Luke James Talks Writing Songs, the State of R&B, and ‘Whispers in the Dark’
Fresh off his packed-house performance at SOB’s in New York, and in the glow of his recently and readily downloadable, smooth-operated mixtape Whispers in the Dark, Luke James is not just your next R&B heartthrob: he’s suited up to be one of the next great masterminds of music with both production and singing talents in spades. As "Who Is Luke James" is the seducing veneer of his internet presence (follow him on Twitter at @whoislukejames), you’ll be well advised to directly listen to his incandescent collection of abundant affection, compassion, and empathy for the open-hearted.
I talked to James about the making of what you’re about to hear, his take on the state of R&B, movies that remain influential to his craft and how James wishes to be understood as a kind of Prince the Redeemer for the forgotten sake of letting love rule for the new year and in later days. (And to reiterate again, ladies, he is a dreamboat.)
I did a little research and I came across the fact that you were a songwriter before you launched your solo career. I was curious to know what were some of your favorite songs you’ve written for other people? Like you almost wished you kept that song for yourself!
I loved the Justin Bieber song "That Should Be Me" that I co-write with The Messengers. Great record. I dealt with the song, so naturally it was a great feeling. And it kind of felt like something I would want to do as an artist myself. There’s one I did with Chris Brown: "Crawl." Love that one. And the song I did with Tank off of his latest album, "This I How I Feel." It has a really good vibe.
So you are Grammy-nominated this year! I wanted to know, how does it honestly feel like to be nominated. Keep it real! Are you truly happy just to be recognized, or do you really just want to win?
I’m thrilled to be acknowledged, especially for this gift and this talent I’ve been working so hard on. To be acknowledged and be seen as a vocalist and performer, and to be in a category of Best Male R&B Performance, is awesome, and especially by the Grammy committee—that’s the height of our music business. It’s awesome.
And specifically for a song that the fans online have been referring to as a "panty-dropping" single! I read comments and the female fan base is just growing. They seem to really appreciate and adore your appreciation of women all-around.
Wow! I’ll definitely try to keep that going!
Tell us more about the album title Whispers in the Dark. It’s enigmatic enough to lead someone to think, "Well, what does he mean by that?" But also, it makes sense in that if you’re in the dark, you’re not trying to make a lot of sense—most likely—so, it can be interpreted quite a few ways.
Well, Whispers in the Dark is a line I used in a song I have on my official album, and the song is basically like, “Whispers in the dark tend to you call you where you are.” Put it like this: at night, I deal with my demons, whatever that is, good or bad, and it’s usually those voices you hear that make you recognize them; they’re calling you. I’m speaking from personal experience, but I feel like other people can relate to having those voices in your head and usually that happens when you’re alone, and that nighttime. That kind of vibe and of the unknown. You can’t see what’s there. [Laughs] Does that make sense?
Yeah, yeah it does! And I figured that, too. I just wanted to hear from you directly on and from the album’s perspective. I had my own idea?
And what was that?
Whispers in the Dark to me meant… just a very secretive moment whether with yourself or with someone, and you wouldn’t necessarily mind getting caught, either. And it doesn’t have to something physical that is happening. Just in the sense that someone just caught you; someone could potentially catch you.
Well, that’s exactly right! There are so many different ways of taking it. People always ask me about my music, “What do you want people to take from it?” It’s whatever makes them happy. Whatever feels good to them. As long as they take something.
That definitely leads to the next question, and it’s kind of a two-parter. I did see the video for "Make Love to Me," which I enjoyed and I peeped that Kelly Rowland cameo! But from watching it, I knew I wanted to ask you: do you consider yourself an old soul? While watching it, I was thinking, this is some Gerald Levert, Barry White, with a little bit of Marvin Gaye, and you kind of remind me of Prince, too.
I’ll take that!
And I thought of that because it’s not like today’s contemporary R&B where—and this is where the second part comes in—everyone seems to have an opinion on the state of R&B. Trey Songz said this; I interviewed Ne-Yo about it and he said it lacked soul; but when I was watching your video, you’re modern, but you also seemed to be harkening back to the greatness of traditional R&B, and I was just wondering about your thoughts on that.
I pride myself on feeling. I can’t do it if I can’t feel it and I guess that exhibits through me. My thing is if I feel it, people can feel it. Also, I’m from New Orleans, and you’ll meet a lot of people of New Orleans, everybody from people we know like Lil Wayne to everyone else, that’s just the way people are raised. The way that city is, that part of town. It’s a very laid-back, soulful kind of place and I think naturally, that’s just how we are, I’m not the only one; it’s the upbringing. I’m surrounded by older people. I was just put on to a lot of things a lot of classic music early on and I guess it just came a part of me. That’s just how people are from New Orleans. And I also just really respect classic, great music of the past. They really laid out the foundation for actual feeling and in giving yourself completely without repercussions. It’s just saying, "I’m hurting." And people want to hear that.
