A Sit-Down with James Reese
The picture that accompanies James Reese’s - or noble poet, as he identifies himself on his Soundcloud account - most recent work, “the wolf and the man,” is striking. Reese’s silhouette broods in the center, face down and flanked by shadows on one side and a bright pink light on the other.
It’s a fitting image for a work that Reese said explores “the duality, or the multidimensionality, of the human person.” He recited the opening track of the LP for me to help explain the idea; he closed his eyes and leaned his head back as he spoke the poem from memory.
“It is as if I have become two persons, the wolf and the man,” he said, his hand swinging back and forth to match the flow of the poem. “Always is the man hunting the wolf, but the wolf leads the man on his chase.” His eyes opened momentarily and he paused, before getting back into the poem: “Perhaps therefore the man is neither the predator nor the prey, but a victim of his own disposition, and a victim of his daily agony.”
He paused and leaned forward. “I probably messed that up, but you can just listen to the track.” (He didn’t mess up very badly - the actual phrasing is “Earthbound by one consciousness, always is the wolf hunting the man, yet the man leads the animal on it’s chase” and “and an instigator of his daily agony.”)
The dual motifs of that opening — that of wolves, and that of a double consciousness — works throughout the LP. On “Fractal,” for instance, Reese raps, “this is my call/howl in the wild/yeah, I’m a wolf/yeah, I’m a child.”
The wolf theme is easily tied in with his appearance: his hair has grown into wild locks over recent months, and a beard came with it. But the allusion is deeper than the surface.
Reese said the release dealt with mental illness - “Not mental illness, mental disorders,” he corrected himself - as subtext throughout, though the actual topics range from track to track. His references to get that across are varied: He references Dante Aligheri as he raps about struggles with faith on “Divine Comedy” and Diego Maradona’s 1986 “Hand of God” World Cup goal gets a shout out on “Noble.”
Reese honed his craft over two years - a time period that’s been marked by development in his tastes and style. His music has moved from speaking on merely a personal level - he damns his earliest work with faint praise: “There’s some good stuff,” he said after struggling for a moment to find a way to describe it - to attempting to capture elements of life that are applicable to everyone. He called such elements “shared experiences,” though he also described them as “just life.”
He started with poetry, and the influences of that is still apparent in his music, though he admits that his style is eclectic: “When I write period it’s a weird mix of rhythmic, kind of rap verse and, like, poetry,” Reese said, his sentences perhaps a bit overlong as he tried to explain his style. “And some of it rhymes and some it’s more like prose, and some of it has rhythm and some of it doesn’t really.”
Reese told me when I first asked for an interview, “I don’t even know if I’m going to continue to rap in the future, my style is changing a lot.” I asked him to clarify that statement during the interview itself.
“Basically I want to really work on creating and captuing this vision in something that’s really well-produced and really good,” Reese said. “I think just having more flexible options, you know, for writing, that’s the ideal, and that’s kind of what I want to move towards. Not for the sake of moving away from rap.”
Perhaps the ending of “Noble” was foreshadowing his changing style. He said there: “I don’t have time anymore to write rhymes that don’t say shit.”
On why he got into rap
I’ve been doing this about two years, but really started taking seriously last summer. As for what inspired me … I guess it wasn’t so much about rap. It wasn’t like one day I just like decided I wanted to do it. It wasn’t really like that. It was more so just that genre, or that particular branch of music and art, really spoke to me in a lot of ways that I was really inspired by. I really resonated with the stories I heard from a lot of the guys I listened to or got introduced to. And I’ve been writing my whole life - a lot of poetry - and so I fooled around with it and ended up really connecting with that particular style. A lot has changed since then.
On some of his initial influences
Originally a lot of people. I would say Kanye West would be the biggest in terms of inspiring me. Donald Glover … A guy named Capital Steeze would be one of the biggest. He’s lesser known, but he’s definitely one of the main guys.
On his past work (EPs, albums)
I did two EPs — that means Extended Play; those are like 5–7 songs. A LP is “Long Play.” Those are anywhere between 7–12 songs. A lot of the terminology is mixed up these days, but most people use album for a really refined and polished and conceptual work. And a mixtape is more saying, you know, they’re putting music out and they’re doing something, and it’s good and they’re working on their stuff, but it’s not really ‘good enough’ to be an album. That’s mostly the vibe. And traditionally mixtapes were (he breaks to laugh) — traditionally, well, who knows anymore — but mixtapes were people putting their lyrics over other peoples beats. So I did two mixtape - quote unquote - EPs, like fives songs each. One was senior year of high school and the other one was freshman year here … and they were totally different from one another. And then I did a few one-off singles as well as doing some stuff for friends. And then I did this LP, and then I’ve done other projects like songs … or, right now, I’m producing songs for other people a bit because I’ve started venturing into that world.
On his first two EPs
I think that - obviously, you kind of start doing it and it’s initially a mode of expression, you know, that’s kind of how it starts. It’s just like, ‘I’m gonna like say my thoughts and what I’m thinking and feeling,’ which is good. So I think the first one was more of my story. That was the focus and it was just like … it was … I don’t know. A lot of my friends back home liked it. Looking back, you know, there’s … there’s some good stuff. I’m not a huge fan. But recently, like when I did my second EP, so much has changed just in terms of life and experiences and me, in my art a lot. So it became less about … it wasn’t about me at all. And this is kind of the case in my LP. It’s not about my story at all anymore. It’s about expressing … about giving people a shared experience. So that it’s something that other people can connect to and so that it speaks to a bigger picture rather than basically putting a diary on track. It’s not that at all.
On “shared experiences”
It differs. It’s like … just life. Track by track it’s very different. Recently I talk a lot about philosophy and like religion and ethics and social systems. A lot of the LP was about mental illness - or, not mental illness, mental disorders. But that was more of a subtext. But it varies, I guess. It’s just about life, about me absorbing the spaces I’m in and being the instrument to communicate that.
On what went into the LP
Well, this LP has been in the works for a year or a year and a half-ish, on and off because school is a thing and life is a thing. For me, I just recently started taking it super seriously, so it wasn’t like full on [the entire time]. So I had written stuff ages ag0 - some of the songs that are on there I wrote like a year ago. A few people have been like, ‘Oh, wow, is this [song] about this that’s going on in your life right now?’ And I’m like, no, I wrote that last spring, so it’s totally different. I mean, it’s still relevant, but that’s the whole point! It’s not really about my life, it’s just telling - you know, being the medium. Generally I write - I prefer … Well, usually the way it works is like you have your beat or instrumental first and then you do your verse over that. That’s basically the rundown. But there are a few things that I would write first and then find something to put them to, or I would make a beat for a few of them, to put my writing to. In terms of recording, I recorded in the Scot Radio studio, a lot of it. They were great - my roommate [Emerson Veenstra] is one of the co-directors - I do Scot Radio, so it was nice to be able to do it there, and doing Scot Radio helped me to do it there. We mastered it on whatever program was compatible at the given time with what we had already done. I also recorded just on my computer, like on the computer mic, which isn’t very ‘professional’ and not as legit, as one would say. I got to the point where, when you create a song, you’re not just making the lyrics and having the beat, you’re really … for me, I see it more as a visual thing. You want to see what you’re listening to. So the whole composition is a process; like, okay, how do all these pieces fit together, what’s the kind of sound that you want, what’s the kind of recording you want to go with that? So for a lot of the recordings I recorded on my computer mic because having a crisp vocal sound, and having the specific type of sound quality I got from the scot radio studio, just didn’t fit at all. So it sounds a little janky, I guess one could say. But that’s the intention. I’m really a huge fan of creating something that’s … creating soundscapes. Capturing that feeling of being in an empty room and hearing the voice pop on the recording. It just feels more real.
On his helpers
There’s a big list of people who were involved. There’s a lot of students at Gordon that played for live songs. Jeanie Wooh, Leslie Andrecks — she actually moved — Rebecca Mattli, Jihoon Song, Ben Moses — some of these [songs] didn’t make it. Emerson Veenstra, Jarron Vancelyon, and a friend back home … they all did a lot of the production work with me. Some of the songs didn’t make it because - I really liked them, but they just weren’t mastered by the time I wanted to get the LP out.
On the biggest challenges of the LP
There were a lot of challenges. It’s only twelve songs - or fifteen, I can’t remember - but at the end of the day, you’d think that it’d be easy, you know? You go in and you perform the piece on the mic and you’ll be done. But it takes so much time to master the sound quality and also to coordinate people’s schedules, which was the hardest thing. I also did that music video to go with one of the songs on the LP, and that was … so hard. Coordinating six peoples schedules every day for two months… yeah, that was one of the hardest things.
And finding people who are willing to care about it as much as you are. I think what I’ve found is that those people who are as dedicated to their craft, which may or may not be music … like, one of my friends is a painter, and working with him on my music, I get way better results because he cares so much, and he’s so dedicated to it. I’d much rather have him than someone who’s a tech genuis helping me out because it makes all the difference in the world. Like, if you’re taking your craft seriously, you can’t work with somebody’s who’s half-assing it.
On the meaning of “the wolf and the man” title
The intro track kind of explains that a bit. It’s a poem I wrote that I put over something that I produced real quick, just something simple. (he closes his eyes and leans his head back) ‘It is as if I have become two persons, the wolf and the man, always is the man hunting the wolf, but the wolf leads the man on his chase’ - or something like that - ‘perhaps therefore the man is neither the predator nor the prey, but a victim of his own disposition, and a victim of his daily agony.’ I probably messed that up, but basically it touches on - and since a lot of the LP is about mental disorder, it kind of speaks to that - about the duality, or the multidimensionality, of the human person, in the sense that we are always contradicting ourselves and working against ourselves. But also benefiting ourselves. And part of it is the conflicting desires within us. basically how internally - this is an oversimplification, which is also kind of the point - we - and this doesn’t have to speak to the individual, it can speak to the collective identity as well, like a communal body - we’re always leading ourselves, like victimizing ourselves, either as a society or as individuals. We’re victims, but we’re also the ones perpetuating it. So you kind of get stuck in the cycle of self-victimization … I could talk a lot about it, it’s a weird headspace thing. I think that introductory poem really sets a framework for the rest of the LP if you listen to it with that framework.
On songs that are particularly meaningful or well-done
All of them, to answer the first part! In terms of particularly liking how they came out, though, there’s one that I haven’t recorded yet, but I performed it at a coffeehouse in March. It doesn’t have a name, but it’s on Facebook. I really liked how that one came out. And that was one of my first completely original pieces that I absolutely love.
There’s one called ‘Darker Hue’ that’s on [the LP] that captures the kind of poetic style that I’m moving towards in my writing now and the kind of stuff I want to do in the future. It’s a lot more free form. i guess a lot of people would call it spoken word, maybe. I’m not particularly a fan of that description just because it doesn’t … I don’t know … it doesn’t really bring up that description the same. It’s different. I don’t really know what to call it yet. But it’s more free form and I think that song really captures that.
The second-to-last track is called ‘Dorm Room Thoughts.’ That kind of, like I said, creates a soundscape and captures that picture of what it’s like to be … I mean, you can hear it. That’s all the track is. I just have my computer and I recorded me just being in my dorm room, doing the things I do. Doing homework and fumbling around, moving around, opening a window. It’s just ambient noise and then I do a melody and some strings, a synth, over it. It’s kind of rhythmic, melodic and it really captures that feeling of being in your room, fumbling around and trying to make a song and … I just love it. It’s one of my favorites.
On his changing style
I think I just don’t want to do just one thing. I mean that’s not why it’s changing -it’s one of the reasons why - it’s like … when I write period it’s a weird mix of rhythmic, kind of rap verse and, like, poetry. And, some of it rhymes and some it’s more like prose, and some of it has rhythm and some of it doesn’t really, and there are parts of it that’s like sung … I think just having more flexible options, you know, for writing, that’s the ideal, and that’s kind of what I want to move towards. Not for the sake of moving away from rap … I don’t really know what it is. It’s soundscapes, it’s … well, a lot of people probably wouldn’t really call it music, because it doesn’t necessarily have rhythm or melody all the time, but it sometimes does. It has some rhythm and some melody within it, so I don’t really know. Basically I want to really work on creating and captuing this vision in something that’s really well-produced and really good. If it hasn’t been done before, maybe create a new genre. You never know what may happen. So that’s kind of what I mean when I say ‘moving away from rap.’ It’s not moving away from it so much as it is moving to something bigger. Well, not necessarily bigger, but … different.