Warren James has a big warm voice, which makes sense since he's got a big warm heart! In this guest interview Warren talks about his roots on the gulf coast, how his search for a life of integrity lead him to Canada and what inspires him to make every performance a "Big Show"!!!!
Micah: You come from the Gulf Coast which has a rich history musically and culturally. What influenced your artist identity coming from there?
Warren: My parents and my grandparents all seemed to be musicians. My MiMi and PaPa used to play the piano together in clubs on the Gulf Coast - one on each end of the piano and they never needed sheet music. My father played the piano by ear and was a master of the trumpet and almost all of the horned instruments. For a while he headed up a Dixieland Jazz band and he and my Grandfather played the big clubs from New Orleans to Mobile, AL. Living in and around New Orleans in my earlier years I had opportunities to see some amazing artists like Harry Connick Jr. and I remember seeing him make a video in the French Quarter. He was a brilliant influence on me then and still is today. Other strong influences included a rich vein of powerful gospel music since that style is very strong in the South.
How did growing up with your family influence you musically?
Both my parents and grandparents were natural musicians and my mother was trained as an alto singer and played the piano as well. My sister played the flute in high school, and was a classically trained pianist and competed in several competitions during my younger years. My younger cousin today is a professional jazz pianist in New Orleans so clearly music was a huge part of our lives growing up. Every time we had a family get together or holiday gathering just about everyone had an instrument in their hand. The neighbors knew our family had a gathering because you could here the noise for blocks around. It was an interesting upbringing.
What attracted you to music when you were young and what music did you hear?
In the beginning I was exposed more to contemporary Christian music than anything else. Growing up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and "Bible Belt Country", going to church was a weekly ritual. We were very much involved in the church orchestra which was a huge deal. I was quickly influenced by voices of Steve Green, Larnelle Harris and Sandi Patty who were all big voices back in the 80's and 90's. I learned how to develop the same sound and tone that both Sandi Patty and Steve Green carries in their voices. I recall my first song to sing by Sandi Patty was "Upon This Rock". My father later introduced me to artists like Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. At University, I studied vocal performance and was part of several musicals. I played the part of "Frederick" in the Pirates of Penzance and "Curly" in Oklahoma……those were great roles. Later in life I discovered (or rediscovered) big voice powerful singers like Tina Turner and Shirley Bassey and seeing them both live here in Toronto rekindled my interest and love of the power of singing.
When did you know you had a talent for singing and entertaining?
I think this was instilled in me at a very young age. When I was about 9 years old, I sang "My Tribute" (To God Be The Glory), a song written by Andrae Crouch to a large gospel church congregation. It was an overwhelming and exciting experience.
That was the first time I remember performing but I soon became very interested in performing for others. In high school a friend and I started performing at weddings and other venues. Shortly after high school and in my early years at University, I formed two gospel singing groups of my own and we performed in many churches across the South.
You have a lot of experience performing. What situations gave you the opportunity to grow the most in your younger years.
Being in theater throughout my university days was a huge learning experience for me. You had to not only sing but also act in a role of person you had to get to know. I found it challenging at the time to do both but quickly learned over time that I needed to just let my voice carry me through the part. I also toured with a national gospel singing group just after graduating from high school - a three month tour through Western Canada, Alaska, and California. We did a show everyday and that really taught me how to endure grueling schedules and keep going even when you are completely exhausted. It was also living out of a suitcase and traveling on a bus for three months…..it was about 50 performers so you really got to know them very well - it was a super experience.
You've said that you came to Canada on the rainbow railroad.
What influenced your decision to emigrate to Canada?
Finding the love of my life was the real driver in deciding to come to Canada. We spent several years in a long-distance relationship and the strength of that experience and the times I spent in Toronto and other parts of the country led me to believe that Canada was part of the greater plan for me. Every step and experience along the way has played a significant role in assuring me that I'm in the right place now and everything I value is here now. My family and my life have been here for the past 15 years and I have never been happier.
What has being in Canada meant for your blossoming as a person, and as an artist? Are you more able to be comfortable being "out" here?
I have never felt more free or more at home than I do now living here as a proud citizen in Canada. I always felt a bit out of place growing up and living in the various places I did before coming to Canada. The Gulf Coast, New Orleans, Dallas, and Memphis - all places I’ve lived before, have their charms but Canada has allowed me to become the person I was meant to be and to live the life I was intended to live. I have found warmth and acceptance and happiness here.
Can you talk a bit about working with Micah and Singers Playground and what (if any) help that has been to your understanding of yourself as an artist?
For me, the experience has been around keeping it ‘real’ when it comes to understanding the this industry, music and performing. If you want things to happen in this business, you have to do the work, be authentic, and transfer your real passion into your work. No one is there to do it for you and you have to pour yourself into the role. It takes commitment, you have to believe in yourself, and you need others around you that believe in you too.
You have some very powerful ladies as your musical influences and you're not afraid to "cover" their songs. What makes you so courageous?
Shirley Bassey, Barbara Streisand and Reberta Flack have been the most influential female voices in my life. They all deliver intense emotion in their songs and you can’t help but experience the message behind each song they perform. I’m drawn in by the power in their voices and the presence they hold on the stage and enjoy feeling that I can, to a degree, deliver some of that powerful influence to my own audiences.
Courageous? Maybe but for me, it’s more about just wanting to deliver the same level of intense emotion and power that they project in their voices.
You give powerful performances that feel built for the concert stage.
Where would your ultimate concert be and who would be sharing the bill?
I've dreamed of sharing the stage with Shirley Bassey ever since I saw her perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. She has been the biggest inspiration to my current singing career and if I could only meet her for a moment I would express my sincere appreciation for her talent and influence she has had on myself and many many others.
Performing with John Barrowman would be very close to performing with Shirley Bassey since I believe he has been strongly influenced by many of the same inspirations I have had. His style is compatible with my own and he also has a wonderful performing ability to engage the audience. I think the British entertainment scene has some amazing talents that we can really learn from here in North America.
How did you choose the songs on your CD?
Tough question to answer! There were so many songs I wanted to share with others but ultimately it came down to which songs were important to me for my own personal experiences, songs that tell the story I want to tell.
For example the title track “This Time,” while written for Shirley Bassey in 2009 speaks volumes to me about introspection, renewed love, and regained self confidence. These are not just personal themes that I have identified with, but universal themes that we can all personally identify with.
What can audiences expect at Hugh's Room?
I think the audience can expect to be overwhelmingly surprised by powerful voices! Where else on June 5th in the city of Toronto, can someone go and hear such a unique group of performing artists with such rich backgrounds and cultures? There's going to be a little bit of everything in this show. Everyone who comes out is going to get a taste of what they enjoy as well as be exposed to something new. I am so excited to be sharing the stage with such unique amazing talent all in one night.