out on stage, dripping with sweat, and having a great time. Everybody is sharing this experience together. I think it’s just such a cool, incredible experience that you can’t find really anywhere other than a live concert. You don’t realise how addicted you are to that until you can’t do it for a couple years! Now everybody’s getting vaccinated and things are starting to open up, so it’ll be really nice to be able to get back to that.
CC: That’s something that I absolutely can’t wait for either! Going to festivals and concerts runs through my veins, so I can only imagine what it’s like to be the person actually performing at those.
DJ: Yeah, as an artist it’s amazing to get to play for new fans and people who maybe haven’t heard some of your songs before, but especially when you get the chance to connect with people who your songs have resonated with, and your songs have made up part of the soundtrack to their lives in some way or another. I have these moments that I go back to – my very first crush, my first kiss, my first car, maybe a summer trip with my friends, and there are these songs that will take you back to those times – they were part of the soundtrack of my life at that point.
If you can create those songs that tie people with those points in their life, those memories, and are creating a lasting impact; the song can provide a vehicle to transport them back in their mind to those kind of memories. I just think that’s really cool and really powerful. For me, that’s really cool – being on stage and performing and seeing people sing my songs – and they’re really excited to hear them and they want to sing it back.
CC: Incredible! I’m sure this next question is probably like asking you to choose your favourite child, but is there a song that you perform or have written that really resonates with you?
DJ: That’s a great question. I obviously love all my songs for one reason or another – I try to create music that people can bring into their lives for whatever’s going on, so I think there’s room for happy songs, sad songs, breakup songs, makeup songs and everything in between. There’s songs for parties, songs for dancing to, and so I love to write and record a variety of songs. I will say the coolest song moment for me was when I released my very first song to Canadian country radio in 2014. I had just signed a record deal, but I hadn’t toured and I hadn’t been to radio stations.
However, a lady reached out to me on Twitter – she was from the other side of the country, and she said, ‘I have no idea who you are, but I heard this song on the radio – I play it all day, and my fiancé and I are going to use it as our wedding song, it just fits us and where we’re at.’ As a brand new artist, having just released a song, I still hadn’t really fathomed that people were listening to my music. That was the coolest – going back to what we were talking about, your songs being part of the soundtrack to somebody’s life or creating memories, these people wanted my song to tie them to the happiest day of their lives. It clearly identified what kind of artist I wanted to be, and the songs I wanted to sing, write and record.
CC: What song was it that the woman loved?
DJ: It’s called What We Weren’t Looking For. It’s a much older song, a bit of a slower song. Maybe it’s not the most fun to play live at a festival or something, but for me, it will always hold a special place in my heart for that.
CC: I love that story! It’s so true that there are songs that really resonate with people, and I think that happened for me with one of your songs too. I mentioned at the beginning of this show that I played one of your songs on my show as one of my favourites for the month. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of songs I listen to every month, I pick maybe fifteen that I think everyone needs to hear, and one of them was your duet with Genevieve Fisher Then There’s You. It really struck a chord with me when I first heard it, so I can understand how that woman felt when she thought ‘I need this song to be my wedding song’.
DJ: That’s so kind of you to say, thank you!
CC: I know Then There’s You was originally recorded as a solo track – what was it that made you say ‘this song needs to be a duet’?
DJ: That’s a great question. It was totally unexpected – we had gone into the studio, recorded the entire EP. The song was written as a solo, it never even entered our minds doing a duet, but in the studio we kept working on the song and tweaking things. I don’t want to say we weren’t satisfied with it, but we always felt it could reach this other level, this next gear, and it wasn’t really happening. As an artist and a producer working together on it, you learn that sometimes you can ‘over-second guess’ yourself, and so in our heads we thought ‘maybe it is really good and we’re just overthinking it’. But that feeling stuck with me, so after we released the song with the EP, out to the world, I was really proud of it, but I still thought it was missing something. I went to my manager who said, ‘why not try and record it as a duet that we can release to radio?’ I said ‘I’ve never really done a duet before, but I’m open to try it’.
I’ll never forget, I was driving in my truck and my producer calls me and he said ‘pull over, I just emailed you Genevieve’s very first pass on the song’. This was not even professionally done, this was in her home just to see if her voice would be a good fit, to see how it sounded. I pulled over, he sent me it, and in my head, I was like, ‘oh, this is exactly what we’re missing’. Genevieve has such a powerful, unique voice, she’s got this incredible range and texture that I just love and now when I hear the solo song without her in it, I’m floored by how different she made it – enhanced it and made it so much better. That’s the fun with the creative process and with recording – you want to stay true to the song and trust your instinct, and for me it was thinking ‘I really think there’s something more we can do here’, and then when we finally got it, it was pretty cool.
CC: It’s so amazing to hear the stories behind songs like that, thank you for sharing! That song was definitely my introduction into your music, and from there I found your 2020 EP If I Were You. Looking at the writing credits on there – wow! There’s a couple of big names, Hardy and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard co-wrote one of the songs, the Restless Road guys did another one. How do you even end up getting a song from those kind of people?
DJ: I have no idea! There are so many amazingly talented people and songwriters in country music right now. I find that I write my best songs when I’m not trying to force the idea into ‘the David James box’. I want to write a song and stay true to it and wherever it takes me. The funny thing about being an artist is you have to decipher which songs are not just a good fit, but which you think you have the right voice to tell, and which stories are the ones that you should be telling. I’ve passed on a lot of great songs that I’ve written just because I thought they’d be better suited for somebody else, and so when you get writers like the ones you mentioned coming to you with their songs saying ‘there’s something really cool here and we want to see what you would do with it as an artist’, that’s always really cool for me. That’s something I’m trying to do more and more.
