After an itinerant childhood spent everywhere from Stuttgart, Germany to New York, Indiana, and Hawaii, Ro James creates music that speaks of his life’s journies. In 2013, he self-released Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs, three four-song EPs that fused a range of sounds—including soul, R&B, and hip-hop—with vulnerable yet decisive lyricism. Snopp Dogg and Asher Roth both made guest appearances on the tracks, and shortly after the EPs’ releases he signed with RCA Records. Now, three years later, James has added Miguel and Brenmar to his list of collaborators and last week, he announced the release of his debut album, ELDORADO(out May 27 via ByStorm Entertainment/RCA).
Although James continues blending various genres, ELDORADO will present a more confident artist, one who feels he has found his voice and developed his sound. “Before, when I was Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs, I was drinking Jack Daniels everyday, partying, smoking, doing crazy shit,” he explains. “Nnow I’m a more mature, a little bit more refined.”
We spoke to the artist over the phone about growing up (his dad was both in the military and a pastor; his mother made him read and write as punishment), the inspiration and personal connection he has with Prince, and of course, ELDORADO.
NAME: Ro James
BASED: New York City
MAN ABOUT TOWN: I was born in Germany and lived there until I was two. Then my mom was in college so she finished schooling and I stayed with my grandmother in New York for a year. After that I moved to California until I was four, and then to Oklahoma until I was 10. Then I moved to Hawaii and was there until I was 12. I moved to Indiana for my teenage years and high school, but every summer in between would be spent in New York. I loved New York, my family lived here, and I was really close to my mom’s side of the family.
MY DAD… was in the military, a drill sergeant, when he was a preacher. You know how some Christians really get into church and become very radical? Imagine him as a radical and a drill sergeant. It was intense. [laughs] He was extreme with it because that’s what he was taught. He [threw all of our records away] and as a kid you don’t understand, you think music is music. But because he doesn’t like a song, I can’t like it… I remember me, my mom, and my brother dancing in the kitchen to Janet Jackson and learning new dances, and my mom loved Whitney Houston, so when he threw away her records it was an interesting day.
After that, I would always sneak music in. My mom would even sneak in music. I remember my mom—this is going to be funny if she reads this—bought me a Sir Mix-a-lot cassette. She snuck it to me! My dad got into this group Commission with Fred Hammond and that was my biggest gospel memory. I would hear that all the time and listening to their voices helped me develop my voice because I would try to emulate them as a kid. It taught me tone and it gave me a balance. I was listening to the music that friends from school had, and coming to New York, I would hear everything from reggae to Spanish music and hip-hop, and then I would go home and hear gospel all the time.
SILENCE: I was shy; I sang at home, but not in public. My dad’s side of the family sang, so I would hear their voices and think mine couldn’t compare. As you’re growing from a boy into a man, your voice changes all the time. You have to figure out your voice and what tone is, and I never really knew what that meant. [The first time I sang in public] was when I did a Christmas play in church. We had to be the wise men and make up a song. Then I did a talent show with my homies. I performed Ginuwine’s “Pony.” [laughs]
MUSIC IS POETRY: When I got in trouble, my mom would make me read or write—I would have to write my name over and over and over again. It gave me great penmanship, but I also just liked to write. Every time I would go to the store I would buy a notebook. I had thousands of them. Religion was telling my father that the devil was in the music, so it affected me; I would try to make friends, but here I am, this weird ass kid that doesn’t know any songs other than gospel. Writing helped me express that feeling. Sometimes I wrote from an angry place. Sometimes I wrote from a place of trying to figure out where I was, who I was. I still write all the time. My older cousin sings, writes, and plays all the instruments. He told me how to transfer my writing into songs. Then I started listening to people like Stevie Wonder and realized that his writing is poetry. So I was already writing songs and just had to figure out how to come up with a melody and what it sounds like.
CUREENT PLAYLIST AND READING LIST: A lot of my friends put out music, like BJ the Chicago Kid and Anderson .Paak—I like his music. But I also find myself going back to old school—Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Hathaway, Prince, and Jodeci—so I can keep that soul, that feeling, and remember what inspired me. Reading, for me, is a break, away from the music, and it enhances my writing. I just finished this book called Silent Power by Stuart Wilde. It was really great.
THE JOURNEY: Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs was my introduction. I’ve lived in New York, been around the scene, and partied with probably everybody, but I never said, “Hey, I’m an artist.” I was perfecting my craft, making relationships, and meeting new friends, so when I put out that EP, I wanted it to tell the story of where I started. It was the announcement of the beginning of my journey and I wanted people to take the ride with me. So not only have I grown personally since then, but I’ve grown within my words; I basically discovered my voice and what my sound is.
ELDORADO now is my first car, my first ride, my journey. ELDORADO means the golden road; this is my first introduction to the world like, “Yo, everybody, I know who I am, this what my voice sounds like, this what my music sounds like, so come take this ride with me.” So even in my writing and my experience, I look at things a little bit differently. Before, when I was Coke, Jack, and Cadillacs, I was drinking Jack Daniels everyday, partying, smoking, doing crazy shit, and now I’m a more mature, a little bit more refined. With ELDORADO, I took the opportunity to experiment with sound and different producers and get out of my comfort zone so I can grow.
COLLABORATIVE EFFORS: My first experience with Miguel was when I came across “Sure Thing” on MySpace and I was like, “Yo this dude is different.” Then I met him about six years ago in New York, showed him around and introduced him to the city. We were in the studio one day and he was recording a song and I just so happened to be in the room. I contributed some energy and a couple of words and that was that. Brenmar and I have a lot of associates and friends in common so his management hooked us up. Snoop Dogg was through management as well. Growing up I always listened to Snoop Dogg, so to have him on the journey was perfect. The person I spent the most time around was Miguel; from him, I learned how to stay true to yourself and follow your dreams and don’t let anybody come between that.
REMEMBERING PRINCE: My aunt is Rosie Gaines and was part of Prince’s band The New Power Generation. So knowing her journey, Prince became one of my huge inspirations; knowing that she was singing with him, I got to experience his artistry. Watching Purple Rain definitely helped me get to where I am right now. Watching Purple Rain and connecting to his music and knowing his story—it was very personal for me, knowing that my aunt was part of it. It taught me individuality, how to not listen to anybody, how to be different, how to be soulful. There’s a raunchy, artistic nature about my music. I do that in my own way, not to emulate Prince, but to say, “Yo, watching your life taught me to find that in myself, taught me to just be myself.”
ELDORADO WILL BE RELEASED MAY 26, 2016. FOR MORE ON RO JAMES, VISIT HIS FACEBOOK.