Interview | FFS 5 Q&A with James Houlahan

Photo by Esther Clark

Four albums deep, James Houlahan is still reveling in the wonder and imagination of the record-making process. His new LP, The Wheel Still in Spin, drifts through varied states of being, musically and lyrically evoking the stillness against constant motion of that strange optical phenomenon the wagon-wheel effect, where a spoked wheel’s spin appears to cut opposite its actual rotation. It’s an apt analogy with Houlahan. In addition to the new album’s title, he alludes to the Tarot’s Wheel of Fortune on the record, and often makes explicit reference to wheels and circles as a means of processing his own journey. Influenced by icons such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell, Houlahan’s songcraft lends itself to a particular alchemy of Americana. It’s easy to understand how and why Houlahan has become such a staple of the Los Angeles music scene.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts and have spent the last 20 years of my life living in cities: Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles. Music has always been a part of my life, and I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid. Over time, my relationship with songwriting deepened to the point where I began to take it seriously and wanted to make a go of it, professionally. I moved to L.A. In 2012 and since then have begun to have a little bit of success. I’ve released four albums, got some decent radio airplay, and landed my songs in a few TV shows and films. Also, I’ve started touring in Europe with a tour in Germany planned for October 2018.

If we talk about defining moments, they would be those seemingly small moments where I realized my music was connecting with other people. The woman who told me after my set one night that my song “Rocketship” moved her to tears, as she dealt with a failing relationship. When my friend and one of my songwriting heroes, Dan Blakeslee, covered my tune “Ben Riley” for a compilation record of local Boston music. When I sat in a theater watching Catherine Keener act in the movie “Little Pink House,” as a song of mine plays in the foreground. When I played in a medieval church in the tiny village of Dorfmark, Germany to a completely silent, attentive crowd, my voice echoing through the ancient, hallowed room. These are all small moments, I know. Nothing grand or sensational. But they are the kinds of experiences that help inspire me to keep writing, keep singing, and remain open to the possibilities ahead.

As an artist, how do you define success?

I think if you focus on your music and do the best possible work you can, that is success. There’s so much nonsense and noise in the music industry. It’s hard to tune all that out. It’s hard not to compare yourself with others. But if you can remember why you started out in the first place, and keep your eyes and ears fixed on the work you are doing, I think the difference between failure and success becomes an afterthought. There’s that bit of ancient Vedic wisdom that says “One has control over action alone, but never the fruit of that action.” That’s some heavy stuff. And I think therein lies the seed of success. If I can do the best work that I can, then I will consider that a success.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

To put it bluntly, making money is the hardest thing! We live in a weird time where music has been de-valued economically. So anyone out there trying to earn a living at this is facing some serious uphill challenges. I can’t tell you the number of amazingly talented people I’ve seen throw in the towel over the years. It’s a shame. I wish we lived in a culture that valued the arts more. But we don’t, obviously. So all of us still out here in the trenches continue to adapt and improvise when it comes to revenue. I’m making progress, but it’s really hard. Sometimes you just want to disappear from the world and go live in a log cabin somewhere in the woods. But then I remember that music has a value that’s bigger and beyond economics, and I keep going.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

I hope to keep writing and recording songs as long as they keep coming to me. I remain committed to doing the best work I can do. And I aim to meet every future opportunity with as much preparation as I can. I’m in this for the long haul. That said, I really don’t know where all of this will end up. But I hope to create music that has a lasting impact on my audience. The kind of music that only gets better with time. Songs that defy the relentless whirlwind of transient consumption. Songs that remain long after I’m gone, remaining useful and meaningful to future ears. This is what I hope to achieve.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

Living in L.A., I’ve been receiving a crash course in movies and the magic of cinema. I’m a rookie when it comes to understanding film, but there are so many opportunities to go out and see incredible movies on the big screen. I try to take advantage of that as much as possible. Seeing movies by directors like David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Alejandro Jodorowsky has sent me spiraling into unknown galaxies of inspiration. So I hope to keep exploring the world of cinema. That’s a really deep well.

Also, I get inspiration from other visual arts, reading, poetry. I try to keep my eyes and ears open to new experiences. Accidental horizons, unforeseen adventures. If the world is just one big radio, then I’m gonna keep spinning that dial. All kinds of art forms overlap in my head at some point, and I try to learn as much as I can from each and every voice out there. You never know where the next song is coming from.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm (@jfrahm_)