Seasoned Producer & Songwriter Michael James Discusses New Album ‘Shelter In Place’, Production & Songwriting Parallels, & More

It’s rare to find someone who is as skilled at mixing and producing as they are at songwriting, but veteran producer Michael James defies this expectation on his newest full length album, Shelter In Place

James has had an extremely fruitful career in the music industry, and since the 80s James has continued to make a name for himself as a “behind-the-scenes hit maker,” and has worked with artists including New Radicals, Hole, Edwin McCain, Robben Ford, Kalimba and Eric Church. 

While James is a renowned and accomplished producer and mixer, he is also a talented songwriter and recording artist. Released on September 24th through his own record label, Alternator Records, Shelter In Place embraces both rock, jazz fusion, and Americana/folk, often drawing from artists such as James Taylor, Carole King, and Simon & Garfunkel. 

The album, which was written and recorded by James during the pandemic, explores themes such as love, isolation, loss, and hope. James collaborates with a cast of other talented artists such as vocalist Aaron Durr, Eric Colvin, Urban Olsson, Julia Albert and many more. 

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The album is mixed with 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos, making for a powerful and immersive listening experience. 

Shelter In Place also comes paired with a seven-part music video miniseries. The videos for his singles “I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t (I’m Drifting Alone),” “Come Back Lover,” “Save Me Tonight,” and “I’ll Be Here,” have already been released, with the rest to be released over the next few weeks. 

We got the chance to chat with James to dig a little deeper.

How did the pandemic and ensuing lockdown influence the writing of Shelter in Place

Many of my colleagues were panicked by the thought of never working again in the arts. I saw just how fragile one’s sense of well-being (aka mental health) can be. I’m lucky enough to be wired for positivity, serendipity and gratitude, so I figured I might as well at least get a song out of the crisis. I wrote a joke of a song, titled “I Tell Myself That Everything’s Okay.” I asked Aaron Durr to sing it. He said that the bones of the song were too strong to waste on a novelty. We rewrote it together, and it became “Come Back Lover.”

Writing the other 16 songs came easily because the album title Shelter In Place became my North Star. I really wanted to hear what such an album would sound and feel like, so I wrote it. The process was similar to fixing yourself a sandwich simply because you’re hungry, but on a much grander scale. Nobody else has yet made the sandwich you want to consume, so you do it yourself.

How did you link up with and decide to collaborate with Aaron Durr?

Serendipity and stars aligning! When I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2017, Jaimeson Durr, producer of Sammy Hagar, was on a short list of four Bay Area music producers I genuinely wanted to meet. We became close friends, but I had no idea that he had a super talented brother. My assistant, Brett M. Grossman, also an amazing musician, told me I needed to meet his dear friend and colleague, Jaime’s brother, Aaron, who a few days earlier moved from L.A. to Petaluma, walking distance from me. Brett set up a vocal mic, then Aaron knocked out “Fly Me To The Moon” in one take—while petting and crooning to Rosie, The Studio Cat! His playfulness translated to the record. He sings a “meow” melody to Rosie under my guitar solo. Many listeners think it’s a muted trumpet, but it’s Aaron, singing in cat language. We had so much fun that I asked Aaron to be one of the co-producers on the album.

What did your creative process for Shelter in Place look like?

I thought about song titles that would fit the thematic concept of a revolving tapestry of stories about love, isolation, loss, mortality, and ultimately hope. When inspiration would strike, I sang the ideas, melodies, words or themes into the Voice Memos app on my iPhone. I recall climbing a mountain on my bicycle when “I’ll Be Here” was conceived. I had to stop several times so that I wouldn’t take out a guardrail while singing. When I returned to the studio, I had to listen past a bunch of traffic noise to decipher my artistic intent.

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Song arrangements typically sound fully orchestrated in my mind before I even record the first note. Avid Pro Tools allowed me to quickly program a placeholder drum beat, to which I could record guitar, bass and keyboard parts, along with a scratch (temporary reference) vocal. This usually required about a day per song. Then I would send a rough mix (or the entire Pro Tools session) to whomever would collaborate on the particular song. FaceTime Video and AudioMovers ListenTo facilitated real time live streaming, so I never felt isolated during the process. At the end of the workday, I would email a rough mix to the other five co producers (Urban Olsson, David Kahne, Aaron Durr, Brian Joseph Kenny and Eric Colvin) for their thoughts, which I would record the next day. Any parts that my special guests performed were remotely and Covid-compliantly recorded.

