“I started playing piano at age 6 upon my mother’s insistence. I hated it and quit after two years (I completely regret this). When I was 10, I began playing trumpet, upon my father’s insistence. I hated it as well and quit after two years. By this point, I was 13 and Nirvana had just put out Nevermind, Pearl Jam had just put out Ten, and U2 had just released Achtung Baby. These three albums changed my life and made me realize I wanted a guitar in my hands, a mic in my face, and the adoration of 1000s of people. I ended up with two of those things (hehe)…”Russell James on becoming a musician.
Russell James is an autistic Native American indie-folk artist from Oregon who is gearing up to release his next album, Feel Your Pain. His newest single, History of Crime, takes listeners on a sensory journey that opens with vibrant, otherworldly synth and deep electric guitar backed by light- but effective- percussion. We’re then introduced to Russell’s weathered, fervent voice and pensive lyrics that can seep into the listeners’ souls and leave them wanting more, pressing repeat over and over.
This week, I was given the opportunity to interview Russell about his craft, process and inspiration behind his latest project:
CT: What was your creative process like for Feel Your Pain? Where did you draw inspiration or ideas from?
RJ: As far as inspiration goes, I’d been listening a lot to this album “After” by an artist named Mt. Eerie. It’s just him and a guitar, and it causes so many feelings in me. Also, listening to a lot of José Gonzáles, who is also just a guitar and voice. I wanted to simplify my next album, having just released an electronic pop album. So, the inspiration was to be simple, authentic, and meaningful.
The process of recording was painful. I had two-dozen songs ready (only 9 made the cut), but getting the recording done was like pulling teeth. I, like so many others, spent 2020 in a depressed and anxious daze, barely leaving my house, gorging myself on DoorDash. I had no creative energy or motivation, and I really had to push hard to get it completed. I almost quit several times. This has never happened with me: I usually love the recording process. Not this time. I hated every second of it. But, the results are undeniable. I’m convinced this is my best record, borne out of pain.
CT: Is there an overall theme or underlying meaning throughout Feel Your Pain, or is each song more of a standalone track? What does it say about life, reality or humanity?
RJ: F*ck, that’s a hell of a question. I didn’t write these songs with a theme in mind, so it’s not a concept album. Like I said, I had two dozen ready for this record. I did, however, pick the songs that seemed like they had some common thread: Pain. Feeling pain from various sources, the relief of pain, the pain of trauma. These were things I thought about when choosing the songs to include in the collection.
As to what it says about life, reality, and humanity, I’d leave that up to the listener to interpret. Pain is a subjective experience, and I think music is, too. However, in deference to your question, here’s where I come out on pain:
Pain is the nature of reality. Life is suffering. I don’t call myself a Buddhist anymore (I go fishing too much to not feel like a hypocrite), but they have it right. If there is such a thing as human nature (and, in a post-postmodern world that’s debatable), pain and suffering are what unites us. We all feel these things, across cultures, across neurotypes, across cognitive abilities. Everyone has the capacity to suffer, and everyone can relate to it.
The only real way to cope with the innate pain and suffering of our general existence is to wade through its swamps. Overcoming pain doesn’t happen by sidestepping it. We have to experience it, dissect it, observe it, and finally, make it a friend. That’s not to say our pain will disappear, but it will be less effective.
CT: What impact did playing music have on you growing up?
RJ: Playing music allowed me to have a “cool” façade. It was my mask. I could be a weird punk kid, with the hair and the clothes, because I was a musician. I could have weird opinions and be completely obsessed with music, because I was a musician. No one questioned my weirdness. Once I got “good” at the guitar, people thought I was cool. No one picked on the kid that was cool, that would shred on the guitar at age 15. I became legitimately popular because of all these things, a privilege most autists never experience. But it was all fake, right? It was all based on a mask. But it functioned well during my adolescence.
CT: How would you describe your musical and lyrical style?
RJ: Usually, I leave these descriptions up to the listener. But, since you asked, and I’m now allowed to masticate on my art (something all artists secretly love), here goes:
My music has a dreamy, ethereal quality to it. For the most part, it is peaceful, touched by ambient elements throughout. I strive to make my music seem light, airy, and magical. This is in direct contrast with my lyrics. I have tended to write simply, on an acoustic guitar, and the songs develop the dreamy quality as I tend to them in the studio.
Lyrically, I strive to be evermore authentic. I hate inauthenticity, I hate bullsh*t lyrics that mean nothing. As an autist, I don’t work very well with metaphor and most of my lyrics mean exactly what they say (a few exceptions: I am capable of metaphor, I just don’t find it super authentic. There’s a time and place for my music, see the song “August Wind”). I work hard to keep my lyrics honest, and as a result they are often dark. My life is dark, this is represented well in my songs. However, I’ve also been able to carve light out of the darkness, and I make sure to represent these things (see: “The Morning Singer” on Feel Your Pain).
CT: Has it [your musical and lyrical style] changed from album to album or song to song?
RJ: My first solo album came on the heels of my retreat from my longtime band, The Porter Draw in 2016. I had been playing mostly alt.country/Americana music with them, and my first album “Rise” seemed to be a continuation of that tradition, mixed in with my early experiments with ambient and dreampop elements behind more traditional folk music. My second album, “Wave/Water” threw any semblance to country music out the window: In fact, I yelled at anyone in the studio who even mentioned country music. The results speak for themselves: it’s the dreamy/ethereal album I wanted to make. It has ambient tracks bookending it. I love it.
