One of the by-products of living in our global village is that our only musical limits are those of our own imagination. Flamenco meets filter-disco? Brazilian samba meets '80s dance-pop? African folk meets epic breakbeats? All it takes is talent and inspiration, two qualities which James Bryan certainly possesses. As he proves on his solo debut, Beautiful World, the less likely the hybrid, the more exhilarating the result.
James is one of Canada's best-respected young guitarists, producers and songwriters, having penned over a dozen top 40 hits for various artists, co-created The Philosopher Kings and Prozzak and played with a who's-who of the country's rock and pop royalty, but Beautiful World is by any measure a major step. It's an album that at once embraces the world and introduces James to it.
The eclecticism you'll find on this record stems from an unusual background: in St. Catharines, Ontario, a small city known chiefly as a retirement community, James's hippie parents gave him a guitar and introduced him to the music of Jimi Hendrix. The nine-year-old took to it immediately, and by age twelve, he was playing in a basement punk band and teaching lessons to students much older than he. "Some of them had problems taking directions from a kid," he admits, "but most of them came back."
During high school, James played in new wave cover bands, while also immersing himself in flamenco music. He enrolled at the University of Toronto to study classical guitar, but by then, the jazz bug had bitten. As James remembers, "It was all solos, so it was very cool to me at the time."
When he wasn't taking lessons from Canadian legend Eli Kassner (who taught Liona Boyd, among others), James would jam with students from the jazz program; together with a few friends, they formed The Philosopher Kings, making music that allowed them to stretch out their jazz chops while drawing audiences in with funk-based grooves, pop melodies, and Gerald Eaton's soulful voice. Their live shows impressed right away: after their second gig, Chris Smith (who now manages K-OS and Nelly Furtado, among others) offered to take them on as his first-ever band, and after only their seventh show, they were signed to Sony Canada.
Cue six years of touring, from Brazil to Japan. "We really played our asses off," says James. "That's how we won every fan -- one at a time." The Kings shared
the stage with legends like Al Green and Kool and the Gang, and had a memorable US tour alongside The Fugees and Maxwell. James recalls, "Lauryn Hill and I would jam Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder tunes backstage before the shows, and Wyclef and I would exchange guitar licks. It was incredible!"
The band's three albums, The Philosopher Kings (1994), Famous, Rich, and Beautiful (1997), and One Night Stand (1999) spawned hits like "Charms" and "Hurts to Love You," shot through with James's unmistakeable riffs. Most of the band's songs were being written by Eaton and keyboardist Jon Levine, but James was eager to flex his compositional muscles. He found a perfect opportunity, ironically, after a bust-up with Levine's bassist brother Jay.
"We had a ridiculously big fight," James remembers, "and it ended in a left hook, I'm embarrassed to say."
The two decided to patch things up by trying to write a song together, and the chemistry, surprisingly, was instant. Out of this partnership grew the cartoon Prozzak, dance-pop precursors to the Gorillaz, in which James voiced the muscle-bound Austrian guitarist Milo, while Levine was the English singer Simon. Their first album, Hot Show, went quadruple platinum, and their second, Saturday People, went platinum on the back of arena shows inspired by KISS -- complete with massive inflatable cartoon heads, video screens and lasers.