How does being a producer influence and inform your songwriting? 

A large part of producing is the act of nurturing a safe space for unbridled creativity, and then judiciously editing the raw material to tell a story from a focused point of view. When I write a song, my motto is “create first; edit later.” I know the end of the story before I start writing it. The tough part is figuring out how to keep all paths heading to the same goal line, in as few words as possible. It’s quite similar to producing in that regard.

What is the message you hope listeners take away from the new album?

You are not alone. We are all in this thing (life) together. You are loved. Also, life is short, so let’s be mindful of the moment, and make the best of it while we can.

What led you to want to use Dolby Atmos on the new record? How does it affect the listening experience? Did it allow for more creative possibilities? 

I’ve always been fascinated by the twin, often competing, goals of: a) achieving crystal clarity in a mix (so that the listener can focus on whatever element they want at any given moment; and b) achieving a visceral emotional resonance with the music (so the listener does not feel the need to focus on anything at all beyond a holistic experiential moment.) The vast sonic panorama of Atmos’ immersive nature allowed me to tell the Shelter In Place stories without any of the supporting cast (aka the various instrumental parts) jockeying for position. If I close my eyes, I can “see” the spaces in between the performers. I conceived the arrangements with Atmos in mind, and was able to fit all the textures with room to spare.

You have worked with some amazing artists and have had an extensive and illustrious career in the music industry. What are one or two standout moments for you as an artist and/or producer?

As an industrial strength Beatles fan, spending an entire day in 1998 with Sir George Martin was unforgettable. He talked affectionately about “the lads” as if he were their big brother, and he shared lovely personal stories. Another standout moment was the first time I heard my debut single on KROQ around 1983. I remember it clearly because I waited two years for it to be released. All my buddies thought that I was going to be the next big thing because I was so young and (apparently) talented. But that particular day I was busy scrounging food scraps from tourists who looked like they were just about done with their chili fries. The juxtaposition of elation and hunger was surreal. That latter moment is on my highlight list because it reminds me to be grateful, even in lean times.

Do you have any plans for touring in the coming months?

I’m a studio rat, so touring is not my scene. That said, if it made sense, I could form a righteous band with Franc Aledia on bass and vocals, Aaron Durr on keyboards and vocals, Eric Colvin on keys and vocals, Jaben Pennell on drums, Urban Olsson on virtually everything and vocals, and me on guitar. Never say never. If SNL, Oprah or Ellen want me to perform, I would do it in a heartbeat!

What are your post-pandemic goals for your record label, Alternator Records? Are there artists you’re excited to work with?

The label is a vehicle for me to curate some of the wonderful artists with whom I work. Anybody who thinks that great music is extinct simply does not know where to look. That’s totally understandable because it takes piles of cash to rise above the noise. Alternator Records lends my credibility to new artists who deserve a shot at getting noticed, but do not have the resources. I make one-off singles-only deals, and I co-write with the artists. Nobody goes into debt, nobody is trapped in usury deals, and everybody shares equally in the success when it comes. The diverse roster sounds like my fantasy playlist of R&B, Jazz, Neo Soul, Hip Hop, Rock and Americana being manifested by my friends. I am super excited to be working with all of them, new and old! I’ve already signed dozens of artists, so I’ll be busy writing, producing and mixing for a very long time.

If you could have a drink, a smoke, and/or a meal with one of your living idols, who would it be and what would you want to discuss with them?

Can we pretend that Muhammad Ali is still alive?

I actually met him when I was in high school, at an invitational track meet, but I did not know at the time just how badass he was. I admire his willingness to go to jail for his convictions. I would love to talk with him about faith, spirituality and civil rights. Regarding “living” musical idols, I would choose a vegetarian meal with Peter Gabriel, Jonathan Brooke and Stevie Wonder. We would discuss the big picture, how we are all in this thing together, how we are all connected by love. Those three artists write very personal, intimate songs that scale up for the masses, presumably because they think beyond themselves, about the needs of the world around us. They get it: our own personal security and well-being is directly tied to that of our community. A rising tide makes all boats float higher.

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