New York musician James A.M. Downes discusses his solo project Haunted Continents, the inspiration behind the project, his idea to release one single every month for a year and what’s next for him
By Emily May
James A.M. Downes has been a part of various musical projects since early the 2000s. Born and raised in Connecticut, he and bandmate Ryan White started the hardcore band Call It Arson fresh out of high school, a band that enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the New England hardcore scene. Although the band eventually broke up, Downe’s love of songwriting and performing motivated him to keep going and chasing his dream of making it in the music industry. In 2008 Downes made the move to New York where he formed The End Of America, a band that focused on a more Folk and Americana sound. More recently Downes, for the first time in his musical career, has embarked on an indie-rock solo project that he has dubbed Haunted Continents. He found the idea of having the artistic freedom to run with his ideas without having to consult with anyone else appealing. With Haunted Continents, he plans to release his best work every year, making music he finds meaningful that others connect with. Downes has plans to keep performing with The End Of America while pursuing his solo career. In September of 2018, Downes decided to release a new single as Haunted Continents every month for a year, a move that he is hoping will gain him a greater level of success as an artist. With the help of his producer Andy Seltzer, Downes is finding a way to successfully blend the indie rock of the past with new indie aesthetics in an attempt to engage an ever changing audience. He has steadily been gaining momentum in his solo career by becoming more involved with social media, posting DIY lyric videos on Youtube and stocking his webstore with tie-dyed t-shirts he made himself. At 35 and grateful for the opportunities he has been afforded as an artist so far, Downes is ready to take his music career to the next level and grow as an artist by taking his music in a different direction. With positive feedback and an exciting momentum driving his solo career, Downes seems poised for a bright and successful future! You can stay up to date with Haunted Continents and all upcoming music and tour dates, as well as stream and purchase his music via the following links. Check out his lyric videos for “What Were You Born For?” and “Rolling Stoned” below.
Apple Music/iTunes– https://itunes.
You have been a part of the New England Indie/Hardcore scene since 2002 with your former band Call It Arson. You moved to NY in 2008 after the band took a hiatus and helped to build the indie-folk band The End Of America. What made you decide to move to NY? What do you like and find inspiring about the NY music scene?
When Call It Arson went on hiatus, it was a difficult time in my life. We were going through tough times, a few of us had some rough blows that year in our personal lives and when the band fell apart, I felt like my identity had been taken from me. It was everything to me, every ounce of energy poured in to it for the last seven years.
I was faced with a decision to start over and I seized it. I’ve always been one to find excitement and inspiration from up and moving to different cities on a whim (Madrid, Spain; Portland, OR; Philadelphia, PA). New York seemed like the right move. It was close enough to home to feel comfortable, but it was big enough to scare the shit out of me. Given that CT is such a small scene, I found the prospects of being completely anonymous to be exhilarating. I also knew that I’d be surrounded by some of the hardest working people in the world.
You recently felt the pull to develop a project that creates some escape and something new and different. Do you feel that you are achieving what you had hoped to so far with the project?
Haunted Continents is an escape in the sense that when you’re writing alone, for yourself, your ideas can get the green light to be fast tracked to the final product at any point. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. Haha. In the other parts of my musical life, I have the privilege to create songs with other people who weigh in on the decisions of what makes it to a song. With Haunted Continents, it’s all so immediate, with little safety net. Lyrics, melodies, instrumentation, it all goes in there on instinct.
Another new aspect to this project is that I’m collaborating with a producer. After I track the songs, I send them off to my good friend Andy Seltzer. Andy sculpts and shapes the mixes on his own and sends back my original tracks with a beautiful new energy. For the most part, I stay away from the mixing decisions so Andy can do what he does best.
And I do think it’s achieving what I hoped for. The songs are coming out different from anything I’ve done. Andy understands my vision and knows how to make me feel comfortable, but he also like pushing boundaries sonically. He helps me get out of my comfort zone.
What was the experience like in making your lyric video for “What Were We Born For?”. How did the idea for the video come about? What were people’s reactions to you having an easel in front of subway doors and in busy crosswalks?
The idea came from a challenge I made to myself: make a music video in an afternoon (editing included) for less than $50. When I set those parameters fro myself, the ideas started flowing. I’ve always been a lyric guy so I thought the words should be central to the idea.
As for reactions, people in NYC are so into anything. They don’t care at all. Ha. You could really do anything and people will walk right by you. I love that about this place. It allows for some pretty ideas to be captured in public.
Special shout out to my wife Nicole for helping to make this one!
What inspired your live midnight recording of “Rolling Stoned” in a NYC subway station?
The acoustics of that particular station was the inspiration. I’d get home from from hanging in the city some nights and be the only person walking through that hallway. Sometimes I’d sing like a crazy person because the echoes were so beautiful.
When I released the studio version of ‘Rolling Stoned’, I was also thinking of live performance concepts. That just seemed like a no brainer. My buddy Matt Cascella filmed it and my friend Jared and wife Nicole kept the crazy people away and helped carry the portable recording gear down there. It was pretty magical.
You have brought your live show along the East Coast and have performed as a cello/guitar duet and with a full band. What led you to want to perform with the different line up configurations and instrumentation? What can you tell me about the other musicians that make up your band?
The line ups have always been influenced by the setting. For the small listening rooms, I’d play them solo or with with my friend Katie Weissman on cello. For bigger rooms, my friends Greg Seltzer (electric guitar), Matt Cascella (drums), and Andy Seltzer (bass) would join me in creating a bigger full band sound.
Katie is from Buffalo, we met on tour when my other band, The End of America, played a run of shows with her band, Tiny Rhymes. She’s an incredible player and we’ve been collaborating ever since on various projects.
When Matt, Greg, Andy, and I play together, I unofficially call us ‘The Knights of Saybrook’. We all grew up in the same small town of Old Saybrook, CT. We’ve been friends a long time and there’s nothing more hilarious than being able to use a grade school teacher as the butt of your joke twenty five years later and have everyone in the room get it. But for real, these guys are the most talented and hardworking musicians I know. I’m so lucky to be collaborating with them.
Starting in September of this year, you decided to release one song a month for a year. What inspired that idea and how has the response been?
I decided to try this format because of the new streaming environment. I’d released full lengths in the past and felt disappointed that the buzz and energy of something you took a year to make can dissipate within a few weeks. The metabolism of the new industry is much higher. As for releasing a song a month, in addition to continuing to fuel the buzz and constantly be posting new content, I thought it’d be a cool challenge. Andy Seltzer was on board to produce all twelve tracks, so together we’re keeping each other on target.
The response has been great. I’ve seen very high engagement and am really pleased with the traction given that the project is only five months old.
You began a winter residency at The Map Room at The Bowery Electric in NYC on December the 2nd. How did the residency come about and how have the shows been so far? What made you decide to have special acoustic guests each night? What made you decide to have your Prison Font album recorded on cassette to be made available at your first show of the residency?
The residency came about as a challenge to myself. I wanted to play as many solo sets as I could to hone that part of my craft. I also wanted to include as many of my friends as possible. Having new guests has allowed me to introduce talented musicians from Connecticut, Philadelphia, and New Jersey to musicians and fans in New York City. Having new guests has also allowed me to watch some of my favorite performers do their thing! The shows have been great. I’m so thankful for the continued support.
As for releasing Prison Font on cassette on the first show, I knew I needed something special to celebrate the kickoff of the residency. My friend Al D runs a cassette duplicating project called Caribbean Serpent (check them out!). He was into the idea and we ran with it.
You were able to share the stage again during your show on December 2nd with your former Call It Arson band mate Ryan P White. What was it like to share the stage with him again? How was the acoustic Call It Arson set? He is also featured on your new song “The Perfect Night To Dig”. Do you have any other collaborations coming up?
It was awesome. It’s always great to share the stage with Ryan. He and I have been playing music together since 1995. We literally learned to play guitar, sing, and write songs together. He’s a part of my story. The set was incredible and really brought back some great memories.
It was awesome to have him sing on “The Perfect Night (To Dig)”. We are working on other things for the future, but nothing concrete as of now.
You have said that one of the reasons you love traveling is the chance to play different pianos around the world. How long have you played the piano? Do you have a favorite that you have played?
I’ve always had pianos in my life. Growing up, there was an upright piano in our living room. I messed around with it, picked out melodies and learned some basic chords. But, I never really gave it a go. I always focused on guitar, singing, drums, saxophone. Piano was just so intimidating. However, this year, I decided to elevate it to being a top priority to really get good. Watch out 2019! And you know what? I don’t have a favorite just yet. I hope that’ll come this year, too.
What can you tell me about Forest Park Recordings, the label you founded with friends in 2004? What led you and your friends to start the label and how has it evolved over the years?
Forest Park Recordings started as a common stamp to put on anything I recorded on my 4 track digital recorder. The name comes from the massive park in Portland, OR, where I would hike everyday to clear my mind. Since then, it’s been continued to be a stamp to place on the back of a record for a small group of people.
Who are you listening to right now? Who are some of your favorite bands that you feel people should know about?
Hmm. Favs in the last few years: Phoebe Bridgers, Big Thief, Frank Ocean, Pinegrove, Dixie Chicks. A little all over the place. The thing I love about all these artists is that they’re all so unabashedly themselves. That’s something to strive for in this life.
What’s next for you? What do you have coming up in 2019?
I’m looking forward to releasing songs 5-12 in 2019. I’m looking forward to playing lots more shows and touring the country solo as Haunted Continents and with my band, The End of America. Really, I’m excited to be adding new works to the collective pool. There are so many awesome things happening out there in the music world and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. Here’s to a good year!