Shawn James is much more than yet another guy with an acoustic guitar – he brings grit, raw passion, and darkness to a musical tradition as old as the hills. Fresh off his first visit to the UK, the singer-songwriter tells us about the impact of having his song ‘Through The Valley’ featured in the trailer for PlayStation game ‘The Last Of Us 2’, recording at the legendary Sun Studios, caring less about what people think, standing on the shoulders of giants, and British accents.
You’ve just wrapped your first solo tour of the UK. How would you sum up the experience?
The tour was better than I could have hoped. I met a ton of great folks and got to experience new places and cultures. The shows were solid and people were very warm and friendly. I couldn’t ask for anything more for my first time there. One of my favorite parts was getting to explore Edinburgh. It’s an absolutely beautiful city with an old world feel to it that was very visually inspiring to me.
Any odd quirks in the UK you had to get used to?
Understanding some of the accents were tough at first (especially later in the night when folks were more sloshed) but I caught on pretty quickly.
How did people over here respond, compared with those in the US?
There wasn’t a massive difference with people, but I think they appreciated it a bit more since a lot of them have been waiting years to see me. It was very heartwarming.
You’ve been touring pretty much non-stop for the past two months – how do you keep the momentum going?
Honestly, a lot of people ask me about that but I feel that I get more energy from playing shows and travelling rather than get worn down. I get tired more when I’m at home with nothing to do! If I am worn down, that means that I try a little harder to reach the same level so I’d say that it just pushes me harder to put on a good show.
What’s the biggest thing that’s changed for you since ‘Through The Valley’ blew up?
I’d say the biggest thing is that I have more people checking out the music now and a little more ease in getting more people out to shows. It’s a huge leg up.
And did you splash out on anything to celebrate when the song went big?
I took my wife out to a nice dinner and we drank a bit that night but nothing much else.
What’s the “trick” to standing out from all the other guys with acoustic guitars? It’s not like you can rely on backing dancers or fireworks to get people to pay attention.
I don’t think there’s any “trick” really. I’d say that you just have to come from an honest, authentic, raw place and people will be able to see that and connect to it easier. The songwriting and performance is really what does it for me and a bit of storytelling as well. I give it my all with lots of emotion and passion and I believe people can see that and appreciate it.
You’ve also got a band. Is there anything you’ve learned from playing with them that feeds its way into your solo performances?
The Shapeshifters have taught me a lot about keeping a crowd energized and learning how to setup the flow of the set to have dynamic.
And is there anything you’ve picked up from your solo gigs that you’ve applied to the band shows?
I think that talking with the crowd and telling stories in the solo has helped me become better about communicating with the crowd at band shows.
How do the crowds respond to you communicating more?
The older I get, the less I care about what people think and I just wanna be honest about what the songs mean to me, because maybe that can inspire and help someone as well. I feel the most connected to everyone in the crowd that I’ve ever been in the past. They respond 10 times more strong.
What do you think people connect with in your songs?
All sorts of things really. Emotion, pain, passion, vulnerability, my life experiences, and a lot more. It’s hard to nail it down in words. Sometimes I think it’s just the environment and feelings i can help them feel.
What do you connect with in other people’s songs – like ‘John the Revelator’ which you perform at solo shows?
I was a little boy when I first heard the song and I connected to the vocal emotion, power, and rawness. It gripped me and left a huge impression.
Your latest album’s called ‘On The Shoulders Of Giants’. Whose shoulders do you feel you’re standing on?
Everyone that’s come before me that’s inspired me to reach who I am now. Without them, I wouldn’t have the knowledge and understanding of different styles and emotion to create my own from their inspiration on me.
You recorded it at the legendary Sun Studios. As someone who used to work at a recording studio, was that a longtime ambition of yours?
Absolutely it was. It’s one of those places for me that I never thought I’d really be able to get into. There’s so much history stored in the old building that I sometimes felt like “ghosts” were around me.
What did recording there add to the songs that you wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere?
A classic recording technique that I had yet to experience and also the pressure of recording in Sun Studio. I do well under pressure. It makes me rise to a new level, in my opinion.
- ‘On The Shoulders Of Giants’ is out now.