R&B Bad Boy Ro James On His Influences & Upcoming Debut 'El Dorado'

Aaron Vasquez
Ro James

Despite being raised in the church, Ro James preferred being a bad boy. The alternative R&B singer recalls poring over Goosebumps books and Shakespeare in high school as punishment from his mom for his worst behavior, which included getting suspended from fighting or stealing a car. 

"One time, a teacher made me mad so I stole his wallet and I bought pizza for the whole class and I got caught and I got suspended for five days in 7th grade," he says. "So punching me and stuff like that was not really a punishment anymore. [My mom] did something different and made me read, but she also would make me write, so my penmanship got really crazy."

Sample his work like his 2013 three-part EP, Coke, Jack and Cadillacs, which each carry its own themes from first love to first drink to first car. Singing out loud wasn't always so easy for the Germany-born singer, either, whose military man-turned-preacher father tried to force gospel music into his system. While he admits to being shy in the pulpit, his love for classic soul and rebellious rock mixed to form his current brand of gritty R&B. 

As he preps his forthcoming studio debut El Dorado (ByStorm Entertainment/ RCA Records), allow James to re-introduce himself in the candid Q&A below. 

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Describe your early years in the church.

Very, very crazy. I remember when [my father] came home and my mom used to have these records. She had a record player --Whitney Houston was her thing -- and I remember he came home and threw all of the records away because he really got into church. With certain churches, they're so radical with their beliefs. They're just like, go home and throw all of your secular records out because it's polluting your spirit basically. So he did that. I remember that transition and it was very interesting because we were kept from doing a lot of things like going to the movies and that's what would make me rebel. I was like, I don't understand this. All my friends are going to the movies and listening to Biggie and Tupac and all these different songs that I don't even know because you're only allowing me to listen to gospel songs.

But it also helped me because it allowed me to get into the feeling of music, and the people he allowed me to listen to would be Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding and Donnie Hathaway and the classics because he said that [those artists] were a good foundation for me to build on because their music is pure. So, from there, I just branched out and started to listen to Johnny Cash and [David] Bowie and Sly and the Family Stone. 

You were born in Germany, and then you lived in Indianapolis, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

Well, my dad was in the military, so I was born in Germany. My mom brought me back to New York to stay with my grandmother while she finished school in Germany, so I stayed there for a little while. We moved to California before my brother was born and then we moved to Oklahoma. So, from Oklahoma, I remember my early childhood years being so crazy. When you go to these new places, you have to adapt to what that environment is. You go [to a place] and everybody's not wearing Jordans, they're wearing cowboy boots and it's like, I want some cowboy boots too because you want to fit in. 

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When was the first time you sang in public? 

I never did. I was so rebellious with that. I would sing at home. I would sing in the car with my dad, but whenever he tried to make me sing in church, I was like, nah, I'm not doing that. I didn't want to sing in front of all these people.  

Why? 

I don't know. I think it was mostly fear. It was fear and then at the same time, you hear all these people in church. You know church singers, they sing. So it's kind of like an intimidation but I also had this voice that my dad was like, 'You should sing.'

What is it about artists like Prince or Johnny Cash that really resonated with you?

Rebellion. With Prince, it was just his artistry. His ability to be himself and not really care what no one else thought. I appreciate that. With Purple Rain, I was like, 'This shit is great. I can do that. I want to make people feel like that.' 

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What was your first song? 

My first song was called "Portrait." It would just be poetry and I really never understood how to write the structure of writing a song. I just knew the feeling and I knew it was supposed to break and change at the same part, so that's how I write music.

What was "Portrait" about? 

It was just about staring at a photo that took you back to a memory that reminded you of what it felt like and now I'm staring at this portrait of you and you don't have me anymore. It was real-life experience so I really felt connected to it, but now listening to it, I hear that honesty but also the imperfection.

Before you even sit down to write a song, is there a checklist? 

Nah. I think it's just already there. I don't try to worry about sounding like anybody because I know i have my own tone, my own sound. It's just about being honest in a song and trying to relate myself or how to basically break it down as simple as possible for someone to try to understand it. Not being too deep, not being too shallow at the same time.

Do you read certain books or poems for inspiration?

Oh, yeah. I read a lot. My mom would make me read as a punishment [in high school], but it actually helped me. I read a lot of poetry. A lot of fiction books. She used to make me read all those Goosebumps books. I got into Shakespeare and all of that stuff in high school and then got out of it because it got too complicated. But all of those things just helped me to put words together. It gave me a different perspective. 

You released your new single "Permission." What's changed about your creative process or your personal life?

My creative process this time around from Coke, Jack and Cadillacs was the transition from being independent and doing it myself with my own ideas, my own vision, to going into a label where you incorporate so many other people's ideas or visions for you. So it's like how do I make this work with all of these ideas and opinions? It's been interesting but the challenge has been good because it's also pushed my artistry, songwriting, concepts and melodies, being introduced to new producers and new sounds. I experimented a lot this time around so I think when people hear this album, they're going to hear bigger sounds, more experimentation with music, my voice. 

Is it true that you and Miguel bonded through MySpace before co-writing "Use Me"? 

Yes, we actually did. I had a song up. He had some music up. He had "Sure Thing" and we also had some mutual friends. We just kind of kept in contact. When his music started to come out, he flew to New York and I just showed him around and introduced him to the scene. We got in the studio and worked a little bit. 

What's the status of your debut album El Dorado?

I'm still creating. I'm giving people just a little bit of what I've been through. Something that guys can actually relate to without feeling like the music is too soft or you can't vibe to it, but something [where] women can also appreciate honesty from a guy from his perspective on life, love, relationships, growing up. That's what this album is. There's so many influences from rock to country to R&B to hip hop to gospel. Then it's like how do you put that all into your first album? You can't. So I'm just giving it a little bit at a time.