Having experienced somewhat of a nomadic lifestyle while growing up, James first picked up his father’s guitar as a young child and taught himself to play. Since then, various musical influences have shaped the musician he is today.
What’s your background, James? Where are you from originally?
I was born in Byron Bay NSW and spent most of my childhood on an isolated farm west of Lismore. There weren’t too many people my age who lived anywhere nearby to be friends with, so I spent most of my time alone or with my 2 brothers and 1 sister, adventuring or building cubbies from fallen trees.
We lived off solar, gas and battery power: no TV, a fridge the size of your average bar fridge and before the age of 13, I’d never used a power point or really knew what electricity was!
My parents split a few times, so we moved around a lot. I went to at least 13 different schools and always found it hard to fit in and was never quite sure whether to try and make friends, because I never knew when or if we’d have to pack up and leave again.
Why did you decide to relocate to Port Macquarie – and how long have you been here now?
When my parents split for good, we packed our lives into backpacks and came to Port Macquarie, as it was close to my grandparents in Halidays Point. I’ve been here 8 years now and love it! Things worked out for the best!
When did you first decide to make music a big part of your life … have you practiced since a young age?
I never ever thought I would make music a big part of my life. I never saw it as a possibility at all.
My dad used to play his 12 string guitar when I was young; I always loved to watch and although he wasn’t the greatest guitar player, I was always fascinated by how he played it. I used to study every detail of his playing; he was the only person I’d ever seen play a guitar!
Even though I wasn’t allowed, I used to play it without him knowing. It was hard to play; it was a 12 string with every second string taken off, so it was just like a 6 string with a really wide neck. It also had steel strings, while most kids learn on nylon string guitars.
My mum saw me trying to play one day and handed me a song book full of Bob Dylan music, which was the only music I’d ever heard growing up (my mum was obsessed!) She told me when you see a chord, you just “put your fingers where the dots are”. My mum couldn’t play guitar, but that’s what she was told, and it was the only teaching I ever had!
I worked out simple chords like A, C, D, E, and F. I used to know an extensive repertoire of Bob Dylan songs using only these chords, and I taught myself the harmonica from listening to Dylan’s music.
I made my own harmonica brace from a wire coat hanger and pretty much thought I was Bob Dylan.
Describe your musical style … what moves you, and what artists do you draw inspiration from?
I’d describe my playing as a Folk/Roots sort of sound and style similar to that of those who inspire me!
When I turned 19, I discovered Angus and Julia Stone. The simple chords I was so familiar with were being used in ways I’d never heard, and the words to their songs were so similar to that of Dylan’s.
Not long after, I discovered John Butler and discovered open tunings and lap steel guitar. He made me understand there was a way I could play my guitar with no idea exactly what I was doing, but somehow it made sense.
To this day, with most of my songs I have no idea what the chords are or how I find the chords I need for a song … I simply just play until I find something I like.
I try to combine what I think is best about the three artists I draw my inspiration from and reshape it to the way I write and play.
At the moment, I perform a lot of solo shows. I also have a drummer, Vince Pring, who plays with me sometimes, and I do a lot of shared gigs with my good mate Todd Bourke, who is a big influence on my music; we share similar views and styles.
What other instruments do you actually play? Do you see yourself more as an instrumentalist, or a vocalist?
I play 6 and 12 sting guitars made by Cole Clark, lap steel (slide) guitar and harmonicas. I also use a Bigfoot Stomp Box and a tambourine with my feet while playing. I’d say there’s not one thing I’d be better at than the other; it’s an all as one kind of thing.
Where can people catch you performing … do you have any regular gigs?
I’ve just started to play out of Port in Byron Bay, Bellingen, Forster and Newcastle. I do have a regular Sunday that I play at the Beach House in Port most weeks, 12pm ’til 3pm, and I also run the open mic night at The Pier every Tuesday night, 6.30pm ’til 11pm, both of which I’ve been doing for just over a year now.
You’ve recently produced an EP too. What’s it called – and how would you introduce it to someone who’s never heard you perform before?
The EP is self titled and with 6 acoustic songs (guitar vocals and harmonica). I guess the songs are pretty catchy and a combination of my influences; it’s a great little EP. I’m happy with it as my first recording, and it’s very easy listening!
What’s your biggest dream/goal?
My biggest dream at the moment would be getting into some bigger festivals and maybe heading overseas. My ultimate goal is to make people feel happy and enjoy the music that I create and also to hopefully inspire others to play or write music like others did for me!
Where can people purchase/download your music, or read more about you?
My EP is available on iTunes, you can get a copy from The Guitar Factory, or at any of my gigs. I have some other songs on the Triple J Unearthed site www.triplejunearthed.com/jamesbennett. I’ve got a 2nd EP coming out before the end of the year and an album next year!
Facebook artist page www.facebook.com/jamesbennettsound. For bookings and info, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview by Jo Atkins.