Before Shawn James and his Liberty Bell-like singing voice were well known, he remembers sitting behind the studio glass feeling jealous. In his twenties, the Chicago-born singer had studied in college in Florida to be an audio engineer. He’d taken internships in Nashville afterwards, moved there with his wife. But when he was finally offered a job and a permanent position, James remembers feeling his gut sink. He’d sat there twisting nobs and pushing faders but the whole time he’d wanted to be on the other side, performing and singing into the microphone. So, he declined the position and, with the help of his wife, changed his life forever. James, who rose to fame almost overnight (more on this later), released his latest record, The Guardian Collection, last week and the stripped-down LP continues to display his unparalleled vocal power.
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“I talked to my wife,” James says. “I said, ‘I can’t do this. Are you okay with this?’ From that moment on, I quit engineering. That’s when I started unloading semi-trucks while focusing on trying to build and write music.”
James, living in Nashville with his wife, started to go to open mic nights and perform. He started to test his voice and the response it got. He’d always loved singing – he’d sung in church as a boy, in choir in middle school and studied opera in high school – but James never thought he could pursue it as a career. Entertainment, professionally, never seemed to be in the cards. Later, another major life shift occurred. James’ 11-year-old sister was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He and his wife moved home to Chicago to help her and the family. Thankfully, she beat the disease. But not before James had written his first record as a way of dealing with the worry and grief.
“During that time,” he says, “it was really heavy. I was the only one who was being more positive. Everyone in my family was upset, crying. But during that time, I wrote the bulk of my first record and my EP. Just because I felt a lot of heaviness, I had to get stuff out.”
After James’ sister got the positive diagnosis, he knew he had to go back out into the world and follow his dream of singing. So, James and his wife decided to move to Fayetteville, Arkansas, a city located near the center of the country that offers amenities to an artist like a local music scene, affordability, college bars and students looking for songs in their local watering holes. In their small home, James made a little recording studio in the bedroom and, in 2012, he recorded his first record. He’d refined the songs in bars and while busking in town farmers’ markets, during which time he often made more in a few hours than he did in a week unloading trucks.
“I was strategic,” James says. “I would time my playing as events would finish. I’d set up between them and the parking lot. After that, I got my first show opening for someone in Fayetteville. That got the ball rolling.”
James’ music is an amalgam of the best of many styles. He learned soul and gospel in church. He learned more technical aspects when he studied choir and opera in high school. He learned about what’s behind the glass in the studio in college and, before college, he’d played in metal groups and learned how to scream-sing without hurting his vocal cords. Today, his singing looms. It’s large like a myth. Some singers fill up a room with their voices, James packs one. He doesn’t skimp. The son of a restaurant cook mother and a steel worker father, he puts in his hard day’s effort with each note.
“They instilled in me,” he says, “that you got to work for what you get.”
Pre-quarantine, James was a road dog. He toured a minimum of 150 shows per year for the past handful. Over time, he’s refined his stage presence and, as a result, his art, which meant he was ready when the opportunity of a lifetime came knocking. A few years ago, representatives from PlayStation reached out to James, asking him if they could use one of his songs – “Through the Valley” – for an upcoming game. But they gave him little-to-no details. He wasn’t sure if he should release his work to them but, as he says, “I just took a chance.” The leap of faith paid off. The song was used in the trailer for one of the most anticipated upcoming game releases, The Last Of Us Part II. Over night, James says, he had millions of more eyeballs and eardrums on his work.
“I wasn’t doing anything different,” James says. “But all of a sudden I got exposure.”
His newest release, which almost entirely features James singing over a spare acoustic, features a new rendition of “Through the Valley” and “The Guardian,” which James wrote later for the game. It also features covers of songs by Macy Gray, Chris Cornell and others. The final track, “Haunted,” employs a raw electric blues guitar, finishing off the 11-track album with flare. Some of the songs were featured on James’ last LP release, which featured bigger production. But because the songs were originally written more intimately with just his voice and a guitar, he wanted to showcase that style to fans, too. James, who is working to help preserve independent venue stages, cares about that direct connection to listeners deeply.
“Music has the ability to take me away,” James says. “The ability to escape or help deal with something that I’m going through. I never thought I’d be able to do that for other people. Since I’ve been blessed with this platform, I’ve received hundreds if not thousands of thousands of messages that my music is doing that for people. It completely blows my mind.”