Indie rock’s tree has deep folkie branches. The stark strum of an acoustic guitar is often the foundation for layers of musical exploration in the genre. Joshua James launches his delicate, expansive ballads from that foundation in a way which aurally recreates the windy Plains geography of his Lincoln, Nebraska upbringing. Variety calls Joshua “a young Midwestern singer-songwriter who writes hard-bitten songs of family tragedies and sings them in a voice that’s as sun-bleached and wind-battered as a Nebraska cornfield.”
“I never sang growing up,” Joshua says, “When I started, this voice is just what came out.” That voice tumbles out in hushed sincerity, but distinctively cracks and keens during moments of heartfelt irony. “It’s not all black and white,” Joshua explains. “I do enjoy intricacy in my storytelling, but leaving the gray area there for the audience to draw from often means more.”
At the age of 19, after street skating in and around Lincoln for the better part of his teenage years, Joshua packed his bags and traveled through South America, spending most of his time abroad in Venezuela. The perspective of travel inspired him to start writing poetry and songs upon his return to the U.S., and in his twenties, Joshua picked up a guitar for the first time. Joshua set up a mic and mixer at home and began posting his songs on myspace and other internet networking sites. The music found its way to L.A.-based producer Shannon Edgar, who invited Joshua to California in May 2006 to record in Edgar’s Burbank studio. Augmented by a small group of musicians playing bass, drums, electric guitar, pedal steel and accordion, the recordings became Joshua’s first full-length album, 2007’s The Sun is Always Brighter. The original digital release on iTunes reached #1 on the service’s Folk Album list.
Like the saturated watercolor teals and grays of the CD’s cover art, the songs at first splash with jaunty piano chords for the anti-love love song, “The New Love Song,” but eventually become darker and more elegiac. “Geese,” a paean to the environment, is structured with an almost “Imagine”-like melodic classicism, yet sails atop Joshua’s whispery reverence. Themes range from the personal (his brother’s struggle with drug abuse on “Lord, Devil & Him”) to the political (“Our Brother’s Blood”). Joshua headed back into the studio in late 2007 to start work on a new project which he notes will have “a little more rock and roll on it.”
Joshua’s compelling live performances began at informal house parties in his current home state of Utah. Word soon spread throughout the Salt Lake City & Provo scenes about the young man with the ability to create a space around the songs on stage – a space that invites listeners to experience the intensity and ambivalence he creates inside classic folk-pop melodies. David Gray, John Mayer, Paolo Nutini, Matt Nathanson, Brett Dennen and Erin McKeown all tapped Joshua to join them as an opener on their 2007 tours; gigs at 2008’s Sundance Film Festival and Austin’s SXSW conference have only expanded the buzz.
“The world doesn’t need another love song, so I try to sing about more serious topics. I think that’s why people have responded, because of the honesty,” he says. Joshua James never envisioned music as a career, and that may be precisely why his is blossoming. Instinctive pop songcraft, the idiosyncratic beauty of his vulnerable vocals and the unflinching human questing of his lyrics ensures Joshua James a place among heralded indie singer-songwriters, or among any singer-songwriters, for years to come.