Early James Turns Toxic Relationship Into Song on 'It Doesn't Matter Now': Exclusive

Early James
Alysse Gafkjen

Early James

Early James didn't learn any carnival pain tolerance tricks while shooting his new video for "It Doesn't Matter Now," premiering exclusively on Billboard on Thursday (Jan. 23), from his upcoming debut album Singing For My Supper. But the Alabama singer, songwriter and bandleader did get to throw a dart in the back of SideShow Bennie.

"Yeah, that was fun," James says with a chuckle.

Director Tim Hardiman recruited SideShow Bennie and sidekick Anna Fiametta to represent what he calls a "pretty heavy" theme conveyed in the song. James acknowledges that, "It's hard to talk's kind of vaguely representing two people who probably shouldn't be together. It's about how can you be in a toxic relationship and still feel like you love the person sometimes? So when they're lovingly dancing on [broken] glass, that kind of represents the toxic relationship that the song is about."

Hardiman, meanwhile, felt there needed to be some aggression on the screen, but James didn't want it to play out like a typical breakup. He'd worked with SideShow Bennie before, and his teaming with Fiametta was tailor made for the video. "The thought of them inflicting pain on each other, and the pleasure they receive from it, was intriguing," Hardiman says. "I pitched the idea to Early, and I'm grateful he got it and trusted my vision for his song."

There is, in fact, a great deal of darkness and aggression throughout Singing For My Supper, which was produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and comes out March 13 on his Easy Eye Sound label. "Funny enough, that's the easiest stuff to write about," says the 22-year-old James (real name Frederick James Mullis Jr.), who sings about addiction, mental health, family relationships and more on the 10-song set. "I guess it's a form of therapy. Writing these songs is definitely like a form of getting to know yourself a little bit. If it hurts to write, then it's honest and it helps you out of it -- or at least helps you accept it and then move on."

James received his first guitar as a Christmas present from an aunt when he was 15 and began writing his own songs two years later. James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" made a significant impact, and James subsequently expanded to blues and blues-rock, as well as ’90s Northwest grunge, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Establishing a name for himself in Birmingham, James wound up at Easy Eye after his manager, Clay Bradley, showed Auerbach a YouTube video of one of James' performances. "[Auerbach] said 'I want to meet that guy,’ and it just happened," James remembers.

Auerbach also introduced James to the idea of co-writing, working with Auerbach, Pat McLaughlin, John Bettis, Bobby Wood and Ronnie Bowman. "I guess Dan wanted to make money," James quips, but he came to appreciate the process -- grudgingly.

"I thought I was going to hate it, but it was pretty eye-opening, and I ended up loving it," he acknowledges. "I was an egomaniac about it; I wanted to write the guitar part and all the lyrics and then come up with the melody. That's what it's always been like for me. But this taught me that you end up with a better song if you're working with the right kind of people.

"I think they'd get frustrated with me 'cause I'm slower than people Dan usually writes with. He and Kendell [Marvel] would write five songs in a day, I think, and we would only usually get one and bones for another in an eight-hour day. But I think he likes the songs we wrote, even if I'm not as fast."

As Singing For My Supper's release approaches, James will be hitting the road in mid-February with opening slots set for the Marcus King Band, the Lone Bellow and Shovels and Rope as well as two weeks in Canada with the Black Keys. "Dan's, putting his money where his mouth is," James notes. "He's like, a superstar -- a Grammy winner and all that. But he makes you feel really comfortable, and he's just, like, a dude. He really helps you make the best music you can."

Listen to “It Doesn’t Matter Now” below.