José James has a new hairdo. Again. And a new sound. Once again.
The Minneapolis-reared performer no longer has the fade he sported when he became an acclaimed young jazz vocalist with hip-hop instincts and electronica urges in 2013. He’s no longer rocking dreadlocks like he did last year, when he recorded an original album of seductive contemporary soul music.
No, he’s debuting a 1970s-style Afro. That’s because he’s interpreting songs of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers, who made “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me” and “Lean on Me” into classics in the early ’70s.
“What fascinated me is everybody knows his music but people don’t know him. There’s virtually no info available outside of his documentary ‘Still Bill’ in 2009. Even that has very little personal information,” said James, who is bringing his Withers show to his hometown Tuesday and Wednesday at the Dakota. “Outside of Sade, Bill has to be the most popular, successful black artist of all time who we knew virtually nothing about. Musically, I didn’t know he had so many albums.”
Plucking 12 tunes from Withers’ nine albums, James will record a tribute this month in Capitol Records’ studio in Hollywood with Grammy-winning producer Don Was. The album is scheduled for a September release by Blue Note Records.
“We’ll be in Studio B, where they have Nat King Cole’s Steinway piano,” said James, who was calling from a van en route to a gig at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
James said that his goal is “trying to figure out the right balance between being respectful and taking ownership of the material. I don’t want it to be karaoke.”
He added, “Thankfully, Bill thinks of himself more as a songwriter than a performer. That frees me up to interpret it in my own way.”
This will be the second trip to Capitol Studios for the New York-based singer. He traveled there to record two songs for the 2017 soundtrack for the film “Fifty Shades Darker,” an album that also featured Taylor Swift, Sia, Halsey and John Legend, among others.
One of James’ tracks was “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which was first famously recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1956 in the same studio.
“I got to sing on the same microphone Frank Sinatra used. He even wrote his initials on the [microphone] box,” James said. “It was surreal. I got to hear the original chart. The tenor [saxophone] player who was on the original record is on our session, too.”
Movie acting debut
James also got to act in “Fifty Shades Darker,” as a young Sinatra-like singer performing in a club. He spent three days in Vancouver filming his first role in a major motion picture. To prepare, he didn’t read the novel on which the movie is based, although he did watch the 2015 movie “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“I didn’t want to know too much about it because I literally went from being a normal dude doing my thing to being on a soundstage with some really big stars and 200 extras,” he said. “In a way, not knowing is better. I didn’t get freaked out when they said, ‘Action.’ ”
James, who hopes to do more drama, had been working with an acting coach to help him bring a “new level of emotional vulnerability” to his singing.
“That really helped me with the Billie Holiday tribute album I did, especially when it’s songs that mean a lot to people — songs people got married to or had at celebrations.”
For one exercise, James was required to separate lyrics from the music and perform them as a monologue.
“That’s difficult, especially if you know the song,” he said. He said he found this technique helpful for interpreting ballads.
In 2015, he released the critically lauded “Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday,” whom James always considered his “musical mother.”
A year earlier, after his daughter was born, James quit smoking and drinking and returned to voice lessons, which helped expand his range.
The Withers project started out as a concept for live performances. But producer Was, who also is the president of Blue Note, wanted it to become a record, too. So he arranged for James to meet last year in Los Angeles with the long-retired Withers, who turns 80 in July.
“We talked through everything. He gave us his blessing,” James said proudly. “Meeting with Bill changed it for me. It became a lot more personal.”
James grew up with Withers’ music. Frankly, he can’t remember not hearing Withers’ songs.
“He was always there,” James said. “He’s always on the radio. He’s at every family cookout, barbecue, gathering. He’s interwoven in the fabric of American music the same way Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel are.”
Minneapolis music roots
James grew up in Minneapolis, son of a Panama-born saxophonist/percussionist father (Willie & the Bees, Shangoya, Ipso Facto) and Irish-American hippie mother. In 1999, he went to New York City to study contemporary music at the New School, and he has stayed in the Big Apple ever since.
In 2004, he was a finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist Competition. He recorded two albums for the London label Brownswood and one for Verve and, in 2012, signed with Blue Note, the pre-eminent jazz label that has branched out to such pop heroes as Norah Jones, Van Morrison and Rosanne Cash.
James is known for throwing curveballs with every project, whether he’s singing jazz standards or soul originals or doing a tribute album.
Whatever he chooses, audiences seem to follow him. He has made a living at music for more than 10 years. This year, he’ll play about 150 gigs, divided between the United States and abroad.
In January, he turned 40.
“I don’t think it has changed me,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a bigger impact than it has been.
“It’s all mental. Most people think I’m like 30. I work out. I take care of myself. But I had a couple days where I was really freaked out about it. But it’s cool.”