I think so often, artists default to just wanting to record songs that they’ve written, which I think is great, but you have to be cognizant of the ability to separate yourself and say either ‘I’m the right person to tell the story’ or ‘maybe this story needs a different narrator’. I always think of it like a book and a narrator. Sometimes Morgan Freeman, or somebody like that with an incredible voice, might not be a heck of a writer, but he’s the one to deliver the story. I have no idea how I get to work with so many amazing songwriters, I truly am so lucky, and so blessed. I do feel very fortunate, and just try and do my small part to add my voice to it, and hopefully add a little of my texture to it.
CC: I love that analogy of how it’s like the author and the audiobook – they’re completely different things and they each tell their own story as well.
DJ: Yeah, music really is a harmony of those things. It’s a harmony of the melodies, lyrics and the songwriting. It’s a harmony of the voice and the artist, it’s all of these things coming together. It’s great when you can do that all on your own for a song, but sometimes it keeps things fresh and interesting to have these outside elements coming in. When I get to work with phenomenal writers who write songs I dreamed that I had written, it’s always pretty cool. You want to utilise those tools, and you want to utilise those people when you can.
CC: Absolutely. Speaking of songs we wish we’d written, I’m loving your newest single Don’t Mind If I Do. It’s super fun, and I can tell from this interview that that is you, but what was it about that song that you thought ‘I’m the right person to tell this story’?
DJ: It is such a fun song. When we were going into the studio, we recorded so many songs, I wrote hundreds of songs. My producer and I decided we wanted to make a next batch of songs that were fun. I feel like the past year and a half has been so tough – I saw a study that worldwide depression has never been higher, and it’s just been a tough year. We wanted to create music that when we get to play live, it was fun, energetic and enthusiastic.
What drew me in about this song is when I heard it, and it had this vibe of Hall & Oates – if you’ve heard their song You Make My Dreams, it’s got this bouncy, fun melody to it, and so did this one. I thought this is just such a fun, sweet song about being yourself, and sometimes you might get a little wild and crazy, but it’s about having that special person who will take you even at those points. It’s such a fun special song and I can’t wait to play live because the energy is so up there and when playing live shows, especially festivals, those songs really help set the tone for the set.
CC: I’m going to need an official David James cover of You Make My Dreams! You said ‘next batch of songs’ there, which leads me to believe that Don’t Mind If I Do isn’t all we’re getting. Tell me more – what’s next?
DJ: We’ve obviously had a lot of time to write and record lately, not much touring, so we’ve got some new music we’re really, really excited to share with all of you. Fingers crossed that happens sooner than later! It’s always a little nerve-wracking because it’s like your song baby and you don’t want to disappoint your fans. You want to be continuously evolving as an artist and getting better, and setting the bar higher and higher, but also staying true to yourself, while at the same time musically keeping things interesting. It’s nerve wracking, but mostly exciting! We’ve got some really fun stuff coming up that I’m really excited to share with people and then hopefully the songs can help people create new memories and become part of the soundtrack to their lives or their week, or at least their drive to work or when they’re listening to your station!
CC: I am certainly excited for that, and I’m sure I’ll find another song to add to my monthly roundups very soon. One thing that I really love to do on my show is highlight up-and-coming artists, and one of the ways that I like to find them is actually by asking artists I already love who they recommend. David, are there any underrated artists out there who you think everyone should be listening to?
DJ: Oh, that’s a great question. I love that. There are so many! I’m a bit biased because I’m from Canada and I love you promoting local people. You touched on it earlier, but Genevieve Fisher has got a great voice, and I know she’s got some new music coming up that I’ve heard and I’m very excited for. I think she’s really going to set her bar so much higher on this next batch. I think you should keep an eye out for her, she’s really fabulous, and I think you’re really going to like her new stuff.
CC: Perhaps I might just make it my new thing that I only interview Canadian artists! My last question for you is: what’s one question that you’ve never been asked in an interview but would love to be?
DJ: Oh, that question. Can I answer ‘that question’? No. Ah, what’s the thing I’ve never been asked, but would love to be asked… I would say if I were a Shania Twain song, what one would I be? I mean, her most fun song is Man, I Feel Like A Woman, but I don’t really feel like a woman. But it’s really fun, so I’m just going to go with that!
CC: I love that. I also love that that is the second interview in as many interviews that Shania Twain has come up. Obviously, she’s just on everyone’s mind!
DJ: It’s hard not to have Shania come up! She’s also Canadian and she is incredible. Nobody in the history of liking country music has ever heard a Shania Twain song and not gotten the urge to dance or sing along. It just doesn’t happen. Her songs are infectious!
CC: The opening bars are all I need.
DJ: Let’s go girls! You just get so into it.
CC: That was probably one of my favourite answers to that question, so thank you for that answer and indeed for all of your answers. It’s been an absolute pleasure interviewing you today, and I really can’t thank you enough for your time!
DJ: Oh my gosh, this was an absolute delight. I am so excited to hopefully be coming across the pond soon and playing some shows and coming to meet all of you. I really appreciate you taking the time.
CC: See you there!
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