James Maddock is a British singer/songwriter/guitarist whose arrival on the American music scene was announced by the critically acclaimed CD Songs from Stamford Hill with the band Wood. Since then, he has released two more albums of memorable songs—Sunrise on Avenue C, and Wake Up and Dream—backed by stellar New York musicians and financed on a shoestring. Each record contains a wealth of lovely melodies, touching lyrics, irresistible hooks and tour de force performances but lack of money for serious promotion has left them something of a well-kept secret among his loyal fans, who follow him to every gig in the Tri-state area. Along with the music’s resonant images and danceable grooves, they connect with his high-energy performances, charmingly fan-friendly manner and quirky social media presence, which includes short slice-of-life videos he records and posts on Facebook from time to time. (Recent clips include a trip to the Louis Armstrong house in Queens with pal Garland Jeffreys and scenes from a vacation trip to Texas and Mexico, some of it shot on horseback.)
With the backing of Julian Records, Maddock is scheduled to release Another Life, his third solo record, in July. He recently sat down with ROLL for a breakfast interview on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he now lives.
How did you get started with music?
My granddad was a George Formby impersonator during the war so he used to play the ukulele. My dad used to play ukulele as well. Actually my dad was essentially a trombone player but he played everything —the piano, the banjo and there was always a ukulele lying around the house. So my granddad taught me to play that when I was about 5 or 6. I learned a few songs on the ukulele but then as the years went by, I gravitated toward the guitar. My dad probably showed me some guitar chords and I just lost interest in the ukulele, it’s kind of a limited instrument with only four strings. But there was always music coming from my dad. He has a jazz band and was definitely one of the biggest influences on me. He provided instruments, and there was always music around the house. I also played the trumpet for many years as a kid.
What kind of music did you like?
As a kid I was obsessed with the Eagles, and I loved Neil Sedaka. He was a brilliant songwriter. I had some guitar lessons and that hooked me up to Neil Young and Dylan.
Where did you start playing in public?
The heart of my school in Leicester was the music section, where there were drum sets, amplifiers and electric guitars. Kids kind of formed groups around the equipment. If you could play, you could get in a band with your mates and you’d just knock it around, you know? That’s what I did and I loved it. I loved being in a band with my friends — it’s the best thing ever.
So I was in the band playing the guitar, but at school nobody would sing because it’s, you know, embarrassing. Everybody went, ‘Nah I’m not singing, I’m not fucking doing it.’ So I played the guitar. But I’d seen my dad sing in the jazz band and finally I thought ok, I’ll sing. I mean, what is it? You just sing a song! So I became the singer and that was it.
We started to play small village hall things and at school, there was a concert every year where all the kids in school played in their bands. It was called the Sounds Concert, and that was really my first gig. I remember doing a duet, just me and a teacher named Adam Turner. We both played guitar and we sang “Saturday Night” by the Eagles and I think “Tequila Sunrise.” But the first song I ever sang in public was “Saturday Night.”
Did your band have a name?
We had loads of names — Ophelia, Standing Room Only was another one. When I was in high school, I played the bass. It was me and a drummer and a guitarist and it was the first time I ever played with a drummer and an electric guitar. We started this beat, then the guitar came in, and we created this sound… I never felt so excited in my life! Just to make that sound with those people in that room —that was it for me. I was about 14, and from that second, I never wanted to do anything else. I felt this amazing power in my chest and I couldn’t resist. It was totally all over. I knew it was what I was born to do. I remember thinking it was just the best thing ever.
When did you start writing songs?
I started writing songs at about the same time, pretty much straightaway. They were terrible. I was in a bunch of bands but it was always my songs and it was always me singing them. But we had interest and I moved to London. I had one band called Fire Next Time and we had a record deal on Stiff records, and there was a record deal on Polydor records, but nothing really ever came out. I was subsidizing my income playing in Irish clubs and pubs and in bands all around the Midlands for many years. But I never really wrote a good, decent song until I was in my early 30s. Wood’s Songs from Stamford Hill was my first collection of decent songs. I was a slow learner. It took me a long time to figure it out and then something dropped and it was better somehow. I don’t know what it is. When I wrote these three or four songs for the Wood album, I thought ‘ok, I’m not embarrassed about these.’ The other stuff — I can’t listen to it anymore. But it’s part of your learning curve.
So Wood was the first concrete success?
