Aiden James: Philly's finest
by Jim Provenzano
Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Aiden James will be performing in San Francisco at the Folsom Street Fair's main stage on September 29, and at The Midnight Sun on Monday September 30.
The independent out gay vocalist's recent singles have become popular on YouTube. His songs have enjoyed notable sales on iTunes. His new album Trouble With This features a dozen original songs.
Before his San Francisco gigs, James is also performing at the Viva la Vida music festival in Pioneer, CA, a town which, I confessed to the singer, required a Google map search to locate.
"I had to Google it, too," he laughed in our phone interview. Nevertheless, the festival has a popular following, and outdoor performances are just part of James' versatile tour. His previous Bay Area visits have included shows at the Hotel Utah and Dolores Park Café.
So, how does the indie musician figure out tour dates and other details? "There's so much that goes into it," he said. "I have people in my corner that make sure things happen."
While he noted the pleasant aspects of living in Philadelphia, he also mentioned how much he enjoys traveling for shows. He described his neighborhood, the historic Rittenhouse Square, as tree-lined, with cobblestone sidewalks, "very reminiscent of the West Village," he added. "You don't need a car. I respond to that. You can get a lot of energy from a city."
Despite being out and proud, the folk-pop-influenced singer doesn't often perform in gay nightclubs, for purely technical reasons.
"I don't play a lot of gay clubs, because for what I do, a lot of the clubs can't facilitate a full touring rider. I play and perform live, so I can't just grab a microphone. I need a good soundcheck. I like to uphold the integrity of what I do live. A lot of times at clubs it's not workable."
But would he stay independent if offered a lucrative recording contract, where such details can be handled by others?
"At this point I would entertain an offer," said James, but added that his decision would be cautious. "I know so many of my friends have been signed and lose power and the rights to their songs. I have a great team of industry people that I've known over the years, who want to help me, and have experience."
Like the founders of his native city, James prefers his independence. That includes friends who can direct visually appealing music videos, which, for James, "kind of like going out on a first date with a fan." They see him and listen.
In between his casual covers of pop songs like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," James' video for his own song "Hurry, Hurry" includes a hunky bear impatiently trekking through New York City's subway system, where he eventually meets up with the singing James in Times Square. Their affectionate kiss represents a lot to the 29-year-old.
While mainstream media have gone a bit overboard with their coverage of gay singer Steve Grand, acting as if an openly gay single had never released a sexy or romantic song and accompanying video, James puts it in perspective.
"For a lot of people, it is dramatically new," he said. "A lot of people's exposure to music is just Top 20. The music industry has such control over artists. For a lot of people, their music is only what's presented to them, and only what's accessible. For me to wait for a hunk to meet me at the train station [as in the "Hurry, Hurry" music video]; that's not a big part of their lives, and they don't see it in music."
So, is a male-male kiss set to music still revolutionary?
"It's important to be seen and show our numbers and create," said James. "As a kid, I never felt like I belonged. I never saw any examples, and what I did find left me feeling empty and unfulfilled. I want to bring a new layer of possibility; someone who's proud of what they do."
But James is clear about being a 'cause' performer. "Ultimately, what it comes down to, is the songwriting," he said. "I'm a musician. I'm a singer. I produce my own records. I don't want people to get confused as to what I'm about, not a gay agenda. It comes down to the music."
Like his contemporaries, other out gay male singers Matt Alber, Tom Goss and Eric Himan, the specificity of lyrics is of interest. Since we know the singer is gay, we can discard subtext or coded intentions and enjoy the music for what it is. While being clear about the subject, like others, James sometimes prefers lyrics that are more general and have a wider appeal.
"Every song is different," he said. "It's important to have a uniform voice and write good songs. Something that's very honest; that's what I try to flesh out."
James cites his song "Snapshot" as an example. "I wrote it for two lesbian friends who couldn't be together," he said. "Whenever they were together, they would send a snapshot. I write songs for people outside of myself."
Before visiting San Francisco, James will perform at the Viva la Vida Festival Sept 28 in Pioneer, California, with Garrison Star and other musicians.
Aiden James performs at the Folsom Street Fair, Sept. 29 at 11am, on the main stage (10th & Howard streets). Free/gate donations.
James also performs Monday, Sept. 30, 10pm at The Midnight Sun, 4067 18th St., as part of Mahogany Mondays.
For our Southern California Readers, he'll be in Los Angeles October 4 at Room 5 Lounge, 143 North LeBrea Ave.