Photography by Ashley Sky Walker
Wardrobe by Kareem James
Art Direction by Nick Perkins
Interview by Sarah Mendelsohn
“My name is Luke James,” says the lively and powerful voice of a spot lit figure standing on the Izod Center Stage. He’s facing thousands of people. Most of them are unsure of what to expect, the others can only assume greatness. He is, after all, opening for the Queen herself; or as her namesake tour bids her, the legendary Mrs. Carter. As soulful background music begins to ensue, he commences to sing without the slightest hesitation. The stern voice he introduced himself with transforms into the sweetest manifestation, yet holds it’s power and quickly affects the numerous concert attendees. Within seconds the crowd’s uncertainty becomes a sea of smiles and swaying hips. Their energy mirrors his presentation. Every note that he sings is accompanied with a movement of passion and a facial expression to match. As he vocalizes his self-written love songs, his body radiates both the immense pain and heavy ardor involved in most romantic relationships, while his Michael Jackson cover of “The Way You Make me Feel” has him beaming with happiness. As his time on stage comes close to expiration he appears grateful. He thanks the audience, God, and Beyoncé for allowing him the opportunity to take part in this event. His final words to the crowd are the same ones he started with, “My name is Luke James.” The lights dim as he exits in satisfaction. James’s performance is well received and now the crowd is more than ready for the continuing enjoyment that has wisely been prepared for them.
Earlier that week, I had the opportunity to catch up with James’ on a phone call before his Chicago show. Our conversation encompassed everything from his Louisiana roots, recent recognition, opinions on the industry and his ever-promising future. It was a pleasant surprise to me that despite all of his latest accomplishments, he remains honest, humble and like his performance that night, eternally grateful.
I know you’re from New Orleans. Can you tell me about how growing up there influenced your interest in music? What music means to you, being raised in one of the United States’ most music driven cities?
New Orleans is a like a gumbo of all different genres of music. Everything is accepted there. I couldn’t help but to grasp it. Growing up there really helped open my mind up to different styles of music and influenced my particular take on R&B and what it means to me.
There’s a lot of people that say that R&B isn’t as thriving today, a dying genre. What is your opinion on that?
R&B has always been evolving. People often misunderstand what R&B is- it’s rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues is always around. You can call it alternative. You can call it rock. You can call it whatever you want to call it, but it’s still rhythm and blues. It’s just a different style of it. Someone’s particular take on it. I don’t think R&B is going anywhere. If anything I think there is a more honest approach. It’s really about the way in which we all live. I listen to other people’s music and that’s what I gather from it. Myself, the way I aggregate my music and the way I sing my music- it has to be honest. It’s evolving to become a more truthful place. That’s where it used to be when Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and even Prince were doing it. It was all about their lifestyles and really what they were going through. You can tell they woke up in the middle of the night and wrote that laying in bed.
So, after you graduated High School you left New Orleans and moved to Los Angeles with Quentin Spears. You guys started the R&B duo Luke & Q while you were there. Why did you decide to go out west and why did your collaboration with Spears not work out?
We got signed by a major record label, J Records, which was out there so we decided to move there too. For us, the business side of things really just wasn’t working out. It was nothing personal. Q and I just had to find our own way individually as young grown men. It was a mutual agreement that we just part ways and find our own place. We said that whoever gets there first will bring the other one with him. It just made sense. Q is my brother, that’s family. There’s nothing that can get in between us.
Is he involved in any of your current projects?
Definitely. He’s a big support system. I wouldn’t be able to do most anything without the support of my brother and vice versa.
After that ended what were your next steps in starting your own career?
My next steps were writing songs. I jumped into writing songs and developed that craft. That’s how I networked, how I stayed afloat and how I made money. That’s how I met the people I’m signed to now, Danja and Mercury Records. I did three different songs with Keri Hilson and that basically got me introduced to Danja.
You wrote songs for a lot of huge people. As a singer, song writer, and performer what was it like seeing those big artists singing and performing your work?
It’s amazing. To see someone feel what I’m saying because sometimes you write the songs without the artist being there and to hear their approach to the lyrics is quite awesome. It’s also beautiful to work with somebody and get in their world and find out what it is that they want to say, what their heart is saying and they really want to sing. It can also be a downer. At the end of the day my goal has always been to be an artist., full front. Writing was just another path towards my goal, but I’m grateful.
You were first selected by Beyoncé to be a dancer, is that right?
Not really a dancer, it was more of acting, yeah. It was an acting moment. People say dancer because I guess she has a lot of dancers in her videos but it was more so acting. I was a male chauvinist and she was showing us who runs the world!
How did you get involved in that project?
That came through my manager who is also her creative director, Frank Gatson. That’s how that worked. Since I moved to Los Angeles, Q and I had a few cameos in Destiny’s Child music videos including Solider. The Destiny’s Child family has always been big supporters for us. Once I pursued my solo career, Beyoncé and the rest of the family have been super big supporters. They’re my big sisters.
She’s a really great mentor to have.
What has she taught you about being in this business and how to express your art?
