The lines sprang into Jemima James’ head, complete with melody, sometime in the 1970s: “Raised in a home, his back got no bone.” The rest of the song, Billy Baloo, soon followed.
“I just liked the way it sounded,” she said, sitting in the wind outside the Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven this week. Though the story didn’t pair with reality, she found that changing the words messed with the tune. And she trusts the songs that arrive this way.
“The best ones just come written already,” she said, “it’s sort of a channeling thing.”
It’s one of several reasons Ms. James has taken up fiction; her labor-skirting song-writing technique meant a lot of waiting around for something to occur in her brain’s left hemisphere.
“Prose always needs more discipline and more practice,” she said, “you can’t just rely on getting inspired. I like the work of it.”
There is also the desire for more space to tell a story. Despite her naturally economical style, Ms. James, 58, often feels the formal constraints of song writing. For example, played live, Billy Baloo needs an explanatory introduction. It’s the story of an orphan who accommodates his spineless body by living in the ocean, strapped with a rubber floatational aid. The preamble got a big laugh at a concert at Che’s Lounge in Vineyard Haven last Sunday.
“It’s weird however much explanation you give it,” conceded Ms. James. Despite her on-stage banter, and the fact she has played countless bars and concert halls, Ms. James insists she is uncomfortable playing live.
“I’m really shy,” she said, “and performance has been a big struggle for me. That’s why I like prose, because there’s no performance. There’s no audience. That goes after you get rid of it, but you don’t have to have an immediate relationship with them.”
As a recording artist, her performances have long been orchestrated by others.
“Someone else was always in charge, and I didn’t have the fortitude to say how it should be,” she said. “As far as any albums I’ve made so far I don’t like listening to them. I feel like when I record again I want to really trust the person and agree with them — and also be able to disagree with them.”
Ms. James has been considering these things for decades. One day, aged 12, on the long walk home from school in Aspen, Colo., where she grew up, a song arrived fully formed. Though she has had more than a dozen jobs — from marking SATs to a stint as West Tisbury town assessor — she has been an artist since.
As jobs go, she has had some good ones. Aged 20, she landed the ultimate in cushy employment courtesy of Famous Music, a now-defunct division of Paramount. She and Mike Mason — with whom she has two children — were hired as staff songwriters, and given an office with a tape recorder, on the 65th floor of the Gulf Western building in New York city. “We used to drop in once a week just to pick up a check,” she remembers.
Another was at Long View, a recording studio built on 145 acres of farmland in North Brookfield and utilized by a brace of superstars. During her three years there in the early 1980s, Ms. James hung out with musicians such as the Rolling Stones and Pat Metheny. She also recorded her own songs, including Precious Love — a heavily sarcastic ode to libertine men, inspired by one particular stud at the farm — and Billy Baloo.
Billy Baloo captured the imagination of Mr. Mason, who is a resident of West Tisbury. The musician and writer embarked on an epic musical project back in the 1970s, based on the spine-free character. Epic, in that the musical is still being worked on today.
In turn, Mr. Mason is inspiring more art. “I have 180 pages of a black comedy written, with a main character based on Mike Mason,” said Ms. James. She has been reading pages of the manuscript to members of a book club in North Carolina, where she has spent much of the past three years. A group of seven disparate personalities met regularly to read pages, and to do on-the-spot writing.
“I was really rolling along and the group got very engaged in it,” she said. “And then I guess it got up to present day and I didn’t know where it was going. It wasn’t supposed to be a memoir, but it got too embroiled in reality. It just has to go to the side for a bit.”
Meanwhile she is two chapters into another novel and recently completed a short story, Opal’s Gold. Like the songs, Ms. James implies this appeared spontaneously, simply guided into existence by its author.
“That came out earlier this year,” she said. The dark humor and spare style of her songs are there in Opal’s Gold. So too is the recurring theme of a woman leaving a no-good man. She emphasizes though that men are not the enemy. In fact, she is looking forward to writing fiction from a male point of view and a new batch of songs that reflect her generosity to the other gender.
For now, back on the Vineyard full time, she is putting performance — whether live, recording, or in the writing group — to one side.
“I’m just going to make stuff for a while,” she said.
You can listen to some of Jemima James’s performance at Che’s Lounge online at mvgazette.com.