We spoke with Kalu James about his background in computer technology, encountering the reality of human nature while driving Uber and Lyft, why we never really leave the elementary school playground and why being able to live out our identities is crucial.
I love putting things together and enjoy the gratification of seeing it come alive. I love knowing what’s out there, so that makes me the perfect guinea pig for anything new.
I understand that your path to doing what you do didn’t happen in a linear way. Prior to your music career, you went from a stint at university in New York to study computer technology to working part time as an Uber/Lyft driver. Can you describe the step-by-step process that led you to fully embrace making records, when your life path could have jutted out easily in other directions along the way?
My parents sent me to the United States at age 18 to study, but I always knew that music would be what I eventually did. I started singing at age four at various African church choirs, and continued all through high school until I was kicked out for listening to secular music. As a shy kid, it was and still is my safe haven, but moving to America made me a songwriter. I literally had a whole different world around me, and to navigate that, I wrote proses that I would recite at open mics, which quickly turned into songs.
In 2007, I moved to Austin to pursue music full-time after watching two weeks of full-access coverage of SXSW on DirecTV. Hitting every open mic scene, restaurant and hotel gigs around, I quickly formed a backing band and recorded two albums and a live album over the span of seven years. Through that journey, I met my dear friend & bandmate, JT Holt, whom is the band director, co-writer, and lead guitarist of Kalu & The Electric Joint.
Besides dating a set of twins, something was different about my relationship with JT. We inspired each other, had a shared reality of where we wanted this project to go, and, unbeknownst to us, began the formation of The Electric Joint at a weekly residency at the Continental Club Gallery that lasted three years.
The loss of my father in 2014 and our failed romantic relationships brought me and JT even closer, and drove us into JT’s studio, Nest Recording in Driftwood, Texas. The world was so crazy outside that the studio was the only respite we had. We were determined to crawl out of that hopeless hole, and it was during these times that we penned Time Undone, our debut album under Kalu & The Electric Joint.
I feel lucky and thankful to have gone through those hard times with JT. Our ability to not tear each other down but rather churn it into something positive is one of the best thing I have ever done. And we are only getting started.
I’d like to focus on your study of computer technology. Can you explain what you particularly specialize in regarding this field, regardless of whether you’re talking to a layperson about it? Do you feel drawn to cutting-edge technology?
I love putting things together and enjoy the gratification of seeing it come alive. My focus was mainly on hardware (building computers) and peer-to-peer networking (getting them to talk to each other). I love knowing what’s out there, so that makes me the perfect guinea pig for anything new.
For our mental health as a society to improve, we truly need the ability to balance making a living and living a lifestyle that suits our identity.
It’s kind of sad to me that the amazing things we can access through our computers has led just as much to propaganda, misunderstanding and confusion, rather than all of us reaching a new level of multidisciplinary brilliance. Do you think we’ll eventually be able to harness the vast wealth of knowledge we all have 24/7 access to?
We are getting there at this moment. Yes, there are pros and cons to everything, but I get to see things a bit differently from the eye of an immigrant. I try to go back to Africa yearly, and it is astonishing what’s happening around the globe because of the technological advancements.
Things like ATMs, ride-hailing apps, and the ability to connect with friends and strangers through social media weren’t possible when I moved to the U.S. in 2001. It used to cost $5 for a 30-minute phone call to my mother, and the reception was so bad that we’d resort to emails. Now I barely spend a fraction of that using Skype or FaceTime.
I feel like your experiences driving for Uber and Lyft would expose you to such a cross-section of humanity, in a way. There must have been such a range of attitudes, good or bad. Did your view of human nature change from all these interactions with strangers, or was it more of a hands-off kind of thing?
