Life actually started out pretty much like everyone else’s for James, born in Norfolk, Virginia to a comfortable home with Nintendo, pizza dinners and summers on the beach. But all that changed when, at age 10, he left for Christmas break with his mom and two siblings only to find out they weren’t going back home ever. Leaving his dad to join a controlling religious cult in southern Georgia, James’ mother began the journey that would put her family through severe struggles financially, emotionally and many other ways but that would also spark the creative voice in James that birthed the rock artistry of James Clay.
James desperately needed a Father’s input on his young life as he found himself bearing the responsibility of providing for his family at only 14 years old. The family made a second move, this time to Missouri, where James began the first of a menagerie of unusual jobs. They were the kind of work available to a hard-working teen that had yet to finish high school, but were necessary to keep food on the table for his mother, brother and sister. His career actually began at 13, when he bussed tables for a local restaurant, then continued at a dairy farm where he milked cows, and in a factory where James built pool cues. Next on the resume came busboy for a local restaurant, followed by a two-year stint as a chimney sweep. It was during that time when, in romantic irony, he met and married his wife, Ashley. James was only 18.
“I had already been working full-time for four or five years, so getting married at 18 for me didn’t seem young,” James says. Before too long, the couple welcomed the first of their two children, Grace, into the world, and the boy without a dad now became a father himself.
It was in the midst of working hard to simply survive that James first began to write songs. On an $80 guitar he bought at a second-hand store, James began to work out his emotional and relational struggles in verse and melody. “When I was 14, I put my first four chords together, and that was my first song,” he laughs. Though he grinningly discounts his earliest efforts as “really cheesy-bad,” he rapidly became a proficient songsmith, to the point that a song he wrote only one year later, “Franklin Park,” will be the first single from James Clay.
“When I was 15, we lived in a trailer park in Missouri that everyone called ‘Franklin Park,’” James recounts. “I felt like I loved the people there, but that love just didn’t seem to matter to them at all. “I wrote the song ‘Franklin Park’ because I realized that loving them was all I could do. All of the names of the people in the song are people who really lived there.” But, he’s quick to admit, “I didn’t run around saying, ‘Hey, I’m loving you,’ because they would probably have punched me at some point! But I did love them, and I believe it impacted them.”
More songs followed, and James began playing with a blues band after moving his new family, which now included baby Judah, to a nearby town where he worked in yet another unusual trade a turkey factory. “The job paid alright, but it was really strenuous,” James recalls. The job required moving four to five thousand live birds a day, weighing an average of 25-30 pounds each, from a truck to the processing line. “It was like going from being a 135-pound kid to playing on a football team,” says James, who put on nearly 50 pounds of muscle in the four years he worked there.
Meanwhile, this blue-collar worker began to draw attention from music industry executives with his honest, passionate music and impressive guitar skills. “I was working at the factory, and all my money went toward bills,” James tells. “We didn’t have any money to record a demo. But my wife and I felt like we were ready to make a CD. So we went ahead and booked studio time and planned a party where people could pre-buy the CDs to raise the money.” The party was a financial success, and in addition, members of the Clay’s church donated funds, including one generous friend who underwrote the entire studio cost of the demo. That demo quickly made its way into the hands of Inpop Records co-owner Peter Furler, who was so impressed he immediately began the process of signing James to the label.
“I really didn’t have a lot of pop culture influence,” James admits. “And I think that may be why my music sounds pretty different from most of the stuff that’s being made today.” James did manage to develop an affinity for classic rock when he got his first car a 1974 Impala at age 17, and sneak in some alternative rock songs in his room as a teenager.
James self-dubs his own music as “unique,” a fitting description considering the wealth of experience and unusual influences that color this 22-year-old’s eclectic first release. Stylistically diverse, James Clay fuses the energy of acoustic rock and a lifetime’s worth of stories with James’ rugged, passionate voice and undeniable guitar talent. Produced by music industry veteran and songwriter Phil Madeira, the album showcases a confident and accomplished young songwriter, with eight songs written by Clay, two more co-written with Madeira, and a cover of the fitting classic hit “I Still Believe,” originally made famous by The Call and later recorded by music legend Russ Taff.
Relying on the grace his daughter is named after, James Clay has already climbed a long road to reach the beginning of his music career with Inpop. With each step, he has gained hard-won wisdom and a unique perspective on life that will continue to shape his music.