Q&A: Canadian blues man Colin James looks back on 25th anniversary of debut

TORONTO - Everywhere Colin James looks these days, he sees reasons to reflect.

There's his impending induction into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame on Thursday. There's this week's release of "Twenty Five Live," his first-ever live album intended to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his self-titled debut album. And there's his latest Juno nomination for blues album of the year, to be contested in his hometown of Regina next month.

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With all that in mind, the 48-year-old sat down with The Canadian Press to look back on a career that just passed the quarter-century mark.

CP: What was your response to the hall of fame induction?

CJ: "Are you sure you have the right person?" You know, I don't know how people react to that. You think about the different bands and the different managers and assistants and record companies and all the different people that have drifted in and out of your life. You think, why not? And you can tell your mom — that's always good. That's the kind of stuff moms like.

CP: You're celebrating your 25th anniversary in music but your career actually goes back much farther than that.

CJ: Yeah, I've been in bands since I was 13. I played mandolin mostly from 13 to 16, (playing) bluegrass and Irish traditional music.

When I grew up in Regina, people consider it a bit of a backwater — it gets a bit of a name like that, but there were amazing musicians in Regina. I learned almost everything I know between 13 and 16. Even going on the road for a month at a time in a big bus full of people, it was amazing. I left being this kid, and I came back, my mom and dad were like: "What happened to you?" People would literally sit around campfires and teach me how to play.

CP: So you didn't hang out with kids your own age?

CJ: I hung out with 30-year-olds until I was about 16. And then I started hanging out with people my age and ended up upside-down in a car on a dirt road in no time at all. I thought ... "I gotta hang out with my peers." That just got me in a world of (trouble), immediately. It's funny.

CP: To be the lone kid hanging out with grown professionals, you must have known you were a special talent?

CJ: I definitely had a blind faith for that. My intent was just to play for a living, so I think that gave me a fair amount of confidence. But when you're broke and playing street corners it's pretty depressing. I did a lot of that but I never liked it. I always felt self-conscious.

CP: Major opportunities came to you quickly. How did it feel at the time?

CJ: Scary. I was the second artist signed to Virgin Records America — Iggy Pop being the first. My first producer was Tom Dowd, the guy who recorded Ray Charles and the Allman Brothers and "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin. So next thing you know I'm in Miami working with this guy. It was mindblowing, really.

Tom Dowd was known as one of the world's best blues producers but he didn't want me to play any blues because he'd already done it with everybody else. He wanted me to be like the Eurythmics. So it actually was a disaster with Tom Dowd. We spent scads of money and had to scrap everything. I ended up with one song from that session.

CP: Your first album was nonetheless a huge hit in Canada, and you won the most promising male vocalist award at the Junos. As an artist in your early 20s, all of this must have been simultaneously exciting and daunting.

CJ: Put it this way: my first time playing the States was five nights at the Radio City Music Hall. That was insane. I think back on it now, it was so bizarre. Playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Wiltern theatre in L.A., and Stevie Wonder being backstage. Touring with Little Feat around the southern United States, touring with Keith Richards. Seeing these people you've heard about all your life. It was mindblowing.

CP: How did you keep your head on straight?

CJ: Well, it's hard. Especially when you're living on hype and you're young and you're doing things wrong — like everybody does, unless you're some kind of saint. There was definitely a time when it was too much. When you're striking when the iron's hot and they're sending you all over the world, there was a time when I was definitely exhausted.

CP: Your 1990 album, "Sudden Stop," was an international hit, so things didn't slow down. And yet it was during this period you got married, and your relationship has lasted in a business where they often don't. What's been key to that?

CJ: 22 years. It's unbelievable. I think we always had such a lot in common. We were childhood friends, me and my wife. I've known her since she was eight years old.

CP: Blues-rock has become very fashionable again. What goes through your mind when you observe bands like the Black Keys and Alabama Shakes becoming so popular?

CJ: The tendency is to go: "Hey man, look what they're doing — I wanna do something like that!" But then your logical mind goes: "Come on. You can't chase trends, especially trends that you're kind of a part of. It'll look silly."

If I went out and did a lo-fi blues record — I probably could do it, but it probably wouldn't be the best idea. I've thought about it, believe me. The Sheepdogs went and used the guy from the Black Keys (Patrick Carney) to produce their record, and I remember thinking about approaching one of those guys to produce me a couple years ago. And I talked to a famous American blues producer named John Porter who said: "Don't."

He just kind of reminded me that I've had the fortune of being ahead of the curve a couple times in my life. It's definitely where you want to be.


Answers have been edited and condensed.

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