Better late than never

What environment nurtures an aspiring young rock star’s nascent talent?

Looking back on his upbringing in tiny Derry, N.H., Brendan James can pinpoint a few career-shaping events that led to his brilliant new self-titled sophomore set for Decca, and its chart-scaling first single “The Fall.”

The keyboardist, 31, appeared in several plays and musicals while attending Pinkerton Academy, and in college he mastered vocal precision in an a cappella group called the Clef Hangers.

He overheard all the latest radio hits during a three-year stint at Urban Outfitters, but then grew even more fascinated with the rollicking style of 1970s-era Elton John.

Still, James — who plays The City Tuesday — never once approached the family piano, nor bothered with lessons.

How did he finally start tinkling those foreboding ivories? Blame a local music teacher named Kevin Kandel, James says. “He was a friend of mine who was really the only person who had a vision of what I was capable of, long before I did. He said, ‘You know, you have a very, very special voice, and possibly a message — maybe you should try to learn an instrument.’ But I was 19 at the time, so I said, ‘Well, I’m pretty old for that.’”

But Kandel insisted, even gave his protégé an assignment: Go home, choose guitar or piano, and return the next day with a completed tune.

James balked, but plunked his way through some simple chords. “And I brought him back a pretty crappy song, actually,” he says.

“But it was a song. And I was obsessed from that moment on — obsessed with the piano and the fact that I could sing over an instrument and create something with it.”

Luke had found his Yoda. But Kandel would only instruct him in general concepts, not techniques. “He’d play me other music and teach me about phrasing and lyrics that some of the greatest, like Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan, would craft,” says James. “And then he’d say, ‘but you can do this, too — go do it on your own, because that’s all I’m showing you.’”

James did as he was told. He chiseled his initially show-tuney voice into the subtle, Chris DeBurgh-nuanced tool displayed on “The Fall.” And he dug deep into his diary for poignant ballads like “Let It Rain,” wherein he reflects “I took the longer road/ And I know it’s made me stronger.”

“I did take the longer road,” James says. “So that song is me looking around and realizing that I’m becoming successful. But it sure didn’t
happen overnight.”

IF YOU GO
Brendan James

Opening for Jason Reeves

Where: Café Du Nord, 2174 Market St.,
San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $10 to $12
Contact: www.ticketweb.com

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