Jazz music isn’t something we’ve featured too often here on YouKnowIGotSoul. However, when a Grammy nominated jazz musician collaborates with some of our favorite r&b artists, we’re definitely going to pay attention! Now Boney James isn’t your typical jazz musician, and as you will hear him talk about in this interview, for him it’s all about “the groove”. In this interview, we talk about what made him branch out and do these r&b collaborations, what it was like working with Donell Jones, LeToya, Heather Headley, and Mario, if branching out helps him reach a new audience, moving into other genres, his biggest accomplishment, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your album “Contact” which that you recently released. What can listeners find on there?
Boney James: It kind of has a few themes running through it. I originally called it “Contact” because I had written a song and called it “Contact” and it sounded like an airplane propeller starting up to me, it was like the old style airplanes and just had an energy to it. Then I started doing all of these collaborations with all of the r&b artists that are on the record, Heather Headley and Mario and LeToya and Donell Jones. So it was kind of like reaching across boundaries and making contact that way. Also there are some lyrics that ended up on the album about regret and missed opportunities and people just wanting to connect so it all kind of got mixed up together and that ended up sort of as the whole theme; trying to make that connection.
YKIGS: You mentioned all of the r&b collaborations you have on the album. What made you kind of want to branch out and do those collaborations?
BJ: Each record is really just a reflection of the songs that I’m writing. That’s kind of why I call it an album too because it’s like a photo album and a snapshot of where you are creatively when you are making it. I had written these songs and usually when I’m writing I’m starting to think about the saxophone as a melody, but sometimes it just doesn’t work and it wouldn’t sound right. So I had to think well maybe this is a vocal thing, and I just started writing and really ended up with these four vocal tunes that I really loved and felt like they were good expressions of me and my style; they needed vocals. So that was kinda where I got into the process of trying to figure out who would be the right people to sing them, and I was able to hook up with all of these great artists and sort of take the record to a whole new level. It definitely gives it a little bit more a fresh sound to me.
YKIGS: We definitely support each of the four artists who you collaborated with on the album and I’d love to hear the individual stories of how you hooked up with them and what the process was like of creating each song.
YKIGS: Let’s start with the LeToya Luckett collaboration “When I Had the Chance”.
BJ: I had really always loved her. I hadn’t been that aware of her when she was in Destiny’s Child but when her solo record came out there was a track on there called “Torn”. I was driving down the street listening to it five or six years ago when it first came out and I heard this song on the radio here in L.A. and I was like “Wow, who is that?” I just really loved it and felt she was a great singer so I had kind of put her on my list of people that I wanted to work with one day. I had this song I thought she would just be the perfect person for and then it was the whole thing with each of them really; how do I get a hold of this person, who’s the manager and do they have a record company that’s going to give you a hard time about having them do it? It’s a big process to get people involved and do collaborations especially in this day and age where the musical pie is shrinking and everybody is getting territorial about it. So luckily it all worked out.
YKIGS: How was it working with LeToya on that song?
BJ: She was so cool honestly and I really am so fond of her now. Not only did she do a great job singing the session, but we both have done some promotional things like the Mo’Nique show together. She’s just sweet as pie, really down to earth and incredibly talented; there’s no auto tune on that vocal at all. I just really can’t say enough good things about her, she’s really professional and just got all of this bubbly energy and cute too! *Laughs*
YKIGS: What was it like working with Heather Headley on “I’m Waiting”.
BJ: Heather Headley is great and she definitely has more of that Broadway thing. The funny thing about that was I had been doing a gig down in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and it had been 90 degrees and then I flew straight from there to Chicago for her to cut the vocals and they were right in the midst of a huge snow storm and it was five below zero or something brutal! She was great too, she came in and she’s just a bit more of a formal kind of person but she’s a great singer too. Just to be working with a Tony Award winner and Grammy Award winner was just a great to do. I like the way that she sort of acted out the song. That song I think the lyrics are really, really cool and that’s another one of the songs I co-wrote with my wife and she wrote the lyrics sort of from this woman’s perspective. Heather sang it very different from the demo because the demo hadn’t been quite as angry and I thought that it was kinda cool because it is kind of an interesting character in the song and the saxophone made me play sort of more of an intense way and it just kind of took it a whole nother level.
YKIGS: The song you did with Mario, I have to admit I have some readers of the readers of my site are big Mario fans and that’s actually how I found out about your new project is they came to me and brought this collaboration to my attention. What was it like working with Mario?
BJ: Man he was great, I was really super impressed. I had always admired him from his first big hit single “Let Me Love You” and I thought it was great. I have kind of watched him from a distance but when he came in and started singing on the track, I was like “Oh man, I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was that good!” *Laughs* He was just so creative and he added all of those things and in fact I ended up giving him some publishing on the song because he added some melodic things that I hadn’t thought of and the just the way he arranged the vocals it was just so great. I was really in love with that track and for me that was a real departure musically from what I have done in the past. I did the whole beat myself and played all of the instruments on there except for the guitar and for me to do sort of a dance track like that was sort of a new thing for me. To get him on there and the way he sang it was just really fun. I went down to Miami, Florida where he was working on his thing to cut that and we were in this really cool studio and it was like a compound that had tennis courts, swimming pools and a bunch of recording studios all in this house. It was just a new experience and by the time we were done he was just dancing around the room; he’s got a real thing that guy, I was really impressed.
YKIGS: What was it like working with Donell Jones on “Close To You”.
BJ: That’s another guy I’ve just always been a really big fan of. He’s just one of those people that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time and I was really super glad that he agreed to do it. He works out of his house in Atlanta, he’s got a home studio in the basement and a really nice setup. He had it mostly done by the time I got there, he basically runs the whole thing himself. He’s got a separate control room set up in the vocal booth so that he can run the Pro Tools while he’s singing. He’s another guy that’s just really down to earth and we had a really cool time working together. That’s probably one of my favorite songs on the record and I just thought it was a really creative beat that I came up with and the way he sang, it really brought a lot of emotion to it. That’s what I would say about that one.
YKIGS: Do you think that collaborating with these r&b artists has helped you reach a new audience and maybe a new demographic?
BJ: Well I’m talking to you who is someone I wouldn’t be talking to otherwise. *Laughs*So that’s always a good thing. Definitely. I’m always trying to reach new fans and I think that I really love my music and I want more people to hear it at all times and that’s always been my sort of M.O. going all the way back to the beginning. Over the years I’ve had some other collaborations that were pretty successful, I’ve worked with Dave Hollister and we had a big hit together, I worked with Jaheim and Anthony Hamilton and all of these people that collaborated with me. So for me the big thing is just making the kind of music that I like to listen to and I’m sort of more of an r&b fan than a jazz fan myself in terms of what I like to listen to. So when I write, a lot of times that’s what comes out. Even my instrumental tracks have more of a groove than I think a lot of the jazz stuff does. So I’m just kinda trying to find my own kinda personal space.
YKIGS: I know you’re a Grammy nominated artists, but were these r&b singers that you collaborated with familiar with your work before you reached out to them?
BJ: They all seemed to have a nice level of respect for the stuff I’ve done in the past. So that’s always gratifying to know that people know who you are.
YKIGS: Your influences range between many genres of music. Do you ever see yourself branching out further and collaborating with artists outside of r&b?
BJ: I definitely have an open mind about. I worked with this Esthero on the “Shine” cd and that was someone that I guess people might call her alternative, although the track that we did was more of an r&b thing. That’s just kind of my personal style. Yea I’ve worked with a lot of jazz artists too like George Benson who played on my record too and that was a really nice thing. R&b is definitely the area that I feel more natural in and it’s not a stretch for me. That’s kind of where my head is at but I have an open mind. I can’t see myself writing like a rock song or a country song. So I’m not sure, maybe more of a pop thing maybe sometime. The thing I did with Mario is kind of a dance thing so it might be fun to work with one of those dance artists one day. Definitely for me it’s always gotta be about the groove. That’s just the kind of music I like, it’s gotta have a groove to it.
YKIGS: As you know I’m more familiar with r&b music and haven’t listened to too much jazz in my time. I wondered about when you have a jazz song that is an instrumental with no lyrics, how do you title the song?
BJ: It’s kinda just about imagining. The thing I love about instrumental music is that there is no lyrics to tell you what it’s about so you have to listen and hopefully it’s a good song that’s going to put you in some kind of headspace when you listen to it. That’s one of the things I think is one of the trademarks of the music that I’ve done that’s been successful is it’s vibey. Lots of time I’ll close my eyes and try to get into what the vibe of the song is and feel what the feeling is that comes from listening to it. Then I try to find some poetic or interesting or clever way to communicate that in a title. It’s kind of a process.
YKIGS: I was reading your list of accolades when I was preparing for this interview, but I wanted to hear from you what you thought your biggest accomplishment was to this point in your career.
BJ: Wow! *Laughs* I don’t know maybe I haven’t had it yet! When I started here I just wanted to be able to make a living as a musician and you kind of get more ambitious after that, so it keeps growing and it’s like a never ending thing. Definitely when I had my first Gold record that was pretty huge, I couldn’t believe that anybody buy it. When I made my first record I thought my mom was going to be the only one who bought it! To have the Grammy nomination and the Soul Train Award that I won and the NAACP nomination, all of that stuff is almost hard to fathom that stuff like that happens to you. When you’re a kid you want to be a musician and then when you grow up you have these dreams. For me a lot of my dreams have come true. It’s awfully nice. I supposed my goal at this point is to just keep doing it. Stevie Wonder came on stage with us last week to jam on my set which another huge honor. I look at Stevie and how long has he been doing it? For me just I’m just thinking if I can have a 40 year career, that’s the next goal.
YKIGS: Anything you’d like to add?
BJ: Nope! Great questions!