On Nov. 18, Jemima James celebrated the release of her most recent musical effort at Pathway Arts at the Chilmark Tavern, with special guests and longtime collaborators. Ms. James’s musical career has defied convention over its multidecade span, and in her most recent release, she yields two timeless and powerful works. On Dec. 2, Ms. James will release a double CD, “At Longview Farm” and “When You Get Old.” The physical release will include a 24-page booklet with lyrics and photographs, and the the digital version, released on Nov. 4, is available for preview on Soundcloud. With the help of producers Gilbert Scott Markle and Geoffrey Myers, the two albums, recorded nearly 40 years apart, enter into a most revealing conversation with one another and establish a narrative that tracks the artist’s evolution and maturation over time. It is a true testament to Ms. James’s timeless lyrics and instrumentation that neither record sounds out of place when compared side by side in 2016.
“At Longview Farm” plays just like an old folk song, painting a picture of 1970s American music and creative farm living. At 27 years old, after leaving the New York folk scene, Ms. James traveled to North Brookfield to work at Longview Farm, a recording studio founded in 1974 by Mr. Markle. “I lived and paid my way for three years cleaning, cooking, mucking, milking,” Ms. James recalls. By the end of her sojourn at the farm, after socializing with the likes of John Belushi, the Rolling Stones, and Arlo Guthrie, Ms. James completed “At Longview Farm,” a collection of original songs, in 1979. The album had been shelved for nearly 40 years when Ms. James acquired the original tapes, and the record label Team Love, co-founded by Nate Krenkel and Conor Oberst in the fall of 2013, became involved.
“At Longview Farm” is a poignant collection of 10 songs executed in the tradition of artists like the Band and Fleetwood Mac. The album’s opening track, “Sensible Shoes,” immediately places the listener in the world of 1970s blues and folk. Ms. James builds her narrative around Americana characters and landscapes connected by the universal themes of love and loss. The driving forces of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums provide a solid foundation upon which Ms. James can rest her soulful voice and fearless lyric. The maturity of the artist’s work on this record, and its sustained relevance, considering the fact that it was only recently liberated from its status as a dusty shelf adornment, are incredibly heartening.
The companion album to “At Longview Farm,” titled “When You Get Old,” was recorded in October 2015 at the aptly named Old Soul Studio in Catskill, N.Y., with backing band Good Night Louise. “When You Get Old” delivers an unflinching view of life from the perspective of the modern Ms. James, now 65, with songs exploring topics like aging, mortality, and separation. The album’s title track harkens back to times of old with jaunty saloon piano and resonator guitar accompanied by a barroom chorus of harmonies during the refrain. Ms. James reminds her listener, “Keep your wits, they are the only wits you’ll ever have.”
Ms. James’ journey to this double release was gradual, but well worth the wait for her audience. When Ms. James initially traveled to Longview Farm, she had already signed a contract as a staff songwriter for Famous Music in 1972, and her career continued after her departure with releases like 2013’s “Book Me Back Into Your Dreams” and “Nothing New” in the following year. Ms. James has garnered the admiration of such notable artist as the Island’s own Kate Taylor, who says, “Jemima James will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you glad you came to hear this embodiment of wisdom and wit.” Ms. Taylor isn’t far off the mark — both of Ms. James’ albums draw out the comedy and tragedy of a life well lived and documented through song. For Ms. James, the narrative arc of a lifetime is no laughing matter, but she approaches the drama with a generous sense of humor that gives her work a timeless character. Both “At Longview Farm” and “When You Get Old” flow almost seamlessly from track to track, and Ms. James even updates songs from her earlier effort, making for a dynamic and truly unique listening experience that feels almost like reading the diary entries of one’s younger self.