The Incredible Expanding Woman

JoAnna James's pipes crowd out electrons, banish wieners, and beg to be taken to Belize

JoAnna James
Back of My Mind
Eclectone Records

People are wieners. And I mean that in the worst possible way. Even those people you count as friends will ruin your life, if doing so might bring them an ounce of happiness. Jerks. I guess I shouldn't speak for you. But that's been my experience recently. So I've made a decision: I'm quitting the day job, ditching my wieners, and changing my name to Tony. Then I'm moving to Belize with Minneapolis songwriter JoAnna James. There, we will live on love and on music (and on ice cream). JoAnna James, if you're reading this: Trust me. This is for my own good.

If she's not hip to moving down south, her new EP, Back of My Mind, would make a good stand-in for the woman herself. Openers "No Ordinary Sunday" and "Disappear" are sad, slow songs—entirely appropriate for an EP with blues overtones, but I wouldn't want to listen to them with a bunch of wieners on a cloudy day in January. The illustrious songwriter Stephen Stills said this about the blues: "One thing the blues ain't, is funny."

JoAnna James and the blues: She can sing it, and she can (allegedly) cure it
Nikki Ruddy
JoAnna James and the blues: She can sing it, and she can (allegedly) cure it

Eff that. Stephen Stills never met JoAnna James. And why is Stephen Stills making statements about the blues, anyway? Nonetheless, I'm not saying Ms. James's music is hilarious. It's not. It's rarely even mirthful. If her music were a joke, it would go like this:

"Knock knock."
Who's There?
"JoAnna James's music."
JoAnna James's music, who?
"Your dog died."

But with the very first beat of the title track, the tone of the disc is turned on its head. The rhythm is North and South but the lyrics are The Thorn Birds. James's raspy-smooth voice is reminiscent of a young Maria McKee, but James's instrument is more controlled and elegant. This is where the blues stops being about sadness, and becomes a celebration of it. "Drawn" continues with a smoothed-out beat, but the vocals are somehow sultrier.

Someone once told me that if I held my nose while I sneezed, my eyeballs would pop out. I get that same feeling at the beginning of the desperately sexy "Don't Let Me Leave," which begins with a salty whisper: "I love you the most." Boy howdy. The EP is rounded out with a haunting song that begins in a deep, cavernous moan: "May I touch you?" Indeed.

So the disc is goose-bump good. It's either ultra-sexy or utterly soulful, depending on your orientation. But the true heart and soul of this rare talent—the reason you should remember her name—is her live performance. When JoAnna James closes her eyes and begins her song, gravity suddenly leaves the room. There are moments during her shows when everyone in attendance is holding onto something heavy, as if worried that her voice might cause them to simply float away. I found myself sitting next to her a couple of weeks ago outside Mill City Café in northeast Minneapolis. Inside the restaurant, a blues guitarist was wailing away, moaning about the wieners in his life—something I could empathize with. Nonetheless, talking to JoAnna James has a way of making you forget your troubles.

She is small, yet fills the space between the two of you with a soft and steady happiness. She has a round face and a big smile and a big laugh and even bigger blue eyes (sure to be a trademark someday). She likes ice cream. She never gives out too much information. She smiles and laughs and asks a lot of questions. When speaking to her alone, she is all about you. She is not the blues, but the blues remedy.

But when she's on stage, there is no territory that is not filled with JoAnna James. Her voice presses against your skin and fills your lungs. She consumes all space, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Even the space between electrons is saturated with JoAnna James. Yet you can still clearly see the other—the private, sweet, ice cream-eating JoAnna James—standing onstage in front of you.

I asked her about the difference. How is it that such a sweet and soft and empathetic and happy-seeming person can take the stage and suddenly make an entire audience literally clutch at their chairs for support and forget to breathe for minutes at a time? "[Music] is kind of like my husband," she said, rather evocatively. "[Music and I have] slowly gotten to know each other over the past couple of years, and I have completely fallen in love with it. It is challenge, and it is magnetism. I feel like I expend that onstage, and I think the audience can feel that."

Some people are just plain rotten. They never work so hard as when they are trying to destroy you. JoAnna James is not one of these people. In fact, she cancels out the malice of a thousand wieners with a mere song. If you get the chance to see her perform, drop everything and go. You'll be so happy you did that you'll want to send me a thank-you note. Address it to: Belize, c/o Tony.

 
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