Frankly Speaking

James Lee Stanley: Musical Survivor

Every now and then I’m going to write about artists who deserve wider recognition. I can think of no one more deserving than James Lee Stanley. Since 1972 the singer-songwriter-producer-recording-engineer-actor has released no less than 34 albums, many recorded in his project studio.

His music is acoustic guitar-based and draws from elements of pop, folk, rock and more. He’s collaborated with ex-Monkee Peter Tork, John Batdorf and others. In addition to original material Stanley has released All Wood and Stones and All Wood and Doors, very different acoustic takes on those bands’ songs, and is now recording All Wood and Led with Dan Navarro. He played various roles in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He wrote the 1984 dance club smash “Coming Out of Hiding” for Pamala Stanley. He just started hosting Another Radio Show on folkmusicnotebook.com, featuring singer-songwriters he admires. He is a very funny guy.

I first heard Stanley in 1998 on his Freelance Human Being album. I was knocked out by his songwriting, at once familiar-sounding and distinctive, his evocative singing and accomplished guitar playing. (My Stanley favorites sidebar is at the end of the article.) His latest release Without Suzie is a strong collection of folk-pop-American music, from the wistful opener “Every Highway” to the wry “Live It Up Now” (“Live it up now/You can live it down later”) to the simply gorgeous “I’m All In.” Stanley has remixed and remastered Without Suzie for January 1, 2020 re-release, so it was a good occasion for an interview.

Which might never have happened. James Lee Stanley now wears another hat – that of cancer survivor.

Frank Doris: What made you decide to become a musician?

James Lee Stanley: I come from a musical family and my grandfather was a huge influence. He could play guitar, piano, mandolin, trombone, flute, anything. There’s a picture of me as a very young boy, sitting on the side of the stage and watching him, riveted. I started on clarinet when I was 10, then the ukulele when i was 12, guitar at 14 and piano at 21.

FD: What inspires you to write songs?

JLS: All of my music is biographical. I always need to have some meat in my songs. When I was coming up and someone new would show up on the scene, the first thing we asked was if they had anything to say. Pablum lyrics, rhymes that don’t ring true and insipid phrases simply turn me off.

I play a couple of hours every day, so that seems to prime the pump. You play and then the music starts to play you.

FD: What would you call your music? It’s acoustic-based but it’s not stereotypically folky and it’s not really straight pop.

JLS: I just think what I play is American music. America is a place that attracts this big blend of people. The fact that we’ve had such a remarkably open immigration policy over the last 200 years means this place is a melting pot. It extends into art, literature, music, whether we like it or not, politics. The influences come from the whole planet. Coming out of folk music and listening to a lot of jazz, I sometimes refer to my genre as “Fo Jazz” or if you prefer, “Faux Jazz.”

FD: I’m really enjoying Without Suzie. How do you manage to keep coming up with good material?

JLS: I write a lot. On my phone right now there are probably 200 partial songs sitting on it. I asked my wife about this. “When you wake up in the morning is music playing in your head?” And she said, “no!” Well, every time I wake up there’s music playing. When I’m driving, I’m hearing melodies and I sing them into the phone. I’ve never had writer’s block in my life.

FD: You’re lucky! (Laughter)

JLS: I’m always trying to write a song you haven’t heard before, which is not something the popular music industry encourages. What they want you to do is to write a song that already sounds familiar.

You have to decide – do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a celebrity? I chose to be an artist.

FD: Some of your songs are lighthearted and some are emotionally intense. For example, “Just Let It Go.” My friend was going through a miserable divorce and couldn’t get his ex-wife out of his mind no matter how hard he tried. He would obsess over what she might be doing, even drive past her house. One day “Just Let It Go” came on my iPod and I realized that that song would give him better advice than I ever could.

JLS: I wrote that song for exactly that reason, for my friend, artist manager Derek Sutton who was going through a painful divorce.

FD: About two years ago you moved from LA to a rural area. Why?

JLS: My wife had been in the corporate world for almost two decades and truly needed to escape. I said find a place you want and we’ll go there. She found our lovely little home with spectacular views out every window on a couple of acres on top of a mountain about thirty minutes outside of Tehachapi, which is over two hours north and east of Los Angeles.

I have to work differently now. When I lived in LA I could call [people like] Paul Barrere, Timothy B. Schmidt, Rita Coolidge, Laurence Juber. “Hey, can you play lead guitar on this song?” And they’d all come over. Now I have to mostly record everything myself. I play the parts until I get something I like, then go out on the road to get a distance from it, then come back to the song.

When I do work with other people I call them in but don’t play them the demo. I like to get their contributions without steering them, because they’re such fantastic musicians that I don’t want to inhibit their creativity by trying to impose my ideas. Get the best people you can and then get out of their way. Why in the world would I tell Lawrence Juber how to play guitar!

Here’s James playing Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”:


FD:
You’ve become adept at home recording. How do you do it?

