I am a recent convert to country. I scoffed, I scorned, I teased. Then I listened. And I learned. And now I’m hooked….not to all the “my dog ran off with my wife and left me with a broken truck” stuff (although it can be fun) but to some of the most mind-blowing technical and musical artists I’ve ever laid ear on. And one of the incredible musicians who showed me the way was was Elana James.
Her song, “Twenty-Four Hours A Day” was in heavy rotation on WDVX. I listened for a week each time missing the artist announcement before I finally gave up and emailed the DJ in desperation. That song became one of my first Song of the Day columns for NPR, and I’ve been following her career since.
On stage, her fingers fly, words pour, and I am entranced. From the classics to her own writing, she brings a electric spark to each thing she sings, and simply shines out. Even when it’s heartbreaking, the music is fun, making your feet tap and fingers want to skip along. So it is my pleasure to introduce….Elana James.
How did you get started playing?
My mom is a violinist and my older sister played the flute. When I turned four it was time for me to start playing something. I liked the violin, since I always heard my mom playing it and I wanted to do something different from my sister. I had a very emotional reaction to playing in a way–when I cashed in my 3/4 sized violin for the full sized one I have now, it was covered in the accumulated dried salt from all my tears and snot from tantrums when my mom used to make me practice.
What was the first recording you ever purchased?
The Violent Femmes. And right after that, Thriller.
You play with your band, Hot Club of Cowtown, and also as a solo artist. Is it different performing as the named artist, instead of part of a group?
Yes. As a violinist, who you’re playing with is really important. It’s not a self-sustaining instrument–I can’t accompany myself when I play. The band encompasses the sound and creates something bigger that frames and supports the violin. I am comfortable in both formats (solo and band member), but there’s a kind of certainty and security in a band–all three of you are there or there’s no show. You have this force that is unmistakable.
Sometimes as a solo artist, I can feel self-conscious, that the show rests on me personally, that pressure to DELIVER, whatever that means. I think the model I am comfortable with is as a band leader who regularly features all members of the band–If I do more solo stuff, it will be along those lines. In a way, that’s what the Hot Club feels like to me–everybody’s featured and everybody shines.
Did you always want to play violin, or were there other instruments you tried out first (or since?)
The summer after my freshman year at Barnard I was all set to throw myself into the violin and give it a go–see if I could catch up with other players my age. I had a great teacher, Lucie Robert, who was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music back then. I had auditioned for a special program they had with Barnard and was assigned to study with her. She was incredibly inspiring, but a few weeks after we started a summer session at this place in upstate New York, called Meadowmount, she told me at my lesson that I would never really have a future as a violinist and that maybe I should consider the viola? So I wept for a weekend up there, and then rented a viola and got busy. I stopped playing violin for about four years and just concentrated on viola, and I grew to really like it, and grew a lot musically during that time, though I never could play fiddle tunes on it as well 🙂
What attracted you to swing?
Actually, that same summer, Lucie and her husband Jeff had a little gathering at their cabin. They are both hardcore Classical musicians, but this one night, kind of as a joyful guilty pleasure, they got out these Gershwin songbooks and played them together. I was so moved and enthralled to see them playing this very different king of music–it was thrilling. That night I went back to my cabin and wrote on my calendar that that was the day I decided to go into music. I guess I was 18. But it took several years for that to come about–I had to keep meeting this music in unexpected places. We were like strangers who just kept bumping into each other. I didn’t think the music remembered me until we got formally introduced.
The stereotype of “country” music people is pretty strong – do you think you fit that mold?
I certainly have the street cred to be a “fiddler” in the country sense of the word, since I can ride and rope, have worked out west as a wrangler and packer, and have allowed my life to be shaped by these unconventional loves of music and western life. In that sense I feel totally authentic and I think that is something I have always felt, and I feel that must come through in my playing.
In a kind of country tradition, I’ve been been welcomed and encouraged by those who have gone further down the path [to music] than I have (yet), and gotten to play alongside them (Johnny Gimble, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Cliff Bruner, Buck Owens, Frankie McWhorter). It makes me feel like I am on the right track–like that these people have taken the time to believe in me, in one way or another, offer advice and wisdom, and that means so much.
One way I am not a traditional country fiddler though is that I have a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and had a bat mitzvah!! But honestly, I also am spared the worry that I have seen some more traditional players have (so unnecessarily!) from time to time–I don’t worry about what it would be like to read music, or, you know, how would my life have been different if I had gone to college or been more formally trained? I tried all that, I did it, I checked those boxes and I have chosen this because I love it and it’s me. So I don’t have doubts like, “what if?”
Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical? A painter, building, dish of cereal?
Of course!! Usually I picture it like the circus, or like being a gypsy, or urban camping, or a traveling salesman of pots and pans. It’s also like how Tibetan monks make sand mandala paintings: getting out there every night you are painting the same picture again and again but it’s always different and you never know how it’s going to turn out. And then it’s gone forever and you start over the next night. But it’s also like an iceberg–people just see the snowy tip, not the dark, blue ice mass beneath it that supports it and allows it to appear to be floating effortlessly. But that’s where the snowy tip comes from. And they shouldn’t see that. That’s the nature of show business–it’s not accounting!
Who would you consider your musical inspiration?
When I am around other people playing, especially in other cultures–India, gypsy music, old-timers of one kind or another who are authentically steeped in their tradition, where the music is playing through them, that is deep and inspiring to me.
Great moments – seeing Hun Huur Tu live, seeing Taraf de Haidouks, watching Johnny Gimble play, watching anyone play–the violin especially–in a passionate way. I have been guided and inspired by the playing of Stephane Grappelli, and the fiddlers from the Bob Wills band of the 1940s most of all, as far as musical ideas go.
If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?
I’m going to keep it to people who are alive–otherwise, it would be too vast to contemplate!
I guess I would do a tour with Bob Dylan where he and I played and sang in kind of a small trio format. Dorado and Tchavolo Schmitt, Taraf de Haidouks, Hun Huur Tu, and the band Csokolom would also be on the bill. Oh, and Romain Duris would be the emcee.
What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?
It varies. It’s some kind of authenticity. It’s like that person has been somewhere I want to go, or haven’t yet had to go, and they are reporting back for the rest of us.
Or that feeling that someone has distilled something so deep and private, and sometimes painful, that it becomes magical. The Bob Dylan song “I Believe in You” is like that. Also Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home.” My favorite songs often tend to be like prayers.
Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?
I really like Emily Gimble, who is a young singer and piano player out of Austin, TX who sings with an amazing, free, effortless style. She sounds a little bit like Norah Jones and Billie Holliday, but it’s not as mannered or stuffy as other female singers I’ve heard in that style. What I like about Emily is that she is totally unaffected and the music just pours out of her, like it floats up out of her body, like an essential part of her. She is also the granddaughter of Johnny Gimble, my fiddling idol. When they play together–which is often–it is magical and moving.
I also love Csokolom. They play traditional Romanian and Hungarian folk tunes on fiddles. I don’t know if they even still exist, but one CD they made, “May I Kiss Your Hand” is definitely one of my favorite CDs ever. This woman sings in this husky, natural voice and the fiddling is pure and rustic–again, no Mark O’Connor affectations and nothing antiseptic–just clean and beautiful playing on these beautiful songs about gypsies, bears, and traditional songs.
Finally, there’s something about this other young woman from Austin, Betty Soo that I can’t put my finger on. She is a singer songwriter who just put out her first CD. She is Korean, too, which you (or at least I!) don’t see very often in the world of Americana music, though I don’t know why. Anyway, I have not heard her CD but I have heard her sing live and she has a great voice–kind of like Sheryl Crow, but again something rich and deep about her singing–totally unpretentious. She strikes me as a totally unassuming person, but a really soulful singer, very tasteful, nothing over-wrought.
Like Elana? Listen to a few tracks:
And pick up her amazing records: