Now/It's: An Interview with Valentine James

Something that has quietly amused me throughout my years in Nashville is the fact that very few who leave the city ever return, both natives and transplants alike. Regardless of your residential status, any and all who reside in town have inevitably found themselves weighing their “options” as urban sprawl continues at its meteoric pace, despite a lack of equal “filling” of urban sprawl. Sure, Nashville still flirts with that ungodly one hundred people a day factoid, but most of those people are priced out before they get here. Sure, that will change, once the full force of Amazon arrives, but that’s for a different aimless lede. What I’m getting at is that Nashville at one point celebrated those who proudly hail from Music City, but those days are seemingly fewer and further between. Granted, anyone and everyone can come to Nashville. Who am I to say otherwise. It’s just an intriguing notion that Nashville’s retention rate is somewhat lacking. Which makes people like Valentine James all the more significant. After spending formative years away from Nashville, James returned home. She’s making strides and further implanting herself since her return, which hopefully leads to more doing the same.

Now/It’s met with Valentine James at Retrograde Coffee, off of Dickerson Pike, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Valentine James - Happy Tuesday.

Now/It’s - Happy Tuesday to you too!

VJ - How’s your week been?

N/I - Pretty good. Mondays and Tuesdays are typically pretty easy for me. Not slow, but very flexible and manageable.

VJ - Same. My main job is at a wax place, and I work Wednesday through Sunday, so Mondays and Tuesdays are my days off….

N/I - A wax place?

VJ - Yeah. Body waxing?

N/I - That’s fair. That’s what I thought, I just wasn’t sure if there was some other type of “wax place.”

VJ - Yep. I don’t rip hair out of people’s bodies, I just check people in like “Hey. You’re here to get hair ripped out of your body.” And they’re like “That’s me.” And I’m like “That’s awesome. You’ll be in pain in five minutes. Have fun!”

N/I - But that’s five minutes and then no hair for at least a month. 

VJ - Exactly! Honestly, it’s so interesting. It’s so weird what you end up doing. I never thought I would ever learn so much about body waxing. 

N/I - I understand. I’ve had a whole slew of jobs that have placed more knowledge of seemingly useless information than I can comprehend. 

VJ - Amazing. 

N/I - So when did you record this latest single?

VJ - Well the first time I recorded it….

N/I - The first time?

VJ - Well, this song is kind of old…. This is actually the first song I wrote when I moved back to Nashville. When I put out my EP back in November of 2017, I had originally recorded it with that, but it was just muddy. It was my first time recording my own music in a non-school setting. I didn’t have a producer, per se. My audio engineer at the time felt like he was the producer. But at the same time, he and my bass player had completely different personalities. 

N/I - So they kind of butted heads?

VJ - It just kind of threw off the energy. I really like the song, so I wanted to give it a fair shot. I’m really lucky, because I found this guy in the Sylvan Park area named John Rice - he’s awesome. I met him through my friend who do my photos and videos and stuff. He’s a local Nashville guy. I just like people who nerd out about anything music. He’s got a cool ear, and really great in the studio. I kept my vocals, because they were fine, but the band stuff we redid with him. It was a completely different experience. So it’s ready now.

N/I - I dig it. You were talking about the vocals - it’s very Maggie Rogers-ish.

VJ - I’ll take it. 

N/I - I hate to make comparisons like that, but that was thing I couldn’t get out of my head while listening to it. 

VJ - That just means that Pharrell is going to produce me. 

N/I - Next time he’s in Nashville, he’ll show up to a Valentine James show. 

VJ - One hundred percent. I’ll take that. I’ll take either, honestly. Both of them are so cool. It took me a minute to listen to [Maggie Rogers], but I just started listening to her record a few months ago.

N/I - I’m in the same boat. I don’t know if I was cynical toward the whole Pharrell thing…. Because you went to Berklee, and I went to Belmont, and [Maggie Rogers] went to NYU - there were enough instances of the “masterclass” thing, and they’re either so-and-so’s niece, nephew, neighbor, or acquaintance, so I was skeptical of how that whole thing happened. It felt like an industry plant scenario, but I had to eat my words because I love that record.

VJ - I think also, there’s no one way to do things, but things still happen, but also, I get that, because sometimes when you have a school behind you, it’s really easy to use it as a cop out. Or the opportunities feel a little more surface level. But her record is dope. I know she’s coming back to the Ryman….

N/I - She’s doing two nights.

VJ - That’s so rad. To see a girl my age selling out the Ryman…. Also, fucking Lizzo. That’s amazing.

N/I - Lizzo. Maggie Rogers. I heard Carly Rae Jepsen was great….

