I really thought I was going to be a songwriter," says Rachel James, the pianist, vocalist and namesake of Rachel & the Kings. "I was writing for other artists, and I was co-writing with a lot of other songwriters. I mean, a year ago, this is not where I thought I'd be."
A Colorado native, James had studied journalism at Colorado State University and worked in real estate before she decided to take the advice of a college friend and pursue music full-time. She enjoyed the freedom of writing music for other people, a career path that allowed for a certain amount of privacy and anonymity. It also allowed her to be a full-time mother to her young son. But after she'd been at it for less than a year, the prospect of fronting a band snuck up on her, and plans changed.
In the short time that James has been fronting Rachel & the Kings, the band has accomplished a great deal, from winning national contests such as Ford's Gimme the Gig — besting some 700 bands from across the country in the process — to landing one of the top three spots in KTCL's annual Hometown for the Holidays promotion for the tune "Fall Down." All of this success has come before the official release of Tonic, the group's first album, which is due out this week. "We're so new," James points out with a note of disbelief. "Things have happened so fast. We haven't released an album yet, but we already feel like we have a lot of traction."
That rapid pace hasn't been lost on James and the rest of the band, a group of veterans that includes guitarist Steven Beck, bassist Noah Matthews, violinist Ian Short, and Stefan Runstrom, the former drummer of Tickle Me Pink. "All of this has been since May, all of these things right after another. Our song is already on the radio," Runstrom marvels. "With Tickle, that took years to cultivate. With this band, it just seems so easy. It's cool to see how little time it takes."
The band credits that breakneck progress to a combination of chemistry, collaboration and luck. "After five or six practices, it started to mesh," notes Matthews. "I got that glimpse of a really great rhythm section. That was a big driving thing for me."
No one in the band has had much time to let the pressure of success fully sink in. In 2011, mere months after James had left her post in a real-estate company to focus on music, she was writing with former Tickle Me Pink guitarist Joey Barba. When the opportunity to record an album came up, Barba agreed to co-produce. He brought in former bandmate Runstrom to play drums and Alain Baird Project alum Matthews to play bass. They also called on violinist Ian Short, who'd worked with James and played for Hello Kavita. "After recording for a while, the guys all decided they wanted to call me up and offer their services as part of a band," James recalls with a smile. "I was like, 'Heck, yeah, let's be a band. This will be fun.'"
That was last spring, two weeks before the Kings decided to enter Gimme the Gig. With only four rehearsals under their belt, they played their first live show in L.A. for an audience that included Grammy-winning producer Don Was, whose producing credits include work for Roy Orbison, David Crosby, the Rolling Stones, John Mayer and a host of other musical legends. "It was the first time we'd ever played together for anybody," James confesses. "We sit there, and we watch Bop Skizzum play. They're tight; they're good. And these guys stepped up. Every show we've played, we feel like we don't have enough time to get ready...but everybody has gotten to prove what they're made of."
Beck got his chance a little later than the others. A Fort Collins native, he recently moved back to Colorado from L.A. after Barba left the group to play in another outfit. Beck, Matthews, Short and Runstrom came to support James's songwriting style with varying backgrounds and areas of expertise. Runstrom's work in Tickle Me Pink was much more rooted in hard rock, Matthews cites a background in country, and Short's work in Hello Kavita veered more toward folk. But all of the members have found an immediate common ground. "My preferred way of working with other musicians," says Short, "is that somebody comes with an idea."
That was part of the dynamic in recording Tonic. The album, recorded at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins and Arsenal Studios in Wheat Ridge, drew on the expertise of engineer Andrew Berlin. Seven of the album's nine tracks were James originals, tunes that had been in various states of development before the start of the band.
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Listening to those tracks, it's impossible to miss James's ambition and range as a songwriter. "Tonic" kicks off with soft keyboard tones and James's lyrical musings about living in a masquerade before the rest of the band kicks in, giving the 4/4 ballad a straight-ahead rock feel. James calls "Soldier Boy," a song with a tender theme cloaked in military metaphors, "an organic ballad that goes somewhere really big." "Carry Me Home," meanwhile, unrolls at a modest pace; a steady beat and muted hints of chamber piano become an earnest musical statement. James muses that it would be the way Björk would approach a pop ballad.
According to Beck, the band has already come up with a system of interpreting James's tunes. "We do our thing pretty well, but we listen," he insists. "When she has a vision, we don't just write a shit-ass '80s guitar solo over it. All of us are sensitive to the actual vibe and feel and original direction of the song."
But recording Tonic also brought out a degree of collaboration between the players. Both "Fall Down" and "Let Yourself Go" are songs co-written by the entire band. "Fall Down," with its seamless blend of virtuoso violin, driving drums and James's falsetto, shows powerful signs of that new partnership. "I think those are the best two songs," James offers without pause. "There's a vibe that's different than what happened before. It's because these guys were contributing parts."
That's the latest adjustment of many by this longtime performer, who's earned praise from local musicians as well as producers in L.A. One of her tunes had even garnered interest from Cher. "That anonymity thing," she says, "that was absolutely a factor in why I was a songwriter. But there's something really cool happening here; there's something really good happening with this group. I can't take credit for it. I'm kind of along for the ride, along with everybody else."