Al James of Dolorean came back from a ten-year hiatus from the music business to release The Unfazed, a shining collection of folk rock songs like “Country Clutter,” which NPR called “one of the catchiest kiss-off songs in years.” We talked to James about his latest album, inspiration and western paintings, and listened as he rattled off a record store’s worth of underappreciated songwriters.
What’s the last song you wrote? Tell us about it.
The last song I wrote is called “Disputed Trail.” It’s a song based on an old C.M. Russell cowboy painting of the same name. I wrote and recorded it for an upcoming EP. I originally envisioned the song as fairly stripped down, but once I showed it to everyone in the group they all wanted to contribute. I love how it ended up. I’m excited to finally release it later this year.
What moves you to write a song?
I think a lot of it comes down to the rhythm of a phrase or series of words. If I get addicted to that word rhythm I write it down everywhere, I think about it all the time, I say it over and over in my head. Pretty soon those words take on a bigger meaning and usually out of that a song starts shaping up, revealing itself.
Has your songwriting process evolved over the years?
It’s changed quite a bit. I used to sit down with a guitar and be very focused. I’d write a narrative that I thought was an interesting story, often from the third person. Now I’m much more prone to write from first person and tell a story indirectly. I’m learning to paint around the corners of a story rather than tell it straight ahead. Richard Buckner is probably one of the best at this. He can set up a very specific situation with two or three images that seem almost unrelated.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
I think the fifth song on The Unfazed, “Fools Gold Ring” is a standout. I love the bed of backing vocals that drummer Benny Nugent provided on the choruses. The overall arrangement is expansive and big. Even though the choruses get quite layered and massive, the song still has an understated, humble feel. This was one of those live takes in the studio where we got it right away and everyone just loved the deep snare sound and the laid back tempo that we got. For me, this song is one of our most cinematic and emotional simply based on the dynamics happening in between the verses and chorus.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
The bridge in Sweet Boy turned out well, “Just give it time / We all cross that line / We all break down / When our weaknesses combine / It’s not your fault, Oh no / God knows we weren’t meant to float / We’re just his crew / On his sinking boat”
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I would be just fine if the word “ghost” wasn’t used in a song for the next decade. We should all just give it a rest. It’s been abused and de-valued to the point that if I hear it in a song my brain pretty much shuts off and I ignore the rest of the song. Jason Molina’s “I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost” and Damien Jurado’s “Ghost of David” are exceptions of course. As far as words that I love, I just love the simple ones. I love the ones that are conversational and direct. I love words that tell specifics as well. If there’s honesty in those specifics, the song rings true. If it’s a fabrication, you can tell the songwriter is searching for a “smarter” word or a loaded image.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
Usually I have some words that I feel are working together well. They’re a kernel of a song. As I sing them throughout my days they bounce around and settle on a melody. Eventually I sit down with a guitar and figure out what that melody is and then I start building the song off of that initial line which often ends up as a chorus or an opening line.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
I do revise quite a bit, but I never change the words that gave birth to the song, even if they’re nonsensical or quite abstract. I feel like it would be a betrayal if I went back a tweaked a line that started the entire chain reaction of creativity. If I do edit, it’s often for rhythm. When you get the rhythm and breath of the song right it feels like it’s older than you. It feels like it’s been around for a long, long time. Once in awhile a song comes out in one piece and you just play and sing as the song happens. Those are few and far between. When you do get one of those you better play it again immediately and grab a pen and paper.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
There are very few songwriters who can balance humor and sadness like Michael Hurley. He’s one of my favorites and he’s criminally underrated and under appreciated. I’d also put Tim Hardin, Emitt Rhodes, Dennis Wilson, Willy Vlautin, J. Tillman, Damien Jurado, Richard Swift, Mary Gauthier, Amber Webber from Lightning Dust, Richard Buckner and Eric Bachman on that list. All of these folks should be rich and famous for their incredible work. Over the last few years I feel like music fans and music writers have become very confused about what really makes a great song.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
I wish I’d written the song “Clay Pigeons” by Blaze Foley or “If I Were A Carpenter” by Tim Hardin.