VJ - And Brandi Carlile just announced….

N/I - At least two dates, right?

VJ - I think two or three. It’s just cool, because being from Nashville, we have such an interesting history. It’s so cool to see so many different things happening right now.

N/I - I think it’s fascinating seeing what’s happening right now. Because Nashville was historically known for country music and all that, but mostly male country artists.

VJ - If you just drive down Music Row….

N/I - Sure. Music Row and Broadway show that the male dominance is still very much a reality. But outside of that immediate circle, there’s Kacey [Musgraves], and then Brandi [Carlile], and the next step is Maggie Rogers, and then Lizzo, or whoever. It’s interesting to see Nashville is understanding that there’s more to go around town.

VJ - And it’s also broadening it, too. Because growing up here, there were all the really cool sub-scenes that I was definitely not cool enough to go to, but I was still obsessing over Diarrhea Planet.

N/I - I remember coming back to school on a Monday and bragging about driving by a Diarrhea Planet show, but being too scared to try and get in because I was sixteen [laughs]. 

VJ - Oh my god, yeah. 

N/I - The fear of getting blocked from coming in was too real. 

VJ - I lived vicariously through my friend Kelsey for the longest time….

N/I - Kelsey Haight?

VJ - Yes! I’m so excited, she’s actually designing my first merch. That’s crazy for me to comprehend.

N/I - That’s amazing. So you came back in town when?

VJ - 2015. So I moved back here end of July of that year. I moved to Nipper’s Corner in October, and I was there for October, November, and I was in East Nashville ever since. So December 2016. 

N/I - How was that? That’s an interesting perspective in my mind….

VJ - To come back?

N/I - Yeah. To be gone for a little while and then come back.

VJ - It was interesting. I am honestly pretty new to songwriting, so when I first picked up a guitar, I was fifteen, and I learned all of Taylor Swift’s Fearless album. I also wrote some really, incredibly similar songs….

N/I - I feel like there’s an entire generation’s worth of songs that will never be heard from that same source. 

VJ - And they’re still written out and in my guitar case just in case.

N/I - You might be able to pull lines.

VJ - Oh, yes. I was moody. Still am, but….

N/I - If they were done in earnest, there’s got to be something there….

VJ - Also, I’m never going to shit on Taylor Swift, she’s making hella money. She can do whatever she wants.

N/I - Ultimately, us trying to shit on Taylor Swift doesn’t bother Taylor Swift, so why bother? 

VJ - One hundred percent. But so my last year of school - the end my second to last year - I did a lot of recording. I had a lot of friends who were engineering majors and when they needed a singer, I’d do it. I did a soundalike project for a Civil Wars song, but then my friend was like “Hey, I really need to produce an artist who has two to three songs, can you be my artist?” And I was like “Well I haven’t written a song in a while, but sure!” So that’s why I got back into songwriting. When I moved back to Nashville…. For a really long time, I knew that the music industry was something I wanted to be a part of. But I always saw myself in a management role of some kind. Or something where I got be behind the scenes, because it’s very vulnerable to put out your stuff. 

N/I - I get that. I don’t know if it’s a byproduct of growing up in and around all of this, but you end up hearing a lot of cautionary tales of “If you do get in, don’t be an artist,” or “If you do, get a minor in psychology, because you’ll be playing shrink to anyone and everyone.” For me, it predisposed me to not initially pursue any vulnerable aspect of this. I thought I’d just stick to the number crunching. So it can be hard. 

VJ - Right. But I kind of realized how writing has been a really therapeutic thing for me. When I moved back to Nashville - sorry, I take things all over the place….

N/I - You’re good! I encourage things to go on tangential runs and float all over the place. 

VJ - Okay. So I got really lucky. When I moved back to Nashville, pretty much my entire band moved back to Nashville. At least the guys I had been playing with, writing with, been friends with. So my one friend, Alex, who lives in Iowa now - he’s like the most reckless bass player…. This was the first time we wrote together in Nashville - we went into that write both being pretty new to it all, and we just found a groove. I get really inspired by writing from a track or arrangement. That’s why I have a hard time writing on my own, I’m a perfectionist, so I want things to sound a certain way or become a particular way, that way it connotes a certain feel. But I’ve always been really inspired by musicians. Anyone who is proficient at what they do and they love what they do. If someone is left handed and they can play the guitar both ways, it’s just like “Wow.” But in that co-write, we got some cool stuff. But that’s pretty much my first EP. I did all the lyrics and melody…. Who is Elton John’s guy?

N/I - Bernie Taupin. 

VJ - There we go. I thought it was something weird. 

N/I - Definitely wouldn’t find many Bernies walking along the streets nowadays.

