Photo Credit- Joe Velez
Interview by Emily May
New Jersey pop-noir/rock artist Shayfer James has been wowing audiences and steadily growing his fan base over the past few years with his dark, poetic lyrics, swaggering style and theatrical live performances. Aside from being a singer-songwriter and performer, James is also a composer and multi-instrumentalist and has composed original scores and songs for television, movies and theatre. His music has been mentioned alongside artists such as Fiona Apple, Nick Cave, Amy Winehouse and Leonard Cohen and can weave seamlessly between upbeat rock tunes to slower ballads. He has toured and performed at festivals and events in the US, the UK, Iceland and Hong Kong and has had his music featured by Filter Magazine, MYV Hive and as New & Noteworthy on iTunes. He has had original songs and scores featured in horror and suspense films that premiered at major US film festivals and is currently writing two musicals with collaborator Kate Douglas (Sleep No More, NYC). James began recording music in 2008, with his latest EP, Hope and A Hand Grenade, being his 7th studio album. Released on February 1st, the EP showcases his ongoing growth as a singer-songwriter. Although known for his masterful piano work, James branched out with this release and focused instead on the electric guitar. The first single and accompanying video from the album, “Mercy Down”, was released ahead of the album and is a powerful social anthem about the negative aspects of humanity and modern America. The track “Ophelia”, which was written for survivors of abuse, will have an accompanying music video to be released during Women’s History Month in March and will support and raise funds for a local charity. Keep an eye on his socials and website for more upcoming information on that. You can follow and stay up-to-date with Shayfer James and all upcoming music and tour dates via the following links. Check out his music video for “Mercy Down” below.
iTunes/Apple Music- https://itunes.apple.
Your latest album Hope And A Hand Grenade was released on February 1. What was the inspiration behind the album? How do you you feel that that your sound has evolved, and that you have grown as an artist, since you began recording music in 2008?
The inspiration was a coupling of hope and despair. I’ve long been fascinated with how one cannot exist without the other. I’ve got about forty unreleased songs, so ultimately it came down to which songs best captured that theme. As far as my sound goes, I used to be absolutely opposed to having guitar on my recordings. I had to be held over the fire to be convinced that adding electric bass to The Owl & The Elephant was a good idea, but I’m glad I gave in. This new EP was arranged almost entirely around the electric guitar so that is a big shift sonically. If you listen closely you might also notice there are virtually no cymbals on the EP. That was also a very specific choice that Jeremy (producer/mixer) and I made. I could probably write a dissertation about how I’ve grown as an artist since I first began recording music. But to summarize; I’ve learned patience, openness, and I’m not so fire-and-brimstoney anymore. I feel like that’s mostly due to the realization that when I hit rock bottom in 2012, there was still hope. I carry that with me now. Shit isn’t so dire anymore.
You compose original scores and songs for film, television, and theatre and have had music featured in films such as Jenn Wexler’s film “The Ranger” and Mickey Keating’s film “Psychopaths”. How did you get your start in writing scores and songs for film, television and theatre and what do you love most about it?
That’s a great story. Jenn Wexler randomly saw me play at The Living Room in NYC. We kept in touch, and in 2016 she reached out to me to try my hand at scoring some cues for Mickey’s “Psychopaths”. From there opportunities started to open up. Scoring film just feels so natural for me. My favorite thing about it is communicating with the filmmakers. Getting to know them and understand their vision so I can deliver music that makes sense to me as a composer but also perfectly fits with the film and their vision for it. I also love how I can just pour a glass of wine, fire up my keyboard and…wham…suddenly it’s been six hours. I lose myself completely in the scoring process.
You are currently working on two musicals with collaborator Kate Douglass (Sleep No More NYC). What can you tell me about the musicals? I read that “The Ninth Hour” was recently chosen to be a part of the Met LiveArts 2019 season! How did the musical come to be chosen and what can people expect from the production?
I met Kate when I was writing/performing an episodic post-“Sleep No More”-show at the Manderley bar in NYC. We hit it off and one day we met at a bar to discuss collaborating. She drew Tarot and we both had a cocktail. We decided we wanted to start with something epic that was also in the public domain (no copyright issues, etc.) I happened to be reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf” at the time and I had it in my bag. I took it out and that was that. That’s what “The Ninth Hour” is based on. We’re extremely excited about the Met and it’s safe to say you can expect the unexpected.
