Next to your fire

Jodi James has always turned her pen inward to write from the heart, therapeutically at first, but now to convey a positive message, she says. She wants to connect.

The 32-year-old singer-songwriter rarely injects characters into her songs. She is the central character. Her emotions are the spine of her songs and the marrow of her melodies. One number in her growing canon stands as the shining exception that proves this rule: the title character in a song called “Jenny.” And what a character she is.

An electric talking-blues ramble, “Jenny” sees a sultry James shooting off fire and spark like the best Bonnie Raitt song she never released. “You just keep to yourself and take what you can. Ain’t nobody dying for no wedding band,” she sings with a double-shot of don’t-cross-me sass. “Cause I’ve been thinner, I’ve been smarter. I’ve been shot at twice, and I’ve been left at the altar.”

It’s the kind of memorable, radio-ready tune that country radio clamors for constantly. And if James can be Jenny, she can be anyone she wants to be.

After stints in San Francisco and New York City—where James designed a window for Grand Central Station and recorded her This Fire EP in exchange for one case of beer per session—this St. Amant native returned to the Baton Rouge area last year to decide just that: who she is going to be as an artist.

While doing freelance interior design projects and working as a salon coordinator and in the film industry, James is trying to focus on new material and looking for the formula to make it in the music business.

“For a long time I wanted to do it all, be independent and unrestricted,” James says. “But at this point, I’m starting to think about focusing more and figuring out how to market myself and do the things I need to do to get my music out there.”

James grew up on a sugar cane farm where her earliest memory is being a toddler and singing Christmas carols to her family from a milk crate. Other than family gatherings, James kept her voice to herself until 17, when she joined her first band and started playing bars and parties. A few years later James’ uncle dusted off an old guitar he had in his attic and gave it to her. She taught herself to play along to an almost comically disparate slate of songs from The Eagles to The Cranberries and Reba McEntire to Bel Biv Devo. “I was all over the place,” she says with a laugh. But along the way, she developed a folky, finger-picking style all her own.

Showcasing that softer style is “False Love,” the emotional centerpiece of This Fire. James notes the song has “explicit lyrics” on the album sleeve and delivers on the warning. Pirouetting plucks on her acoustic guitar cascade over a melody as beautiful as the words are brutal.

“I am so much more than a kiss or a f*** in your bed,” she sings as if driving away from a mistake of a relationship.

James admits that she was wary of including “False Love” with its multiple “F-bombs,” as she calls them, on her debut record. Maybe it’s too pretentious, she thought.

“I say some very personal things, but I’m not afraid to put it out there,” James says. “At the same time, it’s really hard to market that song. And I don’t want to turn people, especially young girls, away from the music. It’s not vulgar in any way. It’s just honest. I want to inspire girls to make wise decisions.”

With a voice that can flow by, almost feather-light, or drop like a hammer, James’ major influences are Anita Baker, Sam Cooke and Dusty Springfield—classic artists from a time when country and gospel cross-pollinated with soul. Whether her compositions tip toward folk, blues, country or somewhere in between, those influences represent an ethos and an essence James identifies with. Whatever her genre, what made her favorites genuine is what she wants to be.

“They’re not airbrushed or idealized,” James says. “They’re real people. You look at those artists, and you feel like you know them. That’s what is important to me: truth and self-awareness.”

Already lining up more local shows for early 2011, James is also looking for the right studio to record her follow-up to This Fire. She hopes to make it her breakout album. “There are a lot of songs that are in here that haven’t come out,” James says, patting her chest. “But they are just dying to.” James opens for country veteran Verlon Thompson at the Red Dragon Listening Room on Dec. 11. jodijamesmusic.com