For those who follow, you may have seen in my instagram post from February 5th that I recently committed to a self-imposed goal to grow in my songwriting ability, and that I should spend the next year of my life focused on doing just that.
For 52 weeks, from February 6, 2018 to February 6, 2019, I am attempting to write 52 songs,
one song for each week of the year.
I know writers who can pull this off. Of those writers, songs are their livelihood. I hope to make it mine as well one day. Regarding the challenge, there aren’t really any heavy rules beyond writing a song every week, but in order to bring a level of accountability I intend to keep this blog and updates via instagram and Facebook.
So, I set a goal for myself this next year. I am attempting to write one song a week for the next year. It’s my birthday, and here’s what I want: leave me a word or group of words to use as a prompt for the new song. I’ll play the song here next week. Thanks for your support. . . . . #iamjamesjean #jamesjean #austintx #indianindian #singersongwriter #singer-songwriter #songsaroundthesun
I learned early in my life that I love to create.
I was 6 years old when my parents bought a JC Penney Model 683-1770 4-mode Stereo System. The unit was originally priced at $230, which in 2018 dollars would be close to $1000. The JC Penney’s Christmas catalog had the unit on sale for $130 until December 24, 1977, which made it affordable enough.
Believe it or not... this is how I fell in love with recording.
The Model 683-1770 had a turntable to play vinyl, an 8-track player, AM/FM stereo receiver and this crazy new technology called cassette tape. This unit was not a HI-FI by any means, but the fact that someone made a relatively inexpensive machine that offered four different format options for listening to music was really cool. But while everyone else was smitten with the ability to play music, I was captivated by the ability to record.
I’m telling the truth when I tell people that I have been in media production my entire life.
In 1978, I started recording my own variety show on cassette tapes. The James Jean show was comprised of stand-up comedy and social commentaries, but sometimes I did a radio show format featuring reviews of my favorite songwriters and tunes.
My early stand-up was influenced by what I watched on television and listened to on vinyl in those days:
Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, The Carol Burnett Show, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
I also listened to a lot of radio.
So then, perhaps it might not surprise you that I once hosted a weekly radio show.
“Jimi’s Jam” was broadcast on 105.9 FM from a small, low-power station in Round Rock, Texas. The show featured live studio interviews with songwriters and recording artists from the Austin area. We talked about the projects they were working on, the songs and the stories behind them.
I was mentored by two great men while doing the radio show, Ed Sossen and Jeff Gish. Ed was part owner of the station, a veteran broadcaster, television and radio host and well known in the Austin community. Ed was primarily responsible for inviting me to do the show. And why wouldn’t I take the gig? There was amazing support. My show was co-produced by Jeff “Yetti” Gish, former producer of the “Dudley and Bob Show” on KLBJ FM in Austin, Texas.
Jeff is the one who pushed me to get out there. I will always be grateful to Jeff for his encouraging way.
Fred Mandujano (Hayes Carll, Aaron Lewis, BoDeans) and I became instant friends in 2010. At the time I was working on a project with Steven Collins at his Troubadour Studio in Lockhart. My buddy Joe Miles recommended that we get Fred to drum on one of my projects. Our mutual love and appreciation for particular sounds, bands and songwriters is a tight bond that we share to this day.
Doing the radio show together, Fred and I had the opportunity to interview our songwriter and musician friends. Some notable interviews we had include the likes of Jake Riley, songwriter and frontman for the Austin-based Spazmatics, Matt Ostrander aka “Feathers” , songwriter and guitarist for Blue October, and Chris Beall and Lonnie Trevino of the South Austin Moonlighters.
I am honored to call these guys friends. I have enjoyed watching their successes as they continue to work hard at their craft and follow their dreams.
I first moved to Austin in early 1990. I was 19 years old, vacillating between college and jobs for a few years. Several times I took to the road in search of God-knows-what; stopping for a year in Las Vegas, and then another two years in Denver, before finally settling back down in apartment G on Woodrow Avenue. My apartment was a block over from the Dart Bowl and just down the street from what is now Thunderbird.
The songs were in my head and I needed a way to get them out.
Tom at MusicMakers on South Lamar helped me pick my first acoustic guitar in May 1993, a black Washburn dreadnought that cost me $300. Writing music became the way I would learn to express myself. If I was awake that guitar was in my hands.
I have written a lot of songs.
Over the past 25 years I have written songs for a whole host of people, occasions and causes. I’ve written songs for birthdays, weddings and funerals, for Grandmother Alice and for Jesus, for film, performance and for my records.
There have been prolific seasons and serious droughts. More recently, things had become rather quiet.
I hadn’t stopped writing altogether, but I was feeling frustrated with my lack of growth.
The Song Game
About a year ago, my friend Debbie Stanley invited me to a house concert in her home three doors down the street. I showed up too late to hear Jack Burton, but I did meet a new friend.
I sat down with Deb and Kate for a conversation that would change my life.
It was a year ago to the month that Kate Howard invited me to be a part of her songwriting group, which she aptly called, “The Song Game”. Kate called it a game, which I thought was absolutely precious. It may not have been an actual game, but there were rules.
The Rules of The Game
Kate curated the song game each week. Prompts were provided on Tuesdays. She comes by the name “word woman” honestly. The prompts were challenging.
Each songwriter in the group would then have one week to write a song that would include the given prompt.
All songs were due by Monday night.
For a writer to miss a deadline three times meant that writer was out of the group.
At first it was the challenge that sounded like so much fun to me. But week after week it became much more than that. Songs began flowing out again.
I was writing again. A lot.
I remember my very first prompt.
It was “brew”.
I wrote the song “Flowers”, which ironically would be adapted and grow to be a song that I would perform live at The Townsend with Kate and friends in the audience.
The very best part of being part of the The Song Game with Kate Howard is how those interactions paved the way for me to become part of some very special and significant communities here in Austin, those being my friends in the beautifully loving and accepting singer-songwriter community, and my fellow Black Fret members.
Being included as a part of these communities, respectively, has changed my life for the good and guided me along a personal course correction that brings me to tears when I consider its impact.
These folks have no idea what they have done and meant to my life.
A huge heart-felt thanks go out to Debbie Stanley, Kate Howard, Gary Newcomb, Kacy Crowley, Brandon DeMaris, Ray Prim, Jocelyn Donegan, Anna Roenigk of Born Again Virgins, David Hamburger, Jaimee Harris, Jeff Plankenhorn, Ben Jones from Beat Root Revival and countless others for the encouragement, mentorship and feedback you’ve given. You’ve been fine examples to follow, and I am inspired by the likes of you people. God love you.
Songwriting is not something I do, but a way of life.
I cannot imagine another way of life. This is my way.
Each of us wants to be known. This is how I want to be known.
If nothing else, let these words serve to convince others of my desperate love for songwriting, the art of making music, the spectacle of a human being learning to fully express the contents of his soul.
Songs Around the Sun has already yielded some great songs. To hear those and more, please bookmark my blog, follow me on instagram and on Facebook, or find my tunes on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music and just about anywhere music is streamed.
You can also find some music here. Listen to my new single “Hole In My Pocket“.
Thank you for listening, and thank you for your support.
– James Jean