José James: I don't want to chase a hit

ERICA RIVERA | Updated 4/16/2014

Locally born soul/jazz star talks splicing genres, Prince and finding success on his own terms.

José James

Minneapolis-born, New York-based José James is the son of a Panamanian saxophonist father and an Irish-American mother. A drifter and sonic chameleon, the 36-year-old started out as a Catholic school choir singer, graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and now merges hip-hop, jazz, R&B and soul music. His fifth studio album, “While You Were Sleeping,” drops in June on Blue Note Records. We caught up with James by phone ahead of his homecoming gig Monday at the Cedar, where he’ll preview songs from “Sleeping.”


Q: What’s most salient about your music is that it doesn’t fit neatly in any one category. Is that a conscious effort on your part?

A: I don’t set out to not fit in, but the way I listen to music is I jump from a lot of different genres. I’ve never been a pure hip-hop or rock or jazz dude. I think it’s interesting that there’s a trend of people bringing in disparate styles — like James Blake bringing in European church or folk music into electronica.


Q: How were you exposed to all these different genres?

A: Just being a fan, growing up in the ’90s. Pre-Internet, I remember being really excited about videos on MTV, being excited when Nirvana or A Tribe Called Quest came out with a new album, or when “Ill Communication” by the Beastie Boys came out. It seems quaint now, but it really stoked my imagination and enthusiasm to be an artist. It was a different time and there was a lot more freedom. People just liked great bands.


Q: How did the Twin Cities influence how your sound developed?

A: When I lived there, there were really only two stars on my radar: Michael Jackson and Prince. “Purple Rain” was my first vinyl LP. I felt really proud of Prince, not just musically, but to have somebody put us on the map in that way, internationally. It was exciting to be part of that scene and watch it unfold as a kid. I was too young to know about the great rock bands, but I remember the Jets. It’s always been a great music town.


Q: Your career has taken you all over the world. What other kinds of music scenes have you experienced?

A: New York City is the most internationally sophisticated music city I know, because most of the musicians are from other countries or cities. I’ve been able to keep my bands fresh — there’s always somebody showing up and playing who’s amazing. Right now, my bass player is from Kansas City, my drummer is from London, my guitarist is from Memphis, and my keys player is from L.A., but we all met in New York.


Q: The titles of some of the songs suggest you were inspired by spirituality on your new album.

A: I went to Jakarta and played the Java Jazz Festival. I stayed in the hotel that’s modeled after the Borobudur Temple. Something about that mix of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city and being in this hotel garden full of statues of Bodhisattvas and angels. It was a heady experience. I felt something intangible and all these songs started coming to me.


Q: How do you balance the commercial side of the music industry with your artistic needs?

A: I’m realistic. I don’t say, “This is going straight to radio.” There’s definitely a format, especially in U.S. radio, and it’s a game you have to play. I made a decision a long time ago to be an album artist and to put more of my focus in my live show. It’s quality over everything else. I don’t want to chase a hit. If something clicks with people, I know it’s because it means something to them, not because somebody told them to listen to it 20 million times a day.