Interview: Elana James
By Patrick Cosgrove
Swing fiddler extraordinaire Elana James had what can only be called a watershed year in 2006, the first following the dissolution of Hot Club of Cowtown (the much heralded trio with which she spent the last seven years). Touring first with Bob Dylan, then remote Eastern Europe as an American Music Ambassador, and finishing her first ‘solo’ record make for an impressive highlight reel. Clearly on a roll, Elana talks to Austin Music Magazine about her blossoming career.
amm: You had a rather “off-the-beaten-path” tour late last year. How did it go? ej: We were brought over to represent American music [in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia]. So there were a lot of formal events, [such as] playing at the embassy, but we would also go out into these tiny villages in the middle of absolutely nowhere and they would reroute the electricity so they could set up a sound system. So we were able to play to people who had never even met Americans or heard American music. I was really honored that they chose us to represent what American music is.
amm: You also participated in a bit of a higher profile tour. ej: My trio toured with Jimmie Vaughan, Junior Brown, and Bob Dylan. It was the third annual Ballparks Tour. Hot Club played it in 2004…it was absolutely unbelievable. So the fact that I got invited back under my own name was a very, very generous thing.
amm: Speaking of ‘under your own name,’ on your debut disc as band leader, you wrote a lot of the material. Can you talk bout your new role as songwriter?
ej: I’ve been around long enough to know that you have to be writing your own material. So I wrote half this record myself. The summer after playing in Dylan’s band, I took four months off. I knew I had to do this, so I cleared off the kitchen table and [pulled out] the cassette player and started to write things. For me, it’s weird. I haven’t done it long enough to know what the process is, but it’s like gathering things from outer space.
amm: For practitioners of the style of music you play, swing is the thing. Just what does it mean to swing?
ej: I’m no expert, but I would say your body knows it when it feels it. What makes something stiff…as opposed to something that has this irrepressible motion to it – that people can’t sit still to? To me it has nothing to do with how much you know. But there is some ineffable quality to the playing, where someone like Johnny Gimble can be playing and the band may not be swinging at all, but you can bet he himself swings over the band. To me it’s a sign of complete genius. I would say that Erik Hokkanen does that; I’m just talking about fiddle players. It’s like: what is humor and what makes a joke funny? If you [could] quantify it and bottle it, people would buy it forever. amm