Stand your ground. No matter what. Whatever it is that I’m doing, believe in it whole heartedly. Like a bird believes he can fly. That’s all she needed to give me and that’s all I need. She invited me on her world tour, she didn’t need an opener for that. It sold out. For her to invite me it does something for moral, it’s saying that I’m doing the right thing. That she wants me to be associated with her is awesome. The whole Mrs. Carter movement, the whole Carter movement. They have all been just great to me. It’s awesome. It’s a beautiful accomplishment and I’m just happy to be down!
You went to Europe with her in addition to the US, right?
So what is it like performing for international audiences that huge? I’m sure she plays in massive arenas over there.
Oh yeah, it was basically 20,000 a night. It’s overwhelming, but beautiful at the same time. For me, it’s awesome, because not everybody knows who I am. Most people don’t know who I am. I’m still building that. I’m an underground singer and that’s beautiful. I want people to feel like they’re finding out about me. They found me. They discovered me. I feel like that’s a beautiful way of building a fan base. They stay with you. They see your growth. It was great just wow-ing people every night. It was awesome. Especially over seas.
Especially over seas? How is it different?
We as Americans are a little bit entitled and we’ve seen a lot. We have an abundance of greatness. We assume we do. I’m not saying that every city we’ve gone too in the states has been stuck up or what not, but just certain cities you can tell the difference. They don’t feel the need to move as much. For example, Jersey to New York. Jersey is going to be crazier and way more active and in the show and lost in the show more than New York. Only because in New York they’ve seen all of these big shows. They’ve seen all this kind of stuff. It’s a different response. I’m not saying the love is not the same or the love is any different. It’s just that they respond differently. They love differently. That’s what I’ve noticed, but I mean, it’s all good. As long as you can stand your ground. Show no fear. The same person that was sitting there with the pouty face, talking on the phone, is the same person who’s going to be tweeting about you and saying “omg you were amazing. I was just blown away. I couldn’t do nothing but text someone in the moment.”
I feel that a lot of Americans would actually prefer to share their experience rather than live in it. Performing, have you felt that way at all?
That’s been a little problem on the road. For me, it doesn’t matter. I’m not at that point yet, but for her people can’t get out from behind the screen. You know, she’s right there in front of your face. The person is fighting to keep their hand up to capture her singing to them rather than just basking in the moment. Put the phone down. This is a once in a lifetime chance. You know. She is our Michael Jackson. Get into it. You’re going to be mad when you’re old and say you missed that moment. I didn’t gaze into her eyes, while she was trying to gaze into mine. I think that’s the only issue that’s been going on, but all in all she’s been killing it every night. It doesn’t slow her down, but as a fan you have to really think of that. You have to respect each moment that you get because you will never get that again.
You’re working on your album “Made to Love” right? When is that going to be released?
That’s supposed to be released in September, but that can always change. I’m taking my time. When I know for sure, whole heartedly, that 500,000 people know my name and set aside $9.99 to invest then the album should come out. This is my work. This is what I do. This is my love. I just want to make sure that I can reach as many people as I possibly can and I think we’re doing that.
Can you tell me anything about it so far? The songs that you already released are amazing and feature R&B, but is there any other common theme in it?
Honestly, I don’t really want to give much away. The album has a very dark undertone, but there’s a bit of a light. You can feel it in the music through each song. It’s very dramatic, very moody, a mixture of funk, hip-hop, alternative, gospel, blues, you can feel it in the music. The concept is very personal. It’s going to be pretty awkward, but I guess that’s what I’m going to do. Talk about my awkward moments in life and sing about them…over and over and over…
So they’re inspired by things happening in your personal life? All the music on it?
Yes. Definitely. I can only speak from real life situations. I can only sing a song that I can relate too.
People are starting to compare you to Frank Ocean. What do you think about that?
People are starting to compare me and Frank? I think Frank is extremely dope so I take that as a compliment. I guess it goes back to honesty. I’m not opposed to that. We’re both from New Orleans. We both went to the same (High) school. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Great minds think alike. We are different. Completely different. Not completely, we both sing. We both do music. We both write our own music. Shit like that. If you’re expecting to hear a Frank Ocean vibe on a Luke James album, that’s not going to happen and vice versa.
You’re in the movie “Black Nativity.” Tyrese Gibson is also in that movie and you used to sing background for him. So, how did you get involved in that? Was that related to knowing him then?
It actually wasn’t. That came about through the casting director and the producers inquiring if I could act or not and I auditioned and I got the role. I am very happy to be in it. It all worked out and came full circle.
You seem to be doing so much that I feel like in the fall you’re just going to blow up.
You know what, I can feel my star getting brighter. It’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes I have a hard time basking in the moment. I try. I just had a pinch myself moment a couple of nights ago. It’s just a beautiful feeling to see how far I’ve come. I’m just taking one moment at a time. Literally, I’m trying my best to stay happy right now at this very second in Chicago. At 4:20. Talking on the phone.
You’re 29 years old and you’ve been doing this since you’re in high school? Were there any moments in your life when you felt like maybe I’m not set to do this and maybe I should try something else?
No, it’s always been music. I’ve never had that feeling, but I’ve had doubts. The direction has always been in music in some sort of way.
That’s great. So you never let anything stop you from continuing it?
No. Nothing can and ever will stop me from continuing to create music.
Shot at Industria Studios, NYC.