Of all the holiday projects being released this year, I’m most excited about Christmas with Irving James & Friends for two reasons. The first reason is I’ve known Arizona-based singer/songwriter Irving James for over fifteen years. Our business and personal paths have taken several twists and turns since days at Southwestern Adventist University, yet we always reconnect down the road over music. Which brings me to the second reason why I’m excited about the release of Christmas with Irving James & Friends and that’s because I’m performing on this disc along with fellow Arizona-based artist Morris Alan, Lydia Salnikova, plus two gentleman that are no stranger to Groove Loves Melody, London-based vocalists Sam Robson and James Rose. Also featured are decorated instrumentalists including Andy Timmons and Sherry Finzer. Christmas with Irving James & Friends is available via iTunes, Amazon mp3, and Google Play.
The album was recorded in Arizona, Dallas, and London and James approached award-winning engineers like Tom Coyne (Adele), Vlado Meller (Barbera Streisand, George Michael), and Adam Ayan (Madonna, Pearl Jam) to give their mastering to singles on the EP. In this interview, James explains his process for recording and mastering the record the way he did.
JW: Christmas with Friends was partially crowdfunded through Kickstarter. What was your experience going with crowd-funding and what would you do differently next time as you look back on it?
IJ: Wow. Two good questions that I’m struggling to answer because I have tremendous respect for the Kickstarter company and its founder Perry Chen. But I think Forbes was right in listing Chen as one of the 12 most disruptive names in business. They phrased it as less content to improve the status quo as to blow it up. I hate that. Not that Chen necessarily did that on purpose, but I hate revolutions and the folksy idea of scrapping everything and going back to the drawing board. That has never worked. But it’s a myth so fundamental to the American ethos that there’s no use fighting it.
So to answer the question more succinctly I guess, I was conflicted about using crowd funding, but I did it because it seemed like the only way the project was going to immediately move forward. At 40, I don’t have the luxury of several business endeavors not working. Things need to work. And when they don’t work they need to be diagnosed quickly and fixed.
To the second question of what I would do differently–for me, this speaks not only to the issues of crowd funding but the project in general. Looking back I don’t see a clear error yet. I see a couple of head-scratchers but no clear flops. You know, an executive decision that got the job done but might possibly have been a little better had I done this or that…
JW: Why did you opt for a various artists approach to the project versus being the main vocalist?
IJ: Ha! That’s a flattering question and I thank you for it. It was a quality issue. Like I said before, I need my projects to work. Every vocalist on this project is better than I am. That’s not self-deprecation. I can sound really good – vocal cracks, pitch wobbles and all! But take Sam Robson for instance. He always sounds great. Always! I’ve been in the studio and seen engineers and other producers just melt when they hear Morris Alan. I’ve seen the same thing happen in Dallas with you JW! It’s the same with Lydia. I’m looking for lead vocalists who produce double-takes from listeners! Now when it came to Silent Night, I left my vocal on the recording in a couple of places because I kept running into people I respected saying “leave it! You sound so good!” They had Grammys and I do not. So it gave me pause, but I left it. When it comes to backgrounds or screams and stuff, I love the way I sound. A good example is about 12 seconds from the end of We Three Kings. There’s a melodic whoo hoo hoo! in there and I’m pretty proud of those three notes!
A second reason was promotional. All my connections become Sam’s connections, which become Lydia’s connections and so on in every direction. Collaborating makes for a better, richer sound.
JW: I definitely hear your appreciation for pop/rock sounds with horns. As far as bands/artists go, who are the major production influences
IJ: Quincy Jones. There are tasty horn hits throughout Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Some real, some synths. A buddy of mine and I would play an instrumental version of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in grade school. We each had a keyboard. It was the middle 80s and the MIDI protocol was as exciting as Disneyland. We’d run a cable from one keyboard to the other and practically shriek with delight that punching buttons on one would change the patches on the other. Makes me feel ancient to relate that story!
