In my freshman year of college, I had a crush on a boy from Kansas City. He built intricate sculptures out of paper mache, and I built interesting stories out of average men. Though nothing came out of my dorm-next-door infatuation, I did end up with a heavy folk-rock repertoire that took up about seventy-five percent of my computer’s memory. In the remains of this imagined love saga’s sabotage, The Felice Brothers were the only band salvaged.
The Catskill Mountain natives have woven themselves throughout my years with their music, consistently remaining in my top ten most listened to bands. Seven years later, I am sitting on the floor of my Nashville home, talking on the phone to James Felice.
A warm and articulate voice, James immediately reminds me of the characteristics of a home in upstate New York; the coziness of a sparse population just outside the most buzzing and overwhelming metropolis in the nation, the five-mile drive to a gas station nestled inside the sprawling heart of the Hudson Valley. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” James says. “Before we started touring, the furthest west I’d been was Pittsburgh. The first time I got on a plane was when we went to play in England.” Though he can’t imagine living anywhere else, he does love the South, and is excited to return to play in Nashville after two years away (on March 6th at Exit/In, as our next Lockeland Springsteen Presents show, with Cale Tyson and Taylor Brashears).
A part of what makes the Felice Brothers so captivating is their ability to maintain authenticity in their music, maintain a grassroots kind of sensitivity to the pages of storytelling that their albums convey. Even in their latest Celebration, Florida, an album that promotes an experimental sound, utilizing more of the cerebral synth that had been hitherto foreign to the groups down-to-earth sound, they paint real and wrenching depictions of the changing American landscape.
“We all grew up pretty poor and lower-middle class,” says James. Speaking of his brother-the primary songwriter of the group-he adds, “Ian is a particularly intelligent person; he is an avid reader with a great ability to empathize with people who come from those particular situations.” It is their commitment to transposing periods of history with the backbone of transcendent, universal sentiment that makes the Felice Brothers such significant storytellers.
In a conversation centered on authenticity, James and I speak about the commonality between early hip-hop and early folk, both born from the blues. The days of stringing rhymes over records and of slinging acoustic in Village basements testify to blues-rooted music as a communal outlet for reaction to the changing times. “Hip hop and folk both come from the same places…you feel how visceral it is in early hip hop and early folk, and it shouldn’t even be good, but it is because it is so raw,” James comments. This passion for rawness, for the “anyone can tell a story if they’re telling what they know” mentality, is evident throughout the Felice Brothers’ career. Their penchant for storytelling has led to countless comparisons to Dylan. Inevitably, I have to ask James, if he could interact with one version of the multi-faceted legend, which would it be? His answer: “The one who made Nashville Skyline and New Morning. Those are masterpieces, and he just seems so happy and just interested in the love of music and not being a “Jesus” to people.
The band just signed with Nashville-based Dualtone Records, and their next album is expected to drop this summer. James says of the impending work, “it was recorded mostly live, and is more rooted in how the band is in a live setting. A lot of it is informed by Celebration, but it sounds more like we do when we’re playing live- that’s where we’ve learned the most about how to be musicians.”
The fifth most listened to song in my iTunes library is “Song To Die To,” which is, coincidentally, a song written by James Felice. As an unintentionally morbid end to our conversation, I ask James which song he would find most appropriate to die to, hoping perhaps he will share in my answer: To Ramona, pre-family-man Dylan. But in that particular moment, he chooses “America, The Beautiful,” the Ray Charles version.