Black James and her MOUNTAIN BOY: Dance Folk For The Future

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Mabel Suen
Black James with her new tape. released at Plush last Friday.

In this weekly column, RFT Music gets to know local creatives, musicians and their missions. Get a slice of the local scene, complete with a snippet of sound and info about upcoming releases and shows. Stick around to see what St. Louis artists have to say whenever they Fill in the Blank.

"It was a very, very gradual process from banjo to booty," says Jennifer McDaniel, who might better be known as her alter-ego Black James. For roughly five years and counting, McDaniel has built a varied sound that started with dark American folk and morphed into fierce dance music. Not that those genres go hand-in-hand, but McDaniel has managed to carve out songs that pander to no one but still feel accessible as a whole.

Released just last week, Black James' new album MOUNTAIN BOY features a focused sound - a close up of outsider dance music with all the cuts and bruises of a lo-fi tape. The record presents a culmination of past and present, and does well to complement the live show.

McDaniel holds her crowd captive with liberal use of samples, and she even employs cassette tapes for a thick retro feel. Her howling voice comes filtered through heavy effects, but vocal melody still cuts through to command each song. The pieces of her set are adjoined by morphing tones that work well to segue between movements.

Black James started in 2009, with McDaniel weaving dark folk with little more than her fingers and voice. The shift to full on dance songs was a gradual one, but her love for warping sounds has remained a constant. Some showgoers in St. Louis might remember Black James for playing banjo through an array of electric guitar pedals - a move that foreshadowed McDaniel's ability to bend sound to fit her needs.

"One day Eric Hall, the electronic experimental musician, brought over several different machines to my house for me to test - one including the Korg Microsampler. When I played it, I was like, 'This is it. This is the machine I've been waitin' on.' So that's what I make almost every song on and also play live with it," McDaniel says.

See also: Homespun: Black James

Black James dropped im A mirAcle in 2012, bringing out a whole album of folk songs in the form of low-brow electronic dance. Banjo-driven riffs are typically the root of Black James songs in general, McDaniel elaborates: "I usually start by taking one of my country songs and reworking it into something else. Most Black James songs have a country backbone, whether it is discernible or not."

MOUNTAIN BOY is by all means a sequel. There's a traceable progression from acoustic to electronic, like a woman replacing her organs, one-by-one, with new, robotic tools to do the job. This is what an android playing folk sounds like.

Follow through to read Black James' views on post-show food and sound experiments.

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