“You know those big water jugs, the ones you see in an office? I had an empty one and I just started filling it with change. Find a penny on the ground and ‘Boom!’ it’s in the jar. Or my dad would look at me and say, ‘Hold out your hand. And don’t ever change.’ And then he’d put coins my hand. Money piled up in that jar for about six years. So when I started playing guitar, I was using this old, sad excuse for a guitar. It occurred to me: ‘Hey, I wonder how much money I’ve saved up?’ I spent a whole day counting; I had made, like, a thousand dollars. It became a rainy day fund that I ended up spending on a new Martin guitar.”
Preordained might be a bit strong. But there was definitely something in the cards for pop newcomer James Barre—himself a study in contrasts: a mere 17 years old, but every inch of 6’5”; a youthful countenance offset by startling wisdom and gravitas; a knack for cheeky earworms and also earnest collaborations with industry heavy hitters like Sam Farrar of Maroon 5; an eagerness to cite both Jimi Hendrix and Ed Sheeran as influences (cue serendipitous Loose Change reference).
“You know, my parents threw me into things,” James offers, an attempt to reconcile the dichotomy. “I did everything there was to do: I played every sport and was involved in every school club. Man, I was in the chess club. I didn’t even know how to play chess! I’ve just always been treated like an adult. My parents want me to be happy but also to go out and make something special happen. Because you can live in kid-land, but kid-land only lasts 18 years. Might as well get a head start.”
Head start is putting it mildly. The son of a dancer, the California native found his stage legs quite early. “Oh, man. I was in this little company called Children’s Musical Theater Works,” James reveals ruefully. “They were doing a production of Mulan and they thought it’d be funny if a five-year-old played the emperor. So there I was: a five-year-old emperor with a fake white beard and a pillow under my shirt. They were wrong: It wasn’t funny. It was hilarious.”
When asked to produce footage, James deftly demurs. But he’s happy to open up about the rest of his trajectory: “My musical theater background, despite how it started, allowed me to be comfortable on a stage. So when I found something that was my calling – songwriting and singing – I already had the comfort to pursue it. This really came together after my first performance at an open mic. People clapped, which was something I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting it; I mean, I was playing a show. But a light bulb went off. It was like, ‘Whoa, this is something that I could do forever, and have fun while doing it.’”
“That moment forced me to shift gears,” he continues. “I didn’t want to do anything but music; everything else was pushed away. It allowed me to understand that you can be the jack of all trades, or you can be the king of one trade.”
James’ current stock-in-trade is imbuing traditional singer/songwriter elements into what is unmistakably rock. James and his go-to producers, the Glendale-based trio The Trackheads, have been churning out a string of hits: the island lilt of “Keep It Movin’,” the finger-snap/toe-tap of “Don’t Say,” and the wafty house of “Girl of My Dreams.” Most recently, the team unleashed “The Reason”—a modern power ballad that’s seething its way across SoundCloud and YouTube. James’ vocals – gripping and momentous in the lower octaves and startlingly vulnerable in the upper register – dance artfully with the Heads’ insistent, moving chord structures and powerful builds.
“I’m so fortunate,” James gushes. “‘The Reason’ was just a great song from the get-go; it had so much depth. I’ve been writing a lot lately, but for ‘The Reason’ I came aboard during the process. I loved what I heard and immediately added my own concepts. Everyone’s ideas, both musical and lyrical, just came together. You know, when one person does this and another person does that, it can be beautiful or it can be a mess. And this time it was beautiful.”
Additionally, James collaborated with the aforementioned Sam Farrar, a multi-instrumentalist and producer known best as a member of Maroon 5, and also the Grammy-nominated boardsmith Rykeyz (Ne-Yo, Wiz Khalifa, Cody Simpson). This motley crew cooked up “This Means War,” a slithering, irrepressible funkfest certain to render dancefloors scorched earth. Better still for James, the experience offered more than a finished product: “Sam wanted to instill that it’s about focus, about paying attention to the little details. And putting your energy into it—really, you know, doing it. And striving to get better at it. Setting goals. If you continually set new goals in music, you’ll get there.”
“But I have to admit, the best part was when he complimented my vocals. I mean, come on! I’m 15 years old and he tours with Maroon 5! It’s one thing to get complimented by my family: ‘You’re my mom, you have to say that. You’re my aunt, you have to say that.’ But to hear it from someone so seasoned, so creative, and so successful just feels so good. Like all the work I’ve put into my craft was worth it.”
Speaking of worthy craft, James has also been recording with Nick Bailey, an accomplished producer and songwriter (Maroon 5, Blake Shelton) signed to Dr. Luke’s Prescription Music Company. Expect forthcoming efforts in the form of “Lights gone out” and “No Words,” the latter of which James describes as a “super-upbeat funky dance tune. It’s a great groove, something you can really move to. This song is going to surprise a lot of people.”
Naturally, the aim of all this studio work is to let his creations see light of day: “I’m most comfortable playing live,” James posits. “Because you can see what everyone’s thinking. There’s something so rewarding about seeing someone’s immediate reaction to your song. It makes you feel like what you’re doing is worth it.” To this end, James is lining up a West Coast tour, more than a dozen dates that correspond with stops of the Western Fair Association: “The demographic is younger people. Because I am a younger person. So will I relate to a 13 to 16-year-old? Hell, yeah. So if we go out to those fairs where all the kids are, whether they came to see me or they’re just cutting school, it’s all good.”
“I want the audience to listen to something and immediately connect to it,” James continues.” Because I’m connected to music. Maybe there’s something about the melody. Maybe there’s one word or line among all the other lyrics. If it can remind you of something that’s happened in your life, or of something you felt, or of something you saw, then we’ve connected. To make that connection, to feel something based off of a three-minute piece of music, then I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s awesome.” We think you’re awesome, James.