I have to think that that’s what got me the record deal and that’s what brought me to New York in 1998. I took it to every record label in the UK and nobody liked any of the songs! So it was a dead end for me. And only by a very weird, circuitous way they found their way over to New York to Mitchell Cohen at Columbia Records and he heard and liked them. Wood was not by any means a success, it was a complete failure. We didn’t have a hit, we sold hardly any records, and we got dropped. Yes, it was a critical success, and people who bought the record loved it. But we never had a hit single so it wasn’t a success in any sales sense. I have no idea how many records we sold, maybe 2,000? Columbia Records is designed to sell millions of records and if you don’t sell millions of records, you’re out.
What happened then?
The band broke up— you can’t stay together with no money. I went back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K. for a few years. I lived at 8th St. and Broadway, then moved to Austin, Texas for a year. I met this girl and we kind of moved in together.
The Arizona girl? (a song from Another Life)
No, but that is a true story. And that Santa Barbara stuff is totally true. I finally moved to New York City for good in 2003, the Lower East Side. I used to live on the Bowery and 4th St. Now I live on Allen St.
How did you make your solo records?
I had some old fans with some money and a label and they financed Sunrise on Avenue C. That album got me back on the map with WFUV and places like that. And I did the Pledge campaign for Wake Up and Dream and for Another Life, so the fans have basically financed all those records. They were super-generous and super-supportive. This is the new model. As independent artists, you can’t really exist without your fans’ help. Without a label, you can’t make a record unless you’re independently wealthy or you have people who are willing to give you their time and effort for nothing, studios included, and that’s very hard to come by. If you want to make a great record, you want to go to a great studio. And everybody has to make some money.
Even though money is tight, I see that you give money to the Innocence Project.
If you’re poor and you get accused of a crime, you could be in a very bad place in this country. It’s the same everywhere really, but I happen to be in America right now and I think it’s a very unjust system. People can be on death row — like Troy Davis and Willie Manning — there’s all these people out there that might be proved innocent if they get DNA tests. But the courts and the police and the judicial system will deny them DNA tests because it doesn’t want to be seen as making mistakes. And subsequently innocent people can be put in jail for years and years and years and also executed. It’s a disgusting state of affairs. I started to get involved during the Troy Davis campaign.
The thing about a lot of charities is that you don’t really see the results. You give your money to a charity and that’s great but you don’t see the results. But this project is about materially getting people DNA tests, that’s pretty much what they do, it’s a cut-and-dried thing: if your DNA proves that you were at the scene, then you’re in trouble. If it proves you were not, then your story needs to be looked into. So it’s a very concrete charity. It’s about proving whether people are guilty or innocent. Who can be against that? And yet people are. If you have a prison system in America that’s based on profit — just the other day that judge got sentenced for sending children to jail — the system is open to corruption. And in the UK as well, it’s going on all the time, basically everywhere. But I’m here now and I thought it was a great project to support.
Tell me about your connection to Willie Nile and the Light of Day Foundation.
Willie’s the greatest, I’m a super fan. He’s my best friend and I love him to death. He’s been doing this for a long time and has a great, loyal fan base who want to show their affection and love to him, as people should. He’s a beautiful dude and a beautiful artist. I’ve done the Light of Day show a few times, mainly overseas. It ends up with a gig at the Paramount in Asbury Park where Bruce Springsteen usually shows up. It raises a lot of money for Bob Benjamin and the Parkinson’s charity. It came about because Joe D’Urso, who runs it, saw me play once and he put my name in the hat. It’s run by Bob, Joe, Jean Mikle, and Tony Pallagrossi. And Willie also recommended me to Joe and got me on.
You’re also pretty tight with Garland Jeffreys. Where did you hook up with him?
I met Garland on the Light of Day Tour. He was on the last one I did and we became very good friends. He’s a kindred spirit. I really love Garland and Willie, they’re just two incredible musicians. Garland’s record King of In Between was just killer, and he’s making his new one now. We were in the studio just the other day with Steve Jordan and Larry Campbell. Everybody who knows Garland knows what a sweetheart he is. We‘ve got a lot in common, musical things, and I love listening to him talk. He’s had so many experiences in this city — going to see music in the ‘60s, Thelonius Monk and the great jazz cats, and he told me he saw Bob Marley with Bruce Springsteen supporting him, nine nights in a row at Max’s Kansas City in 1972, or something crazy like that. He’s just seen it all and done it all.
