From making demos on a 4-track in the early 90s, to his brush with the millennial zeitgeist as the drummer in Longwave, (and solo-driven projects he’s released since), Mikey James’s road through the music industry has been a meandering one, full of stops and starts, triumphs and disappointments. But it was a chance meeting with an old bandmate, Anthony Kuhn, that set him on the path to create some of the best music of his career.
Proficient at drums within a few years of taking up the instrument, James recalls his dad showing him off at bars at age six – “the first song I ever played in a bar was ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ by ZZ Top, and the place went crazy,” he says.
One street over from James, unknowingly, another six year old, Anthony Kuhn, was learning how to play “Hurts So Good” on his first guitar in the MTV enraged culture of 1983.
Just after high school, as grunge was hitting peak popularity, as Kuhn and James remember it, everyone wanted to have a Neil Young/Pearl Jam band. So, James started one in the early 90’s, called Native Kin, with future Longwave founder Steve Schiltz, who then recruited Kuhn. This was the beginning of James’ and Kuhn’s musical journey together. The band quickly gained a reputation that won them opening gigs for touring national acts such as Moe and Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies. The band split in ‘97 like any high school band heading into their early 20’s would, and Kuhn joined the Air Force and served in the Middle East.
When Schiltz moved to Brooklyn in ‘98, James followed, and ultimately joined Longwave to become their drummer. “A month after 9/11, I moved down to NYC from Rochester with 80 bucks. I joined Longwave, and my first gig was opening for The Strokes at Stone Pony,” he recalls. Longwave went on to sign with RCA, and in addition to The Strokes they landed support slots with all the hippest acts of the early aughts – The Vines, The Raveonettes, Mooney Suzuki, OK Go, The Donnas.
During the making of Longwave’s second album, There’s a Fire, James “got Dave Grohl syndrome, I suppose,” exiting the band and moving back to Rochester to write his own music. A year later, in 2005, he started power-pop band The Mercies, cementing the beginning of his transition from an experimental, lo-fi recordist to a songwriter on an ever-expanding quest to hone his craft. While short lived (the band called it quits two months after their self-titled release in 2007), the Mercies landed two songs on KCRW, the CMJ chart, and later were synced for several television shows, the first of many times that James’ songs would catch the attention of industry platforms with little to no budget or promotion.
After the Mercies, James decided to give up on the band thing, instead preferring to write and play everything himself. He began releasing songs under the name Mikey Jukebox. The MJ output helped him achieve even more success in the sync licensing world, earning James placements in “New Girl,” “Gossip Girl,” “Up All Night,” and more recently, “This Is Us.”
James has also worked with a slew of producers, mixers, and mastering engineers (people with names a young James would read in album credits and essentially cold-call), following his muse in pursuit of whatever offbeat musical hybrid it compelled him to try. With legendary Ardent Studios producer John Hampton at the helm, for example, James’s Admirers project landed in a retro-futuristic realm somewhere between Roxy Music, Nile Rodgers, and M83.
In the last half-decade or so, however, James has harnessed his tendency to dart from one genre to the next, all of his influences coalescing into a rich soup where the ingredient that stands out first and foremost is James’ own singular songwriting style. At this point, he doesn’t even care all that much if he appears on the recordings of the songs, increasingly viewing his body of work as a kind of modern-day songbook to share with other musicians.
Enter Kuhn again, after a mutual friend reconnected him with James. From that chance meeting, Singing River was born. With Kuhn’s one-of-a-kind slide work, James has rediscovered the joy of making music for music’s sake and working with a partner again. Recording and producing the music themselves in their collective home studios, the result is what James likes to call “northern folk,” referencing his admiration for the likes of Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, and Bob Dylan.
Many of the songs that have been written and recorded for the Singing River project have been inspired by, of all things, the Snow White soundtrack (turns out Tom Waits is a fan, unbeknownst to James).“I heard it one day, and I thought ‘this sounds fucking incredible!” The soundtrack prompted a soul-searching, rabbit hole of musical research that led him to such sonic wonders as the T Bone Burnett’s collaboration with Allison Kraus and Robert Plant, Raising Sand; and to Cosimo Matassa (Fats Domino, Little Richard), inspiring him to take a new approach. “I want to do real music again,” he says, citing also as an inspiration the late 20s/early 30s country, blues, and jazz 78 rpm records.
“It’s funny,” James enthuses, “my love of production has taken me down all these rabbit holes that ultimately led me back to the most organic music that’s ever been made. If you listen to these old 78 rpm records of country, blues, and jazz from the ‘20s and ‘30s, there’s no ‘production’ to speak of, but there’s obviously something there. And it hits me in the same place—maybe even a little closer to my heart, in a way.”
“I’m still crazy about production,” he continues. “That’ll always be there, but the longer I do this, the more I keep coming back to that bare essence. What is it that’s coming across on these really early recordings? We can’t find the words to describe it, but we can all hear that it’s there. With Singing River, Anthony and I are trying to find our way to that.”