Hunter James on Opening Up His Empathetic Side

Hunter James celebrates the release of his new EP at Syntax Physic Opera on Thursday, January 3.
Hunter James celebrates the release of his new EP at Syntax Physic Opera on Thursday, January 3. Drew Carlson
Over the past four years, Hunter James has written around 250 songs. He makes it a priority to set aside a few hours a day to write.

“When you’re writing you need to open up the empathetic side of yourself,” James says. “I think empathy is the most important thing for songwriting, because if you’re not feeling a really riveted way that’s going to create this great song, you can tap into someone else’s pain or someone else’s story and write from that perspective as well.

“And then, more often than not, you will experience that emotion," he adds. "Sometimes I feel I write a song, and it’s like, ‘Oh, shit, that song is foreshadowing. I shouldn’t have written that, because I think I created this heartbreak in my life, and that might be totally crazy.’”

Some of those songs made it onto his new EP, which he'll release with his band, the Titanic, on Thursday, January 3, at Syntax Physic Opera. He'll follow that up with the release of a full-length, The Z-Axis, on Friday, February 8, at the Mercury Cafe.

James, who says he had a pretty happy upbringing, didn’t experience a lot of personal pain until the past three or four years. Many of his more recent songs are autobiographical, but they all come from different perspectives.

“This record has spanned three different romantic relationships,” James says. “I’m actually in one right now, and it’s going great. Now I’m writing joyful songs. They all kind of ended on different terms. I feel like I had to face being left and leaving someone and now just being in love. All those different sensibilities — like what it feels like to leave someone or to be left – it’s kind of a different part of yourself, like a different kind of pain. When you’re the one leaving, you feel a lot of guilt, and when you’re the one being left, you feel a lot of rejection.

“I didn’t necessarily have enough life experience or pain or perspective to really write the way I do now, because I feel like I’ve gone to sad and dark places,” he continues. “Although that was tough, I think that was super-important for me as a writer, because then you can really empathize with that, and other people, too, and purge it from yourself. It’s very therapeutic, in a way, to show yourself completely and for people to celebrate that and to empathize with that.”

While James spent a long time in Petals of Spain, a band that played an amalgamation of styles and genres, his solo material is roots, folk and Americana with some R&B and soul. About a year ago, James says, someone told him that he sounded like singer-songwriter Jason Isbell.

“I had never listened to Jason Isbell before that,” James says. “Then I started listening to him, and now I’ve fallen in love with him. I think he’s the Bob Dylan of our generation.”

James’s new EP is made up mostly of songs he recorded with local producer Joe Richmond, who’s worked with acts like Brent Cowles and the Still Tide; the album includes songs James recorded in his home studio using vintage analog gear that he bought from Richmond, who’s got a massive collection of old recording equipment.

James says the title of the album, The Z-Axis, refers to the fact that things come in threes, adding that the Z-Axis references forces that influence our lives that we can’t really put our finger on.

“Like, X and Y are the more tangible things that we see affecting our life that we can point to and say, well, this happened because X and Y happened,” James says. “But the Z-Axis is all the things that influence our lives that we can’t really comprehend or see. So you could even think of it as God or some kind of a spiritual force.”

Hunter James & the Titanic EP release, with Kayla Marque, Bad Britton, Rachel & Brittany, 9 p.m. Thursday, January 3, Syntax Physic Opera
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon