Hailing from Pennsylvania-via-Baltimore, Anthony St. James is a songwriter who has been performing since back in 2008, touring across North America and Europe despite not even having an album to his name. That all changed in October last year when Anthony teamed up with Crotalus Records (US) and Aldora-Britain Records (UK), to release his debut collection, Songs of Anthony St. James.
Anthony’s music falls into the classic story-telling tradition of folk music, nodding to the likes of Justin Townes Earl or Sturgill Simpson, with his ability to take minimal instrumentation and sketch it into vivid images of lives being lived on the edges of the mainstream. Discussing his inspiration, Anthony describes his music as a celebration of, “the lonely, desperate, and the down-but-not-quite-out”. Recorded in his makeshift basement studio with what he describes as the essentials; guitars, bourbon, and a declined invitation to his twenty-year high-school reunion, Songs of Anthony St. James is a record of growing up, recollections of friends, loves and the struggle of, “emerging adulthood”. Throughout we’re treated to half-remembered portraits, whether it’s the blurry recollection of The Corner Boys, who “keep moving on”, or the patrons of Nick’s Cafe, who bond over heartbreak and restlessness and treat it with, “hot coffee and pie”. Particularly excellent is You Belong Here, a song about the draw of your hometown, and memory’s ability to drag you home from adventures, particularly if there’s someone to come home to, “if I’m lost on a reason to come back, you’ll be all the reason I need”. They might not be new sounds, but with them, Anthony St. James tells new stories, he raids the great American songbook and with the tunes he finds, crafts a tale entirely his own.
FTR: For those who don’t know who is Anthony St. James?
I’m a singer/songwriter from Pennsylvania, playing some variation of folk music. I’ve played in a few different acoustic bands since 2008 but sometime around 2014, I started writing songs that didn’t feel like they belonged with either of them; they felt more like my own thing. Someone called them “sad songs about good people” and that sounds pretty accurate.
FTR: What can you remember about your first show?
I exchanged a few demos with a London-based singer/songwriter I met on a music forum. We talked about getting together for a show or two, which somehow turned into a full-fledged tour of the UK & Ireland. The first time I played a full set of solo songs was at a jazz & blues club in London, on the first date of that tour. There was a reality TV star in the crowd who kept throwing back shots and shouting over us for table service. The club paid us less than we’d agreed on, despite our damn near packing the room. They also didn’t feed us like they’d promised. It was a pretty memorable first gig.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not another art form?
We always had music playing in my house when I was growing up. My dad didn’t want me to watch too much TV so he got rid of it, and I spent my evenings learning how to properly handle LPs and singing Springsteen songs while he played the piano. I was bitter about it at first, but I started to really like knowing about those things that none of my friends did. I don’t remember wanting to actually play guitar until I got into punk rock, when I was 14 or 15. The Ramones and the Violent Femmes sounded a lot easier to learn than the Beatles and the Police.
FTR: What can people expect from the Anthony St. James live show?
I like to tell stories and connect with an audience. I remember the first time I heard Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner album, with all of his little interludes and bits of commentary in there, and thinking I wanted to do something like that. I try to smile and crack a joke now and then too, to lighten the mood. The songs are pretty depressing, but I’m always genuinely happy to be performing, and I want that to come through.
FTR: What’s next for Anthony St. James?
I’m really anxious to start playing shows again. I haven’t done much since covid started. I’ve got a few songs toward a new album in the works, but first I’m going to do a vinyl single for charity. I wrote a song about gentrification called “Ruby Sang the Blues” and I’m hoping to record it later this year. I’d like to release it as a 7” or flexi disc, and donate a portion of each sale to Right to the City, an organization that fights to keep people & businesses from being pushed out of their communities.
They Listen To…
Kendra Morris – This Life
Colemine Records is such a great soul label. I bought a lot of records online during the pandemic and added this 45 to an order on a whim. I played it more than just about anything else last year. Her voice is incredible.
Vikesh Kapoor – The Ballad of Willy Robbins
Vikesh and I both grew up in the same area of rural Pennsylvania, both started out in the punk rock scene, and both wound up playing folk/Americana. Our paths have been very similar, though he’s miles ahead of me. His debut album is always a go-to when I’m looking for inspiration.
Ian Fisher – American Standards
This song came out a year or so into the pandemic and, intentionally or not, perfectly captures how so many of us were feeling at the time: full of nostalgia, adventure & desperation. It’s the sound of hitting the open road and never looking back.
Sierra Ferrell – The Sea
I bought her album Long Time Coming last year. It’s all over the place; country, blues, gypsy jazz, calypso, tango… but she weaves it all together and makes it sound both familiar and completely original at the same time.
Chris Stringer & the Rocketeers – Bones
Chris & I have done a bunch of European tour dates together. He’s become one of my best friends and collaborators. I wish I could write more reflective, poetic lyrics as well as he does. He’s truly one of the best songwriters you’ve never heard, and his voice is damn near operatic. He makes it all seem so effortless.