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Ones to Watch: James Tillman

Family is the fuel behind James Tillman’s new EP coming out in March 2020. Pulling from family history in Gary, Indiana, Tillman’s music has a whole new meaning. Coming off of his first album ever, Silk Noise Reflex, Tillman’s inspiration for his upcoming EP also came from his travels performing in other countries. Gaining huge popularity in Tokyo and headlining his own show there, Tillman was hugely influenced by Japanese culture and fashion. Combining his familial background from Gary, also known as “The Magic City,”  with his experiences in Tokyo, Tillman found a way to connect the two places and create his vision for this upcoming release.  

Milk caught up with this multi-talented musician prior to the release of his new single, “Lose Control,” which dropped this past Friday. This single is a perfect example of the vibe James has created for himself. Check out the video for “Lose Control” below:

How’s the album coming? How’s the music?

 The music is great. So the album is actually done. I’m in a nice position where I’ve worked on a lot of music over the last two years and have some projects that I’m now starting to roll out so it’s good! 

 Do you have a strategy in releasing your music? 

I just notice in the winter, stuff kind of dies, so it’s nice to come back in the spring like, “Hey!” Also, I’m a big proponent of letting things marinate a bit so it’s like you put it out, the holiday season gets crazy, then you kind of say hello to people again.

I hear you play a lot of instruments, how many do you play?

Let’s see, keys, guitar, a little bit of bass. I wouldn’t call myself a drummer, but I can keep a solid pocket. I also play clarinet from back in the day when I was growing up.

Would you ever put some clarinet in your music, or have you?  

I want to, the thing is, I had a really nice wooden clarinet back when I was in high school and I was renting it from the school so I had to give it back when I left. The one that I have now is like plastic and doesn’t sound as good, but I was thinking of sampling it. 

 Who is your biggest inspiration? Doesn’t have to be musical.

 I think at the moment, I’ve been really into family and kind of revisiting some of that history. My grandmother comes from a huge family she’s one of 13 and on the younger end. Their family is from Georgia. So they lived around, Macon which is central Georgia, and so one of her oldest sisters ran a juke joint. Apparently it was a nice,  popping thing around the time that Otis Redding and Little Richard were coming out. They were from Macon, and so that’s kind of been really just inspiring in terms of knowing that there is some heritage there and feeling a connection that way.

So what was it like growing up in your childhood home? Was there a lot of music around?  

 It’s interesting, nobody else really did anything musical except I had an uncle on my mom’s side who played saxophone in a band in high school. I think just growing up it was a lot of church. So I sang in church, and I was already playing a musical instrument in school. My mom loves like, Mariah Carey, she loves Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, and that kind of music. My dad, he listened to a lot of music, but his stuff was coming more from what was cool, so he would have Tupac and this really hardcore rap and my mom would not necessarily want it playing all the time in the house. It was cool to get those moments, you know. Saturday mornings we’d wake up and have to clean the house and my mom would put on Whitney Houston or gospel if it was Sunday. We were always listening to stuff and it made me realize also, a lot of music was also kind of filtering in through MTV, like, do you remember The Box, that really old show, it would just play music videos all night? That stuff became more influential than I realized. A lot of that is what I think lead to me gravitating toward music. 

You had a lot of popularity in Tokyo starting out, right? What was that like?

So I went there last summer. I did a tour there, actually, and it was crazy because it was a headline tour. I had no idea the impact of that, It’s crazy. I released the edition of it on cassette tape, apparently, cassettes are really big in Japan. And so the next day after I released it, a distributor was like, “I want to stock this in my store, can you send me some,” and so I worked with a friend to send him some tapes, and then he kind of connected a bunch of dots in Tokyo and told a few bands about me and so long story short, they ended up contacting me. We did like a joint day it was cool. It was really nice to go over there, super inspiring. It definitely inspired this new music that I’m working on. It also kind of solidified for me how important it is to connect with fans. With streaming I’ve noticed, Japan and London are the biggest international places that gravitate to my music and so that showed me it’s really important to make it out there to those places and perform and meet people and build real relationships as much as possible. So I was super inspired. I like to go to one of my favorite stores there too, Wacko Maria? 

 What’s that?

It’s a really cool street urban wear store out there, It also was part of this store Guilty Parties, I don’t know if it’s collective, but all the clothes were Wacko Maria. I bought one really cool hoodie, and I thought, “let me not spend all the money on clothes,” so I bought that, I got to go to Meguro, which is the neighborhood where that store is and where the tape shop that sold my tape was, I connected with them. The thing about Japan too It’s crazy, it’s like whatever they do it’s super high quality. They have one of my favorite incense shops there too and so the guy who owns that shop also runs a falafel place… best falafel ever.

Really? in Japan?

 I mean, I don’t know if I can speak on behalf of all the falafel everywhere but it was so good. I’m definitely planning to go back soon. 

 What’s your writing process like? 

My writing process varies, I write a lot, I do a lot of journaling, so I have moments where I’ll have lyrics that I’ve written, I’ll start messing around with a melody, and then try a few lyrics over it. Other times I’ll just think of a melody or play something and on the spot start to think of lyrics. I also record a lot of voice memos of myself to make sure I don’t lose the ideas, I would say that’s the main way that I write I think. I realized making this new music, I was at a point where I had a lot of stuff going on, and I needed to kind of retreat. So this past winter, I went up to Hudson and recorded a lot there. I had never done that before. Not in that way. But I think I may continue to do that every now and then because it’s nice to change space and have a little quiet, and then let thoughts and music flow out that way. I’ve been a little bit more collaborative this year, too. So even some of the new music I’m releasing, I worked with friends of mine, you know, in terms of writing in terms of production. So I’m enjoying that as well. But generally it’s me a guitar or piano and my voice memos I record, and I just kind of go off of that.

 If you could sum up the new Album/EP in one word, what would it be?


Images Courtesy of Rahim Fortune

Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.

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