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Blues/rock artist Jan James talks new album, inspirations, being an LGBTQ ally
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Jan James' first real singing experience was in the church choir as a kid in a small town the middle of the mitten in Michigan. She was also a theater/band geek in high school and through all of those experiences she learned how to work a stage.

"The house I grew up in was right next to my grandmother's working farm, so I spent a lot of time roaming the countryside and playing with cows and horses which I love," said James. "My family managed a small campground and bait shop on the Maple River for a while. One of the guys who camped there on the weekends was named Catfish, and he played a mean guitar. So I spent my summers learning how to play guitar and fish. As I learned how to play guitar, I found my voice."

James left her small town to attend Michigan State University where she studied art history, theater and communications.

"College is when I started hanging out at music venues," said James. "I would beg to sit in, anything to get stage time. I have this vivid memory of writing lyrics in a venue parking lot trying to create a song so the band would let me perform with them, and it worked. It got me in and everyone loved it. My bones would ache with the call of the stage.

"I also met my collaborator, and love of my life, Craig Calvert during this time. After playing for a few years in a rock-a-billy/blues band that we called The Flying Tigers, we started a new band called Jewel Fetish. We got interest from a manager that wanted us to move to Chicago. We came to the city and had lots of major music business that came and went. We continued to thrive in Chicago so we stayed. We love the grounded vibe here."

Although James grew up on country music, her soul was drawn to blues and rock music. Blues artists Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, Ida Cox and Muddy Waters and rock artists like the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Janis Joplin are among the many artists that have influenced her over the years.

When asked what her music's overall message is, James said it is about universal love and understanding. She has also been an outspoken ally for the LGBTQ community and has performed at Market Days in the past.

"The right to love someone or be treated equally should not be limited by anybody," said James. "I am not a shrinking violet. I will speak that truth loudly, no matter the audience. More recently, the conversation about gender identity has really shifted and grown and we need to embrace that on all fronts. Now is the time to spread the word and push the doors of prejudice wide open. The pain and hurt of those trying to find validation is very clear to me. I want them to know that there is love everywhere."

James recently completed her 10th album, "Calling All Saints," which includes the LGBTQ inclusive song—"Everybody Wants to be Loved." She noted that the song stemmed from her thoughts that all the problems in the world happen because the people creating them do not have enough love in their lives. James said it takes a conscious effort to share love with family, friends and people on the street. She explained that the title track, "Calling All Saints," focuses on the gun violence that has overcome Chicago while also conjuring the goodness within everyone to help solve the problem.

James will be taking that message of compassion and understanding to Cook County Jail in Oct. where her band will be performing for the maximum security inmates there. She is looking to share love to those who need it the most with this concert.

"With all of the violence, despair and imbalances of political power, we need to start looking within ourselves to find the answers," said James. "We are the saints that can heal the Chi-town soul with compassion and kindness. This album really came together organically. Craig produced a pile of music with all types of grooves and arrangements, then I sat with the pile in the early morning with my coffee and iPad and starting listening.

"Lyrics and melody started to form around the grooves and slowly each song appeared. 'Trouble With the Water' is the story of the Flint Water Crisis. I spent a lot of time in Flint when I was young. What has happened there is a gross misuse of power and there is no excuse for it. They still need to find justice in that community. The other songs are various character studies of people, places and impressions."

James and her husband have been creating music since the early 1990s, including a label ( Provogue ) out of the Netherlands. She said each album is a labor of love.

"Two songs from the first CD, 'Last Train' and 'Blame It On Time' were fan favorites when we performed at Market Days and the now defunct Spin Nightclub. I love performing with my backup singers and a big band."

She said that in addition to performing at the large festivals in Europe the most memorable Chicago show was a festival she played at with Koko Taylor in the Chicago suburbs.

"I was stunned to be able to share the stage with Koko, who is one of my heroes," said James. "We did get a video of the performance which is on my website. She is an amazing talent. Her album, 'Force of Nature,' is one of my all time favorites."

When James is not onstage or creating music; she enjoys watching movies, playing with her cats, cooking for her friends and hanging out on Lake Michigan's beaches. She has recently taken up tennis and is also playing on a team.

"I had no idea I was so sporty," said James.

Her message to the world is "believe in love. Now there is now doubt, that all the pain can finally be thrown out and heaven can be right here for you. Love is everywhere ... feel it shining on you."

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