Radio Active

Getting to Know Soul Singer James Tillman

In 1971, Washington D.C. native Marvin Gaye affected the musical landscape of the world in its entirety with the release of his critically-acclaimed eleventh studio album, What’s Going On?—a socially conscious masterpiece that is as rich in soul as it is in content, marked by an openness and intimacy that is both valiant and beautiful.

Today, more than 40 years later, D.C. native James Tillman hands the world his own offering of brilliance with Shangri La, his 4-track debut EP that is doused in an easy poignancy and multi-layered transparency that is soul-strumming at the very least. Tillman credits Gaye’s ability to be emotionally vulnerable in his vocal delivery and content as his own personal inspiration to be less guarded and more exposed in his approach to creating his own tunes. Below, we chat influences, imitation versus inspiration and upcoming projects.

On early beginnings…

“I started singing in church when I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until my last year of high school that I started writing songs. My first time performing my songs was in a talent show at a local high school in D.C. I accompanied myself on piano and it was terrible, but it did encourage me to work hard to get better.”

On the James Tillman sound…

“My sound is definitely rooted in a deep appreciation for soul music, but derivative of everything I listen to. From funk, folk, growing up in the ‘90s and everything in between.”

On his greatest musical influences…

“Marvin Gaye and Nat King Cole are probably my greatest vocal influences. What’s Going On? never gets old to me. It’s cool because Nat was one of Marvin’s biggest influences and once I found that out, I could see how Marvin took the tradition that Nat started and progressed it while simultaneously making his own mark. That really inspires me.

Marvin Gaye- “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”

I think that both of these artists continuously allowed themselves to be vulnerable in their vocal delivery as well as the emotional content of their music.”

On imitation versus inspiration…

“Unless you live in a vacuum, then I feel like some of the artistic creations you come in contact with are bound to inspire you. Fine art, beautiful poetry, fashion, are all points of inspiration for me. These things help shape my own artistic perspective. On the other hand, I think these types of inspirations seek and find you rather than the opposite. In this crazy Internet age, it’s assumed that you have to be up on all the gossip and in the know about everything going on creatively in the world. While this is considered ‘cool,’ you end up doing what everyone else is doing.”

On what’s next…

“This summer I will be doing a lot of performing and working on my full-length album, as well as some cool collaborative projects. I just want to keep sharing the music with more and more people.”

Stream James Tillman’s debut EP, Shangri La, below:

About Marissa Wallace

Marissa Wallace 

Marissa Wallace is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who delves into the multifaceted and rich fabric of Black arts and culture. Follow her happenings on Twitter @MarsWall_ for more.