Songwriter Hugh James‘ musical journey began when he started playing piano at the age of five, and music seems to be a source of healing and catharsis for James. His love of music was even studied at the University of Miami, and then he moved to Los Angeles, furthering his musical journey writing songs for hit superstars like Tiffany and Steve Holy. He also performed live with Michael McDonald and BJ Thomas. He’s since had his songs placed in films, along with being given the Featured Pianist in Residence at Disney’s Grand California Hotel.
We spoke with James about his new single, “My Brother’s Shoes,” written during the wake of the passing of his brother Doug in 2014, who had fallen on hard times. Hugh shares that the song is not just about his brother, but all of our brothers. He says that although Doug was the inspiration for the song, “it’s not about MY brother – it’s about your brother, it’s about all of our brothers, it’s about all of us.”
James also talked about the making of his music video for “My Brother’s Shoes,” directed by Alan Marino, his love of the piano, and his favorites. Find out more about Hugh James below:
You started out in music penning songs for other music powerhouses…when did you decide to start writing songs for you to sing yourself, and what led you to do so?
Hugh James: Well I never actually thought that I was writing songs for other artists.
I just tried to craft good songs. However if we cut a demo we might use a different singer, or take the production in a certain direction. Sometimes my versions got musically cloned. Co-writers can certainly influence the overall process as well.
I got to a point though where I just wanted to get the music out there, and felt like I was the natural vehicle for that. I can play and sing pretty decent, have a nice studio, friends with some of the best players and singers in LA, and had a feel for arranging and producing what I wanted to hear. The process can be rewarding. I believe as artists we have a calling to share the gift of music with the world. If you’ve got something to say, say it. After all, if no one ever hears what you do, it’s sorta like the falling tree in the forest, no sound kinda thing.
Your latest single, “My Brother’s Shoes,” is a touching and soul-hitting song based on not only your brother’s passing, but about other people who’ve dealt with the same. What’s your songwriting process for heavy-hitting songs like this, or is there one?
Hugh: For me, every song has it’s own process and creative timeline I guess. They’re all different. There was something in “My Brother’s Shoes” that wasn’t there in other songs. Maybe because it was born out of a true-life story, or because I believed it contained this universal message, and that my brother and all of our brothers and all of us are part of it. It was like I had transcendental collaborators. Doug was found in Tent City wearing a red shirt and hospital socks and I thought, “ Where’s his shoes? ” That’s where the title came from. He often talked about Jesus, so the reference to the King of Jews was just a natural lyrical fit that shaped some musical style and phrasing.
For the music video accompanying “My Brother’s Shoes,” how did you get connected to director, Alan Marino? What was it like collaborating with him?
Hugh: Alan and I have been friends for decades. We met years ago in a songwriting class at UCLA. We worked on recordings back in the day before he ventured into video production. I wanted to do a video so I sent him the tune and he immediately got back to me and wanted to do it.
The great thing about Al is that he is a musician and commercial producer as well, so he’s able to hear the music and visualize it. He can really tailor shots, timing, and edits to produce a nice natural flow. I had some old 8mm footage shot by my son Nevada and me, and he cut that in and out.
It brings you into the song in a beautifully haunting kind of way.
Going to your early beginnings, you learned to play piano at an early age. What drew you to the piano?
Hugh: My parents made me take lessons. Simple as that! I wanted to play little league on Saturday and piano lessons came first. After that it was just fun!
From there it became a variety of things. It was a form of escape, knowledge, and self-discipline. But mostly just enjoyment. It’s still fun to play the piano!
Who was your first concert?
Hugh: I remember going to a concert at the Felt Forum in NYC as a teenager and seeing Melanie, Richie Havens, and Ten Wheel Drive with Genya Ravan, ALL IN ONE SHOW! I had never heard or seen anything like that and remember thinking, I want to do that. I want to be them.
Recently I saw Paul Simon at the Hollywood Bowl and he sort of sets the bar for me.
What was your first album on cassette, vinyl and/or CD?
Hugh: Well, my father worked at a radio station so there were always records floating around. 45’s, 78’s, and 33 1/3’s. Mostly easy listening for his generation. Ray Coniff, Percy Faith etc.
My brother and I had some early Stones records, but I remember Tumbleweed Connection, James Gang Rides Again, and the Band.
Which five artists or albums would you not want to live without?
I still enjoy Elton John, Billy Joel, Tapestry, Bill Evans and Horowitz.
Do you have a guilty music or entertainment pleasure?
Hugh: I probably listen to music louder than I should.