VJ - So in a weird way, that kind of worked for me as well. 

N/I - That’s cool. I cannot fathom writing to a track. I think I’d come up with the lyrics first and then leave whomever else is involved to figure out the rest. To take it and run with it. So to me, it just seems so much harder to write to a track.

VJ - I mean, it can be, but my mind is very perfectionist. Whatever I want to put out, I want to do it well. I also think that where we grew up, we were surrounded by “excellence” every day. Granted, I was terrible at ACTs and stuff….

N/I - Well a lot of that stuff is a facade to begin with….

VJ - One hundred percent. Surface level.

N/I - But when you’re a teenager, you can’t decipher that stuff.

VJ - Exactly. So I’ve always had that instilled in me - whatever I want to do, I want to do it well. It’s something off of my shoulders. If something is there, I have to recognize it and work around it, as opposed to getting caught up in my head because I’m too involved in the “What if…” of it all. 

N/I - I understand. I think that’s why it’s so fascinating to me that you write from a track - in my mind, I’d think you’d want a song to be about x or this specific experience. Whereas it seems like you come to it from an angle of “How does it find me?” But that groove that you find, is that also part of whatever experience you’re drawing from? 

VJ - Well sometimes it’ll be something where I’ve been playing with an idea for a long time, and it’s just whatever it is I’m going through at the time, see how it fits in. Pretty much my entire first EP was inspired by a dude I dated for like two weeks when I first started at City Winery. Clutch [laughs]. But that’s a dope thing to draw from. 

N/I - Well sometimes those relatively short experiences can be the most impactful, because of their brevity. 

VJ - Those quick goodbyes.

N/I - Because it’s a short period of time, you can look at the entire history of it and probably remember it better than you can any sort of long, extended, five plus year relationship. If there’s more time, you might only remember the most recent things, and those might be good, or they might be bad. Who knows? But two weeks allows you to remember what you did on the first Tuesday and the second Tuesday, and then by Friday it was over. 

VJ - And also, there’s something about a dude that’s couch surfing. That was my thing when I first got here. 

N/I - There’s something somewhat poetic about that. 

VJ - It was like, “Damn. He’s going to figure it out. And I’m going to figure it out.”

N/I - Everyone has at least one or two relationships like that, I figure. But you got some great stuff out of it.

VJ - I tried, at least. It is funny, too, because I’ve been playing these songs for a while - I haven’t necessarily come up with new material in a minute, at least [material] that’s been completely mine, and that’s because I think I’m scared. But I don’t know, it’s interesting to see how these songs have done and grown over time, and to see what they mean to me now. 

N/I - So how have they changed in that regard?

VJ - For me, it’s a snapshot of that period in my life. Also, it was a time where I was just doing it. I think again, my hardest challenge is trying to figure out the branding part of things. Like what do I need to be doing right now? But now, seeing how these songs came out of something that was really not that serious. I’m learning more about what capacity I have. As you grow as a person…. For me, something I want to work on is the idea of unconditional love. Relationships whether they be intimate, family, friends, I want them all to have that. The reality is that you have to be constantly expanding and growing. It’s kind of cool, because I did a lot of personal work and growth over the past few years and I still am….

N/I - I think when you start addressing the personal work, you never stop addressing it….

VJ - And then you figure out and then you die! That’s my concept. 

N/I - That’s fair. That split second before everything goes black….

VJ - And it’s just a montage of all the highlights and all the things you did as a baby that you couldn’t remember, and it’s like “Oh shit!” It’s cool to remember where I was. Because also, at that point, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know who I was - and don’t get me wrong, I’m still figuring that stuff out, but I have a lot more peace with myself, now. It’s a nice to look back and be proud of that.

N/I - And it also presents this sort of forward looking optimism. It might have been a small moment, but when a bigger moment comes, you will have creating the emotional and mental capacity or acuity to go ahead and move past it. You’d achieve the same level of satisfaction, relative to whatever it is. 

VJ - Yeah. When I say I haven’t been songwriting, that isn’t entirely true, because I’ve been journaling. Every now and then, verses will come out. I’m trying to figure it out. It’s kind of a weird thing, because once you start addressing all these different things, you can finally see the other end of it. I used to binge eat and then restrict, so I had that relationship with food and dealt with my issues a lot with that. But without that, sometimes I just have my journal to get things out. Also, what I love about music is how it constantly changes. I’m really inspired right now. There are so many good records and singles being put out. Also, authenticity has been really celebrated. For a long time, there was a template of “look like this and write like this.” But now it’s just artists doing their own thing and doing their own way and being celebrated because of it. That’s given me a lot of inspiration.