Photo of Shayfer James – Copyright Maxine Nienow
Jersey City has a long tradition of cooperation between musicians and visual Artists. At events such as 4th Street Arts and Music Festival, the Cathedral Arts Festival, painters, sculptors, and songwriters have often presented their work to the same audiences at the same time. Many of this town’s best bands have proven particularly sensitive to the expressive power of Jersey City’s homegrown visual arts community.
Yet nobody has taken it quite as far as Shayfer James, an ambitious singer and writer whose recent music has been directly inspired by pieces made by Jersey City artists. March Of Crows:JC, an album released in the spring on 2016, featured sixteen songs written in response to specific artworks he’d seen around town and that had moved him to sing. James, who is a sharp observer and strong, warm-voiced singer, presented a multimedia concert to celebrate the March Of Crows album last year. That event went so well that he’s updating and reprising the show, and presenting it again at Grace Church Van Vorst (39 Erie Street) on Friday, March 10.
James is back with a new set of songs — these inspired by the Jersey City mural project and other street art he’s encountered around town. He’ll play his new material at March Of Crows 2017, songs will be presented in an interactive listening gallery, and he’ll also turn over the stage to two of the artists he wrote about on the first March of Crows collection. Bryan Elkins, an artist who specializes in intricate, mesmerising pen drawings, and clay sculptor and provocateur Ceallaigh Fogonogelo Pender — who are musicians as well as visual artists — will perform their own interpretations of the songs James wrote about their work. That’s the sort of cross-genre collaboration that James — who likens it to a game of Telephone — thrives on. He’s interested in dialogue, and the fruitful way that ideas mutate as one artist in a community inspires the next; a picture prompts a song, a song might inspire a poem, or a dance, or a movie. His work stands as an open invitation to creative artists in town: join the conversation. Local filmmaker Tracey Noelle Luz, for instance, shot a documentary about the March Of Crows; it’ll be screened at the March 10 event. (Admission is free, but there’s a $10 suggested donation that’ll go to support Cathedral Arts.)
All this might make it seem like a listener would have to be from Jersey City to appreciate Shayfer James’s music. Remarkably, that isn’t so. Although March Of Crows is decorated in Hudson County colors — there are lots of specific references for locals to appreciate — James’s urban storytelling is broad and vivid enough to resonate for any city dweller. His music is theatrical, a little twisted, and deeply American: he’s part sideshow performer, part traveling troubadour, part Tom Waits-style weirdo with an eye for character detail, and part traditionalist with a real understanding of pre-rock styles. It’s entirely possible to appreciate James’s music and the March Of Crows without knowing anything about Jersey City visual art, or even Jersey City. That said, given the sheer amount of talent here, why wouldn’t you want to know more?
Jersey City artists couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic tour guide than Shayfer James. We caught up with him last week and asked him about his process, his influences, his love of visual art, and what to expect at Grace Church on Friday night:
What inspired you to do this project?
It really was all about connecting to the community for me.
I’ve been living Downtown for about four years. The first time I played in Jersey City was at the 4th Street Arts And Music Festival in 2011. I enjoyed the environment. I started meeting people — not just musicians, but artists, too, and realized that this was a place I wanted to be. I’ve lived in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens, and while I love the City, it can be a little intense. But I’ve always loved the experience that Jersey City gave me — the closeness of the community. I wanted to be part of that. I immediately wanted to branch out, and meet artists and people whose work I knew a bit but hadn’t yet been introduced to.
I’ve always enjoy writing to prompts — it’s like a puzzle game. These artworks were great prompts. There’s no way to get into the head of the artist, of course, but I could figure out how the artwork made me feel, what the symbols were, how it worked into the surrounding environment. That’s why I wanted my new songs to respond to Jersey City’s murals. I am fascinated by art’s connection with the actual physical environment of the city.
Do you think that Jersey City’s visual art has defining characteristics? Is there a particular signature style common to artists here that you were picking up on?
That’s hard to say. I think if anything, it’s the presence of the city itself — the diversity and the energy here, and the pride. I feel that in Jersey City art, because the artists here really appreciate where they are.
