By Jason Curtis (New Media Publishing)
There are few acclaimed musicians, singers, songwriters, producers and astute business minds that have the luxury of labelling themselves ‘late developers’ when, in reality, they’ve already achieved more than most will in an entire band’s collective lifetime.
In the case of Cape Town born-and-raised James Stewart, he not only fits the description to a T, he most likely helped trademark the mould. That’s just how considered the Franschhoek-based, Emmy-nominated, multi SAMA award winning, chart topping creative patently is.
Labelling himself humbly and austerely a ‘musician’, James has spent the better part of his 46 years hell-bent on delivering seminal songs, most of which have enjoyed extended periods of times hugging the very tops of the South African and capturing hearts and minds around the world.
Classically trained as a boy, immersed in school choirs and brass bands and flirting briefly with synthesisers, James was unwittingly steeping himself in music that informed and extended across generations. James parked his law degree and threw himself into music, a career that’s kept him actively distracted for close on three decades now. “It seems crazy now - and most probably was, but I made what I thought was a logical decision”, he laughs. “Start a band, build a record company and take my music across the world. There seemed nothing more compelling to me than music I make affecting someone in the way I felt when enraptured by a song. Ultimately I’m simply transmitting, hoping someone tunes in. Achieving fame never factored into it in any deep way.”
Premillennial, The Usual created Number One hits and immortal classics the likes of “The Shape That I'm in” and “Like A Vision”. Signed to Street Level, James’ own label, BMG Records (now SONY) soon came snooping, and the partnership carved a place in our collective aural subconscious that continues to resonate today.
“We recognised from the outset that we needed good songs with a unique flavour and stand out musicianship which were recorded well enough in order to compete with the best. And we needed to own and the underlying copyrights.”
It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but eventually the stars aligned for us. Veteran music producer and engineer Richard Black and I had built a small studio together to record Cape Town bands which we did at night, pouring every cent we earned from our daily activities producing commercial soundtracks into new gear. When Tom Fox relocated back to Cape Town, I jumped on him, pretty much insisting he join Paul
Tizzard (drums) and Yoyo Buys (Bass) and I in The Usual. Tom’s previous band, Bright Blue in my opinion had set the bar for the possibility of South African music with songs like ‘Weeping’. I am transfixed by Tom’s playing and unique musicality.”
The Usual created a springboard for a solo career that include hits with “Shine”, “A Man Like Me”, “You Don't Stop Turning Me On” and “Beautiful Mistake”.
Father of two children, James is keen to rekindle the flame he helped first ignite with more new music in 2016. Yes, it’s true that he’s enjoyed TV exposure and airplay in the US, the UK, Australia and Asia, in between James has also collaborated with stellar songwriters including multi-Emmy-Award-winner Andy Gundell and Grammy Award winner Julie Gold. Their collaborative output, titled “Prayer”, was nominated for an Emmy for 'Outstanding Musical Composition/ Arrangement' in 2009.
James has also recently achieved success in the European dance market through his collaboration with Serbian EDM Producer Nemanja Kostic who remixed “The Shape That I’m In”. The track cracked the Beatport Top Ten, settling at the much–coveted Number Six position.
Besides being a successful commercial writer, James works with his MUSICalchemy partner, Johnny Clegg’s drummer and go-to ‘world beat’ specialist, Barry van Zyl. Together they have composed and produced soundtracks for award-winning documentaries, dramatic, sport and series TV programmes and feature films.
As for 2016, James is committing the year ahead to going beyond his current reality. On a mission to grow James has returned to his musical genesis, the space where abandon is critical and diving in head and heart first, into the super unknown to mine for more musical magic, is mandatory. “It’s scary, exciting, oddly familiar,” he confesses. “I feel alive with a relevant message to share with people as curious and hungry as I am to hear great new music that can stand the test of time.”
“My exploration of music beyond writing for myself as an artist into film and TV means I haven’t focused on songwriting in eight years,” James admits. That’s a long time in music, and just long enough to have paranoia overtake wisdom, “but I rationalised that there’s no reason I still can’t write songs that people want to listen to and own. I need to remind myself that there was always angst about whether or not my music would cut the mustard, he grins, that’s too-often forgotten about after a song achieves success.
“I’ve branched out into idioms outside of ‘traditional songwriting’ for a few years and it’s been really rewarding,” he adds, “But I’ve always needed to stay connected to the ‘true’ me, which is essentially a singer and songwriter by performing live. It’s really where it all connects for me - the immediacy of reaching out to an audience, hopefully seducing them in and enjoying that special and immediate connection. When it comes down to it, all I’ve ever wanted to achieve with my music is make people feel the way I do when I connect with a piece of music.”
Full circle, that’s ultimately where James Stewart gone. “It’s a new stage,” he declares. “I’ve been in a self-imposed wilderness, getting on with building a life. My family owns a successful health coaching business and between my involvement in supporting that and raising two beautiful boys, writing songs has been often been too easily neglected. I’ve built a business trading on songs from my past, now I’m keen, ready and able to feed my need to write the next chapter.”
Whether it’s playing to a full house of just 50 actively engaged fans at Cape Town’s legendary Alma Café, or collaborating with his peers, James journey’s about to get interesting. “It’s tremendously satisfying to create something from the sum total of your experiences,” he explains in considering the song writing modus.
“I’m, fuelled and focused on stumbling upon a hit or three,” he concludes, with a smile. “I always joke that I’m a late bloomer, so if that’s true, watch out world!”