John Jenkins and the James Street band have been kicking up a storm across the UK live scene. Their latest album, Looking For The American Dream, offers up a fine collection of Americana–soaked original songs. We caught an interview with John to find out more about the project and his journey so far as an independent artist. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hi John – thanks for the interview! How has 2019 been treating you and the band so far?
Mixed to be honest – We had a great 2018 but had to step aside for several months due to family illnesses and cancel a few gigs and now we are trying to get our momentum back to where we were. Saying that we have just finished the new album which we are very happy with and on a personal level I was able to do some solo performances including a nice support spot for Chris Difford from Squeeze on Friday just gone.
For those who don’t know – how long have you been writing and performing for?
I began writing songs from 1978 but these were quite juvenile attempts although I did get offered a management contract from Brian Epstein’s brother Clive but I didn’t feel I was ready. In the 80s I’d say my real Songwriting began once I formed a band. We were on the cusp so many times – I left music in 1989 until about 2014 when I started writing songs for my own voice – The previous bands had different singers.
What can you tell us about the album Looking For That American Dream – what inspired the title, and what does the project in full mean to you?
It means a great lot to me. The title track came from a Chord book on my piano of Great American Country Songs. I visualized a band playing some of these classic songs in some way out American bar and a few characters looking for answers. I have a few songs that followed that theme but I was also conscious that I had some songs we always played live that were audience favourites and wanted to include on the album so I balanced it with old and new songs.
If people only have time to listen to one song from the new project, which would you recommend, and why?
Just Another Day probably. I had a friend who lives not far from where the Parkland Killings happened in February 2018 and she has two daughters – her post on Facebook read “My God – That’s not far from me”. It got me thinking about the struggle parents would have to face with their children’s murder and having these pro-Gun supporters telling them why it’s great to be able to have fire arms. Lyrically I was pleased with not being too obvious.
What’s the live scene like in Liverpool right now?
Fantastic. It’s probably as good as Nashville, you can go out most nights and see real original songs by talented people that would have been signed up if it was the early 70’s.
Which of these songs is your favourite to perform live?
Can We Still Be Friends? – We don’t get to play it too much as it works best with a few backing singers and drunken audience members with half a voice getting up with us. It’s a song I wrote way back in the 80s and been a favourite of mine for many years – I was glad to get a version of it on the album finally.
In what ways would you say your approach to music has changed over time?
Well I now write for myself rather than for other singers so it feels more comfortable and personal going out and being me and singing these songs. I also write more guitar tunes whereas my earlier songs where mainly written on the piano.
Do you ever second-guess yourself when writing about such personal experiences and feelings?
I get surprised by what I end up with and occasionally I’m thinking is this song about me or some other character that I had in mind when I started writing the song. That’s the joy of Songwriting – you don’t have to write about yourself but then someone will identify the lyric with something they remember about you.
What are the main changes you’ve noticed, if any, within the music world in general over the years?
Too many to be honest and not always for the better in my humble opinion. In the 70s you’d go to your friend’s house with your new albums and experience a communal experience of discovering great music. Records being Albums and singles were not disposal like a lot of the downloads feel like today. And as most material can be streamed there is not much money in the music business to support acts, even CDs are not being bought like they used to. On the other hand, vinyl sales are going up and it’s easier to get your music out there, but there is so much “out there” it’s very hard to be heard.
What advice could you give to new musicians who aren’t sure how to get started?
Follow your own star, don’t try and chase things that appear to be the next big thing. Just be yourself and do what feels natural to you. And don’t give up despite any knock backs you may get.
If you could sit down to lunch with anyone at all, past or present, who would you invite – and what would you ask them about?
Paul McCartney. I’d talk about the albums he recorded in the 70’s and particular songs I love that are b-sides or just album tracks. I’d also have a word with him about his new stuff and why he’s trying to be someone else rather than himself.
What’s the bigger picture for you, and what are your main plans as a band throughout the coming months and years?
Good question. On a personal note I’m going to a Songwriting retreat in June that a lot of gifted songwriters go too such as Graham Gouldman, Chris Difford, and Robert Vincent. So I’m hoping something good will come out of that. The band – I’m hoping that we get a lot more quality gigs and some recognition. I’m hoping the album will get played and appreciated and we can go up a level.
If you could perform at any venue or event in the world, past or present, which would you choose – and why?
I’d like to get to Nashville and be able to do a show on or a few songs at the Bluebird Cafe.
What makes for a truly memorable live show?
Enjoying yourself on stage and letting the audience see this and connecting. Arranging the set list so there’s always something new on offer for the band or your audience who may have seen you several times before.
What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
I once touched Bruce Springsteen’s left boot when I had front row seats at “The Empire Pool Wembley” in London on the River Tour back in 1981.
What’s the best thing that could happen for you as a band this year?
I think on the back of releasing this album getting some publicity that’s positive and people listening to it or dare I say even sell a few copies.
What’s the best thing about being in the band?
Friendships I have made in the local scene either through playing (or watching other local bands). There are some great artist’s out there and lovely down to earth people I’d have never met otherwise.
Is there anything else we should know?
I’m 60 next month and I’m having a birthday drink on June 7th in Liverpool city centre if anyone wants to join me – lol x
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