James Roy: A Journey To Begin
by Howard Semones
The first thing you notice about James Roy Greengrass is his piercing blue eyes. They are open; accepting. They take everything in. They are cameras pointed at life and the people around them -- analyzing without judgement; observing without pretension. You could use the same terms to describe this man who in the music world is simply known as James Roy: engineer, corporate pawn and the maker of positive, optimistic trance music. Sitting in a coffee shop in the new wing of The Denver Art Museum, which is the inspiration to his song "Steel", you can begin to see the passion this up and coming electronic artist has.
An artist of the new millennium, James didn't begin his musical journey until 2002 while trying to escape the drab corporate world in order to express himself artistically. A year later, a snow storm would give him the opportunity to sit down and start writing. His first song was his attempt to understand his life as it then stood. It was the breakthrough he needed to push himself further into his dream.
But where did this dream begin? James blames his sister. "She started taking classes for keyboard and I followed her with that. She started doing dancing and I followed her with that," he recalls. In fact, she is also the reason for his love of electronic music and the reason he still loves Madonna and, most importantly, Pet Shop Boys, who brought his first album full-circle with one-degree of separation. Turns out the person suggested to master his first album, begin, Ron McMaster, was the guy who mastered Pet Shop Boys' first two records. In fact, McMaster told James he would use all the same techniques he used with Please and Actually for begin. Needless to say, it was a dream come dream for James.
Much like finally putting out his first record. James is a testament to the new do-it-yourself approach with music releases. Like Ani DiFranco, Nelly McKay and Aimee Mann, James by-passed the typical big music label contract and just started his own. This, of course, gives him complete artist control of his own music. Not only does this diminish any artist hissy-fits, but it also causes others to take him seriously as a business person as well as an artist. "I think image is an important thing as long as it is a real image," James admits. "You can be a musician. You can be an artist, but there is still reality." And that reality is what gets records sold. That reality -- in order to make it real -- involves the pounding of the pavement. He basically worked his butt off and now he has his album in Virgin, on iTunes and online on amazon.com. Even with that, there is no guarantee that anyone will hear the music much less buy it. "The hardest part of what I do is promotion."
Before an artist can even think about promotion though, they have to have something to tout. Where to begin though? With James, it starts with things he feels and people he sees. "A lot of these songs," he says referring to the human element of the lyrics, "instead of just sitting in a feeling and sitting in an experience, they take that experience and they take action." Or in other words, James says the songs on begin are 'a call to action'. This is very true as you listen to the album. It's empowerment set to a driving beat. Begin is also the key word for his process to bring the album to light. "Every time I wrote a new song, I was was trying something completely new. It was a different point in my life. It was a new experience."
And yet not all of his inspiration has come from watching his fellow human beings, but from observing what they create. After seeing the plans and then the subsequent building of the new wing of the Denver Art Museum, he sat down to capture the emotions and structure created within himself. "'Steel' is about being inspired and how important it is to find that source of inspiration," James explains. A song inspired by inspiration? Well, yes, but the important thing to remember is the songs on begin are a celebratory introduction to many things are outside the realm of the everyday and mundane. Things that are good for the soul and that avoid the pitfalls of human failure.
"'Trick' seems like something so superficial, but the real meaning behind the song is taking responsibility for your actions," says James. Hearing and seeing others' problems and their claim of being victimized, James wrote a song offering his take on their situation which basically says that the victim is playing the game as well, or, as James puts it, "It's happening because you want it to happen." He goes on to explain how "Not For You" -- which he calls an 'unsong' due to its length and direct lead-in to the next song -- continues that theme, "Open your eyes, see your own personal potential and don't fit any molds." In other words, be yourself but manage others' expectations.
Most artists will tell you they do their thing for two reasons -- self-enjoyment and the possibility of touching another. James recently received a letter from someone in Minnesota who had listened to "I Believe". The song itself takes a positive look at a recent break-up by looking to the future instead of dwelling in the past; however, the letter's author took the meaning to another level. His partner had just passed away due to a heart attack and was currently dealing with the unexpected loneliness. "He had a very touching story about how that was exactly where he was," James recalls, "and he actually found that song to give him hope." Which had to feel good.
Now that begin is out what are James' hopes? Obviously, he would like his first album and new record label to do well which requires more hard work. Being a small company and artist requires some innovation to get the word out so James went through the process of stripping the songs into their individual sounds and is now starting to do performance DJ'ing, which means he can sing along to his own tracks yet have the flexibility to make the songs sound different and new without him having to regurgitate his work like a Karaoke machine. Other than that, he is providing remixing services, songwriting and producing for other artists and ringtones which he remixed himself.
And while he could technically do everything on his own, a support base is always helpful. His partner, Jonathan, (sorry, boys) has done everything from sending out press kits to performing on-stage and his mother and sister flew out last Pride to run his booth for him; however, the hardest person to win over was his father. "He was supportive, but in a very cautious way," James says of his father, who now that James has proved he is being serious about his business venture, has given his full support. Now his dad calls all the time wondering why James isn't on Oprah or why his music isn't on the radio. Turns out James has at least one new fan clamoring to hear something fresh on the airwaves. Now to convince the world.