You’ve mentioned that your family was involved with the theatre when you were growing up, which influenced you. What are some of your favorite plays/musicals and who are some of your favorite playwrights?
Some of my favorite musical composers Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Kander & Ebb and Stephen Schwartz. Some of favorite playwrights are Eric Bogosian, Sarah Kane, Mark Medoff, Lanford Wilson, David Mamet and Edward Albee.
You have used your music to challenge societal norms, such as with your music video for “Filthy Habit” that challenged the ways gender and sexuality are defined in our culture. Do you feel that music can be a powerful tool in this respect? What kinds of responses have you received?
I absolutely believe that music can be a powerful tool in this way and I think it’s my obligation to use it as such. I haven’t received much negative response to that video, mostly people are just a bit shocked or confused by it. Which I think is pretty damn wonderful because that means I get to ask them why and we can have a conversation about it. There is so much to learn and so much to open my mind to. It’s fucking wonderful.
You were born and raised in New Jersey and have been referred to as “The Villian King” of New Jersey’s underground noir-pop scene. What was the music scene like in New Jersey when you were growing up and in what ways do you feel it has changed over the years?
Haha. “The Villain King.” I remember reading that and thinking to myself, “shit, ok I’ll take it.”
To be honest, I wasn’t really aware of the music scene when I was a kid. Most of the time I was at play rehearsals, lighting firecrackers in the cemetery, or playing MTG with my friends.
You have mentioned that the songs for your Haunted Things EP appeared on the EP in the order they were written. Is that the approach you take with all of your albums? Do you have specific themes in mind ahead of each album and/or a story you want each album to tell?
Every recording is different. Haunted Things was all written in a very short period of time about the same subject/person. The Owl & The Elephant was focused around my dealing with my father’s death and Counterfeit Arcade was essentially about coming to terms with my true self.
Of course I didn’t know any of that until after all the songs were written and recorded. I listened to the final product and was like…ohhhh….that’s what this is all about. That’s kind of how I operate. Most of the time I don’t know what I’m writing about when I’m writing.
I read that you have made five videos for the new EP. What is your process for creating your music videos? Do you go into them with a clear idea of what you want them to look like or do you collaborate with you director to form an idea?
There are definitely clear ideas, but it takes a village. I collaborated with many incredible folks on these videos. First and foremost Christopher Elassad, the Director of Photography for the “Mercy Down https://www.youtube.com/
You are really engaged with and connected to your fans on social media, posting regular questions to your followers, as well as your #youlookgreattoday inspirational quotes. In what ways do you feel that you have benefited as an artist from the role that social media plays in music today? How do you feel that your connection with your fans has helped you creatively?
My connection with my fans has absolutely helped me creatively. “Mostly Major Chords” was actually inspired by a prompt from a fan several years ago. I’m always interested and always listening. I think that social media is pretty wonderful in the way that it allows all us weirdos to connect. My inspirational quotes are just as much for me as they are for others. I think we all need to hear these things and we all need to tell ourselves these things every day.
You have mentioned wanting to start taking yourself less seriously this year. In what ways do you feel you take yourself too seriously and what kinds of things have you done/will you do to achieve your goal?
That goes back to the whole fire and brimstone thing. It’s not sustainable and neither is drinking as much booze as I do. This is a time for me to let go of my anchors, embrace the good stuff and move on.
You released your interdisciplinary and collaborative project “March Of Crows” in 2016, for which you collaborated with visual artists, poets, a director, a choreographer, a lighting director and a videographer. What led you to develop the project and do you have plans to continue the project in the future?
I came up with “March Of Crows” as a way to connect to other artists. I had just moved to Jersey City and while I knew a handful of people, I’m not the best at being social outside of creativity. It blossomed from that. I did it for two years, but had to put it on pause. It’s quite an undertaking and I want to make sure that when I do it again I’m giving it my all.
“Mercy Down” was the first single and video that you released from the EP. What can you tell me about the song? What can people expect from the EP?
The song is fundamentally about the state of affairs in America right now. This obsession with violence and division. I see it as a kind of death throe before a new age of progress. Folks can expect a good deal of stylistic diversity on this EP. I definitely enjoyed playing around a a bit.
What’s next for you? What are your plans and goals for 2019?
I’m gonna put this EP out with the most steam I can afford and keep on moving. I’ve already got plans to get back in the studio come May so I can keep the momentum going.