On a weekend in February, a piano met its death.
She was purchased for $100 off of Craigslist by Brendan James. He gave her a kiss, and told her that she had been a great piano. And he said to her, “Tonight you have to die for the sake of the nightlife.”
The instrument’s thrashing was just one component to the music video for “Nightlife,” the piano-pop musician’s catchiest single off of his 2012 album, Hope in Transition. Though he was living in California at the time, the former major label recording artist traveled to Charleston to film the Jeff Lange-directed clip, an experience he considers the most organic and effortless production he’s ever been a part of. He told his friends to join in, and they told their friends, who told their friends, and pretty soon he had 40 people dancing around in the back of a U-Haul parked in someone’s driveway. James also crashed Read Charlie’s 50 Most Progressive launch party at the Hippodrome and snuck under the Ravenel Bridge to dance around at sunset. “There was no pressure,” he says of the process. “And that’s all that song is about is having your version of a good time after you’ve worked really hard the whole day, and that was my version of a good time.”
The wistful way he speaks of the shoot is as sentimental as the content of another track on the record, “Charleston.” It’s the kind of song you might hear one day on Army Wives, a TV show that has soundtracked James’ music in the past (he’s also had tunes on So You Think You Can Dance? and Bones). It is, not surprisingly, a gushy ode to the city, but it’s special because it came from someone who had never even lived here — and it was one of the deciding factors in a major life change for James. “When you write a song, you get so deeply into the sentiment of a place or a concept, and the more I dug into that song, the more I realized I need to be there,” he says. “If I love it this much to write this kind of a song, I just need to be there.” And as of earlier this month, he is here permanently.
James arranges for his City Paper interview to take place at the Village Bakery, a quaint wood-floored eatery in his new neighborhood, Mt. Pleasant’s Old Village. Though he spent seven years in New York City, two in L.A., and one in Oakland, James was raised in small-town New Hampshire and spent his college years in Chapel Hill. “I have been living ‘downtown,'” he air quotes while waiting for a sandwich, “for a lot of years. And this is a beginning of a new chapter for me where I made a purposeful move away from big cities, really just because I was born in a smaller town and raised in a smaller town, and I feel my creative self wanting to return to something a little simpler.” So he moved with his wife and his dog across the country into a little house in the historic neighborhood. James’ Yamaha piano is now set up in the middle of their new living room, and he won’t have to worry about aggravated apartment neighbors banging on the walls and demanding he keep his music down anymore. More than a few of his high school friends now live in Charleston — including gallery owner Robert Lange, who’s hosted some of James’ shows. His friends are all scattered about what James refers to as Charleston’s “boroughs,” but this one was the right one for him.
To get here, the little family drove through 105-degree heat with the dog in the cab, in a truck so heavy it couldn’t go uphill more than 40 miles per hour. It certainly wasn’t a dull journey. In the plains of Texas, halfway through the trip, James got a phone call. The U.S. Olympics women’s soccer team wanted him to record his song “The Lucky Ones” and send them the live video. He had to find a piano right away, and fortunately a little mom-and-pop shop in Amarillo set up a grand piano and a microphone for James. “I was standing in front of three generations of the family that started the music store,” he says. “The son, the father, and the grandfather standing in front of me in Texas and they’re like, ‘This is going to London, our store.'”
The team eventually went on to win a gold medal, and James settled into the warm embrace of the Lowcountry. “It just feels like the more that I travel and live in different places, the more I realize I’m at my creative best when I am relaxed and comfortable,” he says. And he’s noticed the innovative swell of Charleston, not just in music but in art, food, and design. “I feel like there’s a new generation speaking out here in Charleston that is considerate and cognizant of the old generation but clearly wants to start something a little fresher. And once you mix that with all the friends I have here and the beach, I’m just done. I’m done.”
As a musician, James wants to be a songwriter that Charleston can count on for years to come, someone who will grow and change with the local music community. He looks forward to collaborations with his peers, but it’s something he’ll have to balance with his national and international presence and the obligations of maintaining that kind of following. He also has a lot going on with the release of his last album, including a tour that’s already taken him out of Charleston, and he’s well on his way to putting together a fourth record. It’ll be a departure from the poppier stuff he’s written in the past.
Although James has played the Music Farm, the Village Tavern, and Awendaw Green while on tour, he realizes that it takes a bit of time to get plugged into the music scene, so he’s not going to rush it. “I want it to happen organically. I don’t want it to be like I’m here, I’m a songwriter, what’s going on? I just want it to be subtle. That’s how I work,” he says. And he’s also trying to transition from a lifestyle of touring eight months of the year and being home for four to something that’s the flipside of that.
“I just said to my wife, if it was ever hard to leave for tour before, then it’s going to be really hard to leave for tour now,” he says. “I think coming home to Charleston is a warm hug at the end of a long run of shows.”
And while that effusive kind of a statement might seem disingenuous to some, he’s quick to add, “It’s so true. I’m not bullshitting about anything,” he promises. “I jumped in the ocean last night and was floating there thinking ‘I think I just figured it out.'”
Brendan James is on the bill for Hotel Carolina, a weekend of music at the Windjammer that takes place Sept. 20-22. Get tickets at welcometothehotelcarolina.com.