I am a person who admires visual art, but who can’t do it myself. The murals here are so unique and so creative, and so specific to the places they’ve been made. When I see that someone has painted something incredible on a seventy-five foot wall, I’m astounded by that. I’m amazed by the color, the texture, and the dimensions of it. Often I don’t even know how to talk about it, but I know I feel it, and it makes me want to respond to it in my own writing.
What sort of reaction did you get from the artists? Were any of them resistant? Anybody suspicious of your interpretation?
Not at all. Most of the responses of the artists I’ve been able to sit with and talk to have been really enthusiastic about it. I think they think it’s cool that this is happening, and they understand that I’m inspired by what they’re doing and interested in an artistic dialogue.
Beyond that, I think they appreciate the attention to detail and the fact that I really concentrated on their work and had a profound reaction to it. All artists are like that, not just visual artists. I love it when somebody comes up to me and talks to me about a lyric they heard and that meant something to them. That they noticed it at all is a thrill. We’re verifying and celebrating each other’s existence.
Why do you suppose there isn’t more dialogue between visual art and music? I can’t think of any other examples of a project like yours — can you?
Offhand, no. I’ve heard things that are collaborative, and been to events where visual artists and musicians work together, but what we’re doing here is a little different and more systematic, I guess. It’s like a game of Telephone: one idea inspires another, and in the process, that idea is transformed.
I don’t always love the way artists get compartmentalized, and I always wish there was more communication. Different kinds of artists do tend to stick together, and I guess that’s understandable. I find visual artists to be among the most inclusive and embracing artists — poets, too, are mutually supportive and sell each other’s books, which is an inspiring thing. With musicians, I’ve found it’s a little different. There’s an unnecessary rat race, and less understanding of how communities are born and what it means to be truly successful.
How will this year’s show at Grace Church differ from last year’s March Of Crows? How have you changed as a performer and a presenter?
Last year was a huge success for me, both artistically and personally. This year, I wanted to make the music move a little bit beyond myself and my own story. I love the idea of other artists providing their own interpretations of the songs. That’s why I invited two visual artists whose work I responded to on the first March Of Crows to perform versions of those songs. I want that game of Telephone to continue as long as possible.
After that, there’s the March Of Crows documentary — it’s 20 minutes long, and I’m really proud that we’ll be showing it, because it’s another great example of what happens when artists react to each others’ work. Tracy’s project is about women: it’s focused on women’s rights and the issue of violence against women. She heard that in my lyrics and caught that in my process and helped me better understand a theme in my own writing.
Grace Church is a wonderful place to do a show. I love the energy there. I love the sound system, I love the people. It’s beautiful inside. There’s so much warmth to that place.
In your delivery and compositional approach, your music often feels old school: I hear echoes of Capitol-era Frank Sinatra, old blues and country, vintage musical theatre. Where’d you learn to sing that way?
I grew up in a house with three generations of music fans. We loved the Great American Songbook: Cole Porter, Sinatra, Motown, shows like Anything Goes and West Side Story. That’s all part of my musical education. I loved the narratives of those songs, and I loved the way they were built and performed.
I believe the greatest singer of all time was Nat King Cole. Just his use of consonants alone and the way he worked with vowels — it’s all amazing, and it made an enormous imprint on popular music that its still apparent to me.
Can you imagine bringing a March Of Crows-style project to other cities?
Yes, that’s something I’d really love to have an opportunity to do. Maybe not in the Northeast, but somewhere else where the culture is very different and I can immerse myself in a tradition and style unlike what I’ve encountered here in Jersey City. I’d love to do something similar in the South or the West Coast sometime.
This year’s participating artists include:
Beth Achenbach, Luca Cosolito, Jacie D’Agostino, Debra Devi, Distoart, Bryan Elkins, Brittany Graziosi, Ariel Guidry, Kelly Heaton, Brandyn Heppard, Norman Kirby, Andres Lo, Tracey Noelle Luz, Lance Michel, Mustart, Ceallaigh Fogonogelo Pender, Gabriel Perry, Liz Rovetta, Athena Toledo, Ron J Upperman, Blair Urban, Joe Waks, and Meagan Woods.
March of Crows will be held on Friday, March 10 at 8 pm, at Church Church Van Vorst, 39 Erie Street. Admission is free, but there’s a $10 suggested donation that will go to support Cathedral Arts.
For more information on Shayfer James, visit shayferjames.com.