Article by: Angela Suico | Photo Credits: Luca Venter | Posted: 06/15/2012
When he’s not making music, Daniel James—the man behind the curtain of solo act Canon Blue—enjoys a good story. The orchestral-pop singer-songwriter says he likes watching documentaries and reading in his spare time, and his appreciation for narrative certainly shows in Rumspringa, his album released last August through Temporary Residence. Rumspringa derives its title from a documentary showcasing the period of the same name in which Amish adolescents participate in secular culture and decide whether or not to return to their native community. The circumstances of this decision were striking to James.
“The main thing I took away from the film was this idea of how freedom of choice affects us as human beings,” says James. “All of the songs are abstractions on that idea. Some of them highlight the more positive aspects, while others explore the negatives.”
Exploring this theme gave way to songs like the album’s first single, “Indian Summer (Des Moines),” which expresses the restrictiveness of trying to sustain a dying relationship, and “Autark (Nashville),” in which lyrics like “You tie it in a knot / you can never untie / You’re buildin’ up a wall / buildin’ up a wall / that you never can climb” warn against the freedoms taken because of excessive pride.
These musings flow over melodies ranging from playful to aggressive, a variety that highlights James’ versatility as a songwriter. The balance between dreamier tunes like “Fading Colors (Bloomington)” and more energetic ones like “A Native (Madison)” give the entire album a pleasantly eclectic character that reveals itself song-by-song as James maps out the complexities of human freedom and choice.
In addition to its thematic unity, Rumspringa further evinces a literary quality because every song title contains the name of the city where James first gained inspiration for its lyrics, making each title a mini-story in and of itself. “I decided to try and write a song each day, mainly to kill time before [a] show, and ended up with 20 or so ideas,” he explains. “To keep track of them I would just name them after whatever city I was in that day. Later on, after I finished lyrics I wanted a title that was more connected thematically to the words, but I also liked the idea of keeping that history of where the song started, hence the city names.” If Rumspringa is like a novel then, with human freedom as its theme, each song title stands alone as a distinct character, carrying its own origin and history.
James’ appreciation for narrative is further evident in the brief videos for certain Rumspringa tracks that served as previews for the album, featuring imagery like a hand crushing an orange in slow-motion and blurred shots of a roller-skating rink. The product of his collaboration with photographer Austin Gros, these video blips were James’ method of transferring his music from aural to visual form. “Whenever I'm working on songs,” says James, “I always have a landscape, or storyline playing in my head along with it. Like I'm writing a soundtrack to some disjointed movie I'm making up as I go along. So the blips were a small attempt at bringing the two worlds together in real life.”
The video blip for “Honeysuckle (Milwaukee)” is the most evocative of the previews; the song’s haunting melody plays over two still images of separate individuals in profile, one a man, the other a woman, slowly moving nearer and nearer toward each other, the camera closing in on their faces until their slightly parted lips almost touch…at which point the vocals jump in and the scene cuts to an advertisement for Rumspringa.
The video is indicative of James’ ability to take what is familiar and make it a little more interesting. Whether incorporating cities into his song titles or endowing his albums with unusual names, he makes people sit up and pay more attention—as reputable storytellers are wont to do.
Canon Blue - "Indian Summer"