Interviews

Live at the Library

Decorated singer-songwriter James Hurley returns to Prunedale with books as a backdrop.

By Adam Joseph

Thursday, March 22, 2012

James Hurley rarely divulges that he dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a professional cowboy. 


“I was going to be the next world champion bull rider,” he says. 


On Wednesday, the singer-songwriter – who spent most of his high school years living in Prunedale – will perform at the Prunedale Library, where he caught the bull-riding itch. Hurley has fond memories of the rural turf, which was originally owned by a friend, and played home to a barn that housed goats, sheep and livestock.


“We were known to ride anything that had hair on it,” he says. “If it was big enough to crawl aboard, we’d see if it would buck.”


Eventually, Hurley traded days of straddling four-legged beasts for nights of bridging chords. Over the past 30 years, he has toured the U.S. and the U.K., watched his song “Tempest in a Teacup” reach No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary charts at Indie-Music.com and been named one of the top Live Acoustic Male Singer-Songwriters in L.A. by Folkworks Magazine.


But his career didn’t explode immediately, as his song “Mushroom” revisits. It evokes a time when Hurley was crashing in his bandmate’s ex-girlfriend’s garage, rooming with a poopy litter box, leaky toilet and a mountain of dirty laundry. Hurley’s fast-paced singing and guitar plucks are juxtaposed with eerie cries of a musical saw.


“I’m a mushroom… Sitting in a dark place waiting for the moon to rise,” he sings. “I’m a cockroach… Living in a crack in a wall of the hall of the house that you paid too much for.”


Hurley uses humor as one of the forces that drives his music – like a folk version of Frank Zappa. “Without [humor], it’s a pretty desolate and dismal existence,” he says. “It’s a facet of the life we live and that’s what music does for me.”


Hurley is working on three albums, including two of all new material and Voice and Guitar, a collection of songs from previous albums featuring the solo acoustic arrangements heard in his live performances. 


“It sounds very simple,” he says, “but simple does not equate to easy.”


The idea was conceived after Hurley played several shows where audience members went to buy an album and asked him, “Is this what I just heard?” Because the richly produced arrangements on his studio albums – featuring additional backing from accompanying instruments – sound much different than when it’s just Hurley and his guitar, he would have to say no.


“During this tour, I’ll be able to say, ‘Yes, it’s just like it is on that record right there,’” he says.


Hurley still takes risks – like making three albums at a time – but there’s little chance he’ll be hopping on a bull in the near future.


“I’m 55 now,” he says. “It’s not likely I’ll be getting on livestock soon.”


That means more time for touring and recording – music to listeners’ ears. 




James Hurley is more inclined to use the word “friends” than “fans” in characterizing enthusiasts of his music. Of all the positive developments emanating from the new indie model for a musical career, he says “artists relating to the audience on a personal level” is the most exciting. That’s saying something, given how easily excitement comes to him. By Barney Quick He’s demographically a baby boomer, and began his journey in the old-school music world. A major indication of that is his marking of February 9, 1964 - The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show - as a pivotal moment for him. Still, though he was, like everyone at the time, struck by their star power, he based his own career on that one-on-one connection that music can create. “There are actually two separate music industries,” he observes. “One is about providing musical services. The purest example of that is playing in a cover band, which I did for years. The other industry is peopled by artists seeking a connection.” While many artists are skittish about this time of shakeout, where business models for record distribution and live performances are rapidly changing, Hurley is stoked about the possibilities. “Under the old model, we got a little skewed in our perspective regarding how to build and maintain a career,” he explains. “When it became apparent that vast sums of money could be made, the big music companies brought out their big guns,” making it clear to the artists how dependent they were on those companies. “Now, it’s nearly back to the earliest days of the whole field, before anybody had done marketing research to find out what demographics liked what kind of music.” The current phase of his career dates to 2005, which he spent touring up and down the west coast “basically playing for anyone who would have me.” He says that, prior to that year, “guitar was my main job and writing was what I did with my life. In 2005 I combined them.” He began amassing contacts and nurturing friendships. Meticulous Internet research of the possibilities in Britain led to his first UK tour in 2006. “I called it my ‘Two Tennis Shoes and a Rail Pass Tour,’” he says. In 2007, he began doing house concerts. Using resources such as ConcertsInYourHome.com and his own mailing list, he plotted tours of various areas in which people would host his shows in their homes on an invitation basis. He likes the setting for its conduciveness to inviting listeners to hear him try new things. He has released three CDs of his own compositions, the latest being Tempest in a Teacup. While he has a recognizable approach to his guitar playing and his vocals, his song structures vary widely. “I know a lot of artists feel that eclecticism is the kiss of death,” he says. “I just have to serve these songs, wherever that takes me.” At this point, his live performances are evenly distributed between three categories: house concerts, coffeehouses, and songwriters’ showcases. Accolades are coming in now. Folkworks magazine named him one of the Top Ten Live Acoustic Male Singer-Songwriters in Los Angeles for 2008. He tours in a well-worn compact car and lives with minimal roots to a home base. “My girlfriend is very understanding,” he says. The roots from which he derives his greatest satisfaction are the friendships he forms as he tends to his calling. “I got a call the other day from a guy in England I’d met twice. He was asking me about an enigmatic message I’d left on Facebook the night before, saying, ‘What’s up with that remark, Hurley?’ That guy is a friend and will remain so.” He plans to tour the UK for a third time in September 2009. Other plans include getting back into electric guitar, as well as finding more ways to incorporate African rhythms into his work. Hurley says the key to his considerable workload is keeping his passion high, “since this is what I’d be doing no matter what.”
Posted April 09, 2009 Bull Bearing James Hurley found his career with the help of a Salinas rodeo accident. After sifting through ample biographical data and conducting an in-depth interview, I’ve determined that there were two instances in James Hurley’s life that led him towards his career as a popular Los Angeles based singer/songwriter. (Hurley was named one of Folkworks Magazine’s Top 10 Live Acoustic Male Singer/Songwriters in L.A. for 2008.) The first incident occurred back in Hurley’s teenage years, when he dropped out of Salinas High School and tried to make it as a professional bull rider. At a competition in Don Pedro Lake, California, Hurley went down and the bull stomped on him, breaking his left hip. “I wrote my very first song a week after I got back from the hospital,” he says, “and I’ve been writing ever since.” That’s how Hurley embarked on a path towards being a musician, but it was a few decades before he decided to take the singer/songwriter route. After being in bands including the instrumental acoustic group Zeetrio and Los Angeles’ Riff Raff, which Hurley says did “aggressive rocking music with serious sexual undertones,” he threw in the towel on that life with the 2002 split of the James Hurley Trio. The guy bounced back by grabbing an acoustic guitar and doing two solo songs at a Lake Havasu City, Arizona coffee shop’s open mic night. It was a revelation. “This is easy,” Hurley says. “I didn’t have to wait for the drummer to show up. That was the beginning of the singer/songwriter thing.” Out on his own, Hurley has three CDs of original material that include songs like the bluesy acoustic number “One Man Woman” and “Jealous of the Moon,” a spare acoustic track in the tradition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Thanks be to bull-broken hips and hip open mics.

Interview with James Hurley

(MP) What age did you get into music? (JH) I started playing at around eight years old. Started with (of all things) accordion. Some guy was going door-to-door trying to sell accordion lessons. My mother decided that since my older brother was already getting guitar lessons and my younger brother was too small to pick one up, I was the logical candidate…that only lasted until I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan….THEN I wanted to be Ringo!....drums were of course out of the question, so they paid my brother a dollar-an-hour to teach me guitar instead.

(MP) Do you play any of your own instruments? (JH) Yes, I play guitar during my live shows and just about anything with frets on it when recording. I especially enjoy recording bass. It’s such a key factor in composition….you can change the entire direction of a song with the selection of a single note.

(MP) Do you write any of your own songs? (JH) Yes, everything I perform. If so, where do you get most of your inspiration? Boy, that’s a tough one to answer in a brief forum like this! I’d have to say Life itself is the inspiration. The things I experience personally, and my take on the things we experience collectively as a society and as a species. All of it shows up in what I write. And so it covers a wide range of that experience both lyrically, and stylistically.

(MP) How would you describe the type of music you produce? (JH) My music was recently described as "Americana, on the rocks…with a twist". That’s about as close as anyone’s ever come in describing it in a single phrase. Who are some of your influences? Early influences came from across the board…Louis Armstrong was so incredibly musical, The Beatles’ of course, the songwriting was impeccable, Jimmy Page was a big deal to me…not just for his playing, his arranging on those Zeppelin records was amazing. Other influences included Hank Williams Sr. and Merle Haggard…the storytelling in their lyrics always captured my imagination. I’m sure you get the idea.

