Pianist and composer James Hill is hard to put into a musical box.
He’s an artist who’s always moving and reinventing. In the work of his group Autobahn Trio and with BADBADNOTGOOD, you can hear influences from everywhere, including the unexpected places.
His latest project is Local Talent, featuring bassist Rich Brown and drummer Ian Wright. The band released its album Higienópolis at the tail end of 2019, and it continues Hill’s pursuit of discovery and surprise.
He joined us for a conversation about how he rejected and then rediscovered his love of music, and about the deep artistic conceptualization that now goes into it.
I understand that your parents forced you into taking piano lessons, you rejected it, but somehow you found your way back to it.
That’s exactly right. I was about to say I don’t like to use the word “forced,” but that’s probably coming from something that I sent you. But yeah, that’s the short of it.
They were encouraging you to play piano and for a while you played ball with what they wanted.
There are very few things they forced me to do, but that was one of the things where they were like, “Let’s see if he has a musical aptitude.” But they never pressured me to stay in it.
Are they musical?
No, actually. Neither of my parents are musicians, but they’re both very creative people. They always encouraged me to do whatever creative work I wanted.
Do you think it was once there was no parental pressure that brought you back to it?
That’s interesting because I am the type of person that if someone is forcing me to do something, I will immediately not want to do it — regardless of if it’s something I want to do. “Eat this amazing Italian food.” Well, no, I don’t want to eat it now, even though I’m starving and I love Italian food. But yeah, it was my high-school music teacher … he gave me a mix CD of the canon of jazz, some of the great pianists. I didn’t know this existed. So, I immediately took to the piano. I got obsessed with it.
You must have had big ears. You didn’t have formal training at that point, but you were observing that jazz and recreating and experimenting with it.
I guess so. I was already listening to experimental music. I was listening to a lot of rap and progressive rock like Dream Theater that had a lot of improvising in it. I think it was the improvisational aspect of the music that I was drawn to.
You did end up going to Humber College to take music. But I got the sense that you’ve always been a little skeptical of jazz culture — and I say that in a friendly way.
I would say that’s true. When I was at Humber College, I thought I was going along that path of solely identifying with the jazz idiom. But I realized that that felt dishonest. I’m slowly coming to terms with that, more so on this album than ever. I’m not afraid to explore my many other influences.
And you think for a while there was some fear?
I think so. You’ve probably talked to so many people that have gone through the program, that you’re immersed — not that it’s a jazz program, it covers all aspects of the music industry, but I surrounded myself with a lot of jazz-heads. We were always playing jazz, and I loved it, and it was great. But if that’s what you’re surrounding yourself with, those become your influences, your world, your tools for creating. It wasn’t until after that I realized I was in a bubble. I put myself in that bubble, and now that bubble is bursting and it’s kind of cool.
Was there a time in your life when you recognized that you had talent? Is it fair for an artist to be able to say you know what, I’ve got something here that is good?
I think it’s fair to recognize that. For the first couple years since graduating, people would say oh, this is very interesting, and it would always be a shock to me because it’s hard to look at the box from the outside. But I think it’s totally valid to acknowledge your abilities, and I think some of my favourite people do that and then exploit those skill sets that they have.
Let’s talk a little bit about Local Talent. Tell me about how the three of you got together to start this new band.
Ian’s one of my oldest friends. We were both born in Kingston, but he grew up in Belleville and I grew up just north of Kingston. We were always so close but I didn’t really know who he was until I came to Humber. We met, and he showed me so much about rhythm that I didn’t know existed. We grew a relationship based on that, and we ended up living together. He’s one of my oldest friends and musical collaborators. Rich Brown, I would go to all of his shows in Toronto. I used to watch rinsethealgorithm whenever I could. When I was in Autobahn Trio, we had the idea of asking Rich if he wanted to collaborate with us, and he was enthusiastic. It kind of surprised me that all you have to do is ask people that inspire you to collaborate. More often than not, they’re really willing and happy to do it. Now, he’s one of my favourite people to play with.
You’re saying all you have to do is ask, but that’s a leap of faith sometimes for someone that you’ve put on a pedestal, that you’ve looked up to.
It is. It’s a real awakening. It is a leap of faith because you make yourself vulnerable, like am I worthy to even ask? Just ask, honestly. You’re going to have a learning experience one way or another.
Conceptually, what did you want Local Talent to be?
I wanted it to be a mixture of psychedelic Brazilian rock, and jazz improv, and Joe Hisaishi cinematic music. I wanted it to embody the feeling that I would get while listening to music from those Hayao Miyazaki movies, if you know those Japanese cartoon movies, and also from Gal Costa and Lennie Tristano. A mix of all those things, which are three of my biggest influences.
You talk a lot about visualizing. When you’re writing, you’re seeing scenes or characters play out in your mind, and that helps you move forward with the composition?
Absolutely. What I wanted to do with this album was create the most ideal, fertile landscape for Ian, Rich and me to improvise and create. For instance, the last track, Blue Rainbow, is essentially just a bass solo over this soft-padded, cinematic chord progression on a synth. I wanted to make the music in order to showcase these guys.
Does it just happen to be that music is what you’re using to be creative, and it could be something else potentially?
Definitely. My partner and I, we do a lot of visual art projects togteher. We’re always drawing at home. We have so many notepads and art supplies in my apartment. We even have drawing sessions. We just went to Japan and the only thing we bought was like, ramen and pens. I’m very into other art forms and learning to express in other art forms. I write every day. I write poetry, I journal, I do weird stream-of-consciousness things. I’m into various forms of expression, but there’s something about music that is the perfect combination of collaboration and individuality. There’s something about it that just works for me.