Songwriter Profile: Emily James

At 21, Emily James is a talented and tenacious quick study, bootstrapping her way through three albums. Her fourth and latest EP, Wanted You To Know, Pt. 1, was released earlier this year and includes collaborations with James and Brian Brundage (Rhys Lewis), Evan Klar (Mallrat) and Justin Lucas (Khalid). Her music is featured on numerous playlists and there have been over 25 million streams of her earliest work.

The youngest of five children raised just north of New York City, James grew up in a house of avid music fans. Influences include everything from Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder to folk music and musicals. Studying piano and giving frequent karaoke performances in her family’s kitchen at age five, followed by voice and guitar lessons, James was writing songs by age 10. “It’s a kind of euphoric happiness,” she says, “and I just know that there's nothing else out there for me that will feel that way. If I can sustain this as my career for the rest of my life, then I will be the happiest person ever.”

While performing professionally in New York in her early teens, James also travelled to Nashville to play gigs and convinced her parents to move there when she was 16. The move ultimately helped her hone her craft and become more independent. “I just love talking to people and hearing their stories,” shares James. “I think doing that helped me to develop as a performer and a writer.”

While living in Nashville, James reached out to multiple Grammy-winning producer Jacquire King, and he connected her with Ian Fitchuk, who produced her first self-titled EP in 2016. “[I’m] very grateful for that experience,” James recounts. “I only spent two days in the studio, but for me that was a ton of time [in] a space where it’s all there for you to play with, so I felt like a kid in the candy shop.” The single “Never Chase A Boy” was the first of her songs to hit one million streams––through Discover Weekly on Spotify––without having hit an editorial playlist.

Eventually James was drawn to the Los Angeles music scene. “I love how there is such a blend of genres in the scene out here,” she says. “I like that L.A. gives me endless possibilities with sounds, styles, and performing.” Once in Los Angeles, she again reached out to a respected producer by cold-calling Ryan Hadlock and sending him some of her songs, after which he agreed to work with her. During what would have been her senior year of high school (she took a gap year in 2018), James spent a month with her mother living at Hadlock’s Seattle studio immersed in recording her debut full-length album, In The Morning.

James picked up a lot about recording and production from the producers and engineers she has been fortunate enough to work with, and her third album, Dreaming (2019), was completed almost entirely in her bedroom. The combination of limited equipment and the intimacy of the space at home allowed for creative freedom, without the usual self-consciousness that comes from working in a studio. Dreaming was her first album to make it onto editorial playlists, and her follow-up single, “Bartender” (January 2020), ended up on Chill Hits on Spotify.

Committed to finding her own unique sound before jumping into collaborations, James has been on a mission to grow as a writer and “to make sure that when I eventually collaborated with other people that I was bringing something to the table.” With her 2021 EP, Wanted You To Know, Pt. 1, James dived into co-writing and co-producing, and has seen changes in her writing and creative processes, adding, “I feel like it's made me branch out into styles and sounds I would have never thought to do on my own.”

When things don’t work out, James tries her best to pivot, admitting that, “it’s sometimes hard to get past the little things, but I’m realizing that the music industry is not life or death—you’re not a heart surgeon. Just remember that it's the entertainment industry—so have fun and enjoy the journey.”

Contact Michelle Gutenstein Hinz, [email protected]; emilyjames.net