JLS: I have Collings D2H, Martin HD-28 and Taylor 810ce acoustic guitars, a 1969 Fender Strat, a Kimball grand piano, various drums, percussion instruments, synthesizers and amps. I use an AKG C414 and a whole raft of mics, Reaper and EZdrummer recording software, a Tascam 8-track recorder, three Alesis ADAT machines and a ton of other stuff.

I started recording in 1972 with a Teac A-3340. I was always making demos, up through 1980. I had refinanced my home in Santa Cruz to make an album but got screwed royally by a company called Regency. I lost my home and moved into a friend’s for a while. That’s when I decided that I would never rent studio time again. I started building a studio and slowly but surely I’ve added to it and now have a full-fledged studio with a 48-input board.

FD: How about some recording tips and tricks, especially since more and more artists are doing it on their own?

JLS: I used to use a Tascam half-inch 8-track multitrack recorder with a footswitch. I’d get ready and punch Record a nanosecond before I had to do an overdub. Eventually I found that it’s just easier to practice the part until you own it and then just play it.

Second, listen to the part again and get some distance from it. You might find that what you didn’t think was good at first actually is good. Third, everything you do has to serve the song. Fourth, if you’re working with a computer, it can become too easy to just add a track wherever you want and cut and paste, but it’s very difficult to not end up with disjointed, improbable solos. I tend to write my solos. I like them to have a momentum, an arc, a destination. But sometimes it’s also great fun to just play and see what comes out.

The more guitars you record, the more manipulation and EQ you have to do to give them their own sonic space. There are some engineers that can do this but I’m not a brilliant engineer, just a careful dude! Sometimes, the more layers you put on, the worse it sounds.

I like to mix instruments in mono, so that their individual voices and timbres come through. If you record everything in stereo and hear all the instruments and vocals from both sides it can mask the uniqueness of things.

I frequently put on a song I think is well-recorded, like Paul Simon’s “Train in the Distance” and listen to my recordings to see how they compare.

FD: What about live performances? Someone once told me once you get on a stage you’re not a musician, you’re a performer.

JLS: If you’re standing on the stage and in the spotlight, to be unprepared is arrogant and insulting. You also have a responsibility to be entertaining. When I’m onstage I’m a musician and a comedian. The fact is, I’m a really good musician because I want to be.

FD: Why did you decide to start your own record label?

JLS: All my performing life, I have been doing funny bits between songs. My audiences liked it, so I finally recorded a show at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. I shopped it to all the labels and they all said the same thing: “is this a comedy record or a music record? Pick one!” I refused and decided to release it myself. I received a ton of orders, so in 1985 I started my own label, Beachwood Recordings, and never looked back.

James doing one of his between-song bits:


FD:
Moving to the present: when did you realize you had cancer?

JLS: I was scheduled for a colonoscopy and my wife said, “you know, your breath smells funny; why don’t you have an endoscopy at the same time?” So I had them put a camera up my ass and down my throat. Musician on a spit!

They discovered I had a slight ulceration where my esophagus connects to my stomach. Two weeks after the endoscopy it felt like I was swallowing razor blades. It turns out I had squamous cell carcinoma on the base of my tongue near my throat. Believe it or not, what I got was from a virus that comes from oral [sexual] contact.

FD: Holy crap!

JLS: I thought about my pre-marriage days and realized that I was nothing if not full of reciprocity. Always trying to please, don’t you know.

I had started to feel irritation on June 14 and had a biopsy on October 14. Three weeks after I was in surgery. Luckily the cancer was on and not in my tongue or on my vocal cords. They cut the tumor out along with 62 lymph nodes from my neck.

I have no traces of cancer right now. I lucked out. If my wife didn’t tell me to have the endoscopy I wouldn’t have known because this kind of cancer doesn’t present any symptoms until you’re too far gone.

FD: So you produced Without Suzie before you were diagnosed?

JLS: I [thought I’d] finished it in April 2019 but I remixed, remastered and repackaged it over the summer and now I think what I have is the definitive version.

When I was diagnosed I worked on Without Suzie 10 hours a day. I finished the record on November 7 and went into surgery on November 8. I was kind of amazed that I wasn’t afraid of dying; I was afraid of not finishing the record before I died!

FD: You have your priorities straight. (Laughter)

JLS: I think so. I mean, anybody can die. Not everybody can do a record!

FD: How are you feeling now?

JLS: I sang for an hour yesterday. I have a show on January 4 and I’m gearing up for it.

 

Sidebar: 10 favorite James Lee Stanley songs, in no particular order (and I confess, I haven’t heard all of his albums in depth).

“When Love Comes Knocking Around” (Freelance Human Being)
“Somewhere In Between” (Freelance Human Being)
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (Traces of the Old Road, Bob Dylan cover)
“Just Let It Go” (Traces of the Old Road)
“Live It Up Now” (Without Suzie)
“I’m All In” (Without Suzie)
“Let the Tree Fall” (The Eternal Contradiction)
“Coming Out of Hiding” (Backstage at the Resurrection)
“Jericho Wind” (Domino Harvest)
“Some Say” (Once Again, James Lee Stanley and Peter Tork)