“I’m not a one-trick pony.
I want people to know that I’m a multiple-trick horse.”
Cover photo by Elly Hazlerig
It’s funny that Aaron James would say something like this because it’s certainly harder to fit him into any particular box these days. The Pennsylvania-born-and-bred, now Memphis-based singer-songwriter has proven time and again that he’s capable of and seemingly dead set on evolving — both as an artist and as a person. From the release of his 2016 EP Here Comes the Rain to today, Aaron has quickly solidified his position within the New Memphis creative scene as a classic storyteller, rooted in folk and rock but more than ready to experiment within other genres. In whatever context you happen to catch him, you can expect to learn quite a bit about him and maybe even something about yourself as well.
“I just spent a couple of weeks trying to figure out my life.”
Catching up with Aaron back in January, he had recently returned from a brief visit back to his hometown of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where he spent some wintery weeks in the company of family and friends while reacquainting himself with northern weather. As one might guess, his time at home would also include working on the writing portion of the creative cycle he’s established in recent years — his “hibernation.” In an attempt to help bridge the gap between himself and listeners, Aaron took to his Close Friends Story on Instagram while home to provide a more intimate look at his creative isolation in the PA winter.
“I’m an observer, for sure. I don’t talk very much. In my everyday life, I’m taking in everything that’s around me and thinking a lot. Then, it’s in that time to myself that I can process all those things and usually filter that into music and my understanding of the world and myself.”
While he may not exactly think of himself as commanding conversation in larger social settings, it’s in these intimate moments — whether in private conversation or during a performance — that you see just how much of the world Aaron takes in, intentionally or not. After all, it’s a fundamental part of effective songwriting: to take in what you see happening in the world around you, reconcile those observations with your personal thoughts and experiences, then put it all back into the world for others to hear and take in for themselves. This cyclical give and take of relating to the general through the specific, then back the other way, is something that Aaron has utilized with purpose in his mission: to help others feel more like (and be more accepting of) themselves.
It’s this natural attraction to becoming comfortable with oneself, and a chance flag football encounter with producer and roommate-to-be Kid Maestro, that would introduce Aaron to the creative powerhouse that would grow to be Memphis’s Unapologetic collective. The group — a multi-faceted multimedia outfit of designers, musicians, visual artists, and entrepreneurs led by producer IMAKEMADBEATS — has become the place for creatives of all specialties to be themselves and use that authenticity as a catalyst for honest artistic development and output. Here, Aaron would come to know artists outside of his acoustic wheelhouse and, whether through his guitar work with mod fusion crooner Cameron Bethany or a foray into hip-hop behind NOLA-Memphis transplant Preauxx, foster a tight-knit camaraderie that runs on honesty and pure, unbridled work ethic.
“I think people look, and on the surface you’ll see [rapper] A Weirdo From Memphis has tattoos, wears bunny ears, and raps about ‘inappropriate’ topics. Then, Aaron James plays acoustic guitar and wanders in the woods, so how are these people even related? Even though each [individual] is very, very different, it’s that journey to be yourself that is the same with all of us. I can look at AWFM and say ‘We’re on the same journey.’”
After the late summer release of his Hibernate EP, Aaron (along with the rest of Unapologetic) expected 2018 to wind down with everyone lying low and cooking up their next respective projects. Of course, it’s hard to pass up a chance to do some good for not only yourself but the Memphis community. So, before the year’s end, the collective would find themselves collaborating with Ballet Memphis on a portion of the company’s 2018 Fall Mix while also curating and shutting down a live block party showcase for the Indie Memphis Film Festival. The ballet mix would feature a performance set to Hibernate’s lead single “Kauri Wood,” while the film festival would include a music video for the single, along with entries from Cameron Bethany and dynamic duo Weird Maestro.
“Ballet Memphis was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of! Those sold out shows got us in front of a community that we never would’ve thought [we would] be in front of. It was amazing.”
With 2018 behind him and a new year in full swing, Aaron returns from his hibernation to the Bluff City with a different game plan than years past — “I’m doing a series of singles, which I was against at first… but now I see it as an opportunity to tell a story in a way I never have before.”
Using this as a transitional period for what’s looking to be a rather busy 2020, the young artist aims to experiment a bit beyond his more traditional outlook on project structure, forgoing the longer arc of something larger in exchange for a concise narrative that builds upon itself in pieces few and far between. The first installment, Good Friday release “My New Best Friend is Loneliness,” kicked off the series with the second and third expected around summer and fall, bringing this story to a close and the project to completion. In at least one of the tracks, Aaron says there are fewer metaphors and that things will be a bit more forward and direct, which makes him a bit nervous. Of course, vulnerability and transparency are two things at the forefront of his material, so this is very much on brand.
“Everyone goes through different iterations of themselves as time goes on, and I want to express that in my music. I think the big word I want to associate with me in 2019 is ‘Human.’ I want to deconstruct myself. Just me, as raw and vulnerable as humanly possible — to not listen to those moments where it’s like ‘I don’t want to understand this,’ even the times where it feels extremely difficult or you don’t want to go down this road. Let’s do it.”
Wherever these roads may take Aaron in 2019, there’s no doubt that the journey will be educational and enlightening — not only for the artist tasked with a longing for self-discovery and personal understanding, but also each person along for the ride.
You can catch Aaron James at almost any Unapologetic appearance, or one of his upcoming shows in Columbia (5/17) and Kansas City (5/18), Missouri. He’ll also be touring the east coast in June.
Hibernate and “My New Best Friend is Loneliness” are both available on Spotify and other streaming platforms.
You can find Aaron on Instagram at @aaronjms.