A trip home to Nigeria two years ago to mourn his father’s death gave Kalu James a new purpose and perspective from which Time Undone — his upcoming album with The Electric Joint, due Dec. 8 and premiering exclusively below — sprang.
James came to the U.S. to attend boarding school when he was 18 years old and has been living and playing music in Austin, TX, since 2007, just after his 25th birthday. He self-released four albums and began a monthly residency at the city’s famed Continental Club, but he found himself having to account for himself upon his return home.
“I have a lot of uncles and family members, and as the first son it’s definitely something huge back home to show what you’ve accomplished away from (Nigeria),” James tells Billboard. So everyone’s looking at you like, ‘What do you really have to show for yourself?’ and I understood that. I had four self-released records, which I as really proud of, but for over almost two months when I was back home I really wasn’t sure I was coming back here.”
James did return, and while he drove Uber and Lyft passengers in order to send more money back home he also teamed with guitarist and kindred spirit Jonahan “JT” Holt to begin working toward a new sound and creative vision. “There was a lot of shared reality going on with the band,” James says. “(Holt) got a divorce, and I just felt like I had to reinvent, really, how I could write songs and express myself, ’cause I was very different from the person I was a year before. I couldn’t write the way I used to because I wasn’t there anymore, and that was really hard for me.
“That’s where the collaboration between JT and I began. The beauty of that was just shared reality of both of us going through a loss. So when I came up with a melody or he came up with a melody and I came up with a lyric, I had a partner with me and we were crawling out of a hole. We refused to be defined by the things we were going through. We really felt underdogs. I do believe to this day that had a lot to do with the movement forward.”
The nine tracks on Time Undone display that defiance (“I’m a fighter…You can never count me out of the game,” James sings in “Fighter”) by blending both West African and American brands of funk with bluesy grit and psychedelic ambience, along with a chin-out attitude. Recorded in Driftwood, Texas, with co-producer Brett Orrison, the set also features a variety of guests, including Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, John Natchez of the War on Drugs, Bryan Richie of The Sword and others. “It’s Austin, so you have all these people around,” James says. “Brett Orrison is someone I met on the scene, when JT wasn’t playing with me. The very first thing he said was, ‘Listen, I work with Widespread Panic — those guys make people dance on a daily basis. That’s what their shows are. You guys have that, too,’ and he was able to find a way to harness that in the studio. He was super-excited about the music and he started showing our demos to the Panic crew. Dave Schools heard a song of ours called ‘Stay’ and he was 100 percent about that song, and after that people just kept coming into this thing and adding to it.”
As Time Undone rolls out, James and company are ready to take the Electric Joint around the country — and the world, if possible. Signed to a booking agency for the first time (Madison House), the group will be celebrating the album’s release with an in-store performance at Austin’s Waterloo Records and is also part of a New Year’s Eve festival on the city’s Auditorium Shores. The New Year, meanwhile, will bring a busier campaign.
“I’m just ready to work,” James says. “I think we’re all ready to go out and spread the message and the love of this record out there. I’m grateful to be able to do this thing and put my time into it and just jump in and in a van and go and play shows. There’s a lot of suffering in this world, and people need songs — which we got. And we’re ready to go out and play ’em.”