You got to open Levon Helm’s Ramble once. What was that like?
I’ve watched The Last Waltz 100 times and to me, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. So when I heard about the Ramble, I wanted to be there. I had some friends in the Levon band like Clark Gayton and Erik Lawrence, and I think they put in a good word for me. After a lot of hassling I finally got a phone call and his manager said, ‘Hey you want to do the Ramble?’ And it was the thrill of a lifetime, I can’t tell you. At the end of the night when we all got up to do ‘The Weight,’ I’ll never forget Levon looking over and going, ‘You know the first verse of The Weight?’ I’ve been singing that song since I was 16! I know every verse. And there he is, just my dream come true. It’s unbelievable.
I’m friends with Rob Stoner and Rob also came to the Ramble with his wife Marjorie. Rob knows Levon from way back. One of my favorite memories of Levon is from after the gig, when Rob and Marjorie and I went back into the kitchen. I had a moment with Levon but basically I was just there as Levon and Rob were catching up. They hadn’t seen each other in maybe 20 years and just to listen to those two talking about music for the first time in years, it was just brilliant for me. I was just listening, just liked to be in his presence. He was very nice to me and I’ve got a poster upstairs in my bedroom. Luckily he’s been immortalized: we all know The Last Waltz and we have all the records.
You are often compared to another Last Waltz musician and former Woodstock resident, Van Morrison.
Astral Weeks is my number one album of all time. And I think Van Morrison is the greatest. There was a Van Morrison period when the music was kind of rambling and loose, and that’s the model for what I’m trying to do in a lot of ways. I think he’s one of the greatest singers of all time, and those were his finest albums. Unbelievable. And Richard Manuel too — beautiful cat, beautiful singer. They’re the kind of people where you’re always aiming for those performances. That’s as good as it gets, that’s my holy grail. I’ve never seen those guys, but in my mind I’m trying to imagine what it was like and trying to get there. But it’s a different time, different musicians. It’s hard to get musicians who are in that place —all at the same place at the same time with the same kind of ideas. Back in the day, people had record deals and there was money and you could have consistency. And it’s particularly hard in New York because everyone’s playing with so many different people. It’s really hard to have a band that’s always available.
Who are the guys in your band these days?
My main band is Oli Rockberger on the piano — he’s incredible — Drew Mortali on the bass, and Aaron Comess on drums. I met Aaron when I did a record deal in NY a long time ago and he was the drummer. When I first moved here, he said if you would ever like to get a band together, I would like to help you do that. He was really the catalyst for me because he’s so good that when you have Aaron in your band, people want to play with you. He’s a heavy dude. And Oli would come and see me play. At the time, Leslie Mendelson was playing piano with me. Then Leslie left and Oli stepped in. Leslie’s a wonderful piano player but Oli’s extraordinary. His thing is a little bit on the jazzy side so I try to rein him in. Van Morrison’s band were jazzers too but they know how to walk the other line. Like on Astral Weeks, that bass player dude, he was a jazz cat…you know, heavy but a great feel. And Oli’s got that. The electric guitar has kind of shifted. It was John Shannon but he left for Australia and is playing the guitar in the circus. Really. So I’m still figuring out who’s going to play that role. Teddy Kumpel has played with me and another guy named Ryan Scott.
That’s the problem in the city, people are busy and you need two or three different people in every seat. Oli just went to Japan with Steve Gadd, he’s very much in demand. And then Aaron goes away sometimes with the Spin Doctors. If you’ve got enough money behind you, you can have a unit that’s really going to develop. Fortunately for me, since I’ve been in NY I’ve been able to get a solid core of people who kind of help me with my vision and understand my influences. Actually I don’t think Oli really knows that music very well, that sort of ‘70s music of Van Morrison, but he’s such an instinctual musician. He would have been in those bands back in the day. I’m lucky, but that’s New York! You come here because there’s great musicians here.
You get musicians on your records in some unusual ways. I hear there’s a story behind the title track of Sunrise on Avenue C.
This is a great story: So I’m at somebody’s apartment on Avenue A, it’s 6 in the morning and we’ve been up all night, doing drugs or whatever. It’s this tiny apartment and there’s about 10 people, all sleeping. There’s like 4 of us on the bed, others on the floor, and we were all gone. I’m half-asleep and I sort of hear this sound. I’m semi-conscious and it sounds otherworldly. It’s like a horn but way off…like it was in the street. And it was playing ‘Abide With Me,’ so perfectly and quietly. And I thought, ‘That’s the most beautiful sound.’ And I couldn’t conceive of it coming from anywhere, I thought it must be somebody out in the street playing, it didn’t make sense to me. And as he played I realized, ‘It’s in this fucking room.’ And I looked and there’s Clark Gayton! Well I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t. I’d never heard Clark play, I didn’t know much about him. And that moment was kind of like the idea of the song “Sunrise on Avenue C.” It morphed a little bit and it kind of changed, the way songs will. But the idea for that song, lyrically anyway, totally began with that moment with Clark. He totally inspired the song — that moment, that dreamy otherworldliness.
When I was making the record, I dreamed of having Clark play on the outro solo, but I didn’t know whether he’d do it and I didn’t have any money. But we had become friends and one day I was with him at the 11 St Bar and I asked, ‘Is there any chance you’d play a solo at the end of a song for me?’ And he went, yeah. And I said, ‘well how much do you want?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, maybe $100.’ And I had $100 cash on me so I pulled it out and gave it to him and said here’s the money, right now. So he couldn’t say no, he had to do it. (He laughs) He did it at his house. I sent him the link. This is the beautiful thing about today, when you’ve got someone like Clark and you’ve not got much money, you can’t say come to the studio and spend all afternoon playing trombone for $200, it’s an insult. But here’s the file, do it whenever you want at home and just send it to me. I don’t feel quite so bad about that. So he did it at his house and that was the solo! And I’ve since seen Clark play many times and he’s like my hero in the city. I think he’s as good as it gets. Every time I see him, he blows my mind. I’ve not seen him on trombone for a long time, he’s on the tuba most of the time. I love him on the trombone, he can take you places man.
Do you know that he used to play in the subway when he first came to New York?
I bet he sounds great in the subway! He’s one of those guys you’re lucky to hear, you know you’re in the presence of something extraordinary. That’s Clark. And Brian Mitchell too — that’s as great as you can get. I’ve been lucky just knocking around in NY, getting to do that Delaney and Bonnie tribute recently, getting the chance to play with those guys — Rich Pagano and Brian. I love that music, and that’s a great kind of vibe. That’s such a successful event because the music is so uplifting… and groovy and loose and fun. That’s why it worked for so long, because everybody was having a good time. Good time music and noodling around, nothing morose.
Do you have a process for writing songs?
It comes from the germ of an idea and a feeling that you get when you’re writing it, then it will take you on a journey of its own. There’s not one way. Almost always, the music comes first for me. Then you hear a little phrase that expresses something. It’s like finding a little piece of gold in the dirt and you kind of expand on it, water it and make it grow. Sometimes it comes real quick, sometimes it can be years and years and years.
Your lyrics are always so perfect, like they couldn’t possibly be improved.
I think it’s because I’m very self-conscious about things like that. I don’t sing anything that makes me feel stupid. I’m coming from a very high level of sensitivity to what I’m trying to say, and I want to say it the right way. If it doesn’t make me feel right, I’ll try to rewrite it. Some things are tough to crack and I always think it could be better. I’m still looking for some things. I can be looking for a line for 20 years and can’t find it. I dread that. I’ve got a couple of songs like that now. If I could just find the phrase…
There’s a story about how Paul Simon found the phrase ‘bridge over troubled water.’ It’s an ad lib from an old gospel song. Al Kooper told me this story, that when he found the phrase, he knew he had the song. He knew he had something extraordinary. But you need that phrase. If you can find the phrase that you can hang it all on, that’s magic.
Songwriting is especially hard that way because it has to sing. The syllables have to sound right against the melody. You can’t just say what you want to say if it doesn’t sing right. The vowel sounds on the notes have to sound right. It’s a tricky business, and if you’re sensitive to it, it gets harder.
It always seems to me that your vocal delivery is as critical as the lyrics.
