After a 10-year absence from the music scene, the singer-songwriter is back with a new album and plans to steadily rebuild his career.
By Naila Francis
Others may be quick to do it, considering the lengthy span of time between his debut album and his latest release, but James Maddock isn’t too fazed by the 10-year lapse.
“You can’t necessarily judge your life in terms of records,” he says. “OK, it was 10 years, but in that 10 years, I wrote hundreds of songs. I kept my internal musical compass on. I was always writing and trying to come up with something better and write another good song.”
“Sunrise on Avenue C,” released late last summer on the small independent label Ascend Records, is a collection of 12 of those songs — and a stunning one at that, if the early praise is any indication. The album has many who lamented the demise of the British troubadour’s late 1990s project, Wood, rejoicing in the return of an artist who, on his celebrated debut album, “Songs from Stamford Hill,” displayed a knack for funneling impeccably crafted lyrics and melodies into warm, catchy folk-rock songs.
That disc was released on Columbia Records in 2000 and seemed to herald a promising start for the band, with several tracks from the disc earning extensive radio airplay and appearing on shows like “Dawson’s Creek.” Wood even logged some impressive miles touring with the likes of artists such as Train and Paula Cole.
But then around 2003, Maddock decided to make his sophomore album — and absolutely hated it. He was in fact so dissatisfied with the way it turned out that he asked Columbia not to release it. The label agreed and also promptly dropped him.
“It didn’t sound like the kind of record I wanted to follow up a Wood record with,” he says now of that ill-conceived disc. “I really didn’t want it to come out. I know that sets up the notion that there’s this great undiscovered, unreleased Wood album out there and there really isn’t.
“It’s a nasty piece of work for the most part. I knew it was terrible and I knew people wouldn’t like it and would be disappointed.”
And so when he finally found a label willing to invest in a new album culled from the material he’d been gathering in the subsequent years, integrity was an understandable concern.
“I didn’t want anything to come out after ‘Stamford Hill’ that I really couldn’t stand behind,” says Maddock, who performs Thursday at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia, after selling it out in February. “I’m very conscious that people have expectations. I remember when I used to buy a record from somebody and really look forward to the next record and how I’d be really disappointed when the second or third record didn’t live up to the first ….
“Personally, I had every confidence in the ‘Sunrise on Avenue C’ album. I’m very proud of it and think it came out pretty good.”
The fine attention he pays to his craft is evident in the disc’s strong melodic structures, with piano, acoustic guitar, drums and strings providing the primary instrumental bed for his husky rasp and detailed lyrical sketches. The occasional flourish — the trombone solo in the lushly cinematic title track, for instance — adds to a palette that feels both familiar and dynamic, the album’s timelessness and soulfulness admittedly harkening back to some of his favorites: Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Louie Armstrong and Ray Charles, to name a few.
“I love that feeling I got when I listened to those records, whatever they are and whoever did them. I have an internal kind of resonance to those songs and those feelings and I try to tap into that when I’m writing,” says Maddock.
In some ways, the disc, a blend of tender ballads and effervescent rockers, is like a window into his life over the last 10 years. Maddock moved to New York City after the release of “Songs from Stamford Hill,” got married and then as his professional career began to unravel also got divorced. He tried on Austin for a while — “It’s not really a place for me. It’s just very American and I’m not sure I would have fit there neatly,” he says — and returned to London before ultimately making New York his home.
“I like to change things in my life. I got static in London. My record company, Columbia, was in New York and the record was released in America, so it just felt like a much more exciting place to be. London was … a little sleepy. All my friends had gotten married and there’s no network of musicians there to speak of. I needed a change.”
While a sense of place definitely seeps onto “Sunrise on Avenue C,” the disc also mines some of his past romantic struggles, pokes fun at the numbing stupidity of reality television and finds him searching for some semblance of order and direction amid life’s unpredictability.
“Everybody writes about where they are and things that happen to them where they are, but some of it’s subliminal as well,” says Maddock. ” ‘Sunrise on Avenue C’ is definitely about my adventures on (Manhattan’s) Avenue C, but a lot of the other songs are driven by emotions and lyrics that could have happened to anybody anywhere.”
For all his apparent ease with songwriting and the plaudits he’s earned for the craft, he admits that the process is still a slow one for him. Some songs come quickly, others can ferment for as long as seven or eight years.
“I’m still trying to write essentially pop songs in a Beatles vein — good melodies, good words, keep it within three, four minutes, try and paint a picture ….
“It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s a struggle.”
He always hoped to find a home for the songs that became “Sunrise on Avenue C,” and honed many of them playing at the Rockwood Music Hall, a small venue in the city, with his core band of Leslie Mendelson on piano, Aaron Comess on drums and Drew Mortali on bass. It was following one of those gigs that he was approached by some of the investors from Ascend Records about making an album. But while reviews to date have been solid with radio play in several major markets — album track “When the Sun’s Out” came in at No. 52 on WXPN’s listener survey of the best songs of 2009, with the album itself coming in at No. 43 — Maddock knows that he has his work cut out for him.
“I’m not packing Madison Square Garden or anything like that, but it’s great to play for people and connect with them,” he says. “This is a slow process, a slow build, and hopefully, it will keep going onwards and upwards.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times, The Burlington County Times and The Intelligencer