Shawn James accomplished quite a bit during just seven years of recording — including nine albums on his own and with his band the Shapeshifters, 75 million streams and a significant number of sync deals. He’s covered a lot of stylistic ground, too, but his upcoming The Dark & The Light — whose stirring, gospel-flavored opener “Orpheus” is premiering exclusively below — ties everything together in a muscular 10-song package.
“One thing I will say is that the album feels like a culmination of everything I do,” James, who was raised in a Chicago Pentecostal church and also studied opera and classical singing, tells Billboard. “In the past it was very much ‘This record is this style and this type of voice, and that record is the more bluesy voice, this record is the softer folk voice…’ This one is a culmination of everything and showing what I can do. I do not think I would’ve been able to make it without those things, but I’ve worked with an eclectic mix of genres and experiences, and this is all of it.”
The Dark & The Light certainly expands James’ sound — check out the soulful, horn-fueled “There It Is,” for instance — and he allows that it may also strike a more personal tone than its predecessors, particularly on the two-part “Love Will Find a Way,” which took 10 years to finish and is about his father. “Not that I wasn’t ever honest before, but I always noticed that the stuff that had a therapeutic element to it was what really touched people and became my most popular stuff,” James explains. “Seeing that impact, I wanted to do more along those lines, baring my soul a little bit.”
James plants that flag with “Orpheus,” named and inspired by the mythological Greek poet, prophet and musician. “I’ve been obsessed with mythology and folklore my entire life,” says James, whose stepfather is a Greek immigrant. “I’ve always wanted to put that (Orpheus) story to a song and retell it in my own way, but it didn’t feel right ’til now. I didn’t feel ready to do it ’til now. It just felt right in the sense of struggling against something and having this blind belief you’re going to do it no matter what.
“It’s a tragedy, of course, so it’s not necessarily a good ending. But it shows the dedication and the love aspect that you don’t see as prevalent anymore, that romantic idea that it used to be.”
The Dark & The Light is due out March 22 and also marks the first time James worked with an outside producer — in Venice, Calif. with Parts and Labor Records CEO Jimmy Messer (White Buffalo, Kygo, AWOLNATION), who was integral to fleshing out the sound. “This was a big step for me,” notes James, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Arkansas. “I’d kind of avoided it before, afraid of somebody changing everything or ‘adjusting’ it in some way. For years I did it DIY, but eventually I said, ‘Y’know, I want to take a bigger step.’ And (Messer) was able to take the music I made and basically make it more digestible and built it up in a way that it was a little more produced than my other stuff but didn’t lose the honesty and integrity and the passion and emotion. That was a big thing for me; I didn’t want it to feel cookie cutter.”
James’ tour to support The Dark & The Light gets underway on March 7 in Las Vegas, with 13 shows booked so far over three weeks, wrapping March 24 in Anaheim, Calif. — with more to come. “I’ll be touring ’til the end of the year, at least,” says James, who will also be heading to Europe during June. “Basically once we start I don’t want to stop. I like to work and hit the road hard. I’m excited for it.”