(MP) Name some of your most memorable performances, (JH) Last year I played a show in a 1300 year old barn in England that had been converted to a world class performance venue on my birthday. There I was, full house, lights shining down, audience completely silent and listening intently as the clock hit midnight…I remember thinking "yeah, this is it, this what it’s all about" also name some places you would love to perform at. Madison Square Gardens – sold out – I’m the headliner!

(MP) Who are the members of your band? How long have you been together? Friends, just met? What's your story? These days I perform solo. (MP) What are some things you can say about your fan base? (JH) Like the music I write, my fans cross the spectrum. There doesn’t seem to be any particular age group, they range in age from teens, to people in their 80’s, but they do seem to share certain qualities in a general sense. They tend to be people that look deeper than the surface. They also seem to be pretty positive people. When I talk to folks at shows they’re generally aware of the world around them and many are trying to affect it in a positive way….they also have excellent taste in music! ;^)

(MP) What are some goals you have set for your future with music? (JH) We all have our dreams, but in the short term I think the current trend is good and I hope it continues. I’ve been receiving more notice from the media, my fanbase has been growing at a steady rate, and I’m playing for larger audiences in both public and private settings.

(MP) What are the names of your records, are you currently working on anything at the moment? (JH) I have two solo albums available at the moment. The first one is simply called "James Hurley". It’s a collection of electric and acoustic demo’s and sketches that I never really intended to release for sale. I did a short run initially after people kept buying up the ones I was burning for myself. Then THOSE sold out and I did another run…that’s happened five or six times now. The second one is called "The Sun and the Moon". It’s a completely acoustic album (with the exception of a single electric guitar chord) that I recorded in 31 very intense days. I’m proud of both the writing and the arrangements, and some fantastic players played on it and brought something very special to it. I’m now recording both my third and fourth albums simultaneously. I didn’t mean to do it this way but with all the time I spend on the road I ended up with a backlog of songs that I couldn’t get recorded fast enough. So now I take the hard drive with me and use studios all along the way.

(MP) What is this show in SLO coming up going to be like? What can we expect? (JH) People will come in and see one guy, holding a guitar. They’ll hear me play a song and maybe think "Okay, he’s some kind of blues-jazz guy." And then maybe they’ll stay for a couple more songs and begin to realize that it isn’t quite that simple after all, and the musical territory we’re covering is really, really wide….and then….

(MP) Have you performed in San Luis Obispo before? What does SLO mean to you? (JH) Yes I have. I’ve played several coffeehouses there and I played a house concert there last year that was a delight. SLO has this vibrant, diverse, creative atmosphere that makes me feel like there’s cool future waiting right outside the door.

(MP) What in a nutshell does music mean to you? (JH) Everything.

October 19, 2009 Interview with solo artists, James Hurley

James, how did you get started in music? My parents paid my older brother who got both trumpet and guitar lessons a dollar an hour to teach me guitar. So I learned what it felt like to play the instrument quite young. Then I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and that really got my attention.

You are a solo artist, correct? Yes, these days I perform mostly solo. It's the only way I can keep the overhead low enough to survive. Recording is a different thing entirely!

So, what genre do you play? That's always a difficult question to answer. In the very broadest sense it could be called "Rock". Really. it's a melody-driven, song-centric cross section of musical styles.

You mentioned the Beatles, who else has been your inspiration? Artists that have followed and stayed true to their own muse. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Zeppelin, the list is enormous.

What inspired you to write your last song? The song is called, "Don't know that." The idea that when the self-evident eludes us, things can get pretty difficult. Sort of a "we can be our own worst enemy" thing.

What are some of the new things that are going on? My new album "Tempest in a Teacup" is being well received and is deeply gratifying. And I'm currently booking tours. I'm planning to make it to the east coast in 2010. Since I do a lot of my writing while I'm on the road I end up with lots of songs piling up. Right now I'm sketching a bunch of them with an eye toward another album in 2010. We're also getting ready to shoot the second video from "Tempest in a teacup".

Where do you play? I play concerts, listening rooms, galleries, and coffeehouses for the most part. Mostly on the West coast or the southwest U.S. I've also done a couple tours of England as well and loved it.

What's your web site? My website is www.jameshurleymusic.com ....that's where I go to find out what I'm up to and where I'm supposed to be!

Do you have any words of wisdom? A couple of things...to my fellow musicians, Remember that the song is "the boss" and don't take it so seriously you forget to have fun. To my fans, Only my deepest thanks for making it possible to make some sort of a living doing this!