James Levy is a gifted New York coffee house singer who clearly has friends in high places. Guy Berryman of Coldplay produced his fantastic album with duet partner Allison Pierce of the Pierces. Tim Wheeler of 90’s Irish alt rock heroes, Ash, produced Levy’s other project, Reputante.
Since the Pierces is one of my favorite bands, I briefly wondered if my passion for Pray To Be Free was just spillover from my passion for the Pierces’ trilogy of four and five star albums Light of the Moon, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge and You & I. So I consulted some second opinions:
Andy Fyfe of Q magazine said, “With Allison Pierce as his Nancy Sinatra, (Levy) cooks up some of the greatest countrified orchestral pop this side of the randy old goats’ heydays.”
…said goats being Serge Gainsbourg and Lee Hazelwood.
The Times of London describes an album “awash with the soaring strings, sepulchral atmospherics and lolloping gait of Hazelwood and Sinatra’s collaborations. (Levy’s) lugubrious, Stephin Merritt-like baritone is offset by her swooning coo.”
— this review had me immediately looking up meaning of the words:
Fiona Sturges of UNCUT said “Levy’s baritone brings a velvety richness to string-drenched songs about infidelity and betrayal, while Pierce proves a distinctive foil. These are beautiful songs with a murderous heart.”
Johnny Sharp of MOJO said, “His songs are simple and instantly seductive, helped by hints of bone-dry humor on the horn-laced pop of Sneak into My Room.”
John Aizlewood of Q gets a dead on read of Levy: “Levy’s the gruff-voiced cynic, Pierce is the harmonic temptress. They create impossibly catchy magic and ‘Precious Age of 13’ just might be the best Bar Mitzvah song of all time.”
Producer Guy Berryman said of the sessions: “The songs document romance in all its guises; dark, twisted, hopeful and joyful. The sounds, drawing upon classic arrangements from the ’50s and ’60s, are melodic and lush and are hopefully a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by urban electronica.”
I guess this could have just stopped there. Toss in some MP3’s to give you a taste and close with a heartfelt recommendation to buy the record. But a few months ago, I asked for an interview and was graciously given one. As Levy talked to me while walking down a busy street in New York, it was a challenge to get him to talk about his current album because his next three albums appeared to be swirling about in his head. Due to the often jarring street noise, at times I was shouting these questions to him. His responses — sometimes to questions I didn’t really ask — are very candid, providing a refreshingly honest peek into the mind of a hungry and passionate artist who is hopefully at the precipice of fame and fortune.
POPSOSE: Pray To Be Free is clearly a love letter to the baroque pop of Gainsbourg and Hazelwood, was that the music you listened to growing up?
JAMES LEVY: Growing up in Vermont, I was primarily into the MTV things. I was listening to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, all the edgy New York stuff. I moved to New York in 2000.
Did you connect right away with the antifolk scene?
The Sidewalk Café is where I played and met most of my friends. I only realize now how good they were and how special it was. Regina Spektor, Moldy Peaches, Jeff Lewis — it’s where everyone hung out.
What inspired the artistic leap back in time for this album?
For this record, I really wanted to make a certain style — I was listening to a lot of Serge Gainsbourg.
Were the orchestral arrangements part of the songs from the very beginning or did that happen when Guy Berryman came on board?
The songs were done before we started and the arrangements and melodies in the demoes are the same as we recorded them. The record took a while — a week here, a week there — a few months in between. Guy would fly here (NYC) — I would fly there (London). Guy was recording (Coldplay’s’ Mylo Xyloto) while I was living with him in London. We mixed my record at night when he got back from the studio.
With Berryman and Pierce’s industry connections, was there label interest from the start?
There was nobody who was interested in it — Guy had a lot to do with getting this on a label. Heavenly (Recordings) is cool.
How did you go about bringing this album to the concert stage? I imagine it would be a challenge cramming an orchestra into a small club.
We played five shows in London, Berlin, Paris — that’s pretty much it. I played some shows with the Pierces. I would love to do more but Allison is busy with her own band.
So what’s next for James Levy & The Blood Red Rose? More tour dates? A second record?
Allison’s got her new record — mine is Reputante with Tim Wheeler from ASH. The sound is a little more electronic. Tim produced it. I’m playing some dates with Ash.
When will Reputante come out?
There are no plans to release it — there is no label.
Thankfully, two free preview tracks have surfaced on their new bandcamp page:
So you have one date on the books, January 24, 2013 with Allison at the Echo in Los Angeles. Will that be a full band show?
Sometimes we bring a trumpet player, sometimes a band, for the most part, just us and guitar. The show is sparse. It’s hard to get a steady thing going. Pray to be Free is better as a record than a touring thing. It’s a specific sound that is hard to recreate without the players. The live show is mostly guitar.
Pray to Be Free was a critically adored record. Hopefully it will catch on sales wise so you two can do more with it.
I don’t have any money. I can’t pay the rent next month. I don’t see myself as successful. It doesn’t really anger me, it’s just the way it’s always been. It’s not easy — it’s hard for me to think about anything except writing and hanging out with my friends — it’s all I really think about. I’ve never really felt any sort of glory.
What was it like going Hollywood for the “Hung to Dry” video?
It’s kinda weird. I think my life is more crazy than the video. It was fun. I’ve known the song for four years, so I wanted to have fun. The video was Allison’s idea and the director, Steve Birnbaum — definitely not MY idea, but it’s cool.
How did it feel to film the passionate scenes where you kiss Allison, your friend for so many years?
A little weird — for her — I felt fine about it (laughs) — it took some acting, I guess. We’re good friends.
Walk me through the video for “Give Me Happiness,” was anyone aware you were making a video besides you and your costar?
It was shot out my window — we’re just sitting on a stoop — it’s not a high budget thing, not much thought put into it — it is what it is. Passersby were saying “What is he looking at?”
It’s like still photograph slowly coming to life…
I noticed that your booking agent is Steve Strange, is that the same Steve Strange who once lead new romantic synth outfit, Visage?
Don’t think it’s the same guy. All I know is he’s cool as hell.
Getting back to the album, did you and Allison co-write everything?
Allison wrote “Cry Myself to Sleep” and I wrote pretty much everything else. Some of these songs I’ve had for 10 years.
You two met on MySpace?
A long time ago — I wrote her and she wrote me back saying I love your music. We reconnected five years after that.
Was that before the Pierces really took off?
(lots of audible street noise — I don’t think he heard me)
I love the Pierces. Glad they’re finally huge in Europe, I keep waiting for them to breakthrough here.
I don’t know how that works — I have no idea how they break through — I don’t think about it — it’s all irrelevant to me.
Beyond creation, half the rock star job is the business side, streaming deals, licensing…
I don’t expect anything for myself — don’t know how it works. It takes too much brainpower to think about it. I don’t know how many records I’ve sold. I can only equate success to people recognizing you and money — and I have neither of that.
Well, I love the record and wish you a great show at the ECHO and a great 2013.
Appreciate that, thank you.
While this was all happening, I sent some questions to Allison Pierce who had flown to Australia to play some Coldplay dates with her sister Catherine (pictured right)…
You & I was my favorite record of 2011. While every day I seem to have a different favorite track on the album, your cover of James Levy’s “Glorious” was an immediate standout. What drew you to that particular song?
ALLISON PIERCE: Well, James and I were sitting around one day and he picked up the guitar and played this song that I thought must be some classic that I had never heard. Turned out it was “Glorious.” That was years ago, but the song always stuck with me, and when it came time to record You & I, I thought it would be a really wonderful addition to our group of songs.
Sometimes when I listen to Pray to Be Free, I feel like each song is a short film with different characters. Other times, it feels like a cohesive story. Did you and James map out characters and story arcs while selecting the songs for the album?
AP: No, not consciously, but I do see what you mean. I feel like it is a very special group of songs that each have their own life and story to tell.
Your videos have a very dark, sinister and sexy vibe. What inspired these cinematic tales?
AP: We just try to come up with ideas that we find compelling.
Any future Hollywood aspirations?
AP: I have no plans, but a psychic once told me that I was in actor in many past lives so you never know!
What’s next for you? New Pierces music? New Blood Red Rose music? More US shows?
AP: Catherine and I are writing for the next Pierces record which should be out by late spring of 2013. I have just moved to LA and James is in NYC, so the fate of Blood Red Rose is up in the air. We shall see…
And that’s why I wish I was a few hundred miles closer to LA on January 24th. Whether it’s a full band show or something more intimate with the two of them and guitar, it promises to be a night of beauty and legend. Hopefully this won’t be the last we hear of James Levy & the Blood Red Rose.
Tickets are only $8 and $10 — get em here.