The Young Wise Life of Andrew St. James

Before the age of 10, Andrew St. James sang and toured for the San Francisco Opera. It was his first job, but it couldn't last forever.

“My voice dropped, and they fired me,” he said. By the age of 10, rock ’n’ roll infected him with the songwriting bug anyway, and he started to learn the keys. Listening to The Doors inspired him to slide over from the piano bench to the organ, and by age 12 he was already improvising along to extended jams by his prepubescent band, Little Big Man.

But at the age of 17, soon after he recorded his first album, Doldrums, he premiered on USA Today.

The Californian has come long and far. Andrew St. James, now 20, sports sideburns that rivals the likes of a 19th-century military man. Though young, his calmness and reflectiveness don't necessarily seem youthful. In fact, there’s a certain worldliness to the way he speaks.

“The way I think about my life — going through stuff, moving places — I try to look at it from a third party perspective,” he said. He zooms out to make sense of his life and writing stories help.

He performed at Tomorrow Never Knows, keeping Schuba’s music hall lively and energetic before Lou Barlow performed. But, before the night started, he and his in-studio producer and onstage musician Jim Greer led me into the green room of Schubas — a basement with walls and a ceiling both covered in layers of tour posters.

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Andrew St. James was adopted and he told me his birth family is an artistic one, though the parents who raised him are also long-time music aficionados. The parents who raised him went to Woodstock and The Band’s Last Waltz concert. These influences rubbed off onto St. James.

The two musicians — St. James and Greer — appeared relaxed before the show. Andrew St. James embarked on his first, full tour. And he kicked it off by playing Chicago for his first time. (His birth parents, who reside in Chicago, attended the show to see him perform for the first time.)

The veteran Bay Area producer, Greer, joked about how St. James drank too much prior to leaving for the tour. Before they departed, Jim slammed on St. James' door, shouting that they need to get going. They ran to the airport only for St. James to realize he left a bag with his physical merchandise at home. “I’ll be making fun of him for years,” said Greer.

But this brings along a good story with a hearty laugh. Something tells me St. James is mostly in it for the stories, too. He grew up reading the beats, who "permanently imprinted" him with the rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness style of writing. This makes sense, as he grew up in the Mission District in a city that shares a vibrant history of gold-prospecting pioneers, poets, and potheads.

Onstage, Andrew St. James held the guitar like Lennon but strummed it like Dylan. He tiptoed into the microphone while belting out a ballad. This one, a bright-sounding and upbeat tune that is, ironically, a dark story of a former lover who no longer cares for him; another one, about his first boss of his internship, a man working in government, who slept with a different married woman.

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He may talk calmly but he can sing with a barbaric yawp. He uses those pipes he earned from opera well.

During his set, a crowd of college-aged students encircled the front stage to stomp along to one of St. James’s more bluesy tunes. In the corner, an older woman also danced so fervently that she knocked over a beer near one of the stage’s speakers. His songs resonate enough with listeners both young and old to shake the room.

Greer embellished the songs with a keyboard and a small drum-kit while onstage, giving the two-person act the energy and depth to match the record’s layers of textures. He also holds a platinum record for his work with Foster The People, and he shared a simple yet effective philosophy: “Let the music do the hard work.” He took a cue from Ray Charles and he said in order to do music “just don’t quit.”

While the subject matter of St. James’s songs may be grounded in the 2010’s, there’s a certain timelessness to his songs. He layers his narratives with Biblical images or references (in songs like “Before the Flood” and “East of Eden”), and most critics compare him to a young Bob Dylan or to The Tallest Man on Earth. He said it’s flattering to be compared to Dylan so often. With healthy dosages of beatnik literature, Neil Young records, and seeing songwriters like Steve Earle perform for the Bay Area’s free music festival “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” helped carve out his identity at a young age.

Pure Volume’s listed Andrew St. James in a top ten list of unsigned artists. But he may not remain unsigned for long. Both Greer and St. James said they're casting a wide net to see if they can acquire label support. In this day and age of self-released music, Greer said they’re playing the waiting game while "feeding the beast" by uploading songs onto SoundCloud. A few days after this interview, St. James released the song “Trapper.”

By the time he became able to vote, St. James has risen to national attention. While he may humbly shrug his accomplishments off, he writes prolifically and holds the varied musical background to stoke the creative fire. He sang opera before 10, improvised along psychedelic jams by 12, and recorded his first album by 17. We may not know where he goes next, but we know on he will go.

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Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.