Friday, May 13, 2011

Ten Questions with Cee Cee James

If you've never heard of Cee Cee James, I promise that once you do, you won't soon forget her.  One of the most powerful vocalists you'll hear, she's also a gifted songwriter, using her life's experiences as a template for most of her songs.  She's also a dynamite performer who's won rave reviews all over the country.  Teaming with husband/guitarist/co-songwriter Rob "Slideboy" Andrews, James released two phenomenal albums in 2010, both for Blue Skunk Music.  The first, Low Down Where the Snakes Crawl, was a studio recording that put her on the map.  Her follow-up, also distributed by Blue Skunk, was a live release called Seriously Raw, which should keep her on the map for quite a while.  Ms. James was gracious enough to sit down and answer a few questions for FBF.

1. When did you realize that you wanted to be a singer and entertainer?

Oh my….well….humm.....My life growing up was extremely chaotic and so there was not a lot of personal decisions being thought on, nor did my Mother pay any attention to any talent that might have been noticed and encourage me to pursue it. I felt heavy passion in my soul however to do something big, like something huge was wanting to burst forth from me. I felt things very deeply and my only outlet was physical release through P.E. classes in school and writing poems. I did get to be in 'one' school for an entire year my senior year where I was able to join the Drama team. I won 1st and 2nd place ribbons my first time out and the teacher told me "I wish I would have had you all 4 years." One girl wrote on my yearbook, "Christina (my real name), you are going to be famous." So something was lurking... driving me, a destiny that was to reveal itself. This destiny got caught up in modeling for a few years and acting and then I purchased a turquoise Carvin bass, which I later sold. But that moment was the turning point. I was married then, about 23 years old, and we decided to move to California to pursue music since LA would be close by with its big shiny promise of attaining success. So I guess at that point the seed of performance and singing began to sprout.

2. How did you get interested in the blues?

Well, I don't know that I ever got 'interested' as I don't think I was ever 'disinterested.' As I was coming up as a young girl, what was on the radio was blues based rock and the 'newer' Stax R&B. Not the older 50's/60's type but the 70's type R&B. I fell in love most of what was being played. I was not attracted to anything that did not have that blues base to it. What the radio did not play was the 'traditional' type of blues. The real deal stuff. My family did not play records or have any influence on my musical journey. The other heavy thing that influenced me was Gospel, which to me is very blues-based. Had my Mother not taken us to one of the biggest Pentecostal churches in Oakland, CA, that had a full blown Gospel Choir with all the deep rooted African American Souls wailing every Sunday when I was young, I don't know how I would have discovered it. But to this day, hearing that old deep aching Gospel music - done by someone like Aretha, causes me to cry. I feel it like I knew it from some other life.

So I really never heard the 'real deal' blues until later in life and my introduction to that was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bobby Blue Bland and some of those cats.

Without going into too much, because there is SOOO much, when I fully turned myself over to the blues was in a time of my life when I desperately needed acceptance and freedom. Freedom to be who I am truly and not worry about size, age, wrinkles, image, social standing…..all that 'stuff' that keeps us from just being from our core. That's the single most thrilling thing about the blues besides the 'feel' of the music, is the freedom of it. The freedom it allows people to just be and be loved for who they are….just who they are without any frills.

3. Who are your musical influences?

Anyone with deep feel - whether it's raw and rough or tender and soft; and artists that push the envelope of life right down through your heart and gut. Of course there's always a place for fun, light songs, but the songs that make me 'wake up' are the ones that grab me, turn me around and I say "who the hell….what the hell?!!!!"  Howlin' Wolf, Luther Allison, Robin Trower, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Rodgers, Ike and Tina, Stevie Ray, Big Mamma Thornton, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, The Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan and Rufus, and probably many more I cannot recall at this moment.

4. Several of the reviews of your CDs (including mine) cite the vocal similarities, at times, between you and Janis Joplin…… much influence did she have on your style, and do you feel like this comparison gets in the way of what you’re trying to do and say sometimes?

Oh boy... well humm...when I was just beginning to really work my chops, I was going to a vocal 'technique' teacher in San Diego, CA. She was an older gal and never worked with me on stylings. We only worked on vocal placement, breath, etc. She had me singing classical songs and doing vocal ease exercises. When I was on my own, in those earlier years, my record player (yes, 'record player' Ha!) was spinning Aretha, Chaka Kahn, Bill Withers, Al Green, Paul Rodgers, and Heart, with me singing along in my hallway (which had the greatest acoustics), working to try and gain range and the ability to flow smoothly from low notes to high notes, vocal expression runs, etc. I wanted a HUGE tool box so that I would have the ability to bring any song lyric to life through my singing. If it was sad or happy or painful or full of angst or funny, I wanted to give it the tone, feel and expression to make it come fully alive for my audience. But I never tried to sing like these singers or copy them.

So when you ask me about my 'style' I must say that it is all my own, influenced only by how I feel in my heart and soul and what the lyric is about. I worked this style over many years of singing on stage in endless gigs and rehearsals. I rarely sing a lyric the same way twice. It may sound similar but if you compare one of my live performances to another, you will hear subtle differences in almost every tune.

So in asking me about Janis, well she really had no influence what-so-ever. I knew who she was, who didn't... but I didn't listen to any Janis growing up and was introduced to her music by a drummer who was in my blues band, Stone Blue, in the late 80's, who gave me one of her CDs and said learn “Summertime” and we will play it. I had to study that thing for a million hours in order to do it justice.  Janis can sing an octave higher than I can so she's not someone I can copy easily.  However, I took on the challenge because I love singers that push the envelope of feel.

The bottom line is I can't copy Janis, and I don't want to because it is damn hard! And I'll tell you why….Janis had an incredible tool box of her own stylings and I don't feel them. I have my own way of 'feeling' and my own stylings. These came naturally to me over time…..because it's who I am. That is why I am NEVER worried about anyone trying to copy me... because even if you do, you don't have my soul and my personal life experiences, and that is truly what a singer should be singing from. I have heard many Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute guys and one thing is for sure…..they may cop his licks….BUT THEY AIN'T STEVIE!!!

As far the comparison getting in the way, I don't really think it has. It's a compliment to be compared to a person who let it all go from the depths of her entire body and soul when she sang. That's how I feel when I sing, and maybe that's why people relate me to Janis. I also love Luther Allison, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy for these same reasons…..there ain't no frontin' with these performers.. it is RAW and DAMN REAL and you know it and you climb inside and take off to the other side of your reality where emotions and feel rise up like the lava from a raging volcano and spill all into your heart.

5. Obviously, from listening to your live release, you manage to build a very strong bond with your fans and audience, and it shows that you love what you’re doing…..what is the most gratifying thing to you about live performance and what is the hardest thing about it?

Well there are two on the 'most gratifying' list. The first most gratifying thing on a very personal level is when I disappear and become a vessel for the universe to pour through me, for the energy to flow out of my mouth and body as I sing. I disappear in those moments and 'BECOME' the Mojo. That is one of the highest of highs for me.

The second is the Fans’ response, when they climb inside the magic of the rhythm section and roll with me as I work the expression of the lyric within the pocket of the music. When they laugh and cry and relate! When we become one in the waves of soul release. Sounds kind of airy fairy, but it happens and I know it because of how they come up and thank me. And that's my job, damn it!!! To bring it to ‘um and have them devour it. And when they do, they feed me with their joy.

The hardest thing is how much I give and how I hurt afterwards. Physically I use my body so deeply to pull up what I give that when I'm done I need a hot bath and serious recuperation, like 8 hours sleep, which on the road one doesn't always get. Plus I'm usually pretty drenched and drained right after a show and that's when the fans want to talk with me and it's hard. I appreciate them so much and I want to be there for them, but I'm EXHAUSTED. Of course I am there for them and I do the best I can to be as present as I can but usually my make-up is stinging my eyes, my hair is soaking wet, my clothes are sticking to me, my feet hurt and I'm trying to come down from that other world of being the spinning banshee of soul to being present with each person. A challenge? Hell yes. But I wouldn't not do it for the world.

6. When you write songs, how much of your own life experiences figure into what you’re writing?


Here's the thing…..a teacher cannot truly teach unless they have 'lived,' 'experienced' what they are teaching. Here's a very simple example which you can apply to anything really:

I joined a dieting group once, twice, maybe three times (hee hee), and the teachers had never had extra weight on them. You could tell they were just going through the motions of teaching the program like robots who had been trained what to say. Had they ever had the experiences of being heavy or overweight, the life experiences of “what that feels like,” they would have taught from the deeper place of “knowing,” with a compassionate understanding in their eyes and a real caring touch.

When I write, I write from the experiences of my life. I cannot write any other way and personally I have no idea how anyone can. To fabricate a lyric about something you have not experienced on some level of 'feel' is extremely foreign to me. Writing this way, allows me to BRING the song to the people, bring it all to them in full blown emotional release.

As a side note to this question which applies directly to what I have experienced in relationships, I was not able to truly write my first “love song” until recently which by the way, will be appearing on our upcoming CD due out late summer.

Rob "Slideboy" Andrews

7. Who are your biggest influences as a composer?

Well, I turned to Rob "Slideboy" Andrews to answer this one for the most part since he puts the chord progressions together for me to write to. Here's what he said: Lightnin' Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Keith Richards, Earl Hooker, Muddy.

8. Of the songs that you’ve written, which ones are your favorites?

For me – “Done Love Wrong.” For Rob – “Black Raven.”

9. What are the best and worst things about being a musician?

The best thing is being able to give what I feel so deeply and have it touch people and sometimes change their lives in certain ways. Being able to access the power of creation and wield it into lyrics and songs and voice and mojo and sweat.

The worst thing is being judged by reviewers and their outlooks and opinions after you put what you have worked so hard on and spent your lifes savings on, out there. I think reviewers need to be trained by someone who will tell them.. "Look if you don't like it, ignore it rather than say negative things." It's that simple. "One man’s trash is another man’s treasure." But inflated egos must speak, yes? LOL! I personally don't believe that bad reviews help - you know. The old adage, 'any press is good press?' NOT. They hurt my heart very badly and I'd rather not read them or have some uncompassionate idiot write them. It just spreads bad competitive energy around in our world, causing us to compare ourselves and feel less than. It's a rampant disease in our society however and a big commerce tool in all commercial sales of goods.

10. What does your record collection look like? What music do you take with you on the road?

Humm... well, that's a lot to talk about. Everything from Otis Spann to Prince to Robin Trower to Judas Priest to Lynyrd Skynyrd to JJ Grey and Mofro to Aretha to Earl Hooker, Howling Wolf, Bad Company, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Luther Allison, to a group from the Seattle area called the Bone Poets Orchestra which is genius stuff. Not much country per se' even though we LOVE anything that Johnny Cash did and some of the older country stuff like “King of the Road!” And then…..I've got an entire collection of New Age music, American Indian music, and World music.

Rob tends to drift more toward traditional Blues music whereas I go for music that fits my mood and where my heart is dwelling in any particular moment.


Low Down Where The Snakes Crawl  Low Down Where The Snakes Crawl (Blue Skunk Music)

Seriously Raw: Live At Sunbanks  Seriously Raw: Live At Sunbanks (Blue Skunk Music)


Cee Cee James said...

Thank you so very much Graham, for taking your valuable time to contact me and put this great interview together. I sincerely appreciate it. :)

soulfried art said...

wow what an awesome interview, cee cee for being so giving and great questions asked graham!! thank you so much.

Susan Sager Brown said...

Thanks for the great article. When Cee Cee is on stage singing you can see straight into her Heart and Soul!! It's really cool to be able to read about what goes on in her head too!! LOL

Anonymous said...

Each thing I read about and from Cee Cee gives me a better insight into her talent and feelings. This in turn adds so much to the pleasure of hearing her sing and relating to the words.


Anonymous said...

I am hooked! Love Cee Cee and listen to her every time I get a chance!

Edison Shaw said...

Well spoken, and like the true artist you have become! One thing about Cee Cee, she tells it like it is, folks.....
I'm still looking forward to the next time I get to hear you in person, Cee, and photograph you and the guys again.....
Keep singing, 'Blues Lady'! It's your time to bloom!

Tom Jones said...

I had the pleasure of getting to know Cee Cee and Rob when they were playing around the northwest. We used to play a lot of the same clubs and I remember the first I heard her sing I was hooked. I went home and told my band members, and anyone else that would listen, you gotta go check her out, she is incredible. We miss her presence up here in the NW but happy to see her touring the world. Loved the interview.I don't think Cee Cee is ever at a loss for words but like her music they always come from deep within her soul. I look forward to hearing much more from Cee Cee James.