Ask him where he got his name, and Early James will chuckle and tell you, “I’m always late.” But it would seem that the 26-year-old Alabamian has near-perfect timing when it comes to the release of his debut album for Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound. Early forged his craft in the iron city of Birmingham, AL before fate intervened with a YouTube video on the right device at the right time and played for the right person– Auerbach himself. The Black Keys guitarist and vocalist has consistently been behind records that focus on younger artists, pairing them with seasoned players and utilizing a signature production style. For Early James, it’s not hard to hear what Dan did– or to appreciate his vision of what could be. Early’s songs travel vintage highways with fresh white lines and when he lands in Macon on Valentine’s Day, it’ll be right on schedule.
AI- Did your family play music? Did you grow up around it or did you ease into it by other means?
EJ- I definitely had family that was into what I would call now cool music. I didn’t think it was cool back then! I had an uncle, JW, who just was obsessed with Johnny Cash. I had an uncle who started playing guitar in his sixties which coincided with me getting my guitar when I was 15. We kind of both started together. But no professional musicians or artists or anything.
Let’s talk about that guitar playing ’cause you have got quite the style going on. You’re pulling from all different areas, man. I hear a little Chet Atkins, a little Doc Watson in there with your finger pickin’, but you’re tossing in these wild Middle Eastern riffs and surf tones, kind of like Dick Dale… There’s some flamenco, jazz, blues… Where did all of that come from? How did you develop that style?
Drugs? (Laughs) No, I don’t know man… I guess getting past the point of that high school mentality. Some people never get out of it. They think they only like one kind of music and people’ll just be like, “I hate country music!” And then you’ll get annoyed with them on a YouTube comment that’s like Sturgill Simpson… I just hate those kinds of comments like when it’s, “I thought I hated country music, but this rocks!” It’s just like having enough buddies that listen to something crazy that I’ve never heard and just trying to steal from everybody so it doesn’t seem like a stole from any one person (laughs). I just try to absorb it all, I guess.
Vocally, I would say– and you can correct me if I’m wrong– there’s sort of like an obvious early Tom Waits influence going on there among other artists.
Songwriter-wise, did you have any particular folks that you looked up to or albums that were major influences on you?
Lyrically, I always dug the alliteration in Fiona Apple’s writing, that 2012 Idler Wheel album. I like that Mule Variations Tom Waits…
That’s one of my favorites.
Yeah, I finally got that one on vinyl at Amoeba [Music] the other day. I’d never been to Amoeba and finally got that one used. But it’s hard to pinpoint… I liked James Taylor a lot growing up, just how he could be vague and also tell a story at the same time. But Fiona Apple for sure is one of my favorite lyricists.
When did you set out for Birmingham? When did you get there?
I was 21. I was working at a grocery store in Luverne [Alabama], and my sister just asked if I would take a chance of moving in with her and trying to play music in Birmingham– where I would actually call it kind of a music scene. Just my sister beggin’ me to get the hell out of Luverne.
Did you have an “aha” moment? Where you were like, “Oh, this is what I want to do for a living! Make this my trade and see where it will take me!”
I think that “aha” moment was… I just wasn’t bound and determined to do anything other than play music. I had already proven that I could have a minimum wage job and play gigs on the side and still pay my rent. I was already making a living and that’s all I ever wanted to do as long as I could play music. I was just too hardheaded to try to do anything else!
You’ve got a brand new album, I guess it would be your debut full-length, right? Coming out in March, Singing for My Supper? What got you hooked up with Dan Auerbach to record that project?
My old roommate, Ryan Sobb– he’s also one of my favorite songwriters– he moved up to Nashville and through a mutual buddy of ours, Katie Pruitt, I met my now manager. And he had to go up there to talk to Dan because of Kendell Marvel, ’cause they were doing an album. He just showed Dan a YouTube video of me from three years ago or four years ago. And Dan liked it and just said, “Yeah, just bring this guy up here. I want to meet him.” It was pretty easy (laughs). Very lucky though!
So who’s on this album?
Man, that was all Dan’s studio guys– Billy Sanford, Russ Paul, Dave Rowe, Mike Rojas, Sam Bacco, Dan Auerbach, Paul Franklin, and Gene Chrisman and some other folks. I mean, Billy Sanford is the guy who came up with the “Pretty Woman” lick like [sings “Pretty Woman guitar part]. It’s like, “What the hell am I doing in here with him?” Bacco– he’s like in charge of percussion for the Nashville symphony. Just a bunch of legends, man! It was easy (laughs). They wrote charts based off of shitty demos that I sent Dan that were just acoustic guitar and upright bass… They just immediately knew the song and no song took more than three or four takes. It was insane to work with that level of professionalism.
Do you think that that has spoiled you for any project going forward?
Nah, I kinda like the challenge, honestly. I definitely look forward to being able to record with my own band in the future. ‘Cause we’ve been forced to change. We’re just a four-piece. [The album’s] got harmony singers and strings and keys… We don’t have a keys player, so we’ve had to change the songs, I think in a way have made them… Not more interesting but just different and a little more minimalistic. But I look forward to approaching recording with minimalism in the future instead of just going all out.
You’ve got a couple of tracks available for that album. One of the lead tracks, “Blue Pill Blues”, that’s about your experience with depression and medication. And that sometimes almost seems like canon for songwriters, that struggle, mining the highs and the lows for songs…
Where are you today with that aspect of it? ‘Cause I know travel can play a huge part in those highs and lows and writing day-to-day. How are you feeling about it all these days?
I think back when I wrote that song strugglin’, I just thought success would make depression go away– and it doesn’t, man. That’s why so many famous people blow their brains out. I think it’s just like surrounding yourself with the right people. I definitely still have bad days, but I think just teaching yourself that you can get out of it… I don’t really know what I’m doing differently nowadays. I’m definitely happier nowadays. But it’s tough. That’s a tough thing to talk about, honestly.
I saw in an interview, you talked about the intimidation factor of signing with a label, with Easy Eye, and you wouldn’t be the first artist to have cold feet before taking a big leap like that. Was that in fact what happened? What has put you at ease at this point?
Being part of Birmingham, being an independent musician, I think you kind of worry about losing the sanctity or the integrity of being broke (laughs). Like somehow that has something to do with you being a real musician.
I appreciate that.
At this point, I’m just like, “Man, I don’t want to be broke!” I also want to be able to travel. And so I knew that if we did put it out–and if it was good– then people would hear it and something would happen. I was super into the Black Keys in high school and still am. Definitely love those early garage blues albums, they definitely influenced me, and I knew it was going to be fun to work with Dan. I was scared to meet him but just ’cause I thought he’d be an asshole or something. And he’s not, he’s just a dude. I feel great going forward, no cold feet from me. It’s still wild now that I’m having to think back on it. Like how easy it was. The only disagreement I can think of that we had was there’s this one song that didn’t even make it on the record. We were doing it like a train beat with an accordion on it… Kind of sounded like a polka. And I was like, “This’ll be cool as shit! It’ll be the only song on the album that sounds like a polka!” And then Dan didn’t like it… And then he made it sound like a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. And I was like, “I don’t want this on the album.” (Laughs)
You are the 13th artist signed to Easy Eye. Your album is going to be released on Friday the 13th in March. Do you have a special release day party planned for that? If I feel like with all of that happening, there needs to be some special going on.
Man, I didn’t even know that (laughs)! Now I gotta plan something special! I did know that we were the 13th artist. I was always number 13 on the baseball team. I was always fascinated by that number, so it’s kinda funny that that happened. But yeah, we’ll be at the Fillmore– so I don’t know what that’s like! I’m sure it’ll be fun. Nobody there is gonna know who the hell we are, but we’ll figure out a way to make it special, I’m sure.
With 2020, a brand new album coming out, Singing For My Supper, you’ll be on tour with the Black Keys at some point, I believe. What other goals do you have for this year? If I get another opportunity to speak to you in the future, what are we going to talk about?
I just want to write more songs, man. Get to work on the second album, get the band tight and secure our footing in being able to make a job out of this. My bass player quit his job, so I feel like I’ve got a lot of expectations from my band, and I want to be responsible but have fun.