Garrett James warms up Martha’s Vineyard with his tunes

Garrett James performs every Saturday at Offshore Ale, and every other Friday at The Newes from America.
Photo by Susan Safford

Garrett James performs every Saturday at Offshore Ale, and every other Friday at The Newes from America.

The streets in Edgartown were pretty bare last Friday night around 8, the summertime crowds a faded memory and the Christmas decorations not yet up. Garrett James Cadwallader, a singer-songwriter with a guitar, who looks younger than his 26 years and who has a tenor voice as clear and full as the streets outside were empty, began singing a soulful ballad at The Newes from America Pub in Edgartown.

Garrett James, his performing name, stood in front of the fireplace. His music wasn’t overpowering, but he didn’t need a microphone. Most of the pub’s tables were full. People were shuffling in, ordering, eating dinner, not paying a lot of attention to the music at first. It was pleasant background music.

After a few mellow, melodic ballads including one of his own songs, “Country Music Keeps On Truckin,” a wonderful and touching tune in spite of its name, things began to change. Working the crowd like a seasoned pro, he slowly picked up the pace.

Mr. James’s selection of music, mixing his own mostly folk-rock inclined tunes with cover tunes from the 60s and 70s including several Beatles songs, caught people’s attention. Many of the patrons became an audience rather than just diners.

When he sang a Billy Joel tune, people at several tables sang along. The young musician obliged by leaving his fireplace spot to serenade them. He is a talented performer worth listening to.

He works part-time at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs to help pay the bills, both on the floor as part of the wait staff and as a performer on Saturday nights. He alternates with Island musician Mike Benjamin on Friday evenings at The Newes.

While most of the songs he played Friday had a folk-rock sensibility, Mr. James’s interests cover a wide range of styles both in his songwriting and in his performance repertoire. He said he works in cover tunes for the benefit of the crowd. “I know they don’t want to hear songs they have never heard before all night,” he said.

He plays for and with the crowd and seems to have the ability to follow the tastes of his audience, both with the selection of his own songs and the covers he chooses.

He has a supple voice that covers a range from a low tenor to the high notes of a countertenor similar to that of Justin Timberlake’s. His guitar playing is skillful and not overcooked.

Mr. James, who now lives in Oak Bluffs, first picked up a guitar at age four, following the lead of his musician father. His two older brothers are musicians but do not play professionally. He grew up in upstate New York and in Maine, the son of ex-hippies who moved from a collective farm in Maine back to New York before he was born.

He developed an interest in recording his own music when he was 14, soon after he moved back to Maine with his mother. He said he could play songs but he didn’t know what a G chord was called, or any other chord, until he started playing with other kids in Maine. His reputation as a young recording engineer grew as he assembled equipment and learned to use it. Local bands and musicians paid him to record their music.

Moving back to New York, he was in several bands before heading off to McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn., where he studied recording.

In 2009, Mr. James opened for Grammy award winning artist Lupe Fiasco, and has performed extensively throughout the United States. He is one of the founding members of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based electro rock group Jimkata and was lead singer and guitarist for the group Lets Tokyo, with whom he released his first studio EP, “A New York Story,” in 2010. He co-owned recording studios from 2004 until 2011.

Friends introduced Mr. James to the Vineyard three years ago. He performed occasionally here three summers ago but has not performed the last two, working summer jobs instead. He told The Times he wanted to take time off from performing after spending much of the last few winters playing solo gigs on the road.

He left his recording equipment in storage before moving to the Vineyard to concentrate on songwriting. He seemed surprised when asked, after saying that he had written about 200 songs, how many are any good. With a laugh, he said, “About five.”

His immediate goals are working on his writing and becoming more familiar with other Island musicians and the music scene here. He hopes that Island venues will want to hire him next summer so that he can perform full time.

“The Vineyard is a little isolated, especially this time of the year, but I love the draw in the summertime, the really eclectic mix of people from all over the world. It seems to me it is an audience worth pursuing,” he said. “If I could play here during the summer, tour in the fall and spring and do whatever I have to do to get by, and then spend winters working on my writing here, it would be ideal.”

Garrett James performs at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs on Saturdays at 8:30 pm and on alternate Fridays at The Newes from America in Edgartown at 8 pm. His next gig is Friday, Dec. 20.