James Keelaghan has been called “Canada’s finest songwriter” by the esteemed music critic, Dave Marsh. However, it’s not just Marsh who feels this way—just ask James’ fans who treasure his song introductions as much as his songs. How many musicians are pressured by their fans to produce recordings of live performances just so that they can listen again and again to his stories about his songs? James is known for his “history” songs and it seems as though there is a wealth of tales to be told about the citizens of Canada. In response to this request, James released a CD / DVD package aptly called History: The First 25 Years.
To learn more about James and his storied career, check out his website.
Here’s a video of James performing one of his best known songs, “Cold Missouri Waters.”
I’m always interested in whether songwriters discipline themselves to write new songs or not. Do you set aside time in your schedule to write or you wait for the proverbial muse to strike?
I am not a very consistent or prolific writer. There are times when I am writing and times when I am not writing. I don’t do it on a day to day basis. That having been said, every day there is a bit of melody, a piece of a verse that goes into the memory bank for future use.
Some of your songs are related to very specific Canadian stories. Do you do research to find unique tales to tell?
The stories tend to find me. I’ll be reading a book and a certain page might have an idea I want to chase down. More often than not someone will lead me to a story they have heard or tale from their experience. .It’s not really research as much as it is keeping an ear open for a good story.
Are you ever inspired by stories you hear from your fans?
You’ve lived in western Canada all your life, what characteristics do you think the people of that region have? Is their relationship to their province different than eastern seaboard Canadians? Is their take on the history of your country a bit different?
I think that landscape informs perception. The openness of the prairies, or a seascape, lends itself to a lot of sitting and staring.
You’ve done some collaboration with some songwriters in the past. Is that more challenging than writing a song by yourself in some ways or is it just “different”?
It’s different for sure. For me, it’s hard to find people that I gel with. I don’t think that I am the easiest guy to write with, so there has to be some kind of spark. I’ve been doing some writing lately with Coco Love Alcorn which has been a surprise for me, as we come from a couple of very different traditions. Coco lives way more in the jazz, gospel, hip hop world. The difference is liberating
You’re known for your beautiful interpretation off Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” What is it about Gordon Lightfoot that has inspired you the most?
The ease of the storytelling.
Is there a pivotal point in your music career in which you knew that you had made the best possible decision to become a touring singer-songwriter or were confident from the very beginning that this something that you felt compelled to do?
I thought I’d make a couple of albums and then go back to school and get a law degree. As a matter of fact I kept thinking that until about four years ago. I admitted to myself that the return to school was probably not going to happen. It’s sometimes very hard for musicians to accept the fact that this is what we do. Society just will not recognize it as legitimate work and never will. We internalize that. Lack of self confidence is the great destroyer of music.
Did the inclusion of your song “Cold Missouri Waters” on the Cry, Cry, Cry album make a significant impact on your career? Have you ever had the chance to sing the song with Richard Shindell (or Dar Williams or Lucy Kaplansky)?
I have and it was great. Richard, Lucy and Dar invited several of the songwriters from that album along to open shows on the release tour. I did three or four of them. It was a very graceful act. Their cover of the song certainly got my name out there. For this I am extremely grateful