Kick him as hard as you can, you're not going to keep James Clay down. At only 22, this well-seasoned singer/songwriter has worked harder, struggled longer and grown wiser than most people twice his age. He's traveled a rough road just to reach the starting line, but with his self-titled Inpop Records debut, James Clay is experiencing the hard-earned reward of his long labors.
Life actually started out pretty much like everyone else's for James, born in Norfolk, Virginia to a comfortable Christian home with Nintendo, pizza dinners and summers on the beach. But all that changed when, at age 10, he left for Christmas break with his mom and two siblings only to find out they weren't going back home-ever. Leaving his dad to join a controlling religious cult in southern Georgia, James' mother began the journey that would put her family through severe struggles-financially, spiritually and many other ways-but that would also spark the creative voice in James that birthed the rock artistry of James Clay.
"At that time, the 'Word' to me was not a happy thing," James admits, speaking of his thoughts toward Scripture during their tenure in Georgia. "It was not encouraging to me at all, but was used as a kind of tool to beat me down." Though the harsh, judgmental leaders of the small group of misled believers he lived among for many years tried to use the Bible to dictate James and his family's lives, James found himself turning to Scripture to find his own answers.
"What I did is I wound up exposing myself to the Bible, and it says there that 'His Word does not return void,'" James declares. "Once you get it in you, it only does good things."
And remarkably, it was in the Bible that James found a comfort and direction for his life that filled the void left by his dad's absence. "At the times when I felt the most without a father, I was drawn to the wisdom of the Proverbs," he reveals. "Not only did it give me guidance for life, it comforted me-it felt like big arms around me. That was God, being my dad, filling that need."
James desperately needed a Father's input on his young life as he found himself bearing the responsibility of providing for his family at only 14 years old. The family made a second move, this time to Missouri, where James began the first of a menagerie of unusual jobs. They were the kind of work available to a hard-working teen who had yet to finish high school, but were necessary to keep food on the table for his mother, brother and sister.
His career actually began at 13, when he built pool cues in a nearby factory, then continued at a dairy farm where he milked cows. Next on the resume came busboy for a local restaurant, followed by a two-year stint as a chimney sweep. It was during that time when, in romantic irony, he met and married his wife, Ashley. Before too long, the couple welcomed the first of their two children, Grace, into the world, and the boy without a dad now became a father himself.
It was in the midst of working hard to simply survive that James first began to write songs. On an $80 guitar he bought at a second-hand store, James started working out his theological and relational struggles in verse and melody. "When I was 14, I put my first four chords together, and that was my first song," he laughs. Though he grinningly discounts his earliest efforts as "really cheesy-bad," he rapidly became a proficient songsmith, to the point that a song he wrote only one year later, "Franklin Park," will be the first single from James Clay.
"When I was 15, we lived in a trailer park in Missouri that everyone called 'Franklin Park,'" James recounts. "I felt like I loved the people there, but that love just didn't seem to matter to them at all, just like the fact that God loved them didn't seem to affect them either." James finally decided that, if nothing else, he could earnestly pray for the people around him. "I wrote the song 'Franklin Park' because I realized that bringing them to the Lord was all I could do. All of the names of the people in the song are people who really lived there."
But, he's quick to admit, "I didn't run around saying, 'Hey, I'm praying for you,' because they would probably have punched me at some point! But I did pray for them, and I believe it impacted them."
More songs followed, and James began playing with a blues band after moving his new family, which now included baby Judah, to a nearby town where he worked in yet another unusual trade-a turkey factory. "The job paid alright, but it was really strenuous," James recalls. The job required moving four to five thousand live birds a day, weighing an average of 25-30 pounds each, from a truck to the processing line. "It was like going from being a 135-pound kid to playing on a football team," says James, who put on nearly 50 pounds of muscle in the four years he worked there.
Meanwhile, this blue-collar worker began to draw attention from music industry executives with his honest, passionate music and impressive guitar skills. First, James' pastor asked him to join the worship team at the Clay's church, and it was there that pioneer Christian rocker Mylon LeFevre first heard James and urged him to make a demo. "I was working at the factory, and all my money went toward bills," James tells. "We didn't have any money to record a demo. But my wife and I prayed, and we felt like God was telling us to get ready to make a CD. So we went ahead and booked studio time and planned a party where people could pre-buy the CDs to raise the money." The party was a financial success, and in addition, members of the Clay's church donated funds, including one generous friend who underwrote the entire studio cost of the demo. That demo quickly made its way into the hands of Newsboys frontman and Inpop Records co-owner Peter Furler, who was so impressed he immediately began the process of signing James to the label.
Ironically, the Newsboys had been one of the early influences on James' musical style, along with several other Christian artists. "I really didn't have a lot of pop culture influence," James admits. "And I think that may be why my music sounds pretty different from most of the stuff that's being made today." James did manage to develop an affinity for classic rock when he got his first car-a 1974 Impala-at age 17, and sneak in some alternative rock songs in his room as a teenager.
James self-dubs his own music as "unique," a fitting description considering the wealth of experience and unusual influences that color this 22-year-old's eclectic first release. Stylistically diverse, James Clay fuses the energy of acoustic rock and a lifetime's worth of stories with James' rugged, passionate voice and undeniable guitar talent. Produced by music industry veteran and songwriter Phil Madeira, the album showcases a confident and accomplished young songwriter, with eight songs written by Clay, two more co-written with Madeira, and a cover of the fitting classic hit "I Still Believe," originally made famous by The Call and later recorded by music legend Russ Taff.
"I had heard the song when I was really young when Russ Taff sang it," James recalls of the 80's standard. "It brings back some old, warm feelings I had listening to music as a kid." As if it had been written as a tribute to his remarkable journey of so few years yet, "I Still Believe" captures James' battle-tested faith in its words:
Through the heartache, through the tears, Through the waiting, through the years,
For people like us, in places like this, We need all the hope we can get,
I still believe! I'll march this road, I'll climb this hill, Upon my knees if I have to
I'll take my place upon this stage, I'll wait until the end of time for You-
Relying on the grace his daughter is named after, James Clay has already climbed a long road to reach the beginning of his music career with Inpop. With each step, he has gained hard-won wisdom and a unique perspective on life and faith that will not only continue to shape his music, but will help him grow ever closer to the Father who has faithfully guided him this far.