One of the first things you notice when you look through the artwork inside Joshua James’ latest album, From the Top of Willamette Mountain, is stark lettering that reads, “I am not real.” It’s a line that figures prominently in the romantic title track, and, when asked about it, James says it’s a line that carries weight within the whole album, since the indie-folk singer-songwriter has since named his house after the fictional mountain. “The concept behind naming my house Willamette Mountain was to be able to create an imaginary place where anything and everything was possible,” James says. “I know that sounds a bit little kid-y or juvenile, but it isn’t real anyways.”
The elements of the album that are real are the tender, heartfelt moments that dot the songs of Willamette Mountain, which he crafted while living on a farm with his wife and their many animals in Utah. At the time, he was listening to cassette tapes like Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits, Nirvana’s Nevermind, as well as tapes by Marty Robbins and Reba McEntire, and he was dealing with the joys and depressions, and the life and death, that comes with farm life—which he also chronicles on his Tumblr page. When he departed to record his album in the Willamette Valley of Oregon with producers Evan Coulombe (his bandmate) and Shins member Richard Swift (who’s produced Damien Jurado, Laetitia Sadier), the group fine-tuned his numbers until they were the earnest, funny, catchy songs you can listen to hear. “They brought the magic,” James says, “The record was 90 percent them and 10 percent me. Swift has the touch of a sorcerer; he hears music differently than me, and that’s why it was so incredible to work with him.” Now songs like the single, “Queen of the City,” which has the unforgettable lyric “My dog ain’t nothing like my lover,” and “Doctor, Oh Doctor,” in which James posits “If there is a heaven,” have an emotional depth to match their unique lyrics. It’s a nuanced, honest album, and luckily for us, when we asked James about the album, he gave us honest and unique answers.
Your lyrics hide nothing about how you’re feeling. What kind of an environment do you surround yourself in when you write that allows you to be so honest?
I create most from the top the mountain. My home is my muse, it’s where all that exists in my realm resides. My lover, my friends, my animals, the mystic.
Your bio says “Queen of the City” came out of a whisky-induced haze. There has to be a good story there. What happened?
Ah yes! The “me n’ my dog” song. I spend a lot of time on my own, my lady worked nights for a good long while at the local hospital, leaving me to my own devices most of the time. One Friday night I was in our front room with my pup. I had been sipping a bit of bourbon and strumming some minor progression on my guitar. Tuck, my Aussie shepherd, came in and curled his body around my feet, and I just sang out, “My dog ain’t nothin, he ain’t nothin like my lover.” I mean, after my lady went to work what was I supposed to sing? That song came out exactly how it sounds on the record, there was no rewrite later, after the fact. It just came out in fifteen minutes. Sometimes there’s magic in the mountain.
What have you learned from trying a farming lifestyle last year?
You know, the homestead has been an ever increasing and slow building lifestyle so it wasn’t just everything at once. We started the garden, albeit small at first, then moved to chickens, goats, honeybees, fruit trees, then a larger garden, so on and so forth. And it was over the course of the last three years so it just has felt like the natural step as a human. To be connected with that aspect of our existence has become just a part of life now. It just feels … normal I suppose.
The story on your Tumblr about your baby goats being born, and unfortunately losing one (read here), is both heartwarming and heartrending. Did it inspire songs?
Geez, yeah. That was a really hard thing for me. With so many animals on the mountain, we have seen our fair share of death, and with that death comes so many questions, and questions always lead to songs. This last year we lost our favorite cat, it was really terrible. I wrote 10 songs about his passing. Death seems to do that.
In another post, you joke that your goats have learned some martial arts. How hard were they kicking you?
[Laughs.] Yes those babies are the most rambunctious I have ever seen. They do this insane “sidekick” off of the boulders that line their fencing. They are working on their yellow belt currently.
Shifting gears, a big part of “Doctor, Oh Doctor” is the line, “If there is a heaven.” You sing a lot of spirituality, what are your beliefs?
It’s become a foreign feeling, the idea of heaven. The possibility of existing after death is a beautiful painting on the wall and you are 100 yards away. As you walk toward it you find that it’s not getting closer … and no matter how fast you run the painting is still off in the distance. After years of running, I changed my focus from the painting on the wall to the scenery that I have been walking through. I won’t lose that again. But I am a king of contradiction.
So what exactly is Willamette Mountain, other than the studio? Or is it just meant to be literal?
It is all encompassing. It is my home, my state of mind, my escape from the rest of the world. My “Neverland” without the creepy mental imagery. If you look closely you can see that [it's] you, me and us. We are not real anyways.
From the Top of Willamette Mountain comes out November 6 on Intelligent Noise. Stream it below: