Vanja James goes off on her own

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3545800271_83a087629aContributor Mary Leary profiles San Diego-based musician Vanja James and her life on the road.

On the first of May, one of San Diego’s most beautiful, unassuming and determined musicians filled the tank of her beat-up SUV and started driving north. Her guitars, an egg cooker, and laptop were installed in the backseat. She also packed a few boxes of what has come to be known as merch, or, as Vanja enjoys saying, “schwag,” including Vanja James t-shirts, Vanja James CDs, and Vanja James posters.

One of her most radio-friendly songs, “On Your Own,” seems to foretell the journey she inserted into a business plan years ago, even targeting the month and year of May, 2009. The stated mission: To get her sounds heard by as many ears as possible. I believe, as far as keeping expectations low, that she meant that statement. I also believe that her dreams around this tour went, and go, far beyond that stated goal.

Here are some lines from “On Your Own:” ‘Navigating all these unknown roads / flying solo’s always best when not too far from home / while making all these brand new friends / I realized my old life had to end but I found one soul, one soul I had to mend.”

Vanja James reminds me of a stealth bomber. Two years ago, I suddenly and spontaneously accepted the work of booking a new café. With about 10 days in which to find and select a month’s worth of quality performers, I was furiously MySpacing, where I bumped into Vanja’s profile. She’d posted a very Jackie O. profile photo of herself with an up-do, sitting as primly as the sort of woman who knows to stop at two cocktails, wearing a classic early ‘60s dress. I contacted her, thinking she’d be about some sort of vintage style (If you’re under 30, or new in town: San Diego has a tradition of musicians obsessed with vintage clothes and cars, who usually emit jazz, rockabilly, swing or something influenced by at least one of the above).

Turned out that in person Ms. James is somebody different: for one, she’s even more striking than the Jackie O. MySpace pic. But her music is solidly contemporary, and her threads are pretty basic – with what I’d call hippie, or early ‘70s, leanings. When we were planning her show she had the sense to ask if several other female performers could share the bill, ensuring a good crowd. She had the sense to include the brilliant Gayle Skidmore. She took her place in the show as one of the lesser-known’s with noteworthy grace and serenity. She accepted the fact that, that night, if anyone was the star, it was Gayle.

Vanja exhibited a sense of timing, the big picture, and how to help others while helping herself that seemed miles past her undisclosed but gotta-be-under-32 age. When she finally got her turn on the small stage, her song writing and juicy, gutsy voice, along with a sort of essential simplicity, managed to be memorable in a sea of talented, compelling women.

Her sound differed from that of that evening’s other three female performers. Vanja’s a belter, with a medium-to-soft finish. “What she sounds like” is such a predictable music piece question, but you probably want to know – a bit like KT Tunstall, with maybe a dash of Amy Winehouse. Vanja has admitted her admiration of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Aretha Franklin – and while pretty, Vanja’s voice definitely has soul at or near its core. It sounds like she’s listened to all sorts of music. What I found most compelling was her onstage mixture of authentic vulnerability with intuitively-timed strength and chain mail, a balance some women strive to reach all their lives.

Several years ago, Ms. James arrived in a scene dense with aspiring singer-songwriters, many of them female, and most of them far more talented than used to be the case in local coffeehouses. Yet I’ve rarely detected even a speck of uncertainty regarding her right to a place in the music world. In a rather quiet, very hopeful, sometimes sideways fashion, she has simply barreled forward, filling arid spaces with creativity and keeping a positive attitude. As such, her current solo tour is a natural outgrowth.

We’ve all heard the songs and stories from touring bands about the exhaustion of nightly tour stops, crowded vans, crappy food, and sleep deprivation. In Vanja’s case we can add that she is doing all the driving along with booking nearly all her lodging (frequently, someone’s couch) and shows.

As I am writing this, there is ongoing “breaking news,” to wit: an agent in North Carolina is interested in Vanja’s music and is giving it several listens. Someone else has invited her to join a year-long junket, complete with street teams and an official tour van. This is very quick success, and to other musicians it’s inspirational. It suggests that Ms. James is probably doing what she’s meant to be doing.

To me, however, these high points may be less meaningful than her account of a stop at a biker bar in Reno where she only received $2 in the tip jar… to discover, later, a $100 bill someone had slipped into her purse. And a lot of kindness and camaraderie. Or the way a guy in San Francisco gave her a “Santa Claus bag” that included a skateboard. Or how she rides armed with merch with her pictures and names on it, saying her tour blog exists to keep her sanity and “as my gift to all of you,” which is a level of self-importance that has tended to elude me, personally – it’s rather fascinating in someone who seems rather humble and generally level-headed. Maybe most interesting, to me, is the latter coupled with how Vanja accepted the need, during a very dry point in the tour, to ask people to watch her show, and to give away CDs when they weren’t being purchased, and to be grateful, at one venue, for the attention of two or three people.

The most startling lyrics I’ve heard from Vanja go far beyond the chutzpah of a performer some have chosen for comparison: Janis Joplin. From “Deal With The Devil”: “I said, ‘I would do anything for one ounce of the magic that you bring / Take my soul, take my heart, anything to make my mark’ / I made a deal with the devil today / the angel over my shoulder looked away / I made a deal with the devil today / I’m not compromisin’ any longer / I made a deal with the devil today / cross my fingers I am so sincere / it’s hot as hell but damn, it’s good down here…”

When I asked Vanja how many phone numbers she’s been offered on this tour, I expected to hear that she’d received hundreds, or at least a figure in the double digits. Her typically somewhat cryptic answer, which was brief and included no number: “I’ve met like…one dude, who thinks he can make me famous.”

Before a show in Olympia, Wash., Vanja decorated her own cupcake with three colors of purple sprinkles. That’s the kind of musician who may end up writing the first truly successful song about sunset. Or who will just keep surprising us — shifting colors, casting off what doesn’t work and shrugging into what does while maintaining a solid core of Vanja-ishness. It’s an interesting journey, one I’d recommend following – starting with her music. She says she’s already written two songs while on the road. I’m waiting to hear what arises from the stories she’s living right now.

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