There’s an old adage that states, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” That sentiment holds true for singer-songwriter James Gordon. He’s released his latest album, the 13-song When I Stayed At Home while at the same time coming out with an audio book novel, The Ark Of The Oven Mitt, which includes 36 songs as part of the story. This past year, James has also presented an online version of his Emergency Climate Musical. And oh yes, he’s also a city councilor in his hometown of Guelph ON!
“People say, ‘Jim you’re so busy with all these things. How do you manage it?’ and I always say, ‘Why do you think I manage it?'” he said laughing. “Sometimes it’s total chaos. Time management skills become very important, and I’m not sure I’ve mastered them yet but somehow it works.”
When I Stayed Home is James’ first new album since 2019’s The Heritage Hall Sessions and was put together during these months of COVID-19.
“You’re writing in this pandemic, which is traumatic in many ways, [so] it’s hard not to have that imbued into the songs themselves,” he said. “There’s always kind of an element of, ‘OK, that pandemic is lurking in the background of this song somewhere.’ As I was writing them, I picked ones that seemed to have a common thread that ran through them and seemed to belong together.”
Not all of the songs on the new album are doom and gloom though. The title song takes a lighthearted look at what could be accomplished with so much extra time at home – like learning to play the clarinet!
“I debuted that song at an actual live gig, and that song gave me an opportunity to engage with the audience and I’d say, ‘What did you do that was different during COVID?’ They had lots to say about it. So I knew I was not alone. Everybody is being more reflective and mindful about things. They’ve got new ideas and some of them are carrying hope around with them. Even though it was a fun song, it’s nice to know songs like that seem to be already resonating with people.”
The news of the discovery of unmarked graves at the former residential school in Kamloops B.C. resonated with James, who wrote “We’ll Bring You Home.”
“I caused nothing but consternation to the team putting the album together because it was all ready to head to the mastering house over the July 1 weekend. That’s when we first started to be aware of the residential school tragedies, and it just seemed to be accumulating. That song was my way of dealing with it. I thought, ‘It’s pretty timely, and I’m hoping people will find some meaning in it, so let’s cram it on here!’ So it’s almost like a bonus track.”
The pandemic restrictions meant James had to put the album together by himself, something he hadn’t done in 20 years.
“I’m used to being a hermit in my little studio,” he said. “But when you’re forced to [work] without collaborators, it really made me think, ‘OK, there’s a different challenge.'”
The time James was not able to tour did have one benefit; he was able to finish a novel he’d been working on for a number of years, The Ark Of The Oven Mitt.
“It’s actually a story about stories,” he explained. “Because a lot of my songs are ‘story songs,’ one of the great benefits of traveling and meeting new people is that they hear the songs and [then] they tell me stories. Sometimes those stories turn into more songs! The book started with that [premise]. It’s based on a lot of my own band experiences. In the book [the characters] start doing as I described. They’re kind of reaching a dead-end in their career and then they notice if they turn stories they hear from people into songs and feed [the songs] back to them, then [the band] has made a positive connection.”
There are a few James Gordon songs from the past that show up in the audio book but the majority of them are original to the novel.
“There were a few stories I had collected on my travels that seemed to have some tie between them, a common thread. Then I just started to write. It took five or six years really, but COVID was good for that. I got a little extra time to finish that darn thing off!”
A unique challenge for James was to write a collection of songs from the perspective of the lead character, another songwriter.
“It was interesting putting myself in his shoes and [thinking], ‘How would he write this and what would he say?’ I actually joked that he was a better songwriter than I was!” he said laughing.
A twist James has given to his story is that although the lead character is the songwriter and leader of the band, the person telling the story is the drummer, who wasn’t around during the band’s glory days.
“I think I wanted an air of mystery to be around the lead character,” he said.
As the story develops in the audio book, there’s a song that helps illuminate each chapter. In some ways this meant James had to switch from “storytelling novel mode” to “storytelling song mode.” James’ past experience of writing a song for each week’s broadcast of Basic Black on CBC Radio came in handy.
“[They were like] songs-on-demand,” he said. “‘Here James, write a song about this by Thursday.’ With the book, as the story developed, you could tell, here’s what [this] song should say to capture where they are in the plot and capture the mood of who they’re meeting. That actually made the songwriting part easier.”
The storyline of The Ark Of The Oven Mitt deals with the past relationship of the characters Miles Gerber and his ex-bandmate/girlfriend Maddie Myles along with another female character, which means some of the songs are handled by fellow singer-songwriter Katherine Wheatley.
“I was really grateful that Katherine stepped in for that,” James said. “I think she enjoyed that challenge too. I let her look at the book and say, ‘Here’s who that person is. Can you emulate them in the way you sing the song?’ I think she had fun with that, and she did a great job too.”
As with any story that gets inspiration from past experiences, there are echoes of James’ career in the story of the novel.
“In the book, [Maddie] sings ‘Lonesome Cowgirl’s Lament,’ as it was an iconic hit for the band back in the 80s. In fact, I wrote the original song ‘Lonesome Cowboy’s Lament’ in the 80s, and it was one of my most popular songs. So some of it’s me and some of it’s not me!” he said laughing.
During this time in the COVID-19 pandemic many artists have delved further and further into online streaming of concerts as a way to connect with their audience. While James has done the same, he’s found it to be somewhat lacking. What has worked though is his Emergency Climate Musical.
“When COVID hit, I had been in the middle of a tour of that one-man show,” he said. “Then I realized the project lent itself to a Zoom meeting because it has slides, videos, images and interactive stuff. So it was a bit more engaging for people than just watching an old folk singer sitting in front of a camera with his guitar!”
To find out more about When I Stayed At Home, The Ark Of The Oven Mitt or James Gordon’s Emergency Climate Musical, go to jamesgordon.ca.