In 2018-19 I recorded an album called “Pay Attention,” which was composed entirely using electronic instruments. It’s basically my version of a dreampop album, and I don’t exactly love it. It’s good, and it leans heavily into an electronic landscape of ambience. There are no live drums present on the album, and only one acoustic guitar. It was a good experience to record, and maybe I’ll revisit the idea again.
For “Feel Your Pain,” I intentionally returned to my roots. I wanted a simpler album, albeit with the same bits and bops of dreamy delay and reverb, but I wanted it to feel like a folk album, too. I think I pulled it off.
So, yes, the dreamy vibe has definitely been present throughout my solo career, and it’s a big reason I left the alt.country world in 2016. However, I’m not tied to anything, I suppose. Except a delay pedal. I don’t think I’ll ever make an album without a delay pedal. See answer below for a reason.
CT: Who and/or what are your influences? Is this reflected in your art?
RJ: Musically, I’m influenced by a lot of late-80s and early-90s new wave/ dreampop/ shoegaze music. I’m also hugely influenced by ambient composers. My favorite band has always been U2 and my ubiquitous use of the delay is the direct result. I love shoegaze bands like Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and many others. I love using heavily effected guitars, and I love the wall of sound made by lots of layering.
I’m also heavily influenced by ambient music. Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” is the most important album in my life. I love Helios, Eluvium, Loscil, Stars of the Lid, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen. This music relies on creating a mood rather than a melody, and this is incredibly attractive to me. Without words, this music can change your mood as you listen, and I find that fascinating and brilliant.
Finally, I’m influenced by the natural world. I’m absolutely an ecopsychology advocate. I hike 2-300 miles a year and I travel all over the country (less so since 2020), mainly to see new natural places (but also, I guess, to sing songs in dingy nightclubs, loud and indifferent breweries, and empty coffeehouses). The natural world is a huge influence on me: you can hear it in the nature recordings I’ve added to my songs (“Wave” is a good example). But also, I write about it. “The Morning Singer” is completely influenced by walking along the Willamette River early in the morning.
You had a transformative experience recently regarding your Indigenous, Native American ancestors. Can you tell us more about your heritage and that experience and how it is meaningful as you release this album?
RJ: That experience was transpersonal in nature, and I’m still exploring it. I’ll probably write more about it in the future, but at this time I want to keep it close to the vest. I am Pamunkey, an Eastern Algonquin affiliated tribe from the tidewater area in Virginia. Our reservation lay along the banks of the Pamunkey River, a tidal system and shad fishery. I love it there, and I believe it is the impetus with my connection to water. Beyond this thematic element in some of my music, I haven’t explored the intersection of my heritage and my art and I don’t want to give an answer off the cuff. These questions are vital to me and my identity and demand and deserve time and devotion. I am grateful for this question as it has steered my thoughts in this direction for the first time.
CT: If you could choose 3 songs – old and/or new- to share with someone, which three would they be?
RJ: Wow, that’s a really hard question. I feel a greater connection to more of my songs than I realized. My answers could change by tomorrow morning, I suppose. But we’ll stick with these three (ahem, four… I cheated):
- History of Crime/The Morning Singer (sorry, can’t choose just one) from “Feel Your Pain”
- Walk On from “Rise”
- Ghosts from “Wave/Water”
CT: What is your favourite song to perform?
RJ: Original? “That’s Enough” or “The Morning Singer” because I get to really dig into some cool guitar at the end. Covers? Running to Stand Still/Bad medley by U2.
CT: If you could go open a show for any artist who would it be?
RJ: José Gonzáles or David Bazan.
CT: And finally, what’s next for you [after Feel Your Pain]?
RJ: I will likely release another album sometime next year that is just me and a guitar. Some of the songs that didn’t make the cut on this album deserve to see the light of day. I hope I can tour next summer, but everything is up in the air and I will roll with the punches, much as I have these past two years. I hope to play more live shows, but I refuse to do so in the current unpredictable environment. I’m high risk (all us autists are, actually, but I have severe lung disease), so I’m not comfortable playing indoor shows just yet.
I’m developing my prose writing with the intention of expanding my career into professional writing. I’ve banged my head against the wall of the music industry for so long it doesn’t seem like a big deal to do the same to the literary field.
I have not written a new song in six months. I don’t know what that means. I’m having a hard time coming up with inspiration. I may work on another ambient instrumental album over the winter.
Otherwise, I’m hiking, getting healthy and in good cardio shape to tackle the Oregon Coast Trail next summer: 400 mile thru-hike all alone the great and wile Oregon Coast. I believe I’ll be the first autistic person to do it. So, I’m in training for that.
10/22/21- History of Crime (single)
11/05/21- The Morning Singer (single)
12/03/21 Feel Your Pain (LP)
Since February 2020, Russell has also been a fellow Neuroclastic contributor. Not unlike his lyrics, the writing he shares with the autistic community and broader world reflect his hopes, goals and journey through life in a way many readers, both neurodivergent and perhaps even neurotypical, can find relatable. He obtained his MA from Webster University and worked as a psychotherapist, focusing on trauma and spiritual healing. He attended University of New Mexico for his Phd work (incomplete) and focused on humanistic psychology, transpersonal psychology, and ecopsychology. His special interests include: comic books, nerd culture, birds, and nature.