Cecilia James on the Ebbs and Flows of Creativity and Her Dreamy New EP, ‘Different Ground’

So much can be said about songs and how they serve as vehicles for how we process our emotions. As a listener, they soundtrack the whirlwind of feelings we attach to life’s most significant moments. From the perspective of the creator, a song represents pure catharsis – a space where the artist is able to grow and reflect within their own work. Whether we approach “the song” from a vantage point of consumption or creation, the fact remains they have an ever-evolving relationship to the time and place in which they were born and first realized.

For as long as she can remember, songs have been at the center of Cecilia James’ world. A multi-faceted artist whose portfolio includes drawing, sculpture, screen printing, and analog photography, James’ music has always served a distinct purpose for both her creative identity and personal growth. More specifically, songwriting has long been her preferred therapeutic practice, or as she puts it, “an outlet for dealing with my feelings.”

Raised in the small coastal town of Carpinteria, James developed her craft playing music in youth programs and busking the local farmers market, eventually graduating to the stages of nearby Santa Barbara. With the growth of her musical acumen also came an increasing interest in adjacent arts, including illustration and graphic design. In the following years, songs, paintings, and other homespun creations poured out from her heart and onto the canvas, as she navigated the peaks and valleys of growing up.

Many of those creations wound up serving as the basis for James’ debut EP, Different Ground, a sweet stream of folkie dreamscapes with an alternative edge that chronicle major life events from the years of her early adulthood. Released in July, it’s a project comprised of songs that flesh out the feelings of late adolescence, warm-hearted attempts at understanding love’s temporal nature and the fragility of intimate relationships. Each of the seven tracks offers an up-close glance into pivotal points along James’ journey, timestamps that recount instances of personal awakening, momentous romance, and mysterious dream sequences.

A quick dip into Different Ground‘s tracklist and the appeal is plain to see. For one, James possesses a uniquely mesmerizing voice, her silky intonations floating through the center of every track against cerebral guitars and moody instrumental backdrops that hang somewhere between pillowy beach-pop and velvet-grunge. At its core, the music is hushed and soft-spoken, but there are several branches extending from James’ indie-folk roots that dip into adjacent sounds. A dark undercurrent runs through the alt-tinged angst of the title track and “Pretty In Your Eyes,” the latter a slow-burning serenade and one of the EP’s highlights. Meanwhile, the nostalgia-laden harmonies of “Headrush” and “Malibu,” as well as the gentle country-folk on “Inside A Memory” offer a sublime sweetness that remains the project’s foremost calling card.

The material on Different Ground unmistakably represents a transformative period in the formation of Cecilia James, the person and the artist – it is an admirable display of a young writer pining for truths. In the album format, it makes for a compelling collection of songs and a splendid introduction to an enchanting singer-songwriter. What makes this project even more exciting is it’s brevity. The anticipation it builds for the direction of James’ music is substantial. It’s a captivating taster, charming in it’s quaint presentation yet mystifying in its dreamlike aura.

We caught up with Cecilia to chat about the ebbs and flows of being a multi-disciplinary artist, learning how to process emotions of the past, and the songs that wound up making her debut EP. Check out the full conversation below.

Santa Barbara has its limitations from an exposure standpoint but is an artist’s haven in many ways with a very supportive community. What was your experience like growing up there?

Cecilia: I definitely agree with that sentiment. Santa Barbara is a beautiful place filled with a beautiful community. Since I started music so young, I was involved in many different youth music programs around the area and found that there was such a nurturing environment for young people in music. That quickly led to me meeting other musicians and artists, playing shows, and writing music. Very often I think about how different life would be for me had I not spent my childhood here. I am not quite sure I’d even be a musician!

This EP is the first body of work you’ve released under your own name. What’s been the most rewarding aspect of taking this next step in your journey as an artist?

Cecilia: The biggest reward has just been to finally put this project out into the world and have people hear it. It was really hard for me to take the steps to get here. After spending a couple years creating it, I found that I was too anxious to even put it out, so I shelved it for a while. The timing never felt right. I would get close to starting the process and get so overwhelmed with the thought of it. For me, it’s been a huge accomplishment to finally have faced the vulnerability of finally sharing my art.

The songs on Different Ground date back as far as six or seven years. Did you ever think they would end up on some sort of an album in the future?

Cecilia: I kinda figured so! I didn’t write any of them with that intention, however. They just started to accumulate and I would make bedroom demos and post them on Soundcloud, friends would listen and share them, and that was exciting enough for me. But once I started to take this a little more seriously, I realized that these songs deserved to be taken to another level, thus the recording process began. 

What kind of emotions do you associate with their creation?

Cecilia: In writing, it was purely the emotions that I was feeling at the time: curiosity, sadness, reflection. There’s a lot of excitement and eagerness that I had with recording them, though. The sad emotions had already been felt, haha. It was all very new for me and I had no expectations, more just a hopeful feeling that these songs were finally coming to life.

Sitting on songs for such a long period of time can change how they are perceived by those who create them. Did you find that your feelings about the material on Different Ground evolved over the last few years? What helped you stay the course and finish the EP?

Cecilia: Oh, the feelings absolutely evolved. The songs drifted through different meanings over time. As I got older, I was able to identify the feelings I was writing about much more clearly and it brought out a plethora of themes and concepts that I hadn’t previously considered a part of them. Despite my anxiety towards releasing them, recording them was very therapeutic for me, so I had no problem finishing them in that sense. But I knew that since I had invested so much of my own and others’ time into these songs that I kind of owed it to us all to put them out eventually. Even if that took a couple years to do.

