James spoke with us about the inspiration behind Lean on Me, his encounter with the somewhat reclusive Withers, and the incredible wisdom he gained from the icon.

José James remembers Bill Withers’ music being so ubiquitous during his childhood in Minneapolis that he can’t pinpoint exactly when he was introduced to his music. “I don’t remember not hearing Bill,” James says. “His music was always on the radio or playing in somebody’s car. I remember growing up hearing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and “Just the Two of Us” along with music by Michael Jackson and Prince. It was a fabric of American music in black culture.”

That musical fabric has a profound impact on James as evident by the sensational, Lean on Me, his heartfelt tribute on Withers.  Even though, James surrounds himself with a stellar cast of jazz contemporaries including drummer Nate Smith, keyboardist Kris Bowers, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, he approaches Withers’ classics such as “Who Is He (And What Is He to You),” “Use Me,” and “Lovely Day” with velvet gloves; he doesn’t stray too far from the original arrangements.

What is it about Bill Withers’ lyrics and arrangements that impressed you?

In the biopic, Still Bill, Sting said that it’s very difficult to write something that’s simple and profound. That’s something that Bill seems to have a natural writing gift for – being able to deliver a message with such clarity and focus in a short amount of time. That’s really difficult.

I love the conciseness of “Lean on Me.” I can go around the world and perform that song to people who aren’t native-English speakers and they can understand exactly what [the lyrics] mean. You don’t have to grow up in the black church or be an ethnomusicologist to understand the song; you can feel it immediately. The melody matches the words in the same way. It’s easy to sing. It’s not so easy to inhabit. [Laughs] That’s something that I’m aspiring to do in my own songwriting.

Take me back to the inspiration behind making Lean on Me. When was the project first conceived?

I’ve been doing Bill’s music in my live sets for about five years. A friend reminded me that I’d did a tribute to Bill and Al Green at Rockwood Music Hall [in New York City] about five years ago. That was sort of the beginning. From that night, a lot of Bill Withers’ songs started getting into my live sets. I started doing this live medley of about five of his songs. People loved it. A lot of fans after the show said that they wished that I would record that. But I didn’t really have the opportunity to do that [then].

Talk about the artistry of doing tributes.

You’re walking a fine line in doing tributes. I think we’ve all heard tributes that have gone wrong. The last thing that I wanted to do was release something that I felt would be disrespectful or not up to par as a tribute to Bill. When I realized that he was turning 80 this year — and I’m turning 40 – it felt like it was the right moment to talk about his legacy and present it in album format.

Don Was [president of Blue Note Records] heard about the project then said that he would love to have it on Blue Note Records. I asked him to produce it because Don – besides being one of the best producers in the game – lived through the era when Bill was releasing that music. So Don knows that sound; he could give me the vibe that could make it what I was envisioning.

Explain your approach to interpreting his music. You didn’t deviate too far from the original arrangements. A lot of jazz musicians sometimes reharmonize the arrangements and stretch the melodies [of] pop tunes so much that it becomes nearly unrecognizable.

We definitely didn’t want to do that – like a reharmonized version of “Lean on Me” – because it just didn’t make sense. I’ve done three tributes – John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and now, Bill Withers. What I’ve learned is the music is a representation of that person. Billie, Bill, and Trane all lived the way their music sounds; their music were residues of their spirits. So, the music tells you what it really needs. Right away, we realized that we didn’t need to do much to these songs.

I also come from a tradition of respecting the composer. If you’re doing “Lush Life,” learn the song first. If you’re going to improvise, understand that Billy Strayhorn sat down and made certain [musical] choices to compose that song. Bill Withers sat down and made certain musical choices for his own music, so I should at least understand them before trying to add something else. We decided that Bill’s music didn’t need much because the songs were so strong as they were. My task was to embody the songs, emotionally, in a way that maybe could be interesting, and to try to bring the songs into another place.

Withers’ songs covered such a wide emotional landscape, ranging from tender songs like “Lean on Me” and “Grandma’s Hands” to something biting and vengeful as “Who Is He.” What were some of the more challenging songs for you to embody and why?

Technically, the hardest song to sing on the album is “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” The range of that song is huge. It’s one of those songs that is deceptive because it sounds so simple until you try to sing it. Technically, I worked the hardest on that song.

The other challenge was his songs being so well-known. Imagine singing a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” [Laughs] Something in the back of your mind is telling you, “Don’t do it.” So, the challenge for me was knowing that his songs are rightfully so loved, cherished, and known. How many cookouts, barbeques, and family reunions have we attended in which we heard “Lean on Me” and “Just the Two of Us?” People have been jamming to some of [his] music literally before I was born.

What I needed to do was to meet Bill. Don rightfully figured that out. We got to meet Bill and just talk about his life. Until I met him, for me, it was pretty much impossible to separate the legend from the songwriter. I needed to separate Bill, the songwriter, from Bill, the iconic performer. Once I was able to do that – and getting his blessing on the project – I was able to really get inside his songs.

I was still presented with other challenges. For instance, nearly everyone knows the song “Lovely Day.” So, I had to figure a reason to make someone listen to my version. I had an acting coach to really help me. We did exercises where I would take the text away from the songs and write it out as if it was text for an actor. I would deal with the text just on its own terms without the music, which is very challenging, especially since I know the song already. Then once I found my way into the text, emotionally, and I put the song back together. That was my secret weapon on the project.

Did Bill impart any significant wisdom in terms of being a singer-songwriter or just surviving the music industry?

He told me that it’s not easy being an artist. He said that we carry burdens that are virtually unimaginable to people who are not in the business. He said that he’s watched a lot of his friends struggle with it; he said that everyone has their own journey with it – some people are able to carry that burden with ease; with other people, the burden really takes them down. I was struck by his compassion for the game, especially after hearing so much of the myth about him leaving the music business and becoming the angry man on the mountain. I realized that he’s just a sensitive poet who legitimately just wanted to tell his story about transforming from being a blue-collar working man and going through all sorts of oppression such as racism to finding this beautiful place of calm.

To live through the Emmett Till-era and to write a song like “Lean on Me” – and he’s not just singing to black people – is to give a gift to the world. That sort of humility and elegance is something that I hear in the music of some of the other greatest artists of our time like Duke Ellington. With me turning 40, I started thinking about what my legacy would be like; Bill unintentionally started me thinking about that.

After really delving into Withers’ music and spending time with him, how has that experience shaped you as a songwriter?

I think Bill just gets to the point in his songs. He knows what he wants to talk about. My songwriting has become more direct. A song like “Do You Feel,” which on No Beginning, No End, is the closest I’ve gotten to a Bill Withers style of songwriting. The song’s soulful and direct. But a lot of my songwriting has been evasive and non-specific; and I don’t have a problem with that. But I love how Bill just sing sentences: “Sometimes in our life we all have pain; we all have sorrow. But if we are wise, we know that there is tomorrow.” That’s not even like a song; it’s more a wise statement from the elders. You can take that away from all the musical context and it has so much power. You can hear one of the church deacons saying that.

To me, that’s what’s cool about Bill’s whole thing; his music and lyrics work on so many levels. His songs could work as poetry, plays, or even church services. So, Bill Withers really got me thinking about the point of the messages in my songs.

It’s been a decade since you dropped your debut, The Dreamer. What are some of the most crucial things that you’ve learned about yourself as an artist?

There are some serious ups and downs in the music business; and that’s just unavoidable. One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that unmistakably, you have to remain true to yourself and to your guiding light. I think every artist comes to [a] fork in the road where they have to say, “OK, this is my personal vision and over here is my career. Can these two things co-exist?” For Bill, the answer eventually became “no.” I don’t think you’re asked this question just once in your life, either. It comes up often.

For me, I got to a point of knowing what I want to accomplish as an individual and as a musician. I asked myself, “What is my purpose in music?” That’s where I’m at. Working with Bill has really helped me in answering a lot of those questions.

José James, Lean On Me (Blue Note, 2018)

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union