And the state of R&B… I feel like you can’t judge art. Everybody has an interpretation. And this is a business. People got families to feed. So if you’re not buying the organic-feeling songs that everybody professes they want, but they’re not supporting it and want to freeload on, you can’t get mad at that person for switching to something sellable for the moment at least because it is a business. If you buy that kind of music, people will make what I like to call those personal songs. And when creating them, you’re taking a chance because not everybody’s going to play it, but in actuality, everybody cries. But I guess radio, and the labels, they aren’t willing to give it a chance. People haven’t been supporting that in the past. It takes a whole union of people to do it. One person can’t do it alone. One person can’t be speaking some knowledge and then other people are just trying to have a good time. Everybody has to be on the same, be promoting the same feeling. Let’s make music that you can feel and they will. Let’s say or teach somebody something. What’s going on? Let’s actually talk about what’s going on aside from the club. There’s life after the club.
Do you feel your music is more sexual, sensual, or atmospheric? How would you describe it?
It’s very emotional. Highs and lows. Ups and downs. I like "sensual." "Sexual" seems so physical. But I do think it’s a little bit of both. The mental, it’s soulful, and can be a physical thing. I would love for anyone listening to my music to start [feeling it] on the inside.
As for the songs on the mixtape, which ones were difficult to create? Or took a lot out of you emotionally?
The song "Oh God." I had that song, that composition from Danja. He had produced it. I had to live with it. When I first heard it, I had a structure, melody, and hook idea. But it just wasn’t happening for me and I had to put it back in the oven. Just wait for it to come to me. And one day I went back into the booth, and did it. It was tough.
And now a common question. What can we look forward to from you next year in 2013?
Oh, man! Hopefully a lot more Luke James! I am still working on the project [my debut LP]. Everyday, everyday. I’m learning something new, so I’m just going to keep recording until the official release date. Keep promoting myself and hopefully join this new movement of great music and new faces that are coming and just helping music transition to a more beautiful place where everyone is somewhat pleased. I’m also getting into acting and hopefully that will be something that will jump off.
TV or film first?
I would love to do film.
What are some of your favorite movies?
Mo’ Betta Blues. The Lost Boys. Purple Rain. Glory. I like different genres of movies. I like Manhattan by Woody Allen. I love his movies because they’re kind of cerebral. He’s almost like a contrast to Spike Lee, yet I find their films similar.
Both often based in New York City…
I like Spike Lee movies too. That’s where I’m at.
Is there a genre of music that you haven’t toyed with and experimented with yet and would like to? Because again, from the video and mixtape, I was thinking it was jarring to me—in a good way—how it sounded so different from stuff I hear today and it’s why I compared you to those legends. And I thought, "I wonder if he would ever do a song with David Guetta?"
With the music, I always want to take it to another level. Another foundation. It’s got to be like a dream. Where else can you take it? That’s how I want my music to feel. I like a vibe, and I don’t care if it takes seven minutes long to express it. It’s music. So, I don’t know… maybe alternative. I like to think of my music as classic R&B with the alternative and spiritual. I merge those things. Like Coldplay has a lot of soul. You can tell those boys went to church. Those songs just take you somewhere. Those chords, and how Chris [Martin] sings certain lines and what they say. And I just think my interpretation is all of that. I think everything I love you hear it in the music. And when the actual album comes out, you’ll hear more of where I want to go.
Last, last question! You touched on this earlier, but possibly explain more. What do you want your female fans—and male fans, too—to get from you?
One thing I want to say is that it’s OK to feel. We live in such a numb world, but it’s still a feeling because we know it’s numb. We fight it, but it’s OK to express your feelings and know what you want. Go for it. Life is too short to not fully live. I’m learning how to be in the moment and just say like, "Wow. I’m nominated for a Grammy. This is awesome." To really bask in it instead of being like, "OK. Nominated for a Grammy. What’s the next thing?" I’m trying to hold in on my feelings and become one with it. So, if I had anything to say to both the guys and the girls is that it’s OK to feel. It’s OK to rock side to side and say, "Oh my God, I love this." It’s OK to scream. At shows, people can be so uptight! And I move around a lot because I get so into my music. But also, I’m hoping I can help you guide your way out of that very thing you’ve been used to, to this new thing that is not really new. You expressed yourself when you were a child. You weren’t afraid to cry and express your feelings. Now that you’re older, we have this tough skin so we don’t show anyone we’ve got feelings. We’re human. And once people become more humanized, the world will be a better place, more full of love. If that makes any sense. Let’s make this fun again. Have fun, dammit!