#IMMusicMondays: Erica James on the Music That Made Her (Interview)

Erica James is a jack of all trades. As a published journalist and a highly talented musician, she has been making waves in the music industry from all angles. After a conversation between us discussing the importance of representation in media, I got the opportunity to delve deeper into what influences her and what she wants to tell the world as a powerful black woman changing the game.


As your new album is called ‘WABI SABI‘, meaning the art of impermanence, what does that name mean to you?

I called my debut album ‘WABI SABI‘ because my music is a reflection on my mindset and experiences. I wrote 50 songs for the album, and selected the best 10; I focused on writing how I wanted to feel. We’ve been in our bubbles, this is music to escape the mundane aspects of reality and dance to. But regarding impermanence, moments are fleeting, time is always evolving and the only constant we all have is change. I’ve always had an interest in different faiths, and cultures. One of my A*s was in Religious Studies!

I am more spiritual than religious and I am multi-faith, so the practice of Buddhism is something I have practiced and read about my whole life. I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture, and anime. ‘WABI SABI‘ and the acceptance of imperfection with the intention of finding the beauty within it, is something that has always been relative to me. I didn’t just adopt the aesthetic for an album, I’ve been living it and I am happy people are feeling that from listening to the album.

What song from this album was the most fun to make?

It would probably be ‘FINALLY FREE‘. In the opening adlibs, you can hear me say ‘Yezzir’ under my breath. It was kept from one of my backing vocal stems; I do all of my backing vocals myself. I forgot I said that, that’s how unhinged I was and free to approach each song with the freedom I have earned the right to have. It’s a celebration of being independent as an artist and person and setting your own rules. I think many people will be able to relate to it because many of us want to live as authentically as possible. ‘FINALLY FREE‘ is about being yourself even if it makes others uncomfortable. I was definitely in my Chance The Rapper‘Coloring Book’ mode with that song.

The more I embraced impermanence and imperfections the more grounded I felt within myself, at a time (when) change from the pandemic, and global attention to (the) rights of marginalised groups were being threatened at an almost daily occurrence in 2020.

As we have previously spoken about the importance of representation in all formats of media, what does it mean to you to be a successful Black woman in this industry?

My mother always encourages me to look up and see the world. It’s so easy to put your head down and graft, but to find time to reflect and appreciate the mountain you’ve climbed is important. And some days you’ll only have (the) energy to cross a puddle; that’s fine too. I combat imposter syndrome by remembering the hard work it took for each win. I know I am worthy and deserving. But, also that I am just me regardless of reaching a particular feat, or not. I had to rebuild my relationship with what I thought success was. I found I had followed a script set out by others and even me 5 years ago, that was out-of-date with what I view success as today.

If we’re ever-evolving, then our wants will inevitably change. Fear of that change can keep you stuck, or under the illusion that you are stuck. Success looks different every day; I needed a minimalist life. I have been singing all of my life, but I had been waiting for a label to spot me and invest in me. I had watched so many Behind The Music specials as a kid, I thought this was a success. Then I remembered all the contractual horror stories, and my idols who fought to be independent like Prince. So I am very happy to be an independent artist. I am not against labels, but I feel in sync with where I am now.

It’s a juggling act, but I do it – that’s what every woman, and Black woman in particular has a 6th sense of knowing how to do. But we’re also all very much human. I work at my craft every day. I am always writing, and recording, clocking in my 10,000 hours, and never allowing the ceiling to be my limit.

What made you want to pursue music?

I just always knew I wanted to sing. I had a passion for it, but it was considered a hobby. (For me,) I knew deep down it was more than a side thing, it was my calling. I always would take my parent’s albums and look at who wrote what song. That’s why I became a big Mariah Carey fan because she would write all of these hit songs. I love singer-songwriters, there’s nothing like hearing a song from the writer’s mouth, which is why I have so much respect for Muni Long and her journey which I’ve followed for a while.

I grew up in a musical home. Everybody had non-music jobs, but before and after them music was played. I grew up watching my parents record TOTP and Soul Train, and I would follow that tradition with my sisters to record episodes of TRL, MTV music videos, and award show performances, and then YouTube. My dance class was re-watching Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears videos in my living room. No genre was spared in my house. We listened to everything and had five guitars, two keyboards, and a drum kit. We were producing music before we knew what that meant.

As a writer and a musician, how have you found balancing both?

It’s a balancing act for sure, but my aim is to do the best I can and not be perfect. You can do anything with that pressure reduced by not trying to be perfect. I am both an expressionist and an observer, which makes me able to be both an artist fully, and then take that hat off and be (a) Journalist fully. I enjoy what I do and I guess that helps the long hours you have to dedicate to the recording, writing, and producing of your music. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a writer and musician, getting to show people a fraction of what I hear in my mind is a huge part of why I believe I exist. My purpose is to write music that makes you laugh, cry, and think; to feel okay with being human. Being an artist does as much for me as it does for others. I need my music.

Who or what are your main musical influences?

Aaliyah, The Cure, Blur, Björk, Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Victoria Monét, Rihanna, SZA, Kate Bush, FKA Twigs, and Prince.

Life inspires me. If you get really still inside of yourself, you can see life is always lifeing and curating itself. Most of the time when I was writing I found myself tapped into a frequency that guided what I was meant to say. When you get out of your own way, that’s when the magic can unfold.

On that same note, what writers inspire your work?

Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Bell Hooks are my literary Big 3. I also love the poems of Maya Angelou. For songwriting, my favourite writers are Max Martin, Shelly Peiken (who I know and have interviewed), Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, Rick Nowels, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Kate Bush, Prince, DeVante Swing, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Marvin Gaye, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliot.

Are there any issues you have faced when building a name for yourself?

Indeed. I had been told once by an A&R person to choose a genre. I had been told (that), ‘Industry people don’t like it when you artists’ have many genres on a project. Are you a rock artist, or a pop artist?”. That was the day I decided to be independent. Labels belong on clothes, shoes, and purses – not people. I can not be put into a box; I listen to too many genres and hear too much music multi-dimensionally to restrict myself. I know who I am as an artist, which is why I can have an album that incorporates punk music with alternative, Afrobeats with RnB, (include) rap and rock. As a producer, as well as a songwriter, I’ve studied the great genre-benders of our time to know how not to get lost in the many sounds you create.

For Black women artists, there’s even more of a ceiling on how many genres people may think you’re able to do. To read in Donna Summer’s biography that she would have been a rock singer in the 1970s had she felt there was a place for her in the industry, that stuck with me. She experienced that glass ceiling 5 decades ago. I knew in making this album, I wasn’t going to let anyone pigeonhole me. Donna had the vocal ability to sing everything, as she demonstrated in her album, ‘Bad Girls’, and popular music has never been the same.

What is your favourite album of all time?

Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’; it’s a masterpiece. The first time I heard that album I knew exactly what I was meant to be. I also love anything to do with Tina Turner. I listen to her greatest hits daily. My A.I. / Anime character on my album’s cover art is sat just like Tina.

If there was one thing you’d want people to take away from both your music and your writing, what would that be?

That I am a storyteller as well as a singer. I wrote every word, melody, and produced everything you hear. Every detail from the cover art to the beats (was) a process.

My dissertation in university was on 1960s pop culture, and its impact on social movements, and vice versa. Not my generation at all, but it helped me to understand that young people from every era empowered everyone. I presume they had their futures on the line more than anyone.

You can find Erica James on Instagram, X, and TikTok. Listen to ‘WABI SABI‘ below and find more interviews here.

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