One sunny and fragrant day last spring, Jemima James and I sat out on her back porch in West Tisbury as she talked about the trajectory her career has taken.
No less than the Vineyard’s own Kate Taylor had this to say about Jemima’s music when talking about one of her upcoming shows:
“Sit back, get comfortable, and prepare to receive the Real Deal. Jemima James will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you glad you came to hear this embodiment of wisdom and wit. This gal has it all; chops, style, and humanity all rolled up in a package just for you. Do not miss this singer and song slinger when she comes to your town. Then, yes, you can thank me for encouraging you to get there! I will happily say, ‘I told you so!'”
Jemima grew up near Woodstock, Vt., and one morning when she was around 5, her parents packed up her and her two siblings and announced they were heading for Colorado. Her dad, who was an artist, loved camping and skiing, and the family, equipped with two tents, spent the summer camping out around Aspen before they went on to get their own house.
Jemima proved to be a bright kid with a gift for the arts, perhaps inspired by her dad, who played guitar. She began writing songs in high school, and showed a fine hand at drawing and illustration.
Partway through high school, Jemima moved back East to go to prep school, back home to where her family’s roots ran deep. Her great-grandfather was none other than William James, the 19th century philosopher. Henry James, the novelist, was Jemima’s great-granduncle.
Jemima remembers childhood visits to stay in William’s houses in Cambridge and Chocorua, N.H., which her grandfather inherited. “I have vivid, sensory memories of those big, beautiful houses,” Jemima said. “One summer they made me sleep in the bed where William died, and it scared me.
“My grandfather’s neighbor and friend in Chocorua was E.E. Cummings, who came to dinner, picked up my older sister, sat her on the mantel above the fireplace, and recited a poem. I don’t remember it, but it was a story that the family told.”
After prep school, Jemima would go on to the Museum School in Boston to study illustration. But her stay there was short-lived because “I got distracted by my future husband, Mike Mason,” Jemima said. “He and I were playing music together, and he convinced me that I didn’t have to be in school to start a band and write music, which he thought was my true calling.” It didn’t take long, only six months, for Mike to convince Jemima to quit school, move to New York, and start a band.
After gigging around the city for a while, a scout for the Famous Music division of Paramount Music, heard Mike and Jemima play at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village and invited them to play for his boss and they were signed as songwriters, which would allow them to not only write for Famous but write material for themselves as well. Jemima remembers Famous Music up on Columbus Avenue in a building that used to sway in the wind. “But we had a weekly paycheck,” Jemima said, “and it was fabulous.” But after about three months, Mike and a vice president at Famous got in a fistfight, followed by the VP saying to Mike, “You’ll never work in this business again, or words to that effect,” Jemima said.
For Jemima, it was a chance to get out of town, and she started in San Francisco, where she became friends and played music with Mike Bloomfield, who told her he really liked her stuff, and they recorded some tracks together. “We had a great time recording,” Jemima said.
Jemima had a knack for befriending notable musicians, and after moving to Los Angeles, a friend of hers played some of her songs to famed composer and producer Jack Nitzsche and he liked them. “Nitzsche told me he was starting a label and wanted me to be on it,” said James. “His life got complicated and the label never happened. Jemima’s life then took an unexpected and enjoyable turn in the late ’70s when a friend of hers sent one of her tapes to the legendary Longview Farms Studios in North Brookfield, MA. and told her they’d love her there.
Longview Farms was a working farm and legendary recording studio where many of the most famous bands in the world came to record. Jemima’s arrangement with Longview was that she would be allowed to work on her own music in turn for cooking and helping out around the place.
“I remember when the Rolling Stones came, getting ready to rehearse to go on tour,” Jemima said, “we could hear them playing into the night. When they first got there they were rusty, and sounded like a garage band, but it didn’t take long to pull it together.
“And then there was the time John Belushi came in,” Jemima said, “he was getting ready to shoot ‘Continental Divide,’ and he came in to dry out and get in shape, and I was in charge of keeping him on his diet. That may have been one of the greater challenges I’ve ever faced.”
In the early ’80s, Jemima left Longview with tracks of new songs she’d created and stories enough to last a lifetime. She headed off to New York, where she played folk clubs in the West Village and hung out with the incomparable Dave Van Ronk.
But over time, the lifestyle was wearing Jemima down, and she got back with Mike and moved to the Vineyard to raise a family. “It was the best part of my life,” Jemima said. “I loved the pregnancy and I loved the birth.”
Jemima’s oldest son, Willy Mason, is an internationally acclaimed singer and songwriter, and her younger son, Sam, is an awardwinning film and animation director living in New York. “They’re my greatest creations,” Jemima said.
These days, in addition to her music, Jemima is working on her artwork and attempting to write a novel. She’s always been interested in writing, and at one point when she was a young girl she actually considered changing her name from Jemima to Miriam as in Miriam Webster, so great was her love of words.
“My family refused to go along with the plan,” Jemima said, “but then when I grew older I learned to be happy with my real name. Imagine my thrill when the Band’s ‘Jemima Surrender’ came out.”
In recent years, Jemima told me that in addition to her artistic endeavors, she’s been working as a caregiver for Alzheimer’s patients, a role she very much enjoys.
But before I left for the afternoon, I had to ask Jemima if she’d do me a favor: Would she play me one of my favorite songs of hers, a haunting ballad called “Golden Boy”?
Jemima probably didn’t much feel like putting on a performance for a reporter, but she took out her beat-up Gibson Hummingbird guitar, and the sound of her voice set against the gentle sounds of a spring afternoon is something I won’t soon forget.
Next up for Jemima is putting together a new record played on and produced by her old friend, musician/songwriter Lilah Larson. The two used to do a variety show at Featherstone.
“I feel better than ever,” Jemima said. “I like getting old and not worrying about money and what people think. Doing elder care, I’ve learned all families have struggles, and I feel peaceful and happy in mine. I feel like I’m in a good place.”