Interview: Start to Finish, ‘While She Sleeps’ Is 100-Percent Leah James
After the birth of her daughter Eva in July of 2015, singer-songwriter Leah James found herself experiencing some major changes -- and not the kind that come along with being a new mom.
Having picked up the tenor guitar, James discovered that she was now able to "express the things I heard in my head and the chords that I was looking for," she tells The Boot. "Before, I would have to go to somebody else and try to explain to the what I'm hearing in my head ... and relying on somebody else to formulate the sounds ... never really worked out the way I always hoped it would," James explains, but the tenor guitar "opened up this whole beautiful, glorious world of songwriting." Songs began coming together rapidly, "almost like magnets being drawn together."
Then, there was the matter of her level of productivity -- which increased, rather than decreased, following her baby girl's arrival. Because she didn't hire a nanny or any sort of childcare help, James found her personal time significantly diminished ... but, rather than finding the time crunch an inspiration killer, it helped her.
"That wasn't something I was necessarily prepared for," James admits. "The amount of work that I actually got done was far greater than anything i had done before."
So, while Eva slept, James created. The final product, While She Sleeps, is a 10-track record, her first solo release (James previously released and some singles with her husband, Brandon Jenner, as the duo Brandon & Leah), and dropped on Friday (March 30).
"I felt a deep sense of myself, having gone through such a transformational period," James notes. "I felt like I was bursting at the brim to express how I felt, and it wasn't possible to not write music in that time, you know?"
From the opening "That Fateful Day" to "Big Sur," the record's final song (also the last song James wrote for the project, while she and Eva were driving Highway 1 in California), James wrote, recorded and produced While She Sleeps alone. It's a fitting treatment for such a personal project, and James says she was happy to take the journey solo.
"It was really important to me to settle into myself as a songwriter and not lean on somebody else ... It was really important to me to jump over the hurdles of my own self-doubt to get to the end destination, knowing that I had done it all myself," James shares. "And whether it was going to be a horrible failure or a complete success, I would know my ability."
That choice, of course, also meant that James had "nobody else [to] hide behind" if she -- or others -- didn't like the record. She put the album away for a few months after finishing it "and had a little bit of a breakdown," she says with a laugh, but found a way to make peace with it.
"When I listen to the album now, I view it as its own entity, separate of myself. It's the time and space in which I used to live and I experienced, and I love it for what it is, and I respect where I was in that place," James reflects. "It was mine when it was in my head, but it's no longer mine now that it's recorded ... That's how you finish the circle of expression, is by expressing it.
"If I look at my art throughout my lifetime and how it has evolved, I respect where I was in every form and every stage, because it was taking me to a place," she continues. "I haven't written my best stuff yet; I think I'm writing it now, and then once that's out, I'll feel like I can do something better and different."
If you start to build your song based on what you think other people are gonna like, you've already failed.
James' mindset stems from her father: former Eagles guitarist Don Felder. Much as Eva has grown up watching her mother make music, James, too, spent her childhood experiencing her father's musicality. The Eagles were broken up when James was born, so she was about 10 years old before she saw the touring side of her father's world, but music was always a part of her household.
"Having witnessed my father's experience in the business ... I learned a profound message from my dad ... The only thing that really matters about making music, or the music industry or the business or everything that goes along with that, is how the actual music makes you feel," James says, "and that's the only thing that matters, because all of it is up for change ... It's only about the self expression; that's the only part that matters ... What comes along with it is secondary."
And just as separating her present-day self from her While She Sleeps-era self helped James find the courage to share the record, learning that lesson from her father has kept her grounded as she pursues her career.
"Going into songwriting, I have to come from a place of honesty and kind of not giving a f--k, pardon my French, what people are gonna think or if people are gonna like it," she says with a laugh, "because if you start to build your song based on what you think other people are gonna like, you've already failed."
More New Albums Coming in 2018