At exactly this time, David Foster was doing a stylistic makeover on the band Chicago. Foster’s productions were the first time I consciously paid attention to who produced and mixed a given album. Humberto Gatica was his premier mixer – at least it looked that way to me – and I was fascinated. Several years later when I spotted Gatica on some recent Michael W. Smith release I felt like Sherlock Holmes brilliantly solving just why Smith’s new album sounded so superior to his previous. I’m trying to pay homage to Humberto, not slam Michael W. Smith, who is quite talented in his own right. But some people move from beyond talented to almost mystifying. Gatica’s one of them. His abilities are beyond extraordinary, bordering on eerie.
Ron Nevison was doing the same for Heart. Looking back I was imbibing their Kool-aid in high doses in that “Hard Habit to Break” and “What About Love” are in my mind the patently ‘correct’ ways to construct a stadium ballad. Once again I’m listening to my answers and thinking I should keep quiet lest young consumers discover I’m old!
There are others. Hugh Padgham, Elliot Scheiner, and Mutt Lange had sounds that were just fantastic! High water marks for production. It’s not simply that Bruce Hornsby or Aerosmith are excellent. I mean they are excellent. But you’re also hearing Scheiner come through. I remember slowly – I feel dumb for just how slowly – figuring out why I could ‘hear’ Def Leppard underneath Shania Twain. Seems obvious now: I was hearing Mutt Lange underneath both of them. Back in 2011 Lady Gaga’s song Yoü and I was released and I heard it on the radio and went “Mutt!” Then of course I went to Wikipedia to make sure. Yep. It was Mutt. Ha! Two producers borrow the drum line from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and depending on the producer it becomes ET with Katy Perry being produced by Dr. Luke or “Yoü and I” by Lady Gaga produced by Mutt Lange. And to me this is a fascinating science.
JW: Tell me how you connected with the other main vocalists for the project: Morris Alan, Sam Robson, and James Rose.
IJ: I met Morris Alan at a group called the Arizona Songwriters’ Circle, founded and hosted by a mutual friend Nick Gasmena in Phoenix. I listened to Morris’s CD in the car on the way home and was just awestruck by everything. That’s really unusual because normally the demos I hear have some strengths but many glaring weaknesses. Morris was not like that. He had a label-quality sound already. Very developed. That’s unusual. He’s really too humble for his own good.
And that’s a good intro to Sam Robson. Sam is also too humble for his own good. Sam was a YouTube phenomenon in his own right. I actually think the first time I heard him was from something you shared on Facebook. I dismissed the whole thing saying to Joy that a major label will have signed Sam by the time I can get a message to him. I already had a singer in mind for Gloria and I just pretty much left it at that. Then the singer fell through. I kept going back to Sam’s arrangements and listening thinking maybe I could get him to record one song for me before the major labels absorbed him into their pantheon. The short story is that he gave me a take of Gloria. I liked what he’d done but asked him to make a couple very specific changes. He nailed the second take so brilliantly that I just handed it off to Blake Eiseman in Atlanta for mixing.
James Rose is a personal friend of Sam’s. They are both ingenious arrangers and performers. James is subtly in and out with harmonies. The trick with both Sam and James is in the editing stage of the song. They will have given me so many brilliant parts and harmonies that have to be left on the cutting room floor so to speak. I sit in front of the monitors anguishing over every note I have to take out of the mix. I’ll bet neighbors hear me late into the night wailing, “that is so cool, but it doesn’t fit!”
JW: What can new fans look forward to next from Irving James and 55-133 Productions?
IJ: Well, I have four children to put through college and I’m enough of a dreamer to want to retire early. So the things you’ll hear coming out of 55-133 Productions will be things I believed – rightly or wrongly – would sell in the marketplace! As I see it that means basically four broadly defined groups of products. Products placed for pop, country, R&B and Christian contemporary or CCM. Those are the places to make money. The latter is not really a genre in my view but a thematic category for lyrics. In other words you can turn a pop, country, or R&B song into a CCM song solely by changing the lyrics. You can’t change an R&B song into a country song by changing lyrics. So CCM really means a song in any one of several musical categories where the lyrical content has been replaced or filtered to achieve a certain outcome.
So you should see a lot of material coming from 55-133 Productions in the near future! I think there will be something for everyone.