In my experience, most people are good and genuinely interested in what you do besides Uber and Lyft, and question if you can really make a living out of driving. Technological advancements have lead way to the present “sharing economy” (Airbnb, HomeAway, Uber, Lyft, etc.) and people are realizing that flexibility is the new currency. The reality is that we have been sold this notion that to contribute to the workforce, you don’t only have to surrender 40-60 hours a week, but also adhere to a rigid schedule that allows you less than 48 hours to be anybody other than the corporation you represent. It paves way to this toxic cycle where we measure our worth by what we do and have versus who we are and/or aspire to be. For our mental health as a society to improve, we truly need the ability to balance making a living and living a lifestyle that suits our identity.
Let’s focus on your approach to music for a sec. I have an almost unhealthy relationship with Neil Young’s Silver and Gold album. I can recite every detail of what happens on that album and I’ve kind of mapped all my life’s memories onto it in unexplainable ways. Do you have any piece of music or art that feels that way to you, where it’s more like a person you know than an inanimate object?
Jeff Buckley is that artist for me. The combination of his records Grace and Live at Sin-é is very instrumental in my life. It gave this African boy living in New York a hope and motivation to keep on trying to be heard. I’ll explain.
Going through adolescence in a foreign land was a whirlwind of emotions and an identity crisis for me. I was, for the first time, learning norms that my peers grew up with. Things like using an ATM, balancing on an escalator, new words like “pants” instead of “trousers,” slangs like “what’s up” instead of “good afternoon,” and spelling “neighbor” instead of “neighbour.” My accent made it extremely hard to communicate with my peers without ridicule, so I withdrew.
Live at Sin-é was a record I would listen to over and over again. It made me feel like I was in that coffee shop amongst the very few people clapping for him. Aside from his shape shifts through genres and choice of subject matters to write about, what drew me to his vocal delivery was the complete control of his range. It was delicate and as commanding as the material demanded; all about the emotion he wanted to portray.
I truly hadn’t heard a voice like that before, and having sang in the church for so long, I had all these parts of the choir inside of me constantly fighting to come out. Listening to Jeff Buckley really inspired me to learn how to paint the scene of an emotion through notes.
I believe that we never quite leave that sandbox or playground in elementary school where everyone is trying to fit in. The least we can do is play nice.
I really appreciate that your music kind of broadcasts a message of overcoming misfortune and being dealt a bad hand. It’s a breath of fresh air in a kind of “poor me” culture, especially in our self-centered online age. Would you characterize your tunes as being a source of strength, as kind of a magical shield to resist feeling bad?
I am glad that it comes across that way because that is the intent; to affirm, acknowledge, soothe, console and hopefully inspire. Writing songs is therapy for me, but performing is that hand you extend to a friend or a stranger. I am firm believer that this gift is to be shared, and the more selfless we are, the easier it is to see ourselves in each other. It’s the human condition and we are all in it.
What do you think about the concept of cliché, since as musicians, we’re consciously trying to avoid that? Do you think some sayings, thoughts or ideas get worn out simply because they’re so profound and worth saying, or should we avoid platitudes at all costs?
I’m an advocate of people expressing themselves, because if we are truly listening or paying attention, it’s never really verbatim. For example, the Spiderman or Superman movies will always be remade because directors have different views that breathe life into that story. I intend to always speak my truth, and if everyone else is saying and abiding by the same thing I am, which, for me, is to love thy neighbor, then that’s a pretty good message to have out there.
What is your understanding of life and the universe? Do your beliefs about why we’re here jive with any particular religion or belief system, or do you prefer to stay agnostic on the big subjects?
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: February 22, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 1572
Reading time: Five minutes
adolescence, affirmation, Africa, America, ATM, church, cliché, computers, console, Driftwood, escalator, FaceTime, foreign, intent, Jeff Buckley, Kalu and the Electric Joint, Kalu James, Lyft, material, music, neighbor, Neil Young, philosophy, playground, positivity, sandbox, scene, secular, Skype, songwriting, soothing, Spider-Man, Superman, Texas, theology, therapy, Uber, Ubuntu, void
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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