The problem with motivated people is, through no fault of their own, they make you feel despondent about your own perceived successes. Such is the case with 17-year-old singer-songwriter and Oakville, Ont.-local, Ivy James. With a whole swag of awards under her belt, including Best Singer-Songwriter from the Toronto Independent Music Awards, and a hectic performance schedule, James’ killer combination of vocal prowess, lyrical wit, and ingenuity make her a musical force. She also performed during Canadian Music Week and continues to perform her acoustic set from her new self-titled EP with six songs – all self-written. All this whilst still at school.
James is demure about her successes and attributes her growing fan base to her “awkwardness”. There is nothing of the adolescent gawkiness she refers to, in her music or in her pretence as we speak. The eclectic listening experiences growing up, including her mom’s fascination with The Dave Matthew’s Band and Eminem, through to her own childhood obsession with Avril Lavigne, have all been formative musical experiences.
These, however, are not James’ inspirations. Her songs are born from the lyrics and a sense of the melody. These are further fleshed out, and developed with the guitar as merely a backing; her guitar playing, she’ll admit, isn’t great. There is a sense that the guitar is a just a rhythmic accompaniment to her voice.
And what does she think of her voice? She describes as somewhat of a “curse”. James has the soulfulness and honesty of other female songwriters, like Missy Higgins and Lisa Mitchell, but finds more musical parallels with punk and rock than anything else. In fact, she goes so far to describe her music as “acoustic, rock, pop, with a dash of punk”.
Her punk sentiments are reflected in her possessive attitude towards anyone meddling with her music, most particularly her lyrics, influenced by local muses, such as Crystalline and Lights. The lyrics are metaphor-laden; at times, a thinly veiled account, others more flexible in their interpretation, which, aside from the rare interpersonal reference, is James’ intention.
In ‘Galaxies’, she muses on the universe and the insignificance of her own foibles. This doesn’t at all feel like the realm of the angst-ridden teenager; is this an attempt to appeal to anyone who’s reflected on the futility of their own problems?
James does feel that her songs are more so aimed at her age bracket. She muses that whilst “old people” probably won’t get much out of her music, it’s other teenagers she wants to speak to. Yours truly, as an “old person” at the wizened age of 27, I felt her music doesn’t feel inaccessible; in fact, it’s the maturity beyond her years that is highly endearing. This manifests in her confidence on stage and the desire to keep audiences interested.
While she recalls moments of mistuned guitars, forgotten lyrics and online comment-board criticism, James is taking it all in her stride, along with a number of other challenging life scenarios. All the more emotional fodder to assimilate into her lyrics.
The judges of the recent Toronto Independent Music awards were amazed at the musical maturity with which she sang, and had to double check that she was, in fact, 16. Being that age can have its drawbacks; she recalls at being kicked out of venues right after her gigs during Canadian Music Week, but she’s not about to set a bad example by faking her age or an ID. Always with her younger listeners (not audience) in mind, James’ is always seeking to act as a role model, going so far to protect her listeners’ ears from the crassness of current music trends, by tempering her own language.
James’ admits she has much to learn, whilst still having singing lessons and taking advice on her music, she’s finding her musical education has failed to educate her about the music industry, and she’s learning as she goes. She sees her solo guitar eventually growing to a full band, but only while she can stubbornly continue to write her own music. And further musical education? Hells no.
Maybe I don’t feel so despondent after all then.