There is a significant difference between being 16 and 22. Does songwriting still serve the same purpose to you now as it did then?

Cecilia: Songwriting has always served a similar purpose for me, which is being an outlet for dealing with my feelings. I think my attitude around songwriting has gotten a bit more serious, though. When I was younger, I would write without really expecting to do anything with the songs. There was a lot less pressure that I’d put on myself. Nowadays, it’s kind of something that is in my head when I pick up a guitar to write. Questions like, “Would people even be able to relate to this?” or “What production elements could I add to make this more interesting?” are floating around me. Those are all valid questions, but that was never my focus when I was younger. On the contrary, songwriting has actually been flowing for me more than ever before and I think that I’ve really grown into this title of being a “songwriter.” 

Your repertoire also includes photography, illustration, and other forms of visual art. How closely do those mediums correlate with your identity as a musician? Is there an obvious connection or are they all separate components of your creative intuition?

Cecilia: Before this year they were all relatively separate, but they definitely coincided. For example, I have always designed my own websites, show posters, and merchandise. When I started to dive into the visual universe that I wanted to accompany my music, I tried to expand more on my identity as a musician. Music videos were a really fun way for me to experiment with that, since I hadn’t really worked in that medium before. Collaborating on ideas for “Pretty In Your Eyes” with my friend and director, Claire Rossi, got me so hyped up about forming a visual identity. I also had a lot of fun creating covers for each single, as well as the EP artwork. I really wanted to create different moods for each single and did separate shoots for them with the help of my friends. Since art and visuals have been ingrained in me for my whole life, it was inevitable that they would all merge. I really want to emphasize to any musicians out there that being able to do all on your own art is so incredibly useful as an independent artist. I recommend that musicians really take the time to learn how to screenprint, design artwork, and get acquainted with photography because it will be so rewarding as you go.

As an artist of varied disciplines, do you believe more in process or making yourself available for those spontaneous moments of inspiration?

Cecilia: The only way I create anything these days is through spontaneous bouts of inspiration. For me, that’s the first step of many. If I have a melody or lyric pop into my head, I drop whatever I’m doing to record, write, or draw it out. I stay in this period for a long time when working on a song and will revisit it days or weeks after. After it’s been hashed out, I believe that having a process comes in handy, especially when you’re fine-tuning your work. I’ve learned I cannot work in a manner where I force myself to create something. It just never works, haha.

No matter the medium, dry creative periods are inevitable, which can be frustrating. How do you respond when ideas are hard to come by?

Cecilia: Honestly, I do get pretty sad when it’s been a long time with no new ideas. I used to be so hard on myself about it. But with any negative emotion, it’s best to remind yourself that it will pass. Emotions and inspiration ebb and flow and that’s just how it goes. Reminding myself of this has allowed me to ease up when I have artist’s block. I try to focus on the other creative and/or productive things I can do instead. I also listen to music, read interviews, look at art, and watch movies. These things really spark up a lot of inspiration for me, as I am so inspired by other people.

Outside of a few amplified moments, the music on the EP is dreamy, stripped back, and has a very intimate feel. What would you say draws you towards that particular sound palette?

Cecilia: I’ve always loved soft and dreamy songs that make me float off into my own world. I try my best to write songs that capture those types of moments in them. I started out playing a lot of folk songs and that’s where I go naturally when writing. But as much as I love that kind of music, building up intensity is one of my favorite elements of production and I try to integrate details of that into almost all my songs. I think it’s really powerful when a softer song takes a turn for something louder and bigger.

You previously released “Malibu” as a loose single a few years back. The arrangement on the EP has a much more minimalist feel than the original, to the point where it’s essentially an acoustic track that really spotlights your vocal. Why the change in production for the new version?

Cecilia: “Malibu” has always been a special song to me. When I originally released it in 2017, I was really trying to separate myself from my roots of being a folk singer-songwriter. I wanted to make it a bit poppy and surf-rocky. But over time that didn’t really translate in the same way when I played it live as a solo artist, so I would change up the tempo and style, leaning more on some 1950s vibes. I think people enjoyed that rendition a lot, as did I when I performed it. Originally, I didn’t want it to be on the EP, but my co-producer, Jesse Rhodes, felt that it had a place on there, so we decided to record it and see how we felt. I think we created a nice bridge between the old and new version. 

The title track, which is also the closer, really drives home the key themes that lurk throughout the EP: uncertainty, feeling displaced, embracing the fragile nature of relationships. Has writing about change helped you embrace it in real life?

Cecilia: For sure. As I said, looking back on these songs has allowed me to process my emotions more clearly over time. I think “Different Ground” specifically has helped me develop a better attitude about the endings of relationships. Just because relationships reach an ending, doesn’t mean the memories have to dissipate. Instead they exist in a new place and time. It helped me compartmentalize my fear of a severed tie and view it as something that is simply okay to let go of. Change can be scary, but it’s inevitable, and I think dissecting your feelings about it helps break down those fears and see change in a different light.

Images by Alondra Costilla. Buy and stream Cecilia James’ new EP Different Ground out everywhere via Cowgirl Bootgirl Records.

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