I first heard myself singing “Hotel California” at the school concert. I never heard myself before, we hardly ever recorded anything before. I could not believe that was ME singing because I don’t hear myself. You know how you hear your head voice? When I heard myself sing, I actually thought ‘who’s singing that?’ Not because it was great, but just the sound of that voice, I thought ‘that’s not me.’ And it was. I think the singing voice is essentially a genetic predisposition. Van Morrison, you know, that’s just how he sounds. There are four singers who I kind of feel I’d like to sound like or who I emulate: Ray Charles, of course, he’s the greatest. Van Morrison, who is just such a natural singer, you feel like he’s not thinking. Then there’s Paul Brady, the Irish singer, and then Steve Forbert, he’s brilliant. I just love the way Steve sings, with that intimacy and that frailty and that fragility. He really pulls you into the sound of the lyric. So they’re my four main people. Paul Brady has a thing that I really love, it’s an Irish way of pronouncing the end of some syllables, the kind of lilt at the end. So those are my people and I think about them when I’m singing. I don’t know if you can hear that in my singing. And then there’s me in there somewhere.
Have you ever had a voice lesson?
Not at all. In fact, I’m not really a great singer. I can easily fuck my voice up technically. I worry about my voice and if I don’t have good monitoring, that’s another world of pain. My voice is weird, it kind of feels strong and it is strong but I can lose it. I can strain my voice out in two songs and then I’ve got no voice for the rest of the gig. So I’ve got to be very careful how I approach it. That’s the technical side of it, which is the thing I admire Bruce Springsteen for. He seems to have mastered his voice — that cat can just sing all day every day and never get tired. I don’t think people realize that is beyond comprehension to most singers. I mean, forget the rest of it, which we all know is fucking amazing.
He does have legions of adoring fans.
Bruce inspires that in people. He’s a genuine dude and we all love him. I love him as well. There’s a lot about Bruce that is extraordinary, not least the ability to keep going. He’s still singing his ass off, night after night. In fact when I met him, the first thing I asked him is ‘how do you do that?’ That’s been on my mind ever since I was a kid. He said that he has learned how not to hurt his voice. Simple answer, but it’s the truth. Of course he has been a star since he was in his 20s, therefore he’s had decent monitoring and really importantly, he can get away from the fucking drum kit. When I play, the drums are right there. I have to sing over the volume of the drums. With Bruce, the drums are over there someplace so you can’t hear it. You don’t have to throw your voice, you’re not fighting things. When I sing, I have to push my voice so much farther and then if I don’t have good monitoring….These are the things you think about when you’re a singer. When you’re up there and your voice is sounding good and you know people who have come to see you are digging it and you know it’s working and you’re delivering something that they’re never gonna forget, you get carried away with it. I can’t help myself. You don’t think ‘I’m going to hold back because I’ve got four more gigs to do.’ That’s the discipline, that’s what impressed me about Bruce. It’s hard up there sometimes.
So what’s next for you?
I still play at Rockwood Music Hall every month, and I recently did a show at the Cutting Room, where there’s a bigger stage and a big piano, which is essential for Oli. I hope to play there some more. We play at 89 North in Patchogue on Long Island every three or four months. It’s always a great turnout, we do well there. Nice place, nice people. With the new record coming out this summer, I’m going to be promoting that as much as I can, whenever I can. The challenge for me is to expand out of the upper east coast to the rest of the country. You need an agent to do that and I don’t have an agent. They’re only interested in you unless you’re bringing in literally $10,000 a night on your own without an agent. And how do you do that? It’s fucking impossible, very difficult to get to the point where you don’t need an agent. And then they’ll come and say I want to be your agent. You know, if I can get on tour with Tom Petty or someone like that and get access to all his fans, then yeah. But it’s just very hard to break out of this tiny little world I occupy. I can just about make a living now, just about…I’m not rich, far from it, I’m broke. But if I can just keep reaching more and more people, that’s the challenge that J.W. (Maddock’s manager) and I face. When I wrote ‘Beautiful Now,’ I went to this music convention and a guy said to me, “Beautiful Now”, that could be a single. AAA.’ If you want to break through, you have to have a hit on Top 40 radio. This guy said that song could be a hit on Top 40 radio but you need to spend $40 grand on radio promotion. Well, I don’t have $40 grand; I’m fucking broke. So unless you’ve got $40 grand, you’re not going to have a hit, no matter how good it is. You’ve got to have the juice behind it.
Tell me about Julian Records, the label that’s going to release Another Life.
It’s a very small label run by Josh Zieman, who used to work at Columbia and who I’ve known for years. For the first time, I will have some money to spend on promotion. That’s where all the money is going to go — a PR company, more radio promotion, on-line marketing etc and to just allow us to really get in the game. Everything is about promotion at the moment. It will really help me, that’s the theory. It could make me a lot more visible.
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Featured image of James Maddock by Catherine Sebastian