The Wheel Still in Spin
Four albums deep, James Houlahan is still reveling in the wonder and imagination of the record-making process. His new LP, The Wheel Still in Spin, drifts through varied states of being, musically and lyrically evoking the stillness against constant motion of that strange optical phenomenon the wagon-wheel effect, where a spoked wheel’s spin appears to cut opposite its actual rotation. It’s an apt analogy with Houlahan. In addition to the new album’s title, he alludes to the Tarot’s Wheel of Fortune on the record, and often makes explicit reference to wheels and circles as a means of processing his own journey. Influenced by icons such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, Houlahan’s songcraft lends itself to a particular alchemy of Americana. It’s easy to understand how and why Houlahan has become such a staple of the Los Angeles music scene.
“I’m staying inspired, motivated and in motion, though there’s a disorientation happening,” he says, discussing headspace these strange days. “I don’t know really know where I’m going in the big sense of things, but I have to just keep going.”
With songs like “Faded,” written right around the time Houlahan first encountered Daniel Johnston’s drawing “Faded Dreams,” he makes cutting observations on getting older and realizing certain things are never going to come to pass. “This is more of a character song,” Houlahan says. “I’m not this despairing at all. I’ve done a lot of traveling, and the idea of travel was on my mind. It’s also about feeling disconnected from yourself. It’s a little psychedelic, too.”
Other tracks like “All I’ve Got” and “Spirit/Music”—featuring the hazy vocals and mystic aura of late-’60s psych-folk pioneer Linda Perhacs—spill out like campfire tales, rich, earthy and as free-flowing as the star-lapping flames. The Wheel Still in Spin, produced by Fernando Perdomo (Linda Perhacs, Jakob Dylan) and tracked at Reseda Ranch Studios, is a warm and enveloping affair. Perdomo also handles bass and keyboards on the record, while Houlahan supplies ample guitar and harmonica. Danny Frankel, known for his session work with Lou Reed, Fiona Apple and Nels Cline, among others, adds lush and fevered percussion and drums. Houlahan’s girlfriend, accomplished talent Esther Clark, can also be heard as background vocalist throughout the album.
“Some of the songs are a little more personal than on my other albums,” Houlahan says. “This process was a lot simpler than any other record I’ve made. It was great to work in the studio without any time constraints. I wasn’t working by the hour. It was more relaxed, and it seemed like these songs wanted to be together—more personal and stripped-down.”
A native of Concord, Mass., Houlahan’s story is a typically American tale of dream-seeking. He started playing piano at 8 years old, switching to guitar in his teens. He sharpened his craft in the basement for years before he felt comfortable performing, and it wasn’t until his 20s that he began playing his music in front of crowds. While living in Boston in the mid aughts, he played lead guitar in a few rock bands, but eventually knew he couldn’t let his solo work go unheard. “I realized that if I didn’t sing my songs nobody else would,” Houlahan says. He released his first two solo efforts Seven Years Now (2009) and misfit hymns (2012) before relocating to Los Angeles and releasing Multitudes in 2016.
Earlier this year, Houlahan landed his song “Going Home for Thanksgiving” in the feature film Little Pink House, starring Catherine Keener (Get Out, Capote, Being John Malkovich) and also featuring musical contributions from David Crosby. Originally, Houlahan’s friend, film composer Ryan Rapsys, approached him to cover a Johnny Cash song for the soundtrack. When that fell through, he put his nose to the grind and delivered in a big way.
On his new album The Wheel Still in Spin (out Sept. 21), Houlahan scratches out matters of the heart through a lens fogged with deep sorrow. His mood is often downcast (“Sunday Song,” “Let It Go”), but his voice is always laced with quiet hope. “It’s getting harder day to day,” he sings on “Stuck in Between,” one of the album’s darkest moments. But Houlahan carries his cross with a refreshing majesty. “I’m used to rejection,” he says, “I experience rejection all the time. My career is learning how to manage failure. It’s a feeling that I need to persevere through all these obstacles because the songs are still coming.”
That sobering tone ebbs and flows throughout the album, which is bookended by “California,” a harmonica-laden cry into the dusky evening shadows. “All my roads have run out of pavement,” Houlahan sings as he rides off into the sunset, tugging listeners along with him into the stunning western ambiance and leaving them reeling from the weight of permanent change. Houlahan’s charm seeps through his plainspoken nature in subtle yet masterful strokes. The Wheel Still in Spin is his best album to date, positioning him to take his place at the forefront of the vibrant Americana scene.
“The pain of human reluctance to let things go that we once loved is palpable in this little gem.” – Americana Highways
“A sound that is equal parts folk and dream pop.” – Americana UK
“Paints a stunning romanticized vision of the West.” – Cowboys & Indians Magazine
“his record is simultaneously forlorn as it is warm and enveloping. “- Folk Radio UK