Nashville via Detroit songwriter Stephie James’ debut full-length album, As Night Fades (out Mar. 1) exudes sparkly, starlit evening motifs, shot through the lens of dreamy doo-wop and romantic Americana rock n roll. James overturns Nashville’s hat and boot culture with her own Iggy Pop-meets-Judy Garland panache. She borrows the storytelling tradition of writers like Townes Van Zandt & Guy Clark but fuses it with 60’s girl group sounds, echoing The Shirelles and The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” James presents us with a record that’s subtly subversive—at one turn familiar and nostalgic, while simultaneously evoking the dawn of something new.
James has been a steadfast musical powerhouse since her teens. She’s toured with Anita Baker and Nikki Lane, worked production for Buddy Miller and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, has written with John Bettis (songwriter for Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, The Carpenters and more) and even shared the stage with Michael Bolton. As Night Fades was produced/engineered/mixed by Andrija Tokic who also produced the platinum, Grammy-nominated Alabama Shakes’ album Boys & Girls. John Baldwin (The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Nancy Sinatra, The White Stripes) mastered the album.
As Night Fades opens with the cinematic and sultry “Company,” an autobiographical narrative through a smoky, late night scene. Its romantic, symphonic balladry elevates the classic Hollywood scenario that we’re gifted through James’ endearing vocal delivery—all enchantingly wrapped in the modern setting of a seedy East Nashville dive bar. The Phil Spector-esque, “Spanish Harlem,” latin percussion contrasted with a gentle acoustic guitar leaves the perfect amount of space for multi-instrumentalist Billy Contreras (Béla Fleck, Hank Williams III, Sunny War) to layer a myriad of violins.
“Billy came in with like 13 different violins,” says James, “all in different tunings and octaves. And each one of them has a name. He would call the violins out by its individual name before each take. He could replicate a line or melody sung to him, stacking layers of strings above and below it. I don’t know how he does it. It was wild to watch him work, in the best way.”
The laidback rocker “Losing Side” (listen above) is an anthem for the misfits and the outcasts, with its lazy Keith Richards-style guitars, relaxed drum fills and a spirited bass line contributed by, bassist and collaborator, Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, Greenhornes, Dead Weather). There’s a touch of sadness in its resignation that everything will eventually be fine…while playing the underdog in the meantime. One imagines James and her friends day-drinking and commiserating in local dive bars—James happily sipping her ginger ale. “My bar tabs are free / I’m the soda pop queen / But it’s only a matter of time / until me and mine are riding high,” she sings.
During the pandemic, James and guitarist Matt Menold engaged in a Dick Dale deep dive, which birthed their instrumental “Surf.” James, a singer, wanted to write a piece where she wouldn’t sing at all. She originally composed the lead part specifically for Menold to play. He eventually talked James into playing lead guitar, and the song was taken to new and exciting heights when Contreras added strings. The result is a grindhouse-cool interlude of surf rock majesty.
Co-written with Menold, “Hard Place” is about self-doubt, the struggles of continuing to create art in this modern climate, drowning in all the noise, and feeling as if you’ve knocked on every door. It’s a dark, ominous tune with a chord progression reminiscent of Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart,” but with an exciting and surprising bridge. It feels in line with one of Leonard Cohen’s cautionary tales.
As an ambitious 15-year-old, James opened up a coffee shop with her brother, as an excuse to have all ages shows where she and her friends could perform and build a local music scene. This DIY nighttime operation of mismatched furniture, posters of Bob Dylan and coffee as a secondary excuse to create a community led to her meeting legendary singer Anita Baker and eventually touring with her during the summers as a teenager.
“I went from fancy touring with Anita Baker,” says James, “rubbing elbows with celebrities and playing beautiful theaters, to touring in a van with smelly guys once I started my first band, Blue Mountain Belle. But I knew I wanted to work on my own project.”
James started an indie-folk project with her friends and they quickly became a go-to local act for the burgeoning scene of cool midwest Americana, regularly opening locally for larger touring acts like Leon Russell. She began working with legendary songwriter John Bettis, who introduced James’ music to Michael Bolton. Bolton included James’ single “Silent Film” in his documentary American Dream: Detroit, and the two performed at the film’s premiere. Her ambitions soon drew her from the Motor City to Music City U.S.A.
In Nashville, she navigated to Auerbach’s recording studio, Easy Eye Sound, where she worked as a second engineer to Detroit pal, Collin Dupuis, who’d just worked with Auerbach on Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence and the preceding Black Keys albums. Dupuis brought James in to help with Easy Eye projects and introduced her to artists that Auerbach had been producing, including Nikki Lane.
James and Lane hit it off, and soon they were touring together. James was playing in Lane’s band and occasionally opening the shows with her own material—sometimes solo acoustic, sometimes backed by the rest of Lane’s band. Clear Plastic Masks were the opening band on one Nikki Lane tour, and would become James’ close friends and collaborators on both her 2020 These Days EP and As Night Fades.
“They were the coolest rock n roll band I had ever seen live,” says James. “The first time I heard them, I realized something really special was happening in that room. I remember thinking that if they never had any huge commercial success, they’d be like the Velvet Underground or something—an underappreciated band that would inspire all the other bands and artists and tastemakers around them. We bonded really hard on that tour and spent lots of time together, in different cities. Eventually, they became the backing band for my solo stuff. Everything on this record is Charlie on drums and Matt on guitar and keys. Matt heard something in the music I was writing and was the real catalyst to working on my own project. I don’t think it would have happened without his involvement and encouragement.”
The These Days EP and As Night Fades were both recorded at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville and produced, engineered and mixed by Tokic. These Days exemplified James’ autobiographical, heart-on-her-sleeve songwriting while hitting us with classic pop meets Americana rock, all with a sheen of cinematic coolness. Particularly with the EP’s title track and “Lost With You,” which has the heart of a crooner ballad, boasting shiny rock & roll guitar lines and a noir doo wop feel.
“When I listen to this album,” says James, “I imagine hearing it in that theater from Mulholland Drive, ideally with an audience of eccentric weirdos and misfits. A room filled with true music lovers who dig the b-sides. Cinephiles who embrace the weird. Mercurial lovers. Lyrically these songs are more honest and direct than anything I’ve written before. It’s the first time I’ve ever made a record without trying to fit into a certain category and without compromising or molding the sound to appease others. And I feel good about that. I’m proud of what we’ve made.”
DIGITAL TRACK LIST
02 Party Doll
03 Steve McQueen
05 Hard Place
06 Five & Dimer
07 Silent Film
08 Losing Side
09 Will You Be
10 Night Fades