Gonzales-based singer-songwriter Jodi James puts the song before the singer and the songwriter. Not that she doesn’t sing beautifully. James expresses her lyrics with warmth, tenderness and heartbreaking vulnerability.
But performing, love it though she does, is most of all a way for James to find audiences for her songs. She wants them to be heard.
“It’s not about me,” she explained last week from the green hills of Hampshire, Tenn., where she performed for the Nashville Unleashed concert series.
“I’m not necessarily trying to ‘make it.’ I’m not trying to propel myself as a person or an artist. I just want these songs to have a home, a platform bigger than what I can give them.”
The soft-spoken daughter of a Burnside-area sugarcane farmer, James, 34, has decided the time has come for her to devote herself to her music.
“At this point I know that I’m not going to do anything else,” she said. “This is who I am.”
With that goal in mind, James makes monthly treks to the songwriting capital of the world, Nashville. She’s got an independent song plugger, as they’re called, in Music City and a manager in Mississippi who arranges busy schedules of meetings for her when she’s in Nashville.
“I try to be as productive as I possibly can in that short amount of time I’m there,” James said. “That’s how I like it. I don’t necessarily want to move, because home is home and I love where I live and my family is there. But Nashville is where I need to be in order to do what I do.”
Promotion, be it for herself or her songs, doesn’t come easily to James.
“I’m not one to push myself on people and talk about, ‘Oh, this is what I can do! Look what I did.’ That makes me uncomfortable. I’m a writer, so I like to close myself off a lot of times and be introspective. That’s where all these songs and everything comes from.”
So her manager makes the initial contacts for James, after which James makes one-on-one visits with people in the music business.
“Then they can see who I am and what I do,” she said. “All of these trips to Nashville have really proven beneficial. I’m increasing my knowledge of the way things work out here. It’s definitely its own thing. Nashville operates in its own little way.”
James’ roundabout journey to making music the focus of her life includes nearly four years of living in San Francisco, about a year in Birmingham, Ala., an extended stay in New York City and a summer 2011 tour alone with her guitar to the West Coast and back.
She’s been performing in the Baton Rouge since the late ’90s, beginning with a Gonzales cover band called the Mayflies. Singing and banging a tambourine in that group was fun, she said, but something was lacking.
“After I started having real-life experiences as an adult, I had all these things that I wanted to say,” she explained. “I realized that I had an inner voice and perspective that wanted to articulate.”
James taught herself to play guitar chords, enough to combine lyrics and music. She also studied the structure and flow of songs. Years before, as a young child, she’d studied the vocal styles of singers she loved just as intensely, especially country star Reba McEntire.
“I listened to her cassette tapes over and over,” she said. “I tried to sing every note exactly like she did it. I found other artists and listened to their songs over and over again. I memorized every little inflection.”
James moved to San Francisco in 2000, after the Mayflies disbanded. She played a few open mics there but mostly cultivated the craft of songwriting as she searched for her songwriter’s voice.
“I was really shy,” she said. “It took a long time before I could perform with confidence.”
During James’ months in New York, she appeared at such noted venues as the Rockwood Music Hall and The Bitter End. The new friends she met there financed her six-song EP, 2009’s This Fire. Last fall she released her second EP, the seven-song Far Between and Fleeting.
“I love writing songs from an honest place,” she said. “I think that’s what connects people the most. When